Let's face it: "cinephiles" and movie goers in general are
just glorified voyeurs. Scopophilia, they call it. A fancy name for a practice
not much more respectable than peeking through windows or keyholes. This
compulsion has served as a theme for many filmmakers, Alfred
Hitchcock, that jolly perve, being among the most prolific, with "Rear Window"
and "Psycho" just to name two, and Michael Powell for his still chilling,
career-ending "Peeping Tom."
Joining their number is Newton
native Dana Adam Shapiro with "Monogamy." In it a frustrated young photographer (Chris Messina),
discouraged by his day job of taking wedding pictures and uncertain about his
own upcoming nuptials with his fiancée (Rashida Jones), sets up a sideline
called "Gumshoot" where he takes candid pictures of clients. One of them.
"Subgirl," proves an eyeful, and the photographer toys with the fatal
voyeuristic mistake of making contact with the object of his obsessive gaze.
You might recall Shapiro as the Oscar-winning (not to mention an
honoree of the Boston Society of Film Critics) "Murderball" (2005),
a documentary about the intense players on a paraplegic rugby team. Shapiro
spent a year shooting the movie, so when it comes to voyeuristic photography,
he might know what he's talking. Same goes for the title subject, or so my
telephone conversation with him suggests.
Q: First of all congratulations belatedly on winning the
Boston Society of Film Critics 2005 Best Documentary award.
DAS: (Laughs) Thank you.
Q: I'm sure that was the key to your success.
DAS: It is the key to my success in my house, because my
parents still live there.
Q:So you have that diploma some place.
DAS: Yes my mother is very up on that.
Q: So how did you
get from "Murderball" to "Monogamy?"
DAS: They both have nonfiction roots. "Murderball,"
aside from being a documentary, has nonfiction roots in the sense that I read
about it, and the roots of "Monogamy" are a divorce book that I had been
working on. I had been doing interviews with people going through a divorce --
sort of like a Studs Terkel-like book -- for years now. And I lot of the ideas
that came up through those interviews found their way into the screenplay. And
the second part of the screenplay was from another article I came across this
online, where you could hire somebody to photo stalk you. You could hire someone to do what Chris
does in the movie. Essentially you tell them where you're going to be, what
you'll be wearing, and he'll follow you around with a camera. So yeah, there's
a lot of nonfiction in this fiction.
Q: Did you actually contact the company or the individual
who did the company?
DAS: I did not no.
Q: This film seems a "how-not-to" guide to resolving relationship
problems. Because of the detail, it's tempting to say that it's
autobiographical in some sense.
DAS: You know, I've definitely been on that couch. I've
definitely had moments of miscommunications and relationships more of a death by
a thousand paper cuts than any big incident. So the movie, in a sense, was
trying to film a lot of those paper cuts. Those little things. The metaphor of
the staph infection in the film is just that the little things can become, you
know, a paper cut can become a staph infection. The littlest things can blow
up, whether it's an actual wound, or a thought in your head. You can see a text
on your girlfriend's Blackberry and maybe it's an ex, and all of a sudden, you
start thinking things. And maybe she pulls away from you when you try to kiss
her, and that thought of being rejected can blow up. And a blow up, of course,
refers to all of these photography items. And you know, I don't like to get all
wonky and think about theme and visual motifs and stuff, but we really tried to
get at the real fights. The real things that kill relationships, which are
duller blades. It usually isn't some huge thing. A lot of times it is just
atrophy and miscommunication and feeling unappreciated. Usually you give as
much as you get. I think it's a cliché but people do end up feeling
unappreciated and I think that begets more unappreciation.
Q: So your film is not quite depressing as "Blue Valentine,"
but it's not as funny as "Hall
Pass." It seems like
there are a lot of movies lately about couples breaking up. Do you find that
there are more people breaking up now than before?
DAS: I think in 70s we had a lot of these types of movies.
There's "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "An Unmarried Woman." So I think there were a
lot of divorce movies, like in the late 70s and early 80s. Now in the last five
years I think there is a kind of reassessment of marriage, or traditional
marriage anyway. I do think that a lot of that has to do with women who are
less and less dependent on men than they've ever been. I think that's a huge
shift. I think the Internet is a huge shift. I think it's a really unique time
for marriage, and a really perilous time as well.
Q: Yeah, you can throw "The Kids Are All Right" in there
also. Although I suppose that one had ended happily. Although I suppose yours
could end happily too.
DAS: Yeah, I suppose we'd like to leave it up to the viewer.
People are much more forgiving of Julianne Moore than they are of Chris Messina, in the characters they play.
Q: Why doesn't she want to sleep with the guy? It seems like
there was an aversion there, and that seems to be at the heart of the problem.
DAS: In "Monogamy?"
