The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Mark Duplass and Ray Romano (Paddleton). Special thanks to William Dass and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.
Male masturbation is evil and hilarious. Mostly hilarious. Female pleasure is sensuous, sexy, and arousing. Always those three. Never anything else. At least in the movies. Horndog comedies like American Pie and There’s Something About Mary perpetuate the absurdity of coming-of-age ejaculation while male-made fantasies like Mulholland Drive and Pleasantville preserve the enticing eroticism of female self-care. Both points of view are B.S.
The reality is that masturbation happens because it’s got to happen. Let’s all admit it, not shame each other over it, and move the hell on with our lives. Breaking sexual taboo is a thankless task and won’t occur as the result of one filmmaker screaming from their movie camera. The tide changes in tiny increments.
With Yes, God, Yes writer/director Karen Maine is joining a conversation predominately orchestrated by male filmmakers where masturbation is either raucously championed as a lark or sheepishly whispered as serious sexy business. Her film follows the plight of a young 90s Catholic girl (Natalia Dyer) who discovers masturbation after an AOL chat turns salacious. The act is transformative. Not necessarily in just sexual terms, but in how it exposes the hypocrisy of every elder that surrounds her.
Maine’s previous screenplay, Obvious Child, addressed abortion through multiple emotional prisms. That movie was not an easy sell and required a short film to draw the appropriate interested financial parties to its sentiment. What worked for Obvious Child also worked for Yes, God, Yes. In 2017, Maine and Dyer partnered on a short that took off and became its own thing. The feature allowed them a larger canvas to explore multiple tones and push Yes, God, Yes beyond one specific genre.
William Dass and I spoke to Maine and Dyer over the phone just after the film premiered at SXSW. Our conversation begins with the short, their partnership, and eventually shifts to the topic at hand. Two dudes struggling to discuss self-pleasure with a pair of female filmmakers could have easily shifted into an awkward and awful chat. However, Maine and Dyer were delighted to converse and eager to break down the walls of societal sexual convention.
Here is our conversation in full:
Brad: Was the short film always meant to be a dry run on the film itself?
Karen: Yes, actually, the feature script was written many years before I even thought of doing a short, but I had no directing experience. So we did it sort of as a proof of concept, but it really had a life of its own, and it was really great.
William: It’s a very charming, engaging short film. I can absolutely see how that sets up great appeal. How did you two link up for the project?
Karen: My producer, Katie [Cordeal], had Natalia’s email and cold-emailed her the short script. Then her manager got in touch and said, she’ll do it. And then two days later, you’re shooting.
William: Natalia, I feel like you’re constantly mugging through the film, like everything is such a reaction shot for what you’re seeing around you. I loved it so much. I’m kind of curious, what was the director/actor relationship for that. Were you trying to find different facial expressions to work for each scene?
Natalia: That’s a great question.
Karen: Natalia is such a natural, to be honest, I wasn’t telling her how to move her face. I was just giving her emotional sort of cues, and she would just do something amusing with her face. Like you can act so much with your face, it’s crazy. In a good way!
Natalia: Thank goodness.
William: Face-acting sounds like a pejorative description of what you’re doing right there, but I think your face acting was amazing! But I wasn’t sure if that came across as like not good?
Natalia: No no, thank you. I mean, it’s not super heavy dialogue, you know?
Natalia: It’s not like having these huge monologues every scene and a lot of back and forth. In my life, I think I pull a lot of faces, and then people are like, “what’s wrong?” And I’m like, “no, I’m just thinking.” But, yeah I think a lot of it was just what was going on and everything that other people were saying. And just images and the way she sets up a scene. My face – that’s just how I reacted to how I was feeling but sure, Karen is such a great director. I remember we tried a lot and things a lot of different ways, but you could just come up and just say one word almost and it would be like oh, that is a completely different way to see it and a completely different reaction, or vibe but just really subtle and gentle and collaborative, which was a lot of fun and very conducive to the story, I think.
Brad: Well, speaking of that story, Karen what was your initial thought or emotion you were putting out there with Yes God, Yes?
Karen: That’s difficult. I think there are many expressions and emotions. I guess for me; I wanted to show a narrative about female sexual pleasure and to have the tones to just be very authentic and realistic. It’s not sexy to be a teenage girl discovering sex, you know? I didn’t want to make it feel sexy. Not that I wanted it to be too raunchy. I guess it’s just a delicate balance.
Brad: Well, sure. In the culture, male masturbation is prevalent in teenage sex comedies, but female masturbation is totally taboo. I would imagine that would make it difficult shopping this story around. The short film had to help, sure.
Karen: I think so. I think we’re also starting to see less fear of female-driven narratives. Especially sexual ones which are great and I hope the envelope is being pushed further to make women fully realized in films. I mean you see young women coming of age in film, but it’s usually partnered sex where it’s painful. I think women don’t know they can experience pleasure at first or that they should even ask for it. Or if they know they can experience it. So, yeah, more focus on female pleasure is important to me.
William: Natalia, from your perspective, I feel like this has to be an exercise in trust. You must have connected very well to be so willing to explore this subject. A director that doesn’t click with your vision could put you in a challenging place. What allowed you to feel so comfortable in engaging the project?
