Looking for lost magic

Jonas Chernick on writing and starring in The End Of Sex

by Jennie Kermode

Melanie Scrofano, Emily Hampshire and Jonas Chernick in The End Of Sex
Melanie Scrofano, Emily Hampshire and Jonas Chernick in The End Of Sex

A comedy about a couple who face a crisis when their kids go away to winter camp and they realise that a planned week of sexual passion just isn’t working out, The End Of Sex is the latest project for director Sean Garrity and writer Jonas Chernick, who also plays the role of hapless hero Josh. It screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival and Jonas kindly managed to find the time for a chat just beforehand. We had last spoken in February, when his film Ashgrove screened at the Glasgow Film Festival, about a month after shooting on The End Of Sex wrapped. I congratulate him on the speed with which this film has made it to a major festival.

“Yeah. It all happened pretty quick,” he says. “I am very excited about it. It's my favourite. It's great. I mean, for a Canadian festival, you couldn't ask for a better one.”

He hadn’t necessarily expected the film to be selected, he explains. “It’s based on so many factors. Timing, and subject matter, who the programmers are, and, you know, when film was ready, and all those things. I gave up on all expectations, and I just kind of let the cards fall where they may. I mean, I'm ambitious about pursuing things like great festival premieres, but you never know which festival you will connect with.”

We discuss what inspired him to write this film, and he recalls another, which he and director Sean Garrity and co-star Emily Hampshire made ten years previously.

“The three of us made a movie together, a comedy called My Awkward Sexual Adventure, and it was about exploring sexual insecurity in your thirties. We made that film, we told that story, we explored that stuff, and that movie was reasonably successful. And we started getting a lot of people asking us ‘Do you have a sequel?’ and we just didn't have anything else we wanted to dig into or explore on that subject matter. But I had been writing something in the same world that I put on the shelf and thought, ‘Now, I'm not going to make another one of these now.’ And then last year, I was approached by the producers of The End Of Sex, who asked if I’d got anything that might be right for them.

“I dusted this one off the shelf, and gave it to them, and they read it and they immediately said ‘We want to make this movie. This is very funny and very relatable.’ So I polished up the script, and Sean and I dug back in and then suddenly, we had this other idea. We'd lived ten years. Our kids have grown up, and we've been we've both been with our wives for a long time, and suddenly, we had new stories to tell we had new ideas to explore. And it allowed us to kind of come back to similar subject matter with a very different perspective.”

They didn’t expect, at that time, that they would be getting the old team back together.

“We developed it. Got it ready. And then we started thinking about casting and very quickly in the process, we thought, well, wouldn't wouldn't it be interesting if Emily came back and we did another one with the same core team? We didn't think she would. We didn't know. She's a friend of mine. She's done another film with us since that first one. I just didn't know if she would be into it, if she wanted to go back there. She jumped on it, though. She immediately responded to the material, and she was very excited to to get back into working.”

It’s a great script, I tell him, and I like the opening scene in which his character is distraught as his kids prepare to leave for winter camp, whilst they’re perfectly calm. It’s a great way to introduce a character.

“Actually, the idea of adding kids into the mix was relatively late,” he says, “and it was like a eureka moment. Sean and I came up with it. And it allowed us to ground these characters in a very real emotional place. Because I think, obviously, having kids is so life changing. And, you know, in a lot of ways you kind of put aside the person who you were to raise these kids. And then when the kids are gone, what are you then? Would you go back to being the person who you were before? Or are you a new person now?

“In fact, this summer, I said goodbye to my kids at the camp bus for the first time, both of them. And it was very funny, because when we shot this movie in January, I knew this was going to happen. And so it was fun playing that scene. And then in July when we put our kids on the bus, it was pretty similar to me, you know, the way that I reacted. I think I accurately predicted how I would behave in that situation.”

It's ostensibly a sex comedy, but an awful lot of it seems to be more about what sex represents to people, I suggest. Maybe when people are not having sex all the time in a relationship, they start to panic and feel that they're getting old and settling into a different kind of life.

“Yeah, yeah, that's very much what I was interested in,” he says. “There's bits of media in the movie. I mean, my character, Josh, works in advertising, for example, that overly sexualises every single thing. And so it's a bit of an exaggeration, a ridiculous kind of embellishment of a truth. This idea of what kind of sex we're supposed to be having, how much sex we're supposed to be having, what's a healthy amount, what’s an unhealthy amount. We're so influenced by media, film, television. I mean, I often think about how when you're a kid and you're going to have your first kiss, you've seen first kisses, you've seen kisses, but it's all in film, and television, and online. And now with the problems of pornography, and how available it is to kids, you know, our definitions of what human sexuality is, is entirely influenced. It's impossible to come in clean, and allow that to grow organically.

“My version of how I wanted to look at that was through the lens of these characters who seemed perfectly fine and happy at the beginning of the movie, but they start to open this Pandora's box of ‘Maybe there's something wrong with us, and maybe we should be doing things differently, or more or less of this or that.’ And it's not really rooted in anything. They're an emotionally connected couple right off the hop. And so I think it's that journey that’s really interesting.”

