When it came time to shooting a gay threesome scene in “I Am Michael,” which premieres Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, first-time director Justin Kelly erred on the side of caution. He didn’t want to make the encounter among his three actors — James Franco, Zachary Quinto and Charlie Carver — too risqué for fear of alienating moviegoers from the story about Michael Glatze, a gay activist who renounces his homosexuality and turns to God.
“I wanted to appeal to a wider audience,” Kelly says. “All my gay filmmaker friends thought it would be awesome if this film could be something that Christians would see.”
Kelly filmed the buzzed-about love scene in two takes, in a wide shot, so it wouldn’t look gratuitous. In retrospect, he regrets not nudging his actors to go further. “I kind of do wish they took their underwear off, to be honest,” Kelly says. “Oddly enough, our straight financier who backed the movie when everyone turned it down was the only person who watched the rough cut and was like, ‘You didn’t shoot more for the sex scene?’ He wanted more ass.”
There was no shortage of sex by the slopes at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Call it the “Fifty Shades of Grey” effect. Many of the indie features that premiered there seem to have been influenced by an early time when movies from the ’70s and ’80s pushed the envelope in the bedroom. And the young crop of Sundance directors have been certainly influenced by the more sexually explicit content on TV series like “Games of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “The Americans,” “Masters of Sex” and “The Affair.” In Joe Swanberg’s “Digging With Fire,” Chris Messina takes a page from the Lena Dunham school of nudity when he drops his pants and goes full frontal in a pool scene with Anna Kendrick.
In earlier festivals, it was the bloody cinematic stylings of directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers that shocked and thrilled audiences. This year, violence took a backseat to eroticism and sexual politics.
Once upon a time, sex used to sell in Hollywood. But the conglomerate-owned studios are terrified of scaring away audiences when it comes to their tentpole franchises and superhero movies, and violent content slips by censors more easily than sex and nudity in major foreign markets such as China.
As a result, the movies are now full of characters who talk and act like they are celibate (which is why Marvel’s “The Avengers” never disrobe from their uniforms). “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowski siblings’ $175 million epic targeted to teenage boys that premiered at the festival’s “secret screening,” teases a romantic chemistry between its star Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis, but they don’t act on it, so that the film can retain its middle school friendly PG-13 rating.
In their day, “Basic Instinct,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Fatal Attraction” were among the 10 top-grossing films the years they came out, but that was decades ago. In the ensuing years, big-budget films that show lots of skin such as “Showgirls,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Unfaithful” have bombed or been modest performers at the box office. There are high hopes for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which is on pace to open to north of $45 million next month, but that is anomalous.
As a result, realistic depictions of sex on the bigscreen are relegated to the indie world, and Sundance 2015 didn’t take that responsibility lightly. This year’s festival turned the heat up, using nudity and sex as a storytelling and marketing tool. And it seemed to work, because many of Sundance’s biggest sales were for the raciest movies that debuted in Park City.
The opening-night selection, raunchy comedy “The Bronze,” set the bar high. In a now infamous scene (thanks to social media), a former Olympic gymnast played by Melissa Rauch invites an old flame (Sebastian Stan) to her motel room. The two get it on, performing naked flips and tosses and contortions, in a racy montage that’s sure to give Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele a run for their money.
“We were not interested as writers in the idea of shock value,” says Winston Rauch, the film’s co-writer, who happens to be married to the star. “We really just were interested in something entertaining that we haven’t seen before.” The screenwriter admits that the sex scene has “generated a lot of excitement.”
Indeed, Sundance proved that sex could still attract Hollywood’s deep pockets. “The Overnight,” a comedy featuring Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman and a cornucopia of full-frontal male nudity, landed a $4 million deal from the Orchard. In “Sleeping With Other People,” Jason Sudeikis teaches Alison Brie how to pleasure herself with an empty bottle of green tea. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” tells the story of a young woman (Bel Powley) who loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), and director Marielle Heller doesn’t shy away from following her underage character into bedrooms, bathrooms and backseats while tracking her sexual awakening. There’s even a moment when our young ’70s heroine performs mock oral sex on an Iggy Pop poster, to giggles from her girlfriend.
In “Dope,” a high school comedy that was one of the breakout hits at Sundance, director Rick Famuyiwa doesn’t hold back with regard to his character’s libidos. A high school virgin named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is frequently shown masturbating to images on his iPhone, and when he has a sexual encounter with a hot girl, the camera doesn’t blush as she undresses. (Ultimately, the scene is played for comedic effect.) In “Tangerine,” a story about two transgender prostitutes, director Sean Barker is also true to his characters, as we see them unzip the pants of their enthusiastic clients. And Eli Roth unloaded his latest horror film, “Knock Knock,” where Keanu Reeves (and a body double) are shown having a softcore porn-like encounter with two young women.
Sex of a darker variety was also the subject of documentaries at Sundance. “The Hunting Ground,” Kirby Dick’s latest, explores sexual assault on college campuses. The movies features dozens of first-person accounts from women who describe brutal acts of violence, but when it comes to a rarely discussed subject of male rape, even though a few victims are briefly shown, “The Hunting Ground” doesn’t offer them the chance to tell their stories. Dick told Variety that he considered using more footage from these victims, who were all gay, but opted not to in the editing room.
Gay sex seems to be the last taboo, even at Sundance. That’s true both with “I Am Michael,” and “The D Train,” the racy comedy with Jack Black (as a married heterosexual) and James Marsden (playing a bisexual actor). They’re ex-high school acquaintances who get smashed and have a one-night stand. But when it comes to the actual act, the camera cuts away after just one quick shot of Black as he experiments with anal sex. The film’s co-directors, Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, told a Sundance Q&A crowd they had filmed more of that scene but decided to show some restraint.
“We always thought that less was more,” said Paul.
Other filmmakers at Sundance weren’t so shy.