Joe and Harry Gantz are documentary filmmaking veterans who hammer away at the more revealing corners of reality TV and film with series like "Couples Arguing" and HBO's "Taxicab Confessions" (now in its sixth season). Their new film, "Sex With Strangers" (which premieres Feb. 22 in San Francisco), delivers a kaleidoscopic perspective on swinging and confronts the audience with one of the starkest pictures in recent memory of sex and relationships.
The Gantz brothers spent a year filming the lives of three swinging couples. James and Theresa are middle-aged veterans of what they call "the Lifestyle" who see every weekend as a new opportunity to find women. Shannon and Girard are a married couple with a child, just entering the scene, who find their sexual encounters fraught with jealousy. Calvin is the center of a complicated threesome with Sarah and Julie.
And it's not that sexy, either. Viewers may come away from this film turned off by the power plays, sadness and competitiveness evident in these relationships. The documentary ends up being less about sexuality than about whether these people can manage their personal relationships without creating emotional devastation -- in themselves and others.
Salon talked to Joe and Harry Gantz during their publicity swing through San Francisco.
How did you come up with the idea for "Sex With Strangers"?
Joe: When we did "Taxicab Confessions" in Las Vegas we started picking up some rides at a place called the Red Rooster, which is a swing club. In the ride titled "The Lactating Woman," at the end [the female passenger] takes out her breast and says that since she had implants she continually lactates and she shows the driver. But the amazing part was this couple talked about how they had gotten into swinging, and their experiences.
Before that ride I thought that swinging was something that couples did in the '60s or early '70s, and I didn't realize how many couples were doing it and the intense experiences that were going on. This ride was amazing both in the stories they told and the kind of everyday, very matter-of-fact voices they used to tell them.
Harry and I said we should look into this. We have always felt that people's sexual lives were somehow a key to their psyche, and here was a group of people living out their sexual fantasies to an extreme, yet their day-to-day lives were very average. These people are regular, normal, mostly family-oriented people, mostly in long-term relationships, mostly married, mostly conservative rather than liberal, but in their recreation they're having mutual or consensual sex with other people, and we thought that was just fascinating. We realized that it's everywhere, even in the most conservative parts of the country -- sometimes more so in the most conservative parts of the country.
How did you find the couples?
Joe: It was very difficult because many of these people feel that if it comes out in the community who they are and what they're doing, they will be ostracized and worse. And they're right.
Harry: They'll lose their jobs, their neighbors will hate them, and that's been our experience in making this film.
Joe: But first we went through swingers magazines.
Harry: Then we talked to people who were running swing clubs across the country and asked them if they knew people who might want to participate.
Joe: Then we went to some swing clubs ourselves and handed out fliers. We spent about two months meeting people, making telephone calls. There are three rules to documentary filmmaking: casting, casting and casting. If you have the right people you'll get something wonderful. If you don't it's just going to be frustrating.
We originally cast 12 people from California, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington state, and we dropped 11 of those 12. Either they had an agenda that "we want to say that swinging is this and we're going to show you that" so they were very stilted in the way they were in front of the camera, or one had a Web site that they were trying to promote. They weren't being open and just letting us into their lives.
Harry: When we say "casting," we didn't go into this thinking that we're either pro- or anti-swinging -- we mean people who are really willing to let us into their life. Some of them lost their jobs as a result of this. And they knew the risks going in. But these were the three that were able to be themselves, that after one or two times they were able to forget the camera was there. We don't work like a lot of the reality producers where you put hidden cameras everywhere and try to catch them saying something that they wouldn't usually say.
Joe: We work with their cooperation.
Harry: They know that we're there to get the most important moments of their lives, and even though we may not be there 24 hours a day we're there enough where we'll get things spontaneously. [For instance,] the scene where Shannon tells her mother. She told us that she was going to tell her mother. We said, well, make sure that you do it when we're around. That's what we mean by cooperating.
How did you film "Sex With Strangers"?
Joe: Almost every week or every other week would be a four-day weekend with either one couple in Mississippi or the two couples who were in the same neck of the woods up there [in Washington].
Harry: In the beginning we went for a week at a time, but we found that most of these people were leading very regular lives. Most of their swinging activity, like most other people's social activity, happens on the weekends.
Did you have any problems with your couples being exhibitionists?
Joe: We feel that if someone's an exhibitionist they're not really giving you their real life. So if they seem to be performing for the camera or creating for the camera, then that doesn't feel authentic to us. It's a unique person that can be in that moment with a camera crew there. The trick is to find them.
Harry: The opposite can be a problem, too -- they're inhibited by the camera. They think they want to do it and get in there and you can see that they're always self-conscious.
And I know that from the outside people think, if you're making a film about swingers and these people are showing you everything about their life including their sex life, they must be exhibitionists. But we just consider it that these people are willing to tell their story.
Joe: [It's like] they're writers or something. If someone writes a story from their life and it's very personal and tells you every detail, do you say. "Oh you're such an exhibitionist"? No, you say, "You're an artist."
I have a great deal of confidence but would never let a camera into my life unless I was taking the pictures for myself. I suspect many people feel this way; what do you say to them?
Harry: But you might write a fictional book that included a lot of real things that your friends would notice was them you were talking about; it's not that different. It's just you or whoever the artist is under the guise of art or fiction or short story.
You started out fascinated by how pervasive swingers are, and you end up with this tag line: "You thought monogamy was difficult." How did that evolution come about?
