An Interview with Dana Adam Shapiro, director of "Monogamy"


Let's face it: "cinephiles" and movie goers in general are just glorified voyeurs. Scopophilia, they call it. A fancy name for a practice not much more respectable than peeking through windows or keyholes. This compulsion has served as a theme for many filmmakers,  Alfred Hitchcock, that jolly perve, being among the most prolific, with "Rear Window" and "Psycho" just to name two, and Michael Powell for his still chilling, career-ending "Peeping Tom."

Joining their number is Newton native Dana Adam Shapiro with "Monogamy." In it a frustrated young photographer (Chris Messina), discouraged by his day job of taking wedding pictures and uncertain about his own upcoming nuptials with his fiancée (Rashida Jones), sets up a sideline called "Gumshoot" where he takes candid pictures of clients. One of them. "Subgirl," proves an eyeful, and the photographer toys with the fatal voyeuristic mistake of making contact with the object of his obsessive gaze.


You might recall Shapiro as the Oscar-winning (not to mention an honoree of the Boston Society of Film Critics) "Murderball" (2005), a documentary about the intense players on a paraplegic rugby team. Shapiro spent a year shooting the movie, so when it comes to voyeuristic photography, he might know what he's talking. Same goes for the title subject, or so my telephone conversation with him suggests.

Q: First of all congratulations belatedly on winning the Boston Society of Film Critics 2005 Best Documentary award.

DAS: (Laughs) Thank you.

Q: I'm sure that was the key to your success.

DAS: It is the key to my success in my house, because my parents still live there.

Q:So you have that diploma some place.

DAS: Yes my mother is very up on that.

Q: So how did you get from "Murderball" to "Monogamy?"

DAS: They both have nonfiction roots. "Murderball," aside from being a documentary, has nonfiction roots in the sense that I read about it, and the roots of "Monogamy" are a divorce book that I had been working on. I had been doing interviews with people going through a divorce -- sort of like a Studs Terkel-like book -- for years now. And I lot of the ideas that came up through those interviews found their way into the screenplay. And the second part of the screenplay was from another article I came across this online, where you could hire somebody to photo stalk  you. You could hire someone to do what Chris does in the movie. Essentially you tell them where you're going to be, what you'll be wearing, and he'll follow you around with a camera. So yeah, there's a lot of nonfiction in this fiction.

Q: Did you actually contact the company or the individual who did the company?

DAS: I did not no.

Q: This film seems a "how-not-to" guide to resolving relationship problems. Because of the detail, it's tempting to say that it's autobiographical in some sense.


DAS: You know, I've definitely been on that couch. I've definitely had moments of miscommunications and relationships more of a death by a thousand paper cuts than any big incident. So the movie, in a sense, was trying to film a lot of those paper cuts. Those little things. The metaphor of the staph infection in the film is just that the little things can become, you know, a paper cut can become a staph infection. The littlest things can blow up, whether it's an actual wound, or a thought in your head. You can see a text on your girlfriend's Blackberry and maybe it's an ex, and all of a sudden, you start thinking things. And maybe she pulls away from you when you try to kiss her, and that thought of being rejected can blow up. And a blow up, of course, refers to all of these photography items. And you know, I don't like to get all wonky and think about theme and visual motifs and stuff, but we really tried to get at the real fights. The real things that kill relationships, which are duller blades. It usually isn't some huge thing. A lot of times it is just atrophy and miscommunication and feeling unappreciated. Usually you give as much as you get. I think it's a cliché but people do end up feeling unappreciated and I think that begets more unappreciation.

Q: So your film is not quite depressing as "Blue Valentine," but it's not as funny as "Hall Pass." It seems like there are a lot of movies lately about couples breaking up. Do you find that there are more people breaking up now than before?

DAS: I think in 70s we had a lot of these types of movies. There's "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "An Unmarried Woman." So I think there were a lot of divorce movies, like in the late 70s and early 80s. Now in the last five years I think there is a kind of reassessment of marriage, or traditional marriage anyway. I do think that a lot of that has to do with women who are less and less dependent on men than they've ever been. I think that's a huge shift. I think the Internet is a huge shift. I think it's a really unique time for marriage, and a really perilous time as well.

Q: Yeah, you can throw "The Kids Are All Right" in there also. Although I suppose that one had ended happily. Although I suppose yours could end happily too.

DAS: Yeah, I suppose we'd like to leave it up to the viewer. People are much more forgiving of Julianne Moore than they are of Chris  Messina, in the characters they play.

Q: Why doesn't she want to sleep with the guy? It seems like there was an aversion there, and that seems to be at the heart of the problem.

DAS: In "Monogamy?"

