Barbarella Fokos 4:16 p.m., May 21
Interview with Thanks for Sharing writer-director Stuart Blumberg
The publicist broke into my interview with Blumberg to let me know I had time for one more question.
"Hm, got to choose," I said, scanning my notes.
"Any questions about the movie?" asked Blumberg.
It was a fair shot, and one delivered (to Blumberg's credit) without rancor. Thanks for Sharing is very much a movie about sex addiction, and most of my questions had been about the movie's subject, as opposed to being about the movie. We kept things pretty well tethered, but still. Anyway, despite my failings as an interviewer, Blumberg was a gracious and thoughtful respondent, and I'm pleased with the results.
Matthew Lickona: My fellow critic here at the Reader, when he hears "addiction movie," his eyes glaze over. He says, "What can they do that they haven't done?"
Stuart Blumberg: Right.
ML: Given that, why do an addiction movie? What are the strictures imposed, and how do you differentiate it from others in the genre?
SB: The addiction movies we see are usually about drugs and alcohol, and they're usually kind of a celebration of the descent into those things. They don't usually show the light and the dark; they show the dark. There have been only a couple of movies about recovery. I thought showing how people work with addictions in everyday life was something different. And when I started working on Thanks for Sharing, there weren't really any sex addiction movies out there. I thought it was, as far as the public consciousness, where alcoholism was in the 1940s.
ML: Where was alcoholism in the 1940s?
SB: I think that before AA really kicked in, people were like, "Oh, if you're an alcoholic, you're an alcoholic - you're just going to die from it." And it also meant that you were morally weak and kind of a douchebag. There wasn't an understanding that there are factors that make someone susceptible. I think that sex addiction suffers the kind of stigma that drug and alcohol addiction suffered back then.
ML: It's tricky, because sex is an integral part of ordinary human relationships.
ML: And so you can call it a disease, but you can't cut the tumor out.
SB: That's why I think sex addiction is more interesting to cover than drug and alcohol addiction. If you're an alcoholic, don't have booze in your house. But as Tim Robbins says in the movie, sex addiction is like trying to quit crack when the pipe is attached to your body. So what happens when you develop an unhealthy relationship to something that should be healthy? The same thing can apply to exercise or food. You can get addicted to anything. What was interesting about Mark Ruffalo's character was that he was having to develop a healthier relationship to something that had been unhealthy.
ML: Did you have to exaggerate the addicts' troubles at all?
SB: Do you ever make big changes in your life unless something really wrong has happened?
ML: And when you say, "really wrong," there's a moral component there driving you to change.
SB: I think everyone has a moral code. There's a reason Steve McQueen called his sex addiction movie Shame. You feel shame at living in a way that is completely antithetical to whatever moral code you have, and the disparity between those two things drives you to change.
ML: Compare Thanks for Sharing to Shame.
SB: I haven't actually seen Shame. I didn't want to see "the other movie." But from my understanding, the guy is very much living in his addiction. Also, [McQueen] is a much more stylized filmmaker than I am - he creates beautiful, moody, nonlinear, and often nonverbal art. Mine is much more, I think, a commercial, popular entertainment - but also one that looks somewhat unflinchingly at the dark side. We wanted to show what people who are trying to change look like.
ML: It seemed like a lot of your characters were dealing with multiple addictions - sex and booze, sex and gambling, sex and compulsive eating.
SB: There is a lot of cross-addiction, where you're addicted to more than one thing. When I was doing research, more than half the people in the room for sex addiction were alcoholics. Often, when people stop drinking, their sex addiction gets much worse. And they realize that the sex addiction was the first addiction, that the drinking came after. And they will all say that - including cocaine and heroin - sex is the hardest one to give up. And food and sex are often correlated. I wanted to show it as part of a whole spectrum.
ML: At one point, sex addict Ruffalo turns on his lover and points out that her relationship to food and exercise aren't so very different from his relationship to sex. Do your characters have the notion that everybody's damaged, and they, at least, have the advantage of knowing it?
SB: I think Ruffalo probably has some of that. But I wouldn't be so reductive as to say that they all have it. I just wanted to take the sting and the stink out of it: "Just forget all that stuff. These are people who are just trying to find a way to recover, and the way they've found to do it is together." I wasn't making blanket statements like, "The world is fucked up." But of course, the world is fucked up, everyone is fucked up, and if you don't think that, then I don't know what world you're living in. But it's not a death sentence to have flaws. I don't think everyone's an addict, but I do think we live in an increasingly more addictive society.
ML: Tim Robbins plays an addict with an addict son, but the addict son is bent on getting better on his own. That's a controversial notion.
SB: I wanted to show a different kind of father-son conflict. The son is a guy who probably had a really bad opinion of AA. Drugs and alcohol took his father away, and then these meetings took him away. So now he has a resentful attitude toward both. And like all kids, he lives in opposition to the way his parents did it.
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