There are lots of great bits of advertising in the background, and a scene in which Josh imagines how much sex everyone else around him is having.

“That was it that was pretty early on in the draft,” he says. “I liked this idea of a neurotic guy who imagines that everybody else is having, you know, better or more. Which again, it's a way, is holding a mirror up. When we see these things in film or in culture, we can't help but think that it's somehow commenting on our own experience. And it's really easy to feel bad about yourself, the way you look, the way your body looks, choices you're making, based on what you're seeing in in the world around you, which is all media so it's not real.”

Something that I liked about the film, and think is important to getting this kind of comedy right, is the way that the supporting characters are developed, so that they're more than just props for the central characters to use in their exploration.

“That's always been really important to me as a writer,” Jonas says. “It's something I continue to struggle with, to write supporting characters that are as interesting and fleshed out as the main characters. And with this one, it came a little more naturally than with other scripts that I've written. I felt like I knew those characters a little better, right from the get go. I mean, I worked hard on developing them and making sure that I filled them out, and it was something that Sean as my director and my collaborator was very focused on. He was very, very driven to make sure that the supporting characters felt full and real and alive. On this one, they sort of jumped out at me, I was able to see the world through their eyes rather organically.”

He was relieved by this, he says, because writing doesn’t come easily to him. Acting is different.

“That's my joy. I mean, I work hard at it, but when I'm acting, that's where I feel the most connected to, I don't know, the life force or the universe or whatever it is. It's not a painful process. For me, it's not a torturous process. It's the opposite. It gives me a lot.”

Does he find it different acting with somebody else's script or something that he’s written himself?

“Yeah, I do. I think it's when it's something that I've written – even though there comes a point in the process where I take off the writer hat and I put on the actor hat – and I read the script for the first time as an actor, it always feels very fresh, very new. I find lots of mistakes or inconsistencies, and I think, often, ‘My character would never do that. Why would the writer thinks that the character would do that? It doesn't make any sense.’ Even though I'm the writer. And when I'm acting in somebody else's work, it's a different approach for sure, because it's not as ingrained.

“When I write something, it's always years before I film it. It's always multiple years of writing and rewriting and rewriting and writing, getting notes and throwing it away. So by the time I get there it is in my bones. There's still discoveries to be made but it does feel like it's part of my DNA. So these characters that I play when I've written them for myself, they do feel familiar to me, and they've been inside me for longer, but when I get a script, I get hired on somebody else's job, and somebody else's project, I start fresh, and yeah, it's different.”

This is an interesting character because there's a whole layer to him which we don't quite see until the end – an aspect of who he is that that he's suppressing. What was that like to play?

“I like to think that the characters, both of them, when they go on this journey in the movie, they are discovering parts of themselves or pieces of themselves that were there all along, that they either didn't acknowledge or weren't aware of,” he says. “That does start to come out through the experience that they're going through. And so it's fun. I like to show sides of the character, especially when they get near the end of their journey. When I'm watching movies, I want to feel the characters changing or the characters exploring themselves or making discoveries about themselves as they move through it, and so that was part of the plan.”

He’s also directed several films. A lot of directors say that it's helpful to have the writer on set, but how does he separate himself and let go of that creative control and let the director take over?

“Actually, I quite like the process,” he says. “And Sean Garrity, the film's director, he's directed me many, many times. We've made seven films together. And so we we have a shorthand, we know how to work well with each other. And I very much enjoy letting go of the storytelling and giving it to him. I trust him. Because we've travelled the world, and he's a close friend, and I enjoy the surrender of it. And then I get to be directed by him and I find things that I didn't know were there, because of his direction. So he'll see some behaviour, some choice piece of dialogue, and he'll see it in a way that I didn't intend or that I hadn't thought of. And then I'm able to come at it, and suddenly now it has three layers. And so I just find that he deepens the often shallow work that I do as a writer, and so I'm very grateful.”

We both laugh,. and I ask him if it was a fun set to work on.

“It was such a fun set,” he says. “We all got along great, and there was no diva behaviour, and everybody was so happy to be there. As a result, I think you feel that playfulness, you can feel the comfort level that we all have with each other. And it's fun, because we're at TIFF today, and we're about to all have a reunion at the screening for the world première, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see these guys.”

The most part of making the film, he says, was a scene at a swingers’ club.

“It was just wild because, you know, we made a fantasy sex club with all kinds of fun, gorgeous, naked people riding around doing different things, and it was it just was fun to be in that room. Everyone there was so excited to be there and everybody loved what we were doing. And I've never been to a real sex club, so I got to live live that experience through the magic of cinema.”

He and Sean are now working on their seventh film together, he says.

“We are in the middle of filming that right now. We just took two days off to come barreling back to Toronto, to the festival, just to introduce this movie and be at the screening. Tomorrow we're back up north in northern Canada to continue shooting. It's a sort of a sexy romantic drama called Mockingbird about a love affair, and exploring a love affair and in great detail. We're filming that right now and that should be coming out next year.”

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