Q: Yeah.

DAS: Those scenes are all written to be vague, in the sense that, is she making excuses? Meaning that she doesn't want to sleep with him. And she keeps coming up with these reasons. I have to take a shower. I hurt my finger. We're in the hospital. Or are they just legitimate excuses? And I think depending on where you've been in your life, you'll recognize certain behavior and certain lines. The movie can mean different things to different people. We wrote six sex scenes, three of them we called "blue ball scenes,"  and three of them were the ejaculation scenes. So every time Chris gets rejected by his fiancé, he goes and watches some girl have an orgasm. So first he gets rejected in his bedroom because she thinks that she smells so he goes and watches this girl. She's like, I think I smell, I need to take a shower. And he's like, I don't care, you smell so good. And she's like, I need to take a shower. And you can tell by the look on his face that this has happened many times before.

Q: Or bringing up the subject of his father.

DAS: Yeah talking about his dad, and then he goes to kiss her, and she's kind of pulling away. And maybe it's nothing, but again this idea of the staph infection. Where the littlest things can consume you. And every time he gets rejected he has to go and watch this girl have this wild sex.

Q: It seems like the closest they get to actually getting it on is when they both watch the first photographs that he takes, and she asks, do you like this? She says it in  a way that's not condemnatory but kind of flirtatious and then they get very close, but she ends up getting a major staph infection. That doesn't seem to bode well for the relationship.

DAS: I think there is a foreboding from frame one. There is something even in his gaze. We introduce the character through his gaze. We watch what he's looking at. We see the things that interest him. He looks at a father. He sees a father and son hanging out. He sees a couple girls. He sees a girl's ass. He sees a girl's legs. And his camera whips and follows these things. And we can tell this guy has a bit of a wandering eye, literally. And that's how we're introduced to him -- looking.

Q: He doesn't seem to get a positive image of marriage through the wedding photography business either.

DAS:  I don't necessarily know if that's a bad thing about marriage. But every wedding photographer I spoke do was just like, it is a brutal, stilted, sort of a faux happy process. Taking wedding pictures is sort of uniformly horrible.

Q: So how close did you get to their situation in being engaged? Or are you a happy bachelor yourself?

DAS: I've never been engaged. I've had five three-year relationships. I've lived with two girls. Never been engaged.

Q: So you're into serial monogamy.

DAS: I am a serial monogamist, yes. Single now, probably for the first time in my life.

Q: That's your dog in the movie, right?


DAS: That's my dog. And that's my niece, Ana. She lives in Weston. She was five when we shot that. A lot of those lines are improvisations.

Q: And the dog, too, has talent. Was that scene with the dog scripted or did he improvise it?

DAS: No. It's one of my favorite moments when the dog leaves him on the couch. He gives him a kiss and he's hugging him, and he says, you know what I was thinking, and the dog just leaves him. So when your dog leaves you, that's when you know you've acted badly.

Q: That reminds me of the dog mask in the film. It seems to be symbolic of something, especially in the scene where he puts it on in the mirror. Is it a metaphor?

DAS: Well I think there's definitely a lot of things said. I like hearing a lot of interpretations, but I'll tell you one of my favorite things said is, there's an Aesop fable about the dog with the bone in his mouth who looks into the river and sees his reflection, and he sees a dog with a bone, and he sees that bone, and he wants the other dog has. So he opens his mouth to try to get the bone in the other dog's mouth and winds up with no bone. So when Chris is looking in the mirror, it is that kind of thing. I want what he has, and you wind up alone. That sort of greed or that wandering eye. That mirror there is a three-angled mirror. We thought also that men, you have two different sides to you. There's an angel and there's a devil. There's a civilized side. There's a primal side. There's an id and your superego. You have your masculine side and your feminine side. That's why we had a three-paneled mirror. And that's why when we're first introduced to him with the dog mask it's on the right side of the panel. It's not his primary self. It's his secondary part of his self. So here was Chris trying to put on a dress, trying to get in touch with himself, trying to see what it's like to walk in another person's shoes, or in this case a dress, maybe to understand women, or trying to understand his primitive instincts.

Characters who are trying to be good are a lot more interesting. He's someone who's obviously going through something. No one is saying that he should be rewarded. And that scene definitely disturbs some people. The mask in that scene is a replica of a mask from one of my favorite films called "Killer of Sheep" (1981).


And there's a scene in that movie where a little girl is wearing this dog mask, and I tried to get the mask. I couldn't get it. So I had somebody make it. It's really just a replica and a kind of nod to that movie, which hopefully will say something about the character. You know, they had that in their house, maybe he wore it last Halloween or something. So it's just little ways you can say something about a character without giving backstory.