Natalia: I don’t think it has to be a female director, but Karen is so chill, and frank, and open, and vulnerable. That’s part of it. Both the actor and the director are being vulnerable and sharing and creating that space, and it’s- yeah, not that it’s easy exactly, there’s a mental hurdle. Shooting a masturbation scene is like shooting any kind of a sex scene. It’s not really sexy. There’s a lot of technical things, a lot of breaks, a lot of trying it one way. Yes, it’s very personal and vulnerable, but I was surprisingly way more comfortable then you or I would imagine, and I really think that’s up to Karen and also the other females who were on set and behind the scenes. Just having a lot of females open and honest made it really chill.
William: So after I watched the movie, I went and found the short film. The thumbnail poster art image is you with your hand in your skirt, and it’s not at all revealing in any way shape or form, but it is a statement.
Karen: I’m pretty sure that’s like a fan posted pic.
William: Is that what that is? Okay.
Natalia: It’s just a google image, I think they just screenshotted it.
Karen: But yeah I’m really glad you brought that up. That was very much the point. Not make too porny or sexy.
Natalia: Female masturbation and women’s pleasure, it’s still always supposed to be sexy in films. Even if you’re doing something that’s explicitly supposed to be sexy, I think there’s always a pressure to be that way just because that’s how women have always been used. So, I had to do something like this character. Karen didn’t have that instruction to be, oh when you do it, it’s supposed to be like this or do like this for the sake of how it looks. It’s way more organic and way more beautiful really.
William: It’s the realness of it. It feels very honest and not in a gritty or unnatural way, but just it feels clumsy and fair, and reasonable. When you describe how they depict it in movies, I immediately flashed to the Pleasantville scene, right? Where she [Joan Allen] is in the bathtub and then the tree outside bursts into flame in her moment of passion and all of a sudden colors are injected into the film itself.
Natalia: [Laughter] Is that what happens? I haven’t seen that film in so long.
Karen: I had no idea.
Brad: Did you have a reference for how you wanted to manage the tone for the film?
Karen: I wouldn’t say so much as a reference, I think I just extruded my own life and my experience. I remember Call Me By Your Name came out around the same time that I was writing this and we were getting ready to go into production. I loved that film, don’t get me wrong, but for me, I felt like that was a very sexy movie, and I loved it for those reasons, but it was a very sexy film, and I used that as something not to do. The food too is all very sexual, the egg and the yolk. The peach, yes thank you. In my film, I used food like it was gross. There is the Cheetos and Cheeto dust on her fingers, and to me, that feels more natural, but they are different types of films.
Brad: Were you concerned about portraying the hypocrisy the main character uncovers within the church?
Karen: It’s just that age you’re brought up in. That time when all your adults in your life are telling you not to do these things and one day you realize, they’re doing them too. Especially in the Catholic church, they keep teaching that all these things are wrong, but everyone is still doing them.
Karen: They’re just putting themselves through hell. I think the Catholic church is heading towards a reckoning…maybe in 25 years. I don’t know. Just the idea of Natalia’s character at the end really comes through that in her speech, and she’s like we should be nicer to each other which is actually the basis of Christianity and Jesus and not making everyone feel so guilty. Even priests feeling guilty about masturbating, it’s just – let them masturbate! I think the world would be a better place if they could do that.
Karen: I just don’t see the harm in it.
William: I’m 36 which I think puts me right at the same age and time in that decade as your main character. I recognize that I am not a woman who did not have a coming of age story like this character. But Natalia, I just want to say to you, as a person who grew up in Christianity and experienced a lot of those similar sorts of situations and discussions of sexuality, you crushed the representation. I could not believe that I saw experiences in my childhood that I did not think I would see related onscreen told in this movie. It blew my mind. I am very curious about how you found yourself expressing that. Did it live in the script for you or did you go out and do research it? How did you realize this? It was amazing.
Natalia: Oh well, you’re very kind. It’s definitely a little bit of both. Karen being open and sharing so much about her experience really guided it. Part of the reason I was really excited while reading the script is that there are so many things that I was just like, “oh my gosh!” Yes, that reminded me of that growing up in kind of a religious world and all these things you’re told and the way you’re meant to feel especially as a woman! At least where I was. There was definitely this sense of what you could or couldn’t do or what was discussed. It’s like all these little things that you start to question that then lead to more questions. It’s important to question. It was always a collaboration, and a lot of nuances are in the script. It was a really powerful experience for me, just as an actor, and I think there’s a lot of great stuff that I came away with.
Brad: So, it takes a lot to put a film out there in the world. What are your hopes and aspirations for how an audience takes this movie and where it might push this style of dramedy?
Karen: If everyone reacted to it the way you guys have, that would be perfect. [Laughter] I just think it’s good if there’s a more open discussion about female sexual pleasure; not just self-pleasure. There’s a really great book reference called Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein, where she interviewed young women who are 18 and 19, and it came out a few years ago, so it’s dealing with young women today. We women often don’t expect sexual pleasure from partners, or they don’t know that they can experience it. Everybody learns in sex ed that men ejaculate, and that’s pleasureful, and that’s how you make babies, but no one talks about female pleasure. So for me, it would just be really great if people enjoy it and relate to it but also I hope it helps to move forward the conversation about talking about female sexual pleasure so that it’s less taboo and women can embrace it and expect it from their partners.