Ex-Sex Director Michael Mohan
2010 was a big year for Michael Mohan. His first feature, One Too Many Mornings, premiered at Sundance (and can now be watched – in its entirety – on Hulu). He directed a music video for Fitz and the Tantrums that was blogged about by Justin Timberlake (no, really). And one year later he returns to Park City with a short film, Ex-Sex.
Mohan’s short about ex’s hooking up is gorgeous to look at, totally relatable, and so pitch-perfect in its bitter-sweetness that the only logical question would be: Couldn’t you make it as a feature? Please?
Characters as fleshed out and likable as the duo in Ex-Sex deserve an opportunity to get back together, make even more mistakes, break up again, and live on – fumbling their way through a longer film or TV series. The ex-couple of Mohan’s film clearly doesn’t want to say goodbye. Neither will the viewer.
Filmmaker: You were at Sundance just last year with your feature, One Too Many Mornings. After Sundance ’10 did you know you wanted to make a short film?
Mohan: After Sundance last year, I just needed a break. One Too Many Mornings took so much out of me. We worked so hard on it during those two years — in addition to our day jobs, most of our nights and weekends were spent working on this thing. And so after Sundance, I really just wanted to get my life back, see friends I hadn’t seen, play more Settlers of Catan, and just focus on writing. I wanted to let things quiet down for a bit. That didn’t happen. At all. Instead, I probably had the busiest year of my life making music videos. One week I’d find myself in a dingy club in Mexico City filming The Dears, and the next week I was on a soundstage with some hip hop dancers from America’s Next Best Dance crew making a video for Minus The Bear. It was surreal, crazy, and awesome.
Through this turn of events, I found a new way to work. With One Too Many Mornings, we really took our time finessing every single shot and every single cut, but with music videos you simply don’t have that luxury of time whatsoever. You’re forced to rely on your instincts.
And so making Ex-Sex was really an experiment. I didn’t have some grand scheme plan to play Sundance twice in a row — I just wanted to take what I learned with music videos and see if it could be applied to a narrative. Which really meant just not over-thinking it too much. It ended up turning out far more personal than if I had the time to question it.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the story for Ex-Sex? How it came about, inspiration for it, etc.? Did the story come before the title, or…?
Mohan: So back when I was in my early 20s I started dating this girl. She was too good for me. She was smart. She was pretty. She laughed at my dumb jokes. I knew that I wanted to marry her. The only problem with that, was that I hadn’t dated that many people up to that point. Like I dated three-and-a-half girls in college. And so I was afraid that with this new ideal girl, that I’d marry her, and like on my 40th birthday or something, way down the road, I’d start to wonder if there was someone else out there that was even more perfect for me.
I know, I was a dummy. I just didn’t have that much experience at relationships.
So in the months that followed, as she and I would get together and secretly continue to hook up, I went on dates with a handful of people. All of which paled in comparison. She started going on dates too, and I got intensely jealous. It was rough, but I quickly learned my lesson, she took me back, and we are now happily married. Every once in a while, I wonder what would have happened if during that time we were broken up she decided to move on. Ex-Sex is that version of the story.
Filmmaker: Did you know Ex-Sex would definitely be a short? Or rather, when you first conceived it did you think it might be a feature?
Mohan: I had the idea for Ex-Sex for a very long time, before I even started One Too Many Mornings. I wrote a treatment for a feature version of it, and then just put it up on the shelf. After doing all these music videos, when Jennifer Cochis and I were thinking about making a short, I told her a few ideas and this one stuck out. It’s been so amazing to me that the short has been so warmly received — this has made me think more about this idea. Just the basic subject matter of Ex-Sex — the instant you say the title to people, they get it. I mean, if you haven’t had sex with an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, you’re probably a virgin. Everyone can relate to it. So to me, this short is just one tiny springboard of possibilities to take the idea. In fact, just four days ago I finished the first draft of a script to the feature version of it. At the same time, I think it could also easily co-exist as a progressive tv show as well.
Filmmaker: Ex-Sex has a really dreamy, gauzy, slightly soft look. It’s lovely to look at. Can you talk about the look of the film and how you decided on it? Also, from a nuts and bolts perspective, what’d you shoot on and how’d you achieve that look?
Mohan: As you know the last narrative thing I had done was black-and-white, and I knew that in transitioning to color, I didn’t want the film to just look “normal,” I wanted it to be distinct. And so in thinking about the themes of the film and especially the sex scenes in the film — I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I wanted it to look how similar encounters I’ve lived through are preserved in my own memory. So cinematographer Elisha Christian and I started by looking at a bunch of Juergen Teller photos that he took for Marc Jacobs. There was something really inspiring to us in that work in that it feels nostalgic, but not specifically of an era. And it feels extremely sexual, but at the same time, innocent. What I took away from this is that I think perhaps pastels and low contrast will emotionally exude.
So that was our starting point, and we just pushed it as far as we could go.
From a nuts and bolts perspective — we shot on the camera du jour — the 7D. And it was color corrected on my laptop in FCP. It’s pretty simple — making the blacks milky and then adding a bit of red to it to give it that faded photograph look.
Filmmaker: What was the actual production like? When did you shoot? How many days?
Mohan: It was just like a music video — incredibly fast: Thursday night I sent the two main actors, Kristen Riley and Jacob Womack, out on a date, without me, just so they could get to know each other. Friday night we rehearsed and shot the hardest scene. Saturday was our main day of production. Sunday we did pickups. It was edited by the end of the week. Sound was done (by the amazing Brennan Gerle and his team) about a month later.