DAS: Those scenes are all written to be vague, in the sense
that, is she making excuses? Meaning that she doesn't want to sleep with him.
And she keeps coming up with these reasons. I have to take a shower. I hurt my
finger. We're in the hospital. Or are they just legitimate excuses? And I think
depending on where you've been in your life, you'll recognize certain behavior
and certain lines. The movie can mean different things to different people. We
wrote six sex scenes, three of them we called "blue ball scenes," and three of them were the ejaculation scenes.
So every time Chris gets rejected by his fiancé, he goes and watches some girl
have an orgasm. So first he gets rejected in his bedroom because she thinks
that she smells so he goes and watches this girl. She's like, I think I smell,
I need to take a shower. And he's like, I don't care, you smell so good. And
she's like, I need to take a shower. And you can tell by the look on his face
that this has happened many times before.
Q: Or bringing up the subject of his father.
DAS: Yeah talking about his dad, and then he goes to kiss
her, and she's kind of pulling away. And maybe it's nothing, but again this
idea of the staph infection. Where the littlest things can consume you. And
every time he gets rejected he has to go and watch this girl have this wild
Q: It seems like the closest they get to actually getting it
on is when they both watch the first photographs that he takes, and she asks,
do you like this? She says it in a way
that's not condemnatory but kind of flirtatious and then they get very close, but
she ends up getting a major staph infection. That doesn't seem to bode well for
DAS: I think there is a foreboding from frame one. There is
something even in his gaze. We introduce the character through his gaze. We
watch what he's looking at. We see the things that interest him. He looks at a
father. He sees a father and son hanging out. He sees a couple girls. He sees a
girl's ass. He sees a girl's legs. And his camera whips and follows these
things. And we can tell this guy has a bit of a wandering eye, literally. And
that's how we're introduced to him -- looking.
Q: He doesn't seem to get a positive image of marriage
through the wedding photography business either.
DAS: I don't
necessarily know if that's a bad thing about marriage. But every wedding
photographer I spoke do was just like, it is a brutal, stilted, sort of a faux
happy process. Taking wedding pictures is sort of uniformly horrible.
Q: So how close did you get to their situation in being
engaged? Or are you a happy bachelor yourself?
DAS: I've never been engaged. I've had five three-year
relationships. I've lived with two girls. Never been engaged.
Q: So you're into serial monogamy.
DAS: I am a serial monogamist, yes. Single now, probably for
the first time in my life.
Q: That's your dog in the movie, right?
DAS: That's my dog. And that's my niece, Ana. She lives in
Weston. She was five when we shot that. A lot of those lines are
Q: And the dog, too, has talent. Was that scene with the dog
scripted or did he improvise it?
DAS: No. It's one of my favorite moments when the dog
leaves him on the couch. He gives him a kiss and he's hugging him, and he says,
you know what I was thinking, and the dog just leaves him. So when your dog
leaves you, that's when you know you've acted badly.
Q: That reminds me of the dog mask in the film. It seems to
be symbolic of something, especially in the scene where he
puts it on in the mirror. Is it a metaphor?
DAS: Well I think there's definitely a lot of things said. I
like hearing a lot of interpretations, but I'll tell you one of my favorite
things said is, there's an Aesop fable about the dog with the bone in his mouth
who looks into the river and sees his reflection, and he sees a dog with a
bone, and he sees that bone, and he wants the other dog has. So he opens his
mouth to try to get the bone in the other dog's mouth and winds up with no
bone. So when Chris is looking in the mirror, it is that kind of thing. I want
what he has, and you wind up alone. That sort of greed or that wandering eye.
That mirror there is a three-angled mirror. We thought also that men, you have
two different sides to you. There's an angel and there's a devil. There's a
civilized side. There's a primal side. There's an id and your superego. You
have your masculine side and your feminine side. That's why we had a
three-paneled mirror. And that's why when we're first introduced to him with
the dog mask it's on the right side of the panel. It's not his primary self.
It's his secondary part of his self. So here was Chris trying to put on a
dress, trying to get in touch with himself, trying to see what it's like to
walk in another person's shoes, or in this case a dress, maybe to understand
women, or trying to understand his primitive instincts.
Characters who are trying to be good are a lot
more interesting. He's someone who's obviously going through something. No one
is saying that he should be rewarded. And that scene definitely disturbs some
people. The mask in that scene is a replica of a mask from one of my favorite
films called "Killer of Sheep" (1981).
there's a scene in that movie where a little girl is wearing this dog mask, and
I tried to get the mask. I couldn't get it. So I had somebody make it. It's
really just a replica and a kind of nod to that movie, which hopefully will say
something about the character. You know, they had that in their house, maybe he
wore it last Halloween or something. So it's just little ways you can say
something about a character without giving backstory.
