By fuckers for fuckers

Co-writers Aaron Abrams and Martin Gero make a sex comedy for non-virgins

If names revealed everything we needed to know we’d have long since mastered something as innocuous-sounding as “sex” — three letters long and maddeningly complicated. Imagine the potential then in a little film that opened at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival with three whole words’ worth of loaded insinuation: Young People Fucking .

Not everyone was ready to read between the lines.

With the introduction of Bill C-10 an amendment to the Income Tax Act that contains a section designed to remove tax credits from films deemed “contrary to public policy” even if the film was previously approved YPF quickly became emblematic of the kind of films that could be sent to the chopping block. The president of the Canada Family Action Coalition Charles McVety has called the film “pornography” and joined the Conservative party in refusing to attend a May 29 screening in Ottawa scheduled for the film’s detractors.

Beyond the partially self-inflicted controversy (co-writers Martin Gero and Aaron Abrams don’t deny the film’s title helped catch producers’ attention) YPF is a sophisticated comedy grounded in the familiar negotiations both mundane and exceptional of sex. A vignette film built around five couplings (“The Friends” “The First Date” “The Couple” “The Exes” and “The Roommates”) and six scene breaks (“Prelude” “Foreplay” “Sex” “Interlude” “Orgasm” and “Afterglow”) YPF ’s subjects are certainly sussed out in the bedroom but it’s hardly the pornography McVety has accused it of being. In between what is at worst the kind of casual nudity Canadian viewers might see on Showcase the film is mainly concerned with finding the comedy and drama inherent in an act so loaded with the dramatic and the absurd.

“Martin and I are all of those five guys” says Abrams who stars alongside Carly Pope as one of two friends experimenting with a one-night stand. “It’s about picking which stories to tell and heightening those aspects of yourself making them universal by making it personal.

“At the end of the day all the parts are for me” he says. “Even the girls.”

In addition to providing a licence to tell stories from its writers’ lives and the lives of their friends fictionalizing their experiences also allowed YPF’s writers to avoid confessing for instance that some of the film’s more exotic moments were based on their experiences. One of the film’s funniest exchanges comes when voyeuristic roommate Gord (Ennis Esmer) mentions bringing cookie dough into the bedroom. When his girlfriend Inez (Natalie Lisinska) coos “What are you going to use it for?” he answers simply: “I’m going to eat it.”

“We made a promise that we wouldn’t tell who made what” says Gero who makes his directorial debut on the film. “It’s the only way we can maintain some modicum of privacy given that [these stories are] taken directly from our lives.”

In a market flooded with teen sex romps saccharine romantic comedies and the soggy intersections between them YPF offers something far more grounded albeit with a sharp comic sense. From a young couple’s (Josh Dean and Kristin Booth) attempts to revive a sex life that’s already stalled to the bittersweet hookup of a pair of exes (Sonja Bennett and Josh Cooke) the moments ring true as familiar experiences but oddly not as filmic conventions. For the two first-time screenwriters this sincerity not to mention a provocative title proved easy to sell.

“When you’re writing your first script there’s this pressure to be original because everyone around the world is writing this movie” says Abrams. “So we were trying to do a sex comedy that was not for kids not an American Pie -style [sex comedy] and not a romantic comedy that ends with the first kiss. There seemed to be a hole there. And of course then you work really hard for a year and you give it to a producer and he says ‘It’s like Love Actually and Judd Apatow.’

“Yeah fuck” he adds with a tone of mock satisfaction “that’s exactly it.”

If contemporary expectations for sex comedies are shaped by the rom-com canon and Apatow’s growing comedy empire Gero and Abrams were shaped by a different set of influences. Citing films of the late ’60s and ’70s like Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) Gero and Abrams say they wanted to create a film about sex and romance that didn’t devolve into either a neutered fairy tale or sophomoric pie-humping.

“These were movies with strong underlying themes and messages very complicated very adult situations and we wanted to have the same kind of fun that an American Pie or Porky’s has in its frankness” Abrams says. “But at the same time it’s for adults and has a semblance of maturity to it. I find it strange that those movies are kind of for virgins. I’m not hating on them they’re still good but they’re all about kids trying to see their first boobs.”

Boob neophytes notwithstanding neither Gero nor Abrams came to the process as screenwriting virgins — Abrams had already written and performed work at the Toronto Fringe and Gero also a Fringe playwright was a writer for Stargate: Atlantis . When reviewers began drawing comparisons between their Fringe scripts the two found common ground onscreen.

“He was an actor barely making it and I was a writer barely making it and we had an enormous amount of free time so went to movies all the time” recalls Gero. “Just watching two years of movies with someone three days a week you start to develop a similar sense of what works and doesn’t.”

With Gero based in Vancouver and Abrams working as an actor in Toronto writing the script largely fell to MSN Messenger chats and exchanged drafts with both writers performing rewrites. Each took one of the four vignettes (“The First Date” was added later) and found a way to collaborate digitally.

“Messenger was great because there’s a weird sort of emotional distance not seeing [each other] face-to-face so you can be way more brutal about what is working and what’s not working” says Gero. “I think that was really effective because it’s tough giving notes when someone’s writing a movie about their sexual experiences.

“It was Darwinian” he adds. “The good moments would survive and the bad would fall by the wayside.”

A third perspective came into the writing process with Canadian actress writer and director Sarah Polley who was at the time filming the CBC series Slings and Arrows with Abrams. To balance the male YPF writers’ anxieties over writing female characters (“We got a note that basically said: ‘Why are the men all pussies?’” recalls Gero) Polley gave the script a fresh perspective.

“There’s this moment of panic saying: ‘we need to give this to a lady right now’” says Abrams. “‘We need lady notes.’”

Completed script in hand Gero and Abrams then developed a filming style that used improvised takes followed by scripted takes to give the scenes an essential sense of comfort. On a small-budget Canadian film with limited rehearsal time says Gero this comfort was essential in establishing rapport between the actors.

“It had to be a very comfortable set” says Abrams. “If we’d had one douchebag in the cast asking for a bigger trailer none of it would have worked.”

As for sexual chemistry in a movie built on the act itself: “It’s a pretty attractive cast” says Gero. “Sexual chemistry was pretty easy. The distributors made it clear they didn’t want ugly people fucking.”

It was with the actors during the script’s first reading in fact that Gero and Abrams got one of their earliest indications that Young People Fucking was indeed meant for people with experience fucking. The actors found that even as they were struggling to establish relationships amongst each other and find their comic timing they were still laughing at lines they recognized as familiar sexual stumbles.

“That laugh is basically an admission of understanding” says Gero. “It’s a very public thing to laugh. So it’s dark in the theatre [and you realize] maybe this experience you think is just yours happens to everyone.”

There’s nothing simple about sex. Young People Fucking’s biggest strength is in realizing that just like in real-world fucking the complications are where things get interesting.

“One of the reporters [on the film’s press tour] was like ‘A lot goes wrong in this movie this is more about troubles having sex than having sex’” says Gero. “And I said: a movie where everything goes right is a porno. A movie where everything goes wrong is a film.”