“We live in a society where everything is coming into question,” says visual artist, musician, and film director Paul Deeb. “Assumptions that we make are being questioned all around us. And marriage is one of those assumptions. There’s a spectrum of behavior, a continuum, everything lies on, so how do you tell a story about questioning modern relationships, if you’re going to be shy about showing some of the essential stuff that modern relationships are all about?”
Deeb is speaking about Marriage 2.0, a new film that delves into the complexities of sexual and romantic relationships, that mixes a gorgeously rendered narrative with artfully shot hardcore sex. And it’s anything but shy. The visuals, both sexual and scenic, are thematically striking, the writing is articulate and moving, and the performances transmit incredible subtlety and skill.
Marriage is a unique and powerful film, intelligently and emotionally bridging the divide between mainstream filmmaking and the adult industry, and offering a really one of a kind cinematic experience.
Written by filmmaker Magnus Sullivan and directed by Deeb, Marriage 2.0 succeeds at what few films have even attempted. Sex here is not treated as tragic, caustic, or mechanical, but as something positive that can be understood, enjoyed, and shared. It’s challenging and engaging, and inspires spirited conversation long after the credits roll.
“I’m re-eroticizing porn,” says Sullivan, who chatted with BaDoink about the film several weeks ago, right before the film premiered at the CineKink festival in New York City. “Porn has been de-eroticized.” And not only that, the erotic content in this film is used as a narrative vehicle, not as a “run on sentence,” as Sullivan comments.
To the creative minds behind the project, it seems, this means that erotic means not only emotional but carefully stylistic as well.
“Most adult movies are kind of like this stylistic train wreck, where you start on a narrative, and there’s a story that goes along, and all of a sudden the storytelling comes to a grinding halt and then you have this sex scene, and this sex scene is not any kind of narrative device,” thinks Deeb, who at the time of our conversation was putting the final touches on the now available finished film. “It’s like ESPN. It’s real time, and it takes you out of the story. Marriage 2.0 is different because you watch it like a movie, and I think that’s an achievement.”
The main plot of the film follows India, played with grace and depth by actor and model India Summer, a woman trying her hand at an open relationship. Her and her partner Eric, played by Ryan Driller, both see other people, but that arrangement quickly comes into question when partners of partners encounter one another and the audience is drawn slowly from romantically staged male/female coitus to more explicit dungeon scenes and borrowing of lovers. The viewer experiences the emotional turmoil along with India both cerebrally and viscerally.
Parallel to India’s sexual development in bedrooms, basements, and one very sensually lit movie theater is her experience interviewing Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, the authors of Sex at Dawn. Sullivan and Deeb make Summer’s character a documentary filmmaker, and insert the Ryan/Jetha narrative as way of intellectualizing the physical story that plays out on screen.
“Sexual monogamy’s like vegetarianism, it can be very healthy, it can be ethical, it can be a better option in many different ways, but just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian doesn’t mean bacon doesn’t suddenly stop smelling good,” says Ryan in the film, “so even if you choose to be monogamous, choose it from a position of knowledge… it’s a viable path, but it’s an uphill path, because of the nature of the animal we’ve evolved to be.”
From scene one to the final cut to black, seemingly concrete notions of sexuality are challenged and explored, but without any one conclusive ideology. Sullivan and Deeb give the audience the chance to feel and think, and redefine what is normal and erotic individually. Ryan’s involvement in the film adds to this, reinforcing the notion that it’s up to the individual, and shame should be exorcised – Ryan is a self-proclaimed “shame exorcist.”
Speaking about sex in media and its message, Deeb adds, “it seems like the only way we can tell a story that has sexuality integrated into it, is it’s always a story about some broken person. And so Marriage 2.0 is a very positive movie with a very positive message. The real trick of it is, it’s not a movie that’s made for the masturbation audience, it’s a movie that’s made for people who like movies, who typically wouldn’t watch an adult film.”
