If you see one film about a woman who can only orgasm when she sees her husband weeping, see Australian writer/director/actor Josh Lawson’s The Little Death. The anthology film intertwines stories about five fetishes—rape fantasy, role play, dacryphilia (arousal by crying), somnophilia (arousal by a person who is sleeping), and telephone scatologia (arousal from obscene phone calls)—in a playful, often hilarious manner. The scenarios tease out absurdity with cleverness (isn’t a rape fantasy a paradox, after all?). It all culminates with the knock-out final segment, “Sam & Monica,” in which a deaf man uses a Skype sign language interpretation service to call a phone-sex line. The three-way call segment is one of the most brilliant pieces of short-form filmmaking that I’ve ever seen.
Here are the first 10 minutes of The Little Death (writer/director Josh Lawson can be found in the first segment, playing “Paul”):
[There was a video here]
I love this movie, so I talked to Lawson by phone about it. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: It seems like you have a lot to say about a lot of fetishes.
Josh Lawson: You have to as a writer, you have to take a stand, for better or worse. The job of a writer isn’t to make you agree with him; it’s to say, “This is what I think, make up your own mind.” Now with that said, I was never really making any political statement, but this is my view on relationships and that’s the only way I can write: through my looking glass.
A slight political undercurrent that I detected, though, is that your characters discover what they’re into and then embrace it. They don’t freak out about who they are, they do what they must to make it work. Nobody ever says anything like, “There’s something wrong with me.”
That’s right. I never wanted to judge any of the characters or say, “You’re weird for having this fetish.” I’m sure people would look at what I’m into and go, “Well, you’re weird.” As long as we’re having consensual sexual encounters, we’re allowed to do this stuff. It’s a comedy after all, so I didn’t want it to be too much. There is a bit of self-shame from a few of the characters, and that does manifest itself in how they lie. Instead of saying, “This is what I am,” they deceive a little bit to get what they want instead of openly saying, “This is my fetish.” But ultimately, then, the lesson those characters learn, I think, is that it would have been better if you just said, “This is me.” The characters that do say, “This is me, this is my fetish,” I think they ultimately do have a more hopeful future than the ones who don’t.
Were there any fetishes you considered but ended up rejecting?
Oh yeah. There was at one point a fetish called dendrophilia, which is a sexual attraction to trees. I think I wrote up an entire story on that, but it just didn’t fit ultimately. It didn’t feel part of the bigger picture. That’s the only one that comes to mind. There were lots I made outlines of, but discarded before really delving into it.
Anthology films are hot right now—Wild Tales, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Is it a coincidence that you’re joining the fold with The Little Death?
I wrote my first draft eight years ago. I’ve been trying to make it for that long. Is it a coincidence? Yeah, but there were always anthology films. They’ve always been around: Magnolia, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Burning Palms…at least once a year, you’ll see a couple.
Was getting this movie made difficult?
Yeah, it was really difficult. It was my first film as director and a lot of people didn’t want to take that risk. So getting financing was really, really tough. And on the page, a lot of that material made people really nervous. People responded to the script a lot, but were like, “Sex is divisive.” But I don’t think the film is divisive. I think overwhelmingly it’s a positive experience for people. But it’s hard to know that when you’re reading it. It takes a great deal of faith to invest in a film. Even though this is a very low-budget film, it’s still a lot of money to someone. But yeah, I think we made the film that we wanted to make.
Were you forced to soften the movie anywhere along the process? It’s not very explicit.
No, I never tried to soften the approach. I just didn’t think going any more extreme than what it is added any value. I don’t know what nudity would have added. If anything, I think that might have taken away from the overall tone of the film and made it more jarring. I wanted it to feel like a smooth experience. But I didn’t pull any punches when it comes to the language. I felt like I was pretty explicit and candid with that.
Was there a particular reason why you didn’t include gay or queer story lines?
No. No political motivation behind that at all. Like I said, I wrote it eight years ago, I was in my early 20’s and these characters came out the way they did. The world has turned in the last eight years, and those sorts of stories are becoming much more prevalent. It’s awesome to see, but that just wasn’t, for whatever reason, the film I wrote. If I had written the film right now, I can say almost certainly one of the couples would be gay. Just for whatever reason, it wasn’t what came out of me. If there were to be a sequel, and I hope there is, I would definitely make sure it had a wider cross-section of sexualities and a more truthful look at middle-class suburbia.
Did perceived audience puritanism also play a role in the difficulty that you had getting this made?
I think there’s a real double standard. You can put movies out where people are getting murdered left, right, and center. Just blood everywhere with total disregard for life. Heads exploding. Just death death death death death. No one flinches. And yet, you have a conversation about sex onscreen and people get really nervous. I never get nervous talking about sex. I find it a really fascinating subject. I wish we did it more. I guess that’s one of the reasons I made the film: to try and open up more conversations about sex. Do people have negative reactions? Yeah, I’ve seen one or two. Overwhelmingly, I’ve found it to be a positive experience. When it comes to critics, it’s a mixed bag, but I certainly don’t make films for critics.
Being an American, I didn’t know anything about golliwogs, on which there is a thread throughout the film in the form of cookies. From what I gleaned from the movie, there’s a strong cultural association people have with them. A nostalgia almost.
It was a cookie in the ‘80s. At the time, as a little kid, I had no idea of the racial connotation. It was just a chocolate cookie. But I remember when they got discontinued and looking back going, “Oh my god, that was so offensive. I can’t believe how recently in Australia’s history that was even a thing.” But it’s something that a lot of Australians my age remember. I feel like it was a real turning point in Australia’s history where we were starting to really rapidly mature and starting to become international. That little island in the middle of nowhere needed to start growing up and getting with the times. So that’s part of the reason why it’s in there. It’s definitely in there to remind people of the embarrassing recent history of Australia.
Your final segment, “Sam & Monica,” plays at the end of the movie almost in its entirety, as opposed to being cut up and woven throughout like the other four story lines. It’s the ace in your pocket.
In any anthology film, you’re going to be like, “I like that one better than that one,” and, “I connect with this more because of who I am and where I am in my life.” “Sam & Monica” needed to be at the end because I felt like that was the great unifier. It was like no matter what your experience up until that point is in the film, we can all come together and get behind this young couple. That’s the empathy gene in human beings. We want to root for the good guy. That’s why stories work—we know who’s good and we know who’s bad and we want Sam and Monica to get together and have a beautiful experience. It was very important at the end of the film that we all got on the same page and had a beautiful, joyous, almost emotionally orgasmic experience.
To unify via a character with a disability also seems like a statement.
It just feels like a contemporary love story to me. In a way, everyone’s complicated. No matter how weird and wonderful we think we are, we all deserve love in a way that makes sense to us. I suppose it is affirming in that way, but for me it came from the story, the comedy first. Only after I came up with that did I start to construct who Sam was, who Monica was. Props to the actors, T.J. Power and Erin James. They made those characters even more beautiful.
The Little Death is in theaters and on demand today.