Q: Do you have that mask and put it on sometimes yourself?
DAS: I have the mask. It's on a head, a wig stand head.
People find it very creepy. But I find it kind of soothing.
Q: The theme of voyeurism and narcissism is obviously
significant in this film. Whatis your take on it? Do you think it's an
important issue these days?these are major issues for people these days.
DAS: I think that we've always been a voyeuristic culture.
We've always wanted to watch. We've always been fascinated to, whether it's been
"Rear Window," or "Sex, Lies, and
Videotape," or "Body Double," I think we've always wanted to look through the
peephole and kind of see other people's secrets. I think in the last five
years, with YouTube, and cameras getting smaller, that we're seeing the culture
shift and becoming much more exhibitionistic. Everybody wants to be seen. We
have these Facebook pages where we
kind of curate these museums to ourselves and have this sort of illusion of
reality of, this is who I am, but it's very constructed, and very contrived. I
think it's one thing to have a camera that costs very little money to make the
movie. Distribution was just never possible for people in their bedrooms
before. Even if you had the means, like in "Sex, Lies, and Videotapes," to make
this material, you couldn't disseminate it. You couldn't distribute it. Now,
because of the Internet, it can spread like wildfire, and you can become famous
very quickly. But I think this desire to be watched is something really new,
and something really interesting to look at. Sure, we've always carved our
names in cement and in trees and written so and so was here, but the lengths
that people are willing to go to be seen, I guess it's, I don't know if it's
good or bad.
Q: Rashida Jones was in The Social Network, which is another
film about a kind of narcissism and voyeurism, which Facebook
represents. And both movies end up with a character in front of a keyboard,
trying to get back in touch with some lost love. Do you think that the
technology in the media we have today is actually making people more alienated
from their own experience?
DAS: I think they're very clever with the words that they
use. This idea of being connected, or by calling friends on Facebook, they're called "friends" instead of
"links" or "associates," this idea to create a warm and fuzzy feeling from something that is digital and cold
and alienating. I do think that people are more open online, but when they get
face-to-face, you know, talking to younger kids, it's about that. How has the
Internet affected you? How has it affected face-to-face contact? How does
watching internet pornography shape your views of sexuality? I don't see it as
a positive thing. I think it's a very strange thing that's happening actually.
Q: Are you on Facebook
DAS: I'm not, no.
Q: I can't help but notice that there's a physical
resemblance between Chris [Messina]
and yourself. Is he a stand-in for yourself? For your last film, as a
documentary filmmaker, you had to follow people, almost stalk them with a movie
camera. Is he kind of a persona for you in this film?
DAS: I cast him because I love him as an actor. Every time
we see him, he's been in "Julie and Julia," or "Greenberg," or "Away We Go,"
he's kind of always like the nice guy. In "Vicky Christina Barcelona" you can
tell he's this clean-shaven, almost too good to be true boyfriend.
So we wanted
to make him kind of dirty. It is my neighborhood. It is my dog. It is my niece.
So obviously there are some parallels, but I think that's more skeletal than
Q: But do you think of yourself as a kind of voyeur when you
make a documentary film especially?
DAS: Sure. You have to be. If there's one thing I will say
is that a lot of times voyeurs don't want to be on camera. And he doesn't and I
Q: So you're not going to make Hitchcockian kinds of cameos?
DAS: Nope. Although if you're going to do it, you've got to
do it like Scorsese in the back of the taxi in Taxi Driver. That's a good
Q: You seem very eclectic in the arts and media that you
pursue. You wrote the song in this movie?
DAS: I did.
Q: And you do photography. You wrote a novel ["The Every
which Brad Pitt has optioned, or is planning to make a film about.
DAS: Well, that happened five years ago. It doesn't look
like it's getting made.
Q: You make documentary movies. You make feature movies. Do
you have a career trajectory, or do you just come up with things you're sort of
interested in and you just pursue them?
DAS: Well I never get hired to do anything. All these things
are done on spec. So you write a script, and that was just Evan [M. Wiener] and
I writing it, and we never knew what would happen with it. "Murderball" we shot
for a year, over 100 hours, and just got rejected by everybody. They're all
just stories that I'm attracted to. I do them on spec and then I try to sell
them when they're done. Or in the case of "Murderball," they're not done. We
have to edit from 100 hours. Or we sell "Monogamy" after the script is written.
Q: How long ago did you write the script for "Monogamy?"
DAS: We started writing it in July three years ago. We shot
the movie two years ago. "Murderball," too, took three years. Yeah you just get
those stories that seem like a good idea at the time. Yeah, let's make a movie
about quadriplegic rugby, or I'm going to write this movie. And then hopefully
when they're finished you can sell them.
Q: So having Rashida Jones becoming pretty prominent in TV
and movies and so-forth, was that instrumental in getting this film released?