Before making Marriage 2.0 and his first film, An Open Invitation, Sullivan was a student of history and classics, and through an interest in culture of technology and media discovered the potential of working online. According to Sullivan, “online technology let’s you really facilitate a fracturing of social bonds and disconnection that people have toward their local communities. So I got into the online world, that’s how I got into the whole Internet. And then from there, I was fascinated with the Internet as a medium for erotic content in general and I did some of the first online streaming work in 1993 and 1994.”
Seeing the “online potential of porn,” Sullivan helped bring the site Gamelink online in the mid-nineties, as well as sites such as Good Vibrations, sort of “an introduction to adult.” He later became the VP of Online Streaming for Private Media Group, streaming content for the “male masturbation market.” These experiences inspired him to ask the question “what is a porn consumer?” driving him to seek “compelling erotic content.”
“When there was money in adult, there were very few people actually using that money, after the mid-80s, to pump it into production.” Porn production “got cheaper and cheaper and cheaper,” and that ran parallel to the breakdown of distribution channels the industry depended on financially. “Nobody knew how to make a movie that actually mattered,” says Sullivan.
With all this in mind, Sullivan wrote the script for An Open Invitation. “What that was though was a real test of these concepts of making movies that matter, are about interesting topics, that have baked into the script access to message makers in the online world that can actually spread the word about the movie. The beautiful thing about the Internet is it rewards those who give to it, and if you give something of value to it, it gives something back to you.”
Deeb’s background, in contrast to Sullivan’s work in the online world, is more based in visual arts and music. Before joining Sullivan in bringing Marriage to the screen, Deeb formally trained in music and did award-winning art installations before transitioning to artistic adult films. In fact, Deeb almost left the adult film business before chancing upon Sullivan and being drawn into the project. He’s presently the Art Director of the Pillow Book Gallery and co-owns Pillow Book Productions.
“Making adult films, if you’re coming from any kind of serious background is difficult, because most of the people who have taken you seriously kind of ostracize you,” comments Deeb. “From the adult side of the business, if you want to try and do something that’s good, and isn’t a jerk off piece, then they don’t really respond to that. I’ve kind of come to the conclusion with the adult industry that they have got so many problems and absolutely no way of getting out of this dog chasing its tail cycle they’re in, so that they’re just doomed. I couldn’t see any path to financial success making something I was proud of producing.” Cue Sullivan, and the rest is an aesthetic and narrative challenge to the medium.
“Nobody’s making movies before asking some really basic questions. Who is interested in this, why, and how do you gain access to those people? They just say, ‘oh, Jesus, everybody loves big tits! Let’s make a big tit movie! The best big tit movie!’ I had a talk with a guy the other day and he said, ‘I shot it at four thousand frames a second, and I had milk pouring down her tits.’ And I thought, who’s going to watch that? Much of the adult industry works like that,” says Sullivan.
According to Sullivan, porn creators are “slave to a format that the industry kind of demands. We deviate from that completely. Most of our sex scenes are clothed. There’s no anal sex, and there’s no gagging with a blowjob, it’s a very different approach to integrating sex.”
“The level of visual sophistication is so high right now,” explains Sullivan, “and adult has fallen so far behind, that I think there’s an incredible opportunity in adult to make movies that actually engage the audience and use sex in a compelling way.”
To Sullivan and Deeb, their film is a response to issues in the production of adult media. Instead of staging it like a “medical shoot” or a “sporting event,” they strove to create a film in which viewers experience genuine emotions while hardcore sex is occurring onscreen.
“What goes on in most porn films is that the sex is not filmed like you’re filming a movie, it’s filmed like you’re filming a sporting event. In film, you have a device called compression of time. With shooting for porn, the first problem is there’s no compression of time, so 20 minutes of sex, they film it for 20 minutes, uncut. Wrong! And that’s why I say it’s most closely related to sports. As a matter of fact, you can look at a standard porn film and hear the sports announcements, like, ‘well John, it looks like another cock’s coming into the picture!’” Deeb continues a humorous play by play of a standard porn arc before chuckling about how he believes he’s ruined pornography for many of his friends and colleagues.
