Carrying the 'flag of sex in indie cinema' 

click to enlarge Audrey Kovar and Richard Buonagurio in NSFW.
  • Audrey Kovar and Richard Buonagurio in NSFW.

Director Ryan Balas, whose short feature NSFW will make its Indy premiere Wednesday, Feb. 19 at the Indiana State Museum IMAX, says he wants to "carry the flag of sex in indie cinema for as long as I fly under the radar."

And that means telling NSFW's erotically-charged story - about an exhibitionist Tumblr star who engages in sexual roleplay with a married businessman - in an honest, long-take, unexpurgated way. The film premiered last year at Austin Film Festival and is on a mini-tour of the Midwest before heading to digital platforms.

The premiere is a two-part event, with the 7:30 p.m. screening and Q&A at the Indiana State Museum IMAX followed by a 9:30 p.m. concert/after-party at General Public Collective featuring Ribbons of Song and Square Peg Round Hole.

Balas is New York-based and the film was made in his hometown, but his partner on NSFW's marketing and distribution is local artist and graphic designer Eric Stine. We sent Balas a few questions yesterday afternoon.

NUVO: What do you have planned for the multi-city tour? And what does it mean to be picked up for digital distribution (can you say if it'll be available on any particular platforms at this point)?

Ryan Balas: In collaboration with an art-media label RottoBella that I co-founded with Indy designer extraordinaire Eric Stine, we are taking the film on the road from Chicago to NYC, with our second stop being in one of my favorite cities in the country, Indianapolis. The film will play at kink museums, DIY galleries, home art spaces, as well as more traditional theaters like the IMAX at the Indiana State Museum.

We are touring the film alongside the Michigan-based ambient folk-pop artist Ribbons of Song, who will play shows before or after all our screenings. The idea is that NSFW explores the themes of sex and love in the digital age and Ribbons of Song writes songs about awkward sexual relationships. We want to bridge the digital gap in media. Bring people together, share a truly live experience together.

Frankly, I like to see what people are brave enough to ask in the question and answer session after the film, knowing good and well that a whole room full of people are listening. It's going to be especially exciting because our lead actress, Audrey Kovar, will be with us at the Indy screening and loves talking about sex and film as much as I do. We have 400 seats to fill, so we're hoping people will take a shot on us and check out our kinky little film with heart.

At the Austin film Festival, where we premiered the film in October, it was announced that Gravitas Ventures picked up the film for digital distribution. This means the film will soon be available to rent or download on iTunes, Amazon and other internet video-on demand platforms, as well as cable on demand. This puts the film in more houses and in front of more eyes than any of my previous work.

We are so lucky to have signed this deal and I look forward to seeing how it performs. The film is a voyeuristic look at a somewhat anonymous sexual relationship in the digital age, and I love the idea that people will be able to privately, and maybe even secretly, watch the film from their home computer or late night from their cable box. The film is already available for pre-order in the UK and should be coming to North American platforms very soon.

click to enlarge NSFW-4.jpg

NUVO: Was it at all challenging to shoot sex scenes - in terms of directing or coaching actors, or figuring out what to show and how and when to show it, or any other aspect? And why'd you want to make a story that explores with role-playing and other behind-closed-doors, and as you say, NSFW, themes and ideas?

Balas: When shooting any sex scene or scenes with nudity, it is super important to me that everyone feels safe. I ask a lot of questions before, during and after to make sure that we are all on the same page. I had the privilege of working in a very intimate environment with a cast that was interested in exploring the characters' sexual relationship in a mature and open way.

Before we shot any of the sex scenes, I made sure we had a nice meal together, and just talked. And we always tried to share a bottle of wine afterwards. I shoot and edit most all of my films, so I was the only one in the room with them when we shot the sex scenes and I was the only one with the footage afterwards. I think this helped to build an environment of trust and exploration.

It is also very important to me to present strong, sexually progressive women. I'm surrounded by these kinds of women in my life, including my wife, and if I can use my male privilege to at least try and give a voice to that, I have to do it. It's my obligation as a filmmaker. For me, NSFW is a feminist film.

It's important to me to present sex in a way that is realistic without disregarding some of its more poetic visual opportunities. I think sex can be a performance, but it can also be used as a language to communicate bigger ideas about the loss of intimacy and existential longing.

I used a lot of long uninterrupted takes on a locked-down camera. This heightened the sense of intimacy, to create the feeling that this is happening here and now: These two people are actually touching, they are seeing each other fully naked and they are totally okay with it. This is not made-for-tv sexuality with cleverly timed fade-outs.

NSFW is about sex as a currency, the exchange of wants and needs. I think each character is looking for a cure to different kinds of loneliness. Role playing serves as a great allegorical narrative tool to explore the cultural digital divide. We are locked in to our social media lives, trying our hardest to project an idea of who we are that can be molded to who we want to be. I'm interested in exploring the way that this may be shaping how we communicate with each other out in the real world and in our sexual relationships.

click to enlarge NSFW-1.jpg

NUVO: Here's a quote from an interview I did with Joe Swanberg last year: "One thing I certainly learned [from making sexually explicit films] is that audiences are not that interested in those envelopes being pushed, certainly not mainstream audiences." Do you agree/disagree/think it's not a relevant question?

Balas: Let me say this, there is a reason that Fifty Shades of Grey is a best-selling book, and from my understanding, it's not because of its strong grasp of the English language.

Lots and lots of people are interested in sex. And I think stories and characters that deal with kink are becoming less taboo. That said, I don't think people are necessarily interested in seeing the envelope pushed, while out in public at the cinema. In NYC, people on the subway go to great lengths to hide their copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. People aren't afraid of sex ... they are afraid of getting caught liking it.

The irony, of course, is that sex is the single most important function of being a human being, and lucky for us, it turned out to be totally great! We shouldn't be afraid to admit that. I think that the envelope is going to get pushed whether or not mainstream cinema is going to do it.

The reality is "mainstream" men are getting their fix with internet pornography, which is designed for men. And "mainstream" women are left with erotic literature. Realistic sex between two consenting adults in this culture is still being under represented.

I'd like to use the language of realistic sex that is as honest as possible to my own experiences, with the idea that we could bridge the gap between the visual displays of envelope pushing eroticism and basic human experience and interactions. I think women's voices need to be included in this conversation as often as possible. Mainstream audiences might not care about that...but they deserve the option.

Swanberg is at a place in his career where he can enjoy making more mainstream films that attract bigger movie stars and larger audiences seeking a more general escapist experience in the theater. His work continues to be exciting and he continues to peel away the layers of intimate relationships, but with less naked bodies.

I'm not at that place yet. I'm not making mainstream films and don't have the same obligations. In some ways, I want to carry the flag of sex in indie cinema for as long as I fly under the radar. The reality is that outside of a handful of theatrical dates, the majority of people are going to see my film on their computer in the privacy of their own homes, and I think that it's a good fit for that experience.

All this said, I think NSFW is a really funny movie, with deeply moving performances by our brave cast. The film might be a little kinky, but it has a whole lot of heart. I think lots of different kind of folks can connect with that. I hope to see a lot of friendly faces braving it on Feb 19 at the IMAX at the Indiana State Museum.

NSFW the film (trailer) from Robel Films on Vimeo.

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