Filmmaker: Lovely production design. Can you talk about the locations and how you worked with the production designer?
Mohan: Cindy Chao and Michele Yu were the production designers. I cannot say more great things about them. They did One Too Many Mornings, all the music videos, and this… and they’re just such awesome homies. Anyways — our color scheme was inspired by Scrabble. The board game. So you’ll see throughout the film there are lots of double-word-score pinks and double-letter-score blues. The main couch in the film is very triple-word-score red. So in addition to getting all the props, they got gobs of colored fabric we could hang deep in the background to maintain this color scheme. The main location is what’s known as an Eichler house. Quintessential mid-century modern architecture. The secondary location was this really smelly boat in the Marina, ironically named Passion. You know, I really wanted these characters to lead these very separate lives — she clearly comes from wealth, him, not so much — and their physical attraction is what brings them together.
Filmmaking wise, these decisions are also based around the fact that because there’s such little time in a short — giving the characters interesting places they call home actually functions in helping economically define these characters in a much more rich way than if they lived in say, a normal apartment. And it’s far more visually interesting to boot.
Filmmaker: Your male lead lives on a boat, huh? There must be a story there…
Mohan: Prior to this short, I directed a video for the band Fitz and the Tantrums. During that production, producer Jennifer Cochis was actually boat-sitting. And whenever we’d need a break from pre-production she would tell me about all the interesting characters who choose to live on boats. Why living on a boat is a good idea. There’s a little bit of a movement, not unlike hippies, of young adults buying boats and literally drifting from place to place.
And so that instantly sparked the very last image of the movie. I knew the main character had to live on a boat.
Filmmaker: There’s a really nice balance between an almost-formal, incredibly well-composed look to the film and something a little more dirty – especially when the couple get down to having sex. Can you talk about the shot design? How you worked with your DP in that regard?
Mohan: One of my biggest influences is Steven Soderbergh — he just always puts his camera in the right place. Every once in a while he’ll have an intellectual visual idea going on. Every once in a while, when the time is right, he’ll do something playful. But I feel like he just really knows the story of his scenes and reacts to them appropriately — never distracting from the performances, and making it as cinematic as possible.
So my style, I’ve been trying to refine what we did on One Too Many Mornings, which is definitely a balance of being formal and being loose. And making bold choices whenever it is appropriate to do so. Specifically when Elisha and I were going over our design, the only real “rule” we kept to was that when the characters get stoned, we go just slightly handheld, and when they sober up we go back to sticks.
Filmmaker: Your two leads are both great. Can you tell me a bit about them? How you worked with them?
Mohan: Kristen Riley acted in a music video I had done a year prior for the band Sea Wolf. I met her then, and knew her chops were just miles beyond what I needed for that project. She studied at NYU and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and so I just filed her name away in my brain as someone I really wanted to work with in the future. I am convinced she’s the next Julianne Moore.
Jacob Womack is actually more known for his sketch comedy and improv — he performs at the UCB theatre every Monday, and is part of the comedy team that made the infamous “You Got That B-roll” sketch that everyone forwarded to everyone last year. He had been wanting to do more dramatic work, and we were lucky to have been introduced via another director friend of mine Andy DeYoung. Casting directors take note! Write these names down: Kristen Riley and Jacob Womack.
Filmmaker: Without giving too much away, near the end of your film one of the two characters says “I love you” – and the moment is so uncomfortable, so awkward and almost sad. It’s really a great moment. Can you talk about that emotional beat in the film?
Mohan: Hmmmmmm… I think I’d rather let that moment speak for itself if that’s cool.
Filmmaker: How would you describe the tone of the film?
Gentle. Playful. Erotic. Heartbreaking. (in that order)
Filmmaker: What do you think is tougher — telling a good story in 90 minutes or 9?
Mohan: To me the IDEA is the hard part. The length is irrelevant. It all starts with the idea. I’ve wasted so much time trying to take so-so ideas and make them good, both feature-length and shorts (I have made a lot of bad shorts). A poor idea executed in the absolute best of ways is still ultimately forgettable.
The second hardest part is not tricking yourself into thinking a good idea is a bad idea.
Filmmaker: How do you plan on spending your time at Sundance? Will you have time to see other films? Any films that you’re really looking forward to?
To be totally honest, last year at Sundance I was so stressed out. You know, we also had the added pressure of launching a self-release for the film during the festival… it was a lot of work. So this year I just want to meet more people and just have a good time.
In terms of the films – Old Joy is one of my favorite films of all time, and so I cannot wait to see Kelly Reichart’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff. Also, one of my favorite things to do is just see a movie I know absolutely nothing about because I happen to be close to the theatre and have a gap in my schedule — I feel like that’s really when you get a sense of what the festival is about.
Filmmaker: Do you know what the next film you’re going to make will be? And…short or feature?
Mohan: I am currently in the early stages of casting a film called Save the Date with producer Jordan Horowitz (The Kids Are All Right). It’s a script that my favorite graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy, Unlikely) originally wrote, that playwright Egan Reich and myself have both collaborated on. Jennifer Cochis and I would really like to evolve this idea of Ex-Sex, so I’ve just finished the first draft of a feature version of that, but we’re also looking to develop it for television. And lastly, the guys I made One Too Many Mornings with — we’re working on a project about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. If any of these take longer than expected, I will definitely find the time to make another short.