“To keep those sex scenes from becoming these monotonous things that you’re trudging your way through, you keep things changing and evolving, and the sex scenes in Marriage 2.0 have a macro arc, throughout the film also. I think I use sex in the same way that Tarantino uses violence. There’s a lot of implication of violence, and he doesn’t shy from showing things that are graphically violent, but it’s used as spice in the recipe.”
In Marriage, the sex in all of its forms are “part of the narrative” and “follow an arc,” comments Sullivan. The film integrates the sex scenes into the quotidian, intellectual, and emotional lives of the characters, and urges the audience to explore sexuality without stigma. According to Sullivan, it’s a film about helping people discover the kind of relationships they want to have. He promotes the idea of “flexible mind.”
“The film conveys what sex feels like as opposed to what sex looks like,” explains Deeb, deconstructing the carefully crafted realism audiences feel in the film. In analyzing how Deeb brought the sex to life on screen, he says, “When you watch any good movie, the whole element of suspension of disbelief in a viewer is that if we’re watching Raging Bull, we’re convinced these guys are boxers. When we watch India and Eric, when we watch those two characters having sex, and it looks like a very loving, engaging encounter, that was not what happened. What happened was that I acquired all of the pieces to make you think that that’s what happened, and through manipulation of all of that, in your brain you form the image of these people and what their physical relationship is.”
However, the goals of the film don’t seem to include it being specifically a story solely about sex.
“There isn’t one model that works for everybody,” muses Sullivan. At one presentation of the film, a man approached Sullivan with “tears in his eyes. He said, ‘I want to thank you, because you made me and my wife feel normal, and we never feel normal’ That ultimately was a big driver behind this effort.” One notable sex therapist even admitted, “I can’t believe I’m crying in a porn movie.”
“It’s not a film about sex, it’s a film about people,” remarks Deeb. “I think most porn movies are about sex. Sex, if it’s something that you’re just going to sit and watch, and not pleasure yourself, it’s really not very interesting. It’s no different than watching somebody eat or breathe. It’s not interesting. People are interesting, and as people we relate to each other through telling stories. What this film does is, it uses sex in very novel ways, to tell a story that goes to the core of what modern relationships are really all about.”
One of the triumphs of the film is its aesthetic and emotional realism. In observing the limits of the adult industry, Sullivan and Deeb craft a film that really brings you into the heat of the experience. Unlike much of mainstream content, it’s not stylistically detached as a fantasy, but edited and shot with relatability in mind.
“There were a couple of goals we had with this movie, and one of them was at no point in the movie should you want to fast-forward. There should also be some ambiguity.
“You engage the brain, and you’ve won,” suggests Sullivan. “One of the key goals was to get into what I call the northern hemisphere, almost all porn sits at the lower hemisphere. It’s all about the loins. We have Chris Ryan in the start of the film holding a book! This is about ideas and people struggling with complex issues.”
The design of the film adheres to a “less is more” aesthetic, setting aside the explicit static camera of mainstream porn and utilizing as much cinematic wizardry as possible. This serves to make the sex shocking, impactful, and awe-inspiring, and gives value back to the erotic and intimate.
“One of the key elements to that is we had the great services of our stylist, Redvine. In most porn, the porn stars look like porn stars. When somebody takes off their clothes in front of a camera and has sex for us to see, that should be an amazing moment. That should be incredible, because when done intentionally by a smart performer, that is an incredibly brave thing to do. Part of the goal was to honor that act and to demonstrate the strength of the person who does that, and to make them look like a real person, a real actress or actor.
“We wanted all the women in this movie to look powerful,” declares Sullivan.
At its core, Marriage 2.0 doesn’t have any one whistle to blow. The finale is left ambiguous, to suggest that India and Ryan have not yet arrived at a conclusion and the experiment may continue. Their relationship is their own, and not a model for anyone else. To Sullivan, the audience is “watching someone go through a process;” through India’s eyes, we’re privy to what it takes to develop sexually and in relationships of all kinds. As well, we’re left with the idea that relationships should in fact not be built on compromise, but on mutual support through adventure and discovery.
“Your relationship should not be a box that’s defined by compromised experience.” Sullivan is the most passionate I’ve seen him yet in the conversation. “It’s a springboard and a platform for growth and adventure.
