Too Close for Comfort
Two years ago I directed a feature film with my brother in the lead role. In the film, the character struts around an old house, talks to himself, fixes up a doll, paints a fish head, and jerks off. I had no trouble with the strutting, the talking or the fixing up, but I had some hesitation in guiding my own brother through a long masturbation scene and then watching him take the matter into his hands.
With this scene I wanted to humanize an otherwise doll-like protagonist. It had to be written and filmed respectfully and with sensitivity to the character's privacy to ensure it wouldn't be sexually exploitative. Sex in film very often threads a line: between being as relatable as eating a sandwich, a sweeping experience that stays with the audience long after and a cringy “please cut to the next scene” type of moment. I was aiming for an everyday moment, between lunch and an unnecessary nap. As if he was rocking himself to sleep. A part of the character portraying. If people talked or even thought about it afterwards it’d mean I had failed.
So I had my script proofread, expecting someone to be obviously outraged or to at least question my impious attempt at capturing a man’s masturbation scene. Instead, all I got as feedback was a mischievous: “But like, isn’t your brother playing that character?”
It took me several unfortunate tries at casting and eventually postponing the shooting to have him on board, but in the end he was the man for that job. He had the range the film and character asked for. He was able to deliver both drama and comedy with a relatable subtlety. And the keynote, he could go to unreasonable extremes and never look ridiculous. I knew it because I’d seen it.
We grew up together in a small town, in the nineties, back when the lack of internet or smartphones forced siblings to hang out. My brother was five when I was born and due to our parents’ divorce he played a very strong role in my upbringing.
Growing up we both had a great interest and inclination for the arts, though I’m not sure if it was genetics or whether I was just blindly following in his footsteps. When I was four we had our very own, very fake, not even recorded, TV show, acted behind a bed doubling as a desk and with stuffed animals as unquestionably interesting guests. Five years later, our creativity – which was entirely his – got us into a radio serial using an old tape recorder my mother had for work.
He was already acting back then, even if only as a way to ensure his ideas came alive. Eventually, he became a professional actor after catching a bad case of theatre.
It took me a while longer to find my footing. Fifteen years gone by, I disguised myself as a director and scriptwriter only to become the master puppeteer to my brother’s words and actions on screen.
At that point, the mere thought of writing a masturbation scene was unnaturally frightening. There I was, a laughable 25 year old woman, still unsure of how - or whether - to put sex into words. Let alone shoot it. And now I was getting ready to tell my brother how fast he should move his hand down and up to stardom. A sure winner for the most awkward experience of my career.
Pretty much everyone around me got either confused, disgusted or morbidly excited by this unique experience I was heading into. I unceasingly repeated to them – as to myself – how I wasn’t worried, not even a bit. We were both very professional and I was sure I’d live to tell the story.
It’s not as if I hadn’t seen my brother in compromising situations before. I was still in film school when I attended my brother’s first real stage premiere, and I keep going back since. I’ve watched him cry and cried watching him. I’ve seen him being silly, and violent, and romantic. Me and my mother and his then girlfriend, cheered him on and applauded in the audience as he got it on with his co-star.
I knew the ins and outs of a scene like that, so I never felt the emotional impact of the real thing. Intimacy is one of the major subjects in art and yet the job desensitizes us to the privacy of our sexual bodies.
I was nineteen the first time I worked in the wardrobe department of a short film. I had just met these incredible senior actors I admired my whole life when I went to show them their outfits. They were in underpants before I could shut the door behind us. While I got hold of my jaw, they stood there: talented, respectful and so naked.
I had taken art classes in high school, just a couple years before. Teachers guided my eyes through the lines and volumes of the human body. And as I traced them with brush and pencil, legs became detailed curves, and breasts a mere game of light and shadow. Nonetheless, the film industry and working in the art department took it to the next level. Years of shootings reshaped my perspective on intimacy. The job had me assist on a few sexual scenes. My entire focus on whether there was any sweat to wipe off the actors’ at the urgent demands of the word “cut.” Soon Ryan Gosling’s abs wouldn’t take my attention from the props on set and the shifts and turns of wrinkled sheets.
It was an uncomfortably hot summer day, as I sat on the director’s chair. Everyone else was in position, awaiting orders for some action. I dreaded it for weeks. When the time came though, I was surprisingly nonchalant and my brother was cooler than a cucumber. Just another day at the office.
As with any other actor, I instructed him through the scene. The beginning of an unpassionate masturbation, a moment of routine more than pleasure, I told him. As we shot it, it was just me, the screen and my character in that room. Absolute focus. Weighing the time before a “cut” slipped from my unaware lips.
We’d worked out more daring ideas long before. This definitely wasn’t harder than interviewing an old hedgehog puppet or improvising the comedy dialogue of a widow to a murdered ghost, as our mother footsteps were heard outside and her keys turning on the front door ended our radio playtime.
It was over. My voice awoke a statuesque crew and the set came back to life. Camera turned off, boom laid on the floor, and art department running back and forth. My brother sitting on the couch, wearing childlike patterned pyjamas, awaited my feedback expectantly. And faster than I could say it, we were on to the next scene. Something of an anticlímax.
Inês Lebreaud was born in 1990 in a Portuguese small town and has a Master’s Degree in Film. After working in multiple productions as an Art Director, she directed O Céu não chega aos peixes (The Sky is reaching for the fish). She has contributed to several publications as well as in video-essays for both Fandor and Little White Lies. You can find her on twitter @InesLebreaud.