Q: Do you have that mask and put it on sometimes yourself?

DAS: I have the mask. It's on a head, a wig stand head. People find it very creepy. But I find it kind of soothing.

Q: The theme of voyeurism and narcissism is obviously significant in this film. Whatis your take on it? Do you think it's an important issue these days?these are major issues for people these days.

DAS: I think that we've always been a voyeuristic culture. We've always wanted to watch. We've always been fascinated to, whether it's been "Rear Window,"  or "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," or "Body Double," I think we've always wanted to look through the peephole and kind of see other people's secrets. I think in the last five years, with YouTube, and cameras getting smaller, that we're seeing the culture shift and becoming much more exhibitionistic. Everybody wants to be seen. We have these Facebook pages where we kind of curate these museums to ourselves and have this sort of illusion of reality of, this is who I am, but it's very constructed, and very contrived. I think it's one thing to have a camera that costs very little money to make the movie. Distribution was just never possible for people in their bedrooms before. Even if you had the means, like in "Sex, Lies, and Videotapes," to make this material, you couldn't disseminate it. You couldn't distribute it. Now, because of the Internet, it can spread like wildfire, and you can become famous very quickly. But I think this desire to be watched is something really new, and something really interesting to look at. Sure, we've always carved our names in cement and in trees and written so and so was here, but the lengths that people are willing to go to be seen, I guess it's, I don't know if it's good or bad.

Q: Rashida Jones was in The Social Network, which is another film about a kind of narcissism and voyeurism, which Facebook represents. And both movies end up with a character in front of a keyboard, trying to get back in touch with some lost love. Do you think that the technology in the media we have today is actually making people more alienated from their own experience?

DAS: I think they're very clever with the words that they use. This idea of being connected, or by calling friends on Facebook, they're called "friends" instead of "links" or "associates," this idea to create a warm and fuzzy feeling from something that is digital and cold and alienating. I do think that people are more open online, but when they get face-to-face, you know, talking to younger kids, it's about that. How has the Internet affected you? How has it affected face-to-face contact? How does watching internet pornography shape your views of sexuality? I don't see it as a positive thing. I think it's a very strange thing that's happening actually.

Q: Are you on Facebook yourself?

DAS: I'm not, no.

Q: I can't help but notice that there's a physical resemblance between Chris [Messina] and yourself. Is he a stand-in for yourself? For your last film, as a documentary filmmaker, you had to follow people, almost stalk them with a movie camera. Is he kind of a persona for you in this film?

DAS: I cast him because I love him as an actor. Every time we see him, he's been in "Julie and Julia," or "Greenberg," or "Away We Go," he's kind of always like the nice guy. In "Vicky Christina Barcelona" you can tell he's this clean-shaven, almost too good to be true boyfriend.


So we wanted to make him kind of dirty. It is my neighborhood. It is my dog. It is my niece. So obviously there are some parallels, but I think that's more skeletal than muscular.

Q: But do you think of yourself as a kind of voyeur when you make a documentary film especially?

DAS: Sure. You have to be. If there's one thing I will say is that a lot of times voyeurs don't want to be on camera. And he doesn't and I don't.

Q: So you're not going to make Hitchcockian kinds of cameos?

DAS: Nope. Although if you're going to do it, you've got to do it like Scorsese in the back of the taxi in Taxi Driver. That's a good cameo.

Q: You seem very eclectic in the arts and media that you pursue. You wrote the song in this movie?

DAS: I did.

Q: And you do photography. You wrote a novel ["The Every Boy"], which Brad Pitt has optioned, or is planning to make a film about.

DAS: Well, that happened five years ago. It doesn't look like it's getting made.

Q: You make documentary movies. You make feature movies. Do you have a career trajectory, or do you just come up with things you're sort of interested in and you just pursue them?

DAS: Well I never get hired to do anything. All these things are done on spec. So you write a script, and that was just Evan [M. Wiener] and I writing it, and we never knew what would happen with it. "Murderball" we shot for a year, over 100 hours, and just got rejected by everybody. They're all just stories that I'm attracted to. I do them on spec and then I try to sell them when they're done. Or in the case of "Murderball," they're not done. We have to edit from 100 hours. Or we sell "Monogamy" after the script is written.

Q: How long ago did you write the script for "Monogamy?"

DAS: We started writing it in July three years ago. We shot the movie two years ago. "Murderball," too, took three years. Yeah you just get those stories that seem like a good idea at the time. Yeah, let's make a movie about quadriplegic rugby, or I'm going to write this movie. And then hopefully when they're finished you can sell them.

Q: So having Rashida Jones becoming pretty prominent in TV and movies and so-forth, was that instrumental in getting this film released?