DAS: Certainly. She's blown up. Chris has blown up a bit
too. Rashida is on this great television show. She was in The Social Network. I
think there is something, it's a nice feeling, people really like them as
actors, and they're excited to see them break out, because they're just so
talented. It's great to see Chris have a lead. It's great to see Rashida do
something different than we're used to seeing her do.
Q: She's great in the movie. I mean the guy is blind if he
takes her for granted.
DAS: We had to make her that to make the point. She had to
be wonderful in every way except for this one way that makes him turn, and it
makes him worried. He's not worried that he'll never be able to have sex with
another girl. He's worried that he's going to be in a sexless marriage, and
that he might wind up cheating on her. And he doesn't want to be a bad guy. He
doesn't want to be that guy in the alley, or what he thinks that guy in the
alley is. So it's not this kind of base, you know, "I'm never gonna bang another chick" panic.
That's not what his fear is. He's like, I don't think this girl likes me
anymore, and we're supposed to get married in three months, and how is that going
to work? How can I be married to someone who's not attracted to me any more?
Maybe it's in his head. Maybe it doesn't matter. But you go to therapy, and all
feelings are valid. And I think she does reject him consistently throughout the
Q: Maybe She just doesn't like sex.
DAS: No, well, I think she is sexual. And I think she is
sexy. And maybe it's like, maybe this relationship has run its course. Maybe
after, because we don't say how long they've been together, maybe it's three
years, maybe it's five years, but sex does run its course sometimes, and maybe
the sex has run its course. So what do you do when your best friend, and
they're pretty, you get along, they're a great musician, you cook, and
everything's cool, but the sex isn't there anymore. That was kind of the
central crisis in their relationship, like one of the people basically checked
out sexually. And that's what the movie is about.
Q: This is kind of not like a touchstone movie in that
people who would go to it would see their own relationships maybe reflected in
the film. Have you actually discussed this with people who have seen the movie
and they've said, "well, I saw my own relationship in this, and I'm going to
leave so and so, or we know how to resolve our problems?"
DAS: Yeah. It's been a real lighting rod for discussion. I
think that people have either made up or broken up after seeing it. I think if
you're in a shaky place - if you want to get to yes or get to no - I think the
movie would be a good catalyst, either get you out of a bad relationship or
give the courage to fix something worth fixing. But yeah, definitely it seems
to be a big discussion piece. Because, you know, we wrote it to be, you can see
your life in it. That's why a lot of the situations are vague. Again, like, do
they get back together in the end? Do you think they should? Did she really
have to take a shower or is she just making up excuses? And maybe you've made
up excuses in your life, so you would see it that way, or you really wanted to
have sex with your boyfriend but you really wanted to be clean, nothing wrong
with that, so you would see that in the character. We tried to really just do
things that were open-ended.
Q: Is the Pabst Blue Ribbon a reference to "Blue Velvet," another great voyeur movie?
DAS: Ha. That's interesting. It's not, no. That's a
clearance issue, to be honest. You have to clear the beer that you use at the
company. That's literally just like a production thing.
Q: Did you get a deal with the Pabst people that they would
DAS: They don't give you free beer. They just allow you to
use their beer. Otherwise you have to have an art designer come in and create -
like sometimes you'll see a movie where it just says "beer," you know?
Q: "Repo Man," right?
DAS: Yeah, that might have been a choice. Or maybe it was
just because they couldn't get the rights. Like Apple too, if you're showing
the logo, you have to get permission from the company. You know Nikon, we had
to get permission for the camera. I wanted Nikon, so that was actually good. I
didn't seek out, I mean I'm grateful for Pabst that they let us do it, but I
didn't care if they were drinking Pabst.
Q: Getting the rights to music must be an ordeal.
DAS: Getting the rights to music is a nightmare. I love the
soundtrack. Can is one of my favorite bands of all time. To get to use them in
a movie, it's almost like getting your favorite actor to act in your film. The
fact that they signed off on it was really awesome.
Q: So a couple of last questions. First of all, do you have
any new projects that are coming up? And also, what's your favorite Boston memory?
DAS: New projects, well, I'm working on this divorce book.
That's kind of what I'm working on right now. And my favorite Boston
memory, I think my favorite place is Cape Cod,
on Labor Day.
Q: Really? That sounds like a nightmare to me, actually.
DAS: I should say just after Labor Day, which is the truth.
Just after everybody leaves and you dip into September and it's kind of cool
and empty. I wrote my novel in my grandmother's house in Falmouth. So I moved in with her. I sublet my
apartment in New York
and moved in with her for three months. I was there into the fall. So it was
really September, October. My grandmother lives there, so we would go there for
the summer and stuff. But being in Cape Cod
after Labor Day is really my favorite place.