Spoiler alert: This interview contains information about the film that reveals some plot details
For the past two years, Dana Adam Shapiro has been immersing himself in other people's breakups. As part of his research for what began as an oral history of divorce and what has blossomed into a book, due out from Scribner in 2012, the former journalist and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker (Murderball) asked dozens of men and women across the country to open up to him about the most intimate details of their splits. Along the way, he co-wrote and directed a movie inspired by many of the themes that emerged from those candid discussions.
The film, Monogamy, which opened across the country earlier this month, stars Chris Messina and Rashida Jones as Theo and Nat, a soon-to-be-married Brooklyn couple who are forced to confront some major problems in their relationship when Theo, a photographer whom clients hire to shoot undercover pictures of themselves on the sly, develops an obsession with one (hint: she's blond and has a thing for barely-there tennis skirts). Shapiro's sleek, voyeuristic thriller (think Coppola's The Conversation re-imagined for the Facebook generation) offers one of the most refreshingly honest takes on the realities and pressures facing long-term relationships that we've ever seen--and also one of the sexiest. Shapiro took some time to share some insights about the film from his adopted home in Venice, California.
At what point during your research for the book did the movie come into being?
While I was researching the book, I came across this article online about photo-stalking. I was watching Sex, Lies and Videotape and loved how it really captured a voyeuristic moment in the '90s. And now I feel like everything is shifting towards exhibitionism--people are curating these museums to themselves with all these mostly-real pictures on Facebook. It's this illusion of reality, and I wanted to sort of tap into that--it isn't so much about watching [like it was in that film] as it is about being watched.
So when I came across that photo-stalker I thought, 'what a great idea for a character.' It could be fused with what we were calling a European relationship drama, about how do you maintain sex in a long-term relationship, [which was one of the main issues that was emerging from research for the book]. I talked to my writing partner [Evan M. Wiener] and we wrote it really quickly. It was like, 'someone is gonna hire him and what are they gonna do? And what does seeing these things do to his already fraying relationship?' We had this thriller engine to push this drama forward, It was sort of a fusion of those two types of films.
So tell me about the drama part--what were you trying to conjure in your depiction of Nat and Theo's relationship?
I was interested in the question of, when do you fuse your identity versus lose your identity when you're in a couple? When does someone enhance who you are as opposed to suppress you? Also, they have this lived-in chemistry that can only come from living together and being together for years, but they're not all over each other. There's chemistry, but it's not carnal anymore, which is what can happen after you've been with someone for a long time. I think a lot of couples become best friends, and that's great. But if you lose the sex part, you're in trouble.
To what extent does sex drive the drama forward?
I think Theo's central crisis is that I don’t think his fear is that ‘I’m never gonna be able to have sex with another girl again [if I get married].’ His fear is that ‘I’m worried that I’m gonna be a bad husband. I’m worried that I’m gonna cheat. I’m worried that I’m gonna be like this guy who [he has been hired to spy on who he thinks] is cheating on his wife in an alley.’ When he’s looking at [the man] in the alley, he’s not turned on, necessarily, he’s almost outraged morally. He’s like, ‘I might end up in an alley with a prostitute if I marry [Nat], because she doesn’t wanna have sex with me. Can I do this? I’m worried about becoming someone I don’t wanna be.'
It seems like Nat and Theo are both inhabiting this kind of play world, where the decision to marry seems like the extension of some kind of script they are playing out, but not necessarily their script, or something they truly want
I think there is a "should" factor in their relationship. Like, 'well, we should probably get married now.' There is some ambivalence these days. I don't think people are running to the altar the way they did before, because a generation ago, with marriage came things that you didn't get without it, which was sex and cohabitation. People didn't live together like they do now. They didn't have sex [before marriage] like they do now. Imagine what it would be like if you lost your virginity on your wedding night. Now people don't even have sex on their wedding night. My friend described it, I was like, 'how was your wedding?' And she was like, 'obligatory sex and counting the money.'
It seems that many of the relationships in the film are mediated through screens, whether it's Theo's camera lens or a computer screen or iPhones. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. I think that this book and this movie is different today then they would have been ten years ago just because our lives are mediated and regulated by screens and our personalities are developing in new ways.
Another major change to modern coupledom: roles aren't as clearly defined along gender lines as they once were. Was that something you wanted to explore as well?
Yeah, for sure. On a show like Mad Men, gender roles are much more clearly defined. And not necessarily in a good way, because with that comes rampant sexism and inequality, which I don't think that's a good thing. More women in our society are going to college and getting degrees than men; divorce is now more instigated by women. That was never the case years ago, when women couldn't afford to leave bad marriages. And there was a Scarlett Letter factor, a stigma. But with that gender equality has come more confusion and disarray, as well.
The one thing--really, the only thing--that Theo can say when they're breaking up at the end of the film is, 'I love you.' It seems like everything else has broken down, communication-wise. Is that one thing you saw from your interviews, that love is not enough?
Yeah, it's those three words in movies or novels, and you grow up saying 'when's the first time I'm gonna say 'I love you' to someone?' It is this huge phrase that means everything. And then you realize there are many different kinds of love. And it evolves over the course of a relationship. But I don't think it's enough. You can love someone but find him or her incompatible to live with. You can love someone but not be attracted to him or her physically.
What was the genesis of the book?
I was home for Thanksgiving [in Boston] a few years ago and my buddy told me he was getting divorced; it was literally maybe the fourth divorce I'd heard about recently. And I ended up making a list of my peers--people around my age who I knew who had gotten divorced, and it was, like, 14 names. I was 34 at the time. And I wanted to ask them all these personal questions, but that's a difficult thing to do. So I thought, I really like Studs Terkel's books. And I started out as a journalist [as an editor at Icon magazine]. That idea of being invited into these places that you would ordinarily not be invited into was really intriguing, and I also found it personally edifying because I do think I'd like to get married some day, but I'm seeing all of this tragedy around me, like people who I saw fall in love and saw say 'I do' and then it didn't work. And so I thought, this would be an interesting exploration into something that's both cautionary and constructive. It's bloody. These are horror stories but at the same time they're inspirational. And just riveting.
You've interviewed dozens of divorcees about their experiences, so you're something of an expert. Do you think adultery is the biggest challenge couples face today?
I think there's more possibility out there. Of the twenty percent of all marriages that end in adultery, the adultery started on Facebook. It's a lot easier to have an affair now, but it's also a lot easier to get caught. Like with Don Draper, you watch it and he's having tons of affairs, and it's just like, he's calling on a rotary phone. There's no answering machine. There's no paper trail, there's no text that someone can look at when you're sleeping. You look at Tiger Woods or Eliot Spitzer, or a guy who sent a picture of his dick or whatever, there are bread crumbs everywhere. It's very easy to trace back. At the same time, it's made it very easy to maintain this kind of extra-marital relationship.
What are some of the more memorable nuggets that emerged from your research that intact couples can learn from?
Learn how to fight fairly and productively. Be yourself in the courtship phase; don't present too idealized version of yourself, because unless you're prepared to uphold that lie for the rest of your life, [your partner is] gonna find out.
The end of the film is kind of hopeful--Nat seems okay, like she has emerged from the relationship emotionally stronger. I wouldn't necessarily expect that kind of ending being written by someone who has been immersing himself in stories about divorce
Everyone says, 'wow, you're writing a book about divorce, that must be really depressing.' But I don't find it depressing, just like I didn't find quadriplegics [in Murderball] depressing. These are people who have really hit the bottom of the earth and have found a way to rise, whether it's going through divorce or breaking your neck.
Monogamy is now playing in theaters nationwide