“What motivated me to make Open was the realizing how easy it is with the grind of life and the cultural walls closing in on the idea of what you’re supposed to do with your life, and all of a sudden you’re on a desert highway flying through this interesting landscape toward two tombstones at the end of the road. And that’s kinda what it felt like for a while. My wife and I spent two years where we thought, ‘What’s wrong? Did we fall out of love?’ No, that wasn’t it. It was a scary period. Your life can just get on these rails, and it was very scary to get off that track, but we made that realization that we didn’t want to live that kind of life, and we started doing things differently.
“Somebody actually posted a message to my Facebook page at one point that actually exposed us as being in an open relationship and we got intensely shamed by our social circles, and that was a really traumatic experience. I wanted to use the medium to expose the idea that there are many different ways you can have a successful relationship or relationships. And there’s no reason to feel ashamed about any of this. We’re opening up the conversation about relationship models, and that’s motivating for me.”
As our conversation turns to the theme of sexuality within the film and in the broader sense, Deeb says, “Sexuality is this nest of stuff. You’ve got love, hate, fear, jealousy, envy, passion, history, all these different things that come to a nexus for this human interaction that all of us are involved in and think about all the time. I can’t think of anything that is better fuel for art than that.
“The thing I like about working in this adult realm in a really creative and interesting way, I do think society in general would be better to just put aside some of the fear based posturing that we see everywhere. The world’s not going to end because there’s a penis on a screen. Being part of a movie like this, you do feel like you’re accomplishing something that’s a needed step in social evolution.”
One of Deeb’s goals with the film, and this aligns well with Sullivan’s critique of the adult industry, is to show the expansive range of imagination, and how sex can and should be brought into filmmaking as a powerful tool for storytelling. There’s no end to how sex can be utilized as a narrative device.
“The adult industry is not doing all that well, but it has to be able to appeal to a broader audience. If we look at mainstream entertainment, you’ve got comedy, drama, documentary, edgy art films, and all different levels of engagement with all different kinds of material, so that no matter who it is they can find something they want to interact with,” comments Deeb, analyzing the industry in conjunction with Marriage’s place in it. “If the adult industry is going to grow and prosper, it has to evolve, and learn how to address different markets, and markets in a much more sophisticated way than just ‘this is for men’ and ‘this is for women.’ One of the biggest problems that I have, as a person who watches a lot of visual entertainment, is I can’t make it halfway through any adult movie. Hopefully we’re trying to make something that expands the range of the possible.”
As many others within and critical of the industry have noted, though, there may be a long way to go until the cultural and societal conversation pertaining to sex reaches the apex necessary to foster more artistic achievements such as Marriage 2.0. Or, at least, the inclusion of truly remarkable films such as these into the wider world of film and media. It’s an ongoing challenge, and one that’s present across the board.
“Some of the most important things for people to discuss between themselves and as a society are the most difficult things to discuss. If we all talked about sex with our partners more, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’d have a lot of happier people,” concludes Deeb. “But it’s hard to do. Sexuality, our own sexuality, is the highest level of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual investment that we have as people, so when we go into those discussions we have to put a lot on the table, which takes a lot of courage. Do the things that make you uncomfortable, because chances are it’s what you need to do the most.”
“Where do you go from here?” asks Sullivan as we’re discussing the ambiguous ending of the film. If the growing success of the film is any indication, the conversation is growing, and culture is opening more to how Marriage breaks down conventional and even unconventional relationships. According to Deeb, “this movie is an introduction to films of this type. There are still more interesting, far more engaging things to say about sexuality than what this movie does.”
What we’re left with is an open question, and one that each individual audience member has to answer for themselves. Everyone can benefit from a little more openness and exploration, granted it’s what they honest-to-goodness desire. As the acclaimed adult star Nina Hartley, who plays India’s mother in Marriage, says, “at least try.”
To watch the trailer or stream the film, check out Adam and Eve’s dedicated page for the film, and keep abreast of news about screenings, appearances by Sullivan or Deeb, and more at the Marriage 2.0 site.