Harry: If there's a line that swingers say about swingers vs. nonswingers it's that, "We're honest with each other and because of that our relationship is stronger and deeper," and that's based on the idea that everybody at least fantasizes about sex with other people, and many married couples act on that. Usually when they do act on it one or the other sneaks off and does something that they'd be loath to tell their partner. And when that happens you really undermine the relationship, and it has a corrosive effect that ultimately can be very damaging.
So swingers feel that they're honest about being interested in sex with other people and do it in front of each other. If they can deal with the jealousy issues, then they're going to be a lot closer and the relationship a lot stronger.
Joe: It's an enormous "if."
I think that we're both very fascinated by the amount of sex that swingers often indulge in. It's pretty mind-boggling sometimes, but the more fascinating part is how they deal with that on a human level, like, "I'm in love with this person, I want to spend the rest of my life with this person" -- yet we're doing these things in front of each other. That's what we wanted to look into. That was the biggest question mark going into it.
Harry: We were sort of lucky that we had a spectrum of experiences through these three couples. Where James and Teresa seemed to be pretty much in alignment, equally interested in getting involved -- it does seem to bring them closer -- their relationship is what's most important and they work, as James says, as a tag team seducing people.
Joe: She's as much into finding beautiful women as he is. It's a little competitive, but they're open to sharing.
Harry: And at the end of the night if there is any problem they always come back together and it's about them. They enjoy the buildup, the talk about it -- the pre-game, the post-game -- they are just as much into the process as the sex act, maybe more so.
With Shannon and Gerard, on the other hand, we got them toward the beginning of their swinging experiences where they hadn't set boundaries yet and we saw them through the process of trying to find boundaries -- Shannon especially -- but both of them being very introspective. She's constantly questioning her choices, sorting through the past issues from her childhood, if they have anything to do with her motivations.
Joe: It's funny that Gerard and Shannon -- they have sex with other couples, they seem to be able to navigate that. Yet what she's most jealous about is that he's communicating with someone over the Internet. So, she slept with other couples with him in the same room, but when he goes off and talks with someone on the Internet and flirts with them and seems to be interested in them -- and this is someone he's never met -- she's torn up by jealousy.
Harry: [We follow them] as they're creating boundaries, getting hurt and realizing that they don't want to go that far, to the place where they ended up deciding not to swing anymore. Since the end of the film, they've had another kid and both of them have become Mormons. But they are not ashamed of what they did in the past, they're coming to the opening, they're proud to be a part of the film.
One of the major issues of the film seems to be control, especially with men like Calvin.
Harry: Well, it is a pitfall that we have heard where two people bring one other person in and one of the people ends up going with the other person. So I don't think it's necessarily unusual.
Joe: But the other side of it is that almost everybody in their life has had a relationship [where] they've got a girlfriend and they meet someone else and they're sort of interested in that other person. If you heard everything that that person told the main squeeze and the new squeeze and you heard that back and forth you'd say, "Damn, that person is a little slimy."
A lot of people have started a new relationship before they've given up the old and have probably overlapped in telling people that they cared deeply about them. What's different about Calvin is that he does not make room for the emotions of the people he's in these relationships with. He's like, "I'm a swinger, you're a swinger, you knew what the rules were, I don't want to hear it." But when you're in a relationship, no matter what you're going through you really need to listen to the emotions of the other person. To me that's the biggest negative on Calvin.
Harry: So, to a lot of people Calvin is the villain in the film, but we felt, wow, here's someone who really let you in, with no qualms about it, not trying to couch who they were. We respect that in him. Although we see that he was at the center of something, that he created this controversy around it on purpose. He wanted both of these women.
How does it feel to be filming that? To be in the middle of this emotional maelstrom?
Joe: It's very intense. First of all, Sarah is one of these people who is very vulnerable, very honest, so that whenever she's around, she's direct about what's going on there.
Harry: It affects you strongly being around this, whether it's physical intimacy or whether it's the emotionally charged situations, but we don't get involved in the sense that we don't give anyone advice -- we don't mediate. We make it clear that the crew should never get involved -- be very friendly and warm but keep their distance.
The only way we are involved is that from time to time we'll do an interview after a scene to try to get a little bit more of the feelings out if the scene was charged with feelings but they didn't express them. In that sense maybe we make them think about it a little bit more than they normally would if the crew hadn't been there.
A lot of people probably think that swinging is about the raw sex and might go to see this movie with that expectation and come out with their heads turned around 180 degrees. What reactions have you gotten so far?
Joe: The actual sex in the film is about seven minutes out of an hour and 45 minutes. Some people think there's a lot of sex and some people who thought there would be a lot of sex found it really it was about couples and their relationships.
We feel that you can't define an individual, let alone a relationship, without dealing with sexuality. We feel that sexuality is part of life, is part of a relationship -- we don't draw a line. And we told these couples we're going to follow everything about your life, on Monday going to work and eating breakfast and we'll follow you when you're swinging. The part that we show is, I think, pretty straightforward and authentic and eye-opening, but once you show that you don't need to show that much of it.
Harry: So the film has some depth, it's sort of funny, it's sexy and also not sexy.
Joe: It's sad, it's upsetting at times.
Harry: It's hard to separate those things.
Getting to the end of the film is exhausting because there's so much emotional devastation. Shannon is in so much obvious pain; Calvin can't help but anger you because of his arrogance.
Joe: I like the fact that there are very different endings for each couple. If we had just followed Gerard and Shannon, even though they were very open and honest, it would seem to be making a statement about relationships and swinging. I don't think there ever is a simple conclusion with sex and relationships.