DAS: Certainly. She's blown up. Chris has blown up a bit too. Rashida is on this great television show. She was in The Social Network. I think there is something, it's a nice feeling, people really like them as actors, and they're excited to see them break out, because they're just so talented. It's great to see Chris have a lead. It's great to see Rashida do something different than we're used to seeing her do.

Q: She's great in the movie. I mean the guy is blind if he takes her for granted.

DAS: We had to make her that to make the point. She had to be wonderful in every way except for this one way that makes him turn, and it makes him worried. He's not worried that he'll never be able to have sex with another girl. He's worried that he's going to be in a sexless marriage, and that he might wind up cheating on her. And he doesn't want to be a bad guy. He doesn't want to be that guy in the alley, or what he thinks that guy in the alley is. So it's not this kind of base, you know,  "I'm never gonna bang another chick" panic. That's not what his fear is. He's like, I don't think this girl likes me anymore, and we're supposed to get married in three months, and how is that going to work? How can I be married to someone who's not attracted to me any more? Maybe it's in his head. Maybe it doesn't matter. But you go to therapy, and all feelings are valid. And I think she does reject him consistently throughout the movie.

Q: Maybe She just doesn't like sex.

DAS: No, well, I think she is sexual. And I think she is sexy. And maybe it's like, maybe this relationship has run its course. Maybe after, because we don't say how long they've been together, maybe it's three years, maybe it's five years, but sex does run its course sometimes, and maybe the sex has run its course. So what do you do when your best friend, and they're pretty, you get along, they're a great musician, you cook, and everything's cool, but the sex isn't there anymore. That was kind of the central crisis in their relationship, like one of the people basically checked out sexually. And that's what the movie is about.

Q: This is kind of not like a touchstone movie in that people who would go to it would see their own relationships maybe reflected in the film. Have you actually discussed this with people who have seen the movie and they've said, "well, I saw my own relationship in this, and I'm going to leave so and so, or we know how to resolve our problems?"

DAS: Yeah. It's been a real lighting rod for discussion. I think that people have either made up or broken up after seeing it. I think if you're in a shaky place - if you want to get to yes or get to no - I think the movie would be a good catalyst, either get you out of a bad relationship or give the courage to fix something worth fixing. But yeah, definitely it seems to be a big discussion piece. Because, you know, we wrote it to be, you can see your life in it. That's why a lot of the situations are vague. Again, like, do they get back together in the end? Do you think they should? Did she really have to take a shower or is she just making up excuses? And maybe you've made up excuses in your life, so you would see it that way, or you really wanted to have sex with your boyfriend but you really wanted to be clean, nothing wrong with that, so you would see that in the character. We tried to really just do things that were open-ended.

Q: Is the Pabst Blue Ribbon a reference to "Blue Velvet,"  another great voyeur movie?

DAS: Ha. That's interesting. It's not, no. That's a clearance issue, to be honest. You have to clear the beer that you use at the company. That's literally just like a production thing.

Q: Did you get a deal with the Pabst people that they would supply you?

DAS: They don't give you free beer. They just allow you to use their beer. Otherwise you have to have an art designer come in and create - like sometimes you'll see a movie where it just says "beer," you know?

Q: "Repo Man," right?

DAS: Yeah, that might have been a choice. Or maybe it was just because they couldn't get the rights. Like Apple too, if you're showing the logo, you have to get permission from the company. You know Nikon, we had to get permission for the camera. I wanted Nikon, so that was actually good. I didn't seek out, I mean I'm grateful for Pabst that they let us do it, but I didn't care if they were drinking Pabst.

Q: Getting the rights to music must be an ordeal.

DAS: Getting the rights to music is a nightmare. I love the soundtrack. Can is one of my favorite bands of all time. To get to use them in a movie, it's almost like getting your favorite actor to act in your film. The fact that they signed off on it was really awesome.

Q: So a couple of last questions. First of all, do you have any new projects that are coming up? And also, what's your favorite Boston memory?

DAS: New projects, well, I'm working on this divorce book. That's kind of what I'm working on right now. And my favorite Boston memory, I think my favorite place is Cape Cod, on Labor Day.

Q: Really? That sounds like a nightmare to me, actually.

DAS: I should say just after Labor Day, which is the truth. Just after everybody leaves and you dip into September and it's kind of cool and empty. I wrote my novel in my grandmother's house in Falmouth. So I moved in with her. I sublet my apartment in New York and moved in with her for three months. I was there into the fall. So it was really September, October. My grandmother lives there, so we would go there for the summer and stuff. But being in Cape Cod after Labor Day is really my favorite place.

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