To those on the outside, the world of sexual fetishes can seem like a black hole. Fetishes are mystifying, bizarre, and often defy reason. And, like black holes, it’s easier to pretend they don’t exist.
Josh Lawson would like to put an end to all that. The actor-turned-director, most known for his roles in "Anchorman 2" and Showtime’s "House of Lies," thinks our tendency to stigmatize fetishes is damaging. His Australian comedy "The Little Death," equal parts black comedy, screwball, and love story, is an assemblage of anecdotes revolving around couples grappling with sexual deviance. Some of the fetishes, such as role-playing, are less taboo than others
— dacryphilia (arousal from seeing someone cry), somnophilia (arousal from a partner being unconscious), and rape fantasies are just some of the grounds traversed in Lawson’s smartly observed stories. The comedy arises not from the details of the fantasies themselves but from the outrageous circumstances the couples devise to enact them, all in the name of love. We caught up with Lawson to discuss our societal attitude toward sex, the craziest fetish he has ever encountered, and the challenges of starring in your own directorial debut.
So, tell me: Why sexual fetishes?
I was having a dinner party many, many years ago with some friends and the conversation came around to sex and fetishes. We spent a large portion of the night talking about fetishes. I remember when I went home that night thinking if I could show even a fraction of how interesting, exciting, and titillating that conversation was and if I could put a fraction of that on the screen then I knew I’d be on to something. I started researching fetishes and I knew there was a story there. In fact, I knew there were countless stories there. That’s why I decided to do the film anthology style — I felt like there was just too much material for me to just tell one story. So I decided to tell five.
What specific titillating aspects of fetishes did you set out to capture?
Love and sexual desires run parallel — but separate — from each other. I found that concept really interesting. What I mean by that is if you fall in love, it can be so perfect, but there is no way of predicting if you’re going to be sexually compatible. No matter how much you love somebody, it’s still scary to confess to them, ‘I am into this,’ and hope that they are into the same thing, to not be judged for it and not feel ashamed about it. Sexuality is still that thing that puts us on edge. I continue to find that fascinating. I could talk about it forever. Sexuality is changing every day with the Internet, the proliferation of the pornography, Tinder, and the availability and the access to like-minded individuals in a way that we never used to have before. If I am into spanking, I can find other people into spanking at the drop of a hat. Our hunger and our desire for experimentation is getting so fervent these days.
What was your research process? Did you talk to people or did you conduct most of it on the internet?
Oh my god, I did all sorts of things. I spoke to sex therapists. I spoke to people themselves. I went to sex clubs. I went to fetish clubs. I wrote the first draft very quickly but I developed it over many years. Fetishists, in my opinion, are wonderful because they are so open about it. They want to talk about it, I found. A lot of fetishists that I spoke to were like, ‘We just wanted someone to ask!’ With some of the more extreme fetishists, there is definitely a lesson to be learned from them because they do find a great deal of happiness and content in being really free and open with their sexuality, their peccadillos, and what it is that gets them off. It was quite intoxicating to see their contentment.
What was the weirdest or most surprising thing you encountered?
Well, I tried not to judge anyone in the film for having a fetish that I might have thought was unusual. That said, in my research, I found this one fetish… it was this sexual arousal from having your eyeball licked. I remember looking at the guy and going, ‘Wow, that is crazy.’ I’ve never heard of that; I don’t even know how you realize that is your thing. It’s so specific! I was not going to put that in the movie because I couldn’t imagine it was popular enough. Years later, I’m reading the news and I see there is an outbreak of conjunctivitis in Japan because that fetish is so popular that they had to put out a public service. I swear to god. If you go on to YouTube and look it up, you can see people, mostly Japanese, have filmed themselves licking each other’s eyeballs and stuff. At that moment, I was like, you know what? Who am I to say what is weird? If it is consensual and two people are getting something out of it and they both want it…. What’s weird and crazy to me might be totally normal to somebody else, and vice versa. Some people would probably even look at some of the stuff I’m into and be like, ‘Wow, what a weirdo!’ It’s all relative. I try not to approach any of the fetishes with any kind of judgment or bias. I just went in trying to imagine what it would be like to have a fetish like this…. What would that be like, and how would that affect your relationship? That’s how I tried to attack the stories.
In terms of the anecdotes, a through line that stood out to me in all of them was that there’s an ambivalent message regarding fantasies. Some of the characters are really liberated by communicating them, but on the other hand, when they enact them, harmful things always seem to happen. Having done all this research, how do you think people should approach extreme fantasies?
The message that I tried to make really clear was that the couples that communicate with each other and are open with each other have a much more hopeful future than those who don’t. Those who manipulate, deceive, or are ashamed about revealing what it is they want are more doomed. Communication is not necessarily the easiest thing in the world, but it is the only way to ensure real, true satisfaction. I don’t see how lies or deceit is a foundation for happiness in the long run. It might be a quick fix, but ultimately it is a slippery slope. You openly need to be honest with each other and reveal who you really are.
What are the unique challenges of starring in your own directorial debut?
I was never going to star in it — that was a last-minute decision. Somebody pulled out at the last minute and we were scrambling to find someone. So I stepped in at the last minute. Ultimately, I am glad I did. I am proud that I was part of that side of the film. It was challenging because of the time constraints — money and time. We are just a little film, so we didn’t have time to look at playback and make sure the shot was perfect. There was a lot of trust I placed in my crew because we were shooting at the speed of light. We had 19 days to shoot the whole thing. We shot it using 17 different locations, so you can only imagine how fast we were moving. Often, we were going to three different locations in one day. You barely get anything in the can when you are moving that much. We were doing full company moves, wasting three hours of a day — at least — moving the crew place to place. It’s really tough, so at that point when I was in front of the camera, I looked at my AD and said, ‘Tell me we have it, or is it close enough?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, we got it, and we have to move on.’ We had to burn through it, unfortunately. I would love to have a little more time and money so I could be a little more crafted next time. Honestly, in any independent film, the fact that you make a coherent film is sort of a miracle, so you have to be grateful for whatever happens.
Your tone oscillated between screwball comedy and black comedy. How did you achieve that?
It’s sort of anything you can get away with. By that I mean, how far can you bend it before it breaks? I thought as long as the characters can react more or less truthfully to outrageous situations then no situation is that outrageous. That is not to say I didn’t make some mistakes on the way. There were things I thought would be really funny but when we put it in front of a test audience it was so clear that they didn’t believe it. It tonally took them out of the film. What I tried to do over eight test screenings was make sure people stayed within the universe that I tried to build. I also think film is a place for adventure, magic, and excitement. For me, it was important to show situations that were heightened to give people a more thrilling experience.
You mentioned earlier that the subject of sex is something that still puts us on edge. What do you think needs to happen for our societal mores about sex to change? What’s going to move the needle?
What way should we be? Is there a finish line? That’s really hard to say. Probably the answer is there is no such thing as a place we should be. If anything, I hope films like this spark conversations and allow us to have more open and candid conversations on the topic of sex. I don’t know what needs to happen to the society. I would love to say, I think everyone should watch my film and that will fix everything. [laughs] I don’t think that is true at all, but I hope that people make more films about this subject because that is one way we will open conversations about it. Only through frank and open conversations about sex will we evolve.