The sweet, unpretentious “That’s Not Us” — playing Frameline this month, and Outfest and Philadelphia’s QFlix next month — was co-written by Derek Dodge and William Sullivan, and directed by Sullivan. This charming comedy-drama features three couples—lesbians Alex (Sarah Wharton) and Jackie (Nicole Pursell); gay couple James (Mark Berger) and Spencer (David Rysdahl); and straight couple Liz (Elizabeth Gray) and Dougie (Tommy Nelms)—spending a late September weekend together at a New York beach community. While each couple spends their time alone together fucking or fighting, all the characters are dealing with partnership issues involving honesty and (mis)communication.
If the storylines are slight—the lesbians haven’t had sex in ages; the gay guys are separating because Spencer got into grad school in Chicago, and the straights are having problems of trust—“That’s Not Us” is consistently warm and engaging, thanks to the assured performances by the entire cast, who improvised most of their scenes. The scenes between Wharton and Berger, who co-produced, are particularly strong. This is a perfect film to see a summer night with someone you care about.
Sullivan and Dodge as well as Wharton and Berger chatted with /bent about making their fine film.
How did you conceive of the film, the intimate style, and the characters?
William: The impetus for the entire project was that we were seeing coming out or falling in love stories. We wanted to do something that reflected what we go through and experience on a day-to-day basis. That was the trigger that made us write down things we were thinking about. We had an outline for the characters and their arcs, and we wanted to explore these themes—the vulnerability, the physical separation of the gay couple, and the sexual offseason.
Derek: You see people in films trying to find love, or navigating new love, or it’s a break up movie, but for couples that are together, things always seem easy. But even for couples that have been together for so long, there is still work to do to make love last. We wanted to show everyday obstacles real couples face in long term relationships. Just because they have a bump doesn’t mean they will break up; they have their partner’s best interests in mind. We particularly wanted to see young gay couples doing that.
You ask viewers to fill in some blanks—for example, why James doesn’t follow Spencer to Chicago. Can you discuss this narrative approach?
William: We fill in the gaps for ourselves. We did rehearsals and chemistry building with the actors: what was your first date, how was moving in together?, etc. and once you know that, you don’t need to say that. We don’t need a couple to say they’ve been together 8 years. They know that.
How did you work with the cast on the project?
William: We hired actors that had the ability and bravery to improvise. I sat with Mark and David and talked about gay sex, and when we got to set they went for it. They grew through this process. When they see the film, I think they can see how much they put themselves out there. Anything less would not have felt as fluid.
Mark and Sarah, what can you say about working with each other and your on-screen partners to develop the relationship and the intimacy?
Mark: Each of us did a pretty extensive amount of rehearsal with Will and our partner—so Sarah and Nicole and me and David. We rehearsed all summer and shot in September. We never got to the exact bull’s eye on the scene we want to film on the day, because that’s the point of the improvisation, so some electricity will happen…The night we shot the cigarette scene outside the party, there was a sense on the set and between Sarah and me that everything fell into place the way we thought this whole idea would fall into place. That scene was a moment where the both of us were—Sarah didn’t tell me she was going to do the scream thing, she just did it—and I was so excited.
Sarah And because we had never rehearsed that scene, we didn’t know it was going to happen. Will and Derek weren’t even sure what the shot would look like. It was late and the scene wasn’t working from what was written in the outline. Will told us to take a step back and that moment [prompted] the true nature of the improv, and I felt like I should be smoking…
Mark …and we had the idea that smoking should not just be done meaninglessly throughout the film. I have an “Alex” in my life, and so I knew who she was to me. When we started talking, it was something that had actually happened in my life. So for me, the scene was when we were smoking the cigarette like we did behind the gym in high school, like the two badass gay kids fucking shit up like we did. It all made sense in that moment, in that scene.
What did you bring to your characters and their arcs?
Sarah: There was some discussion about making sure there were moments that showed the good parts of their relationship, and that you saw both sides of both characters. There was no bad guy; they were both guilty at times. Our perspectives are always so much our own perspectives, so when both of them come together and see what the discrepancy is, it is a magical moment in the film.
Mark: I see so much of myself in David’s character in real life. I am someone who can get in my head and it’s easy for me to not be present and stay thinking about things and mull things over. So for me, it was a constant, fun exploration to be the person not doing that. He’s saying, “Be Here Now.” That was my objective the whole time to get him to connect with me until the scene in the forest, where Spencer tells James, “Can you look me in the eyes when you’re saying that?” That’s such a “me” thing in real life—when I get emotional. When he said that to me, I knew that he has the upper hand and it all switched and turned on its head. What I liked about our arc is that for me, I wanted to keep the audience thinking maybe they will or maybe they won’t [stay together]. I loved the mystery of that. That was really true to me. I loved this person, and we’re going to be separated, but what are you going to do with that?
What can you say about filming the sex scenes, the nudity, and the intimacy?
Mark: In the scene, you have to find the sexiness in the other person and you fall in love with that other person. You want to feel the truth in that, that I just had that experience. That’s not to say [sex scenes] aren’t intimidating. That was my first sex scene in a film, and that is intimidating, and I remember looking David in the eye and saying, “Let’s do it!” and we just started making out and went from there.
Sarah: I had a great time. I think sex is awesome when I trust my partner and trust the circumstances, and we’re in a good place, it’s the greatest pleasure of my life.
Mark: Are you talking about real life, or are you talking about film?
Sarah: Real life, but it translates to film. I was in a situation where I completely trusted Derek and Will and Nicole, who is gorgeous, and an amazing woman. It’s not hard to be in love with her! So it felt like this fun opportunity, and an expression of myself because that scene was a very nice moment.
Do either of your own a rainbow colored dildo as the characters do in the film?
Sarah: I do now.
Mark: You’re the holder of the rainbow dildo?! Did you have it before the shoot?
What is your ideal weekend getaway?
William: We due for one of those.
Derek: We’re talking about getting off the grid. Maine. Baxter State Park.
Mark: Mine is going away to a beach for the weekend, or Maine. I love going up to Portland or the Cape. I’m from outside Boston. So the cape is where I went growing up.
Sarah: Any place I can go and not know what time it is. I also love hotels. I have been known to book a hotel and go there for the next 24 hours and not do anything else.
Check out the film’s website and watch the trailer below: