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Body and Soul
Actor and filmmaker Deborah Twiss on the beauty and wonder of new frontiers, and making sexually charged movies
Filmmaker and actor Deborah Twiss and actor David Edwin in Sapiosexual, which Twiss also wrote and directed. (All photos by Rob Klein.)
One year at Cannes, I was swept by the gravitational pull and dynamic personality of Deborah Twiss, who was inviting me to see a market screening of A Gun For Jennifer (1997), a savvy, sharp, and kinetic revenge movie with feminist overtones.
She was the star, writer and producer, made in collaboration with her former partner, Todd Morris.
She has had some seventy credits as an actor, the best known being the original Kick-Ass (2010) and Eric Schaeffer’s After Fall, Winter (2012).
Deborah Twiss has had an unconventional, self-made career, in front of and behind the camera. Her new film, Sapiosexual, plays like a variation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Lars von Trier.
She wrote, directed and stars in the movie. The plot concerns the sexual roundelay and contentious personal history of two writers, a prominent university professor Liam (Nick Hardin), and his protege, Freddie (David Edwin). Twiss plays Hannah, a therapist caught between them.
The movie is now available on all the major VOD platforms, including Amazon and AppleTV.
Our original interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
Shadows and Dreams: What was the genesis of this project?
Deborah Twiss: I worked on this other project that failed to happen. I brought on all these different people that I thought were friends. I was trying to help them get well-paid work that could help their recovery during the pandemic. It was an eye-opening revelation of who my true friends were. So many people turned against me when the movie failed, and it wasn’t my fault.
An independent distributor got in touch with me, and asked if I wanted to make an erotic thriller. They asked me if I had anything. They said they had this amount of money. I just felt I needed to do it. I literally felt in some ways that it saved my life because people were texting me on social media privately saying things like, I should commit suicide. It was the lowest I have ever felt. If I didn’t have any kids, I probably would have just said goodbye to the world. Sapiosexual saved my life, which is insane.
I wanted to make this dark film, in part, about the response to the #MeToo movement. When all of this stuff started to come out, I was really shocked. I wondered why didn’t all these people just do what I did in the 90s, like laugh in their face when they opened the hotel door, saying, “Suck my cock, and I will finance your film.” I’d look at them, and say: “Are you serious? You’re a horrible person.” I was so open about how disgusted I was.
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The actress (Lora Davisson Sumner) who plays Nancy is my best friend from college. She wrote this short story. It was about three pages long. It was about these three people who have a wild sex night out on the beach. I thought I could develop a whole script around this, and that’s what I did. I thought what if there was like a person who was kind of seduced by the idea of getting with an older guy. After the fact she realized that it was not the right thing.
With her own disgust and self-loathing, she decided to turn that around and call a con on him, and everybody else that she ever encountered. That is how the movie was born.
Deborah Twiss and Nick Hardin, who plays a university professor, in Sapiosexual.
Shadows and Dreams: How long did you shoot?
Deborah Twiss: Five days.
Shadows and Dreams: How did you conceive the look and design of the film visually? A lot of the film, compositionally, felt hand held?
Deborah Twiss: Really all of it is handheld. I just wanted to bring back Dogme 95. That was a really interesting and very intriguing thing that independent filmmakers started diving into during the late 90s. Basically that movement put the power back into the hands of the creator. You could shoot a film under these guidelines for very little money. When the RED digital camera and some of these other technologies started coming out, suddenly every film was converted into a digital format.
These great digital cameras like the RED, or ones made by Sony and Panasonic, required almost as much production support as if you were shooting on film. (It’s one of the reasons people are going back to shooting on film.)
I thought what was the original intention of shooting on digital? You could shoot a ton, and not have to deal with any kind of lab fees or anything like that. You're able to look at what you've got immediately. You don't have to have the film processed. There was so much of the aesthetic of Dogme 95 that I wanted to bring back, like Celebration (1998).
Shadows and Dreams: What is the particular dynamic of directing yourself? Is there a special tension developed creatively out of being both in front of and behind the camera?
Deborah Twiss: One of the things that is difficult is that I have to go beyond just being in the scene. I have to always be above it, realizing what the angles of where the cameras are, and that kind of thing to make sure that my other actors are being covered properly. It's a fascinating thing, to the point where the next film that I'm supposed to be doing, I brought on a friend of mine, an Argentinian director, because I want to be able to just be in the film.
I wrote the script, but I don't want to have the added responsibility of everyone else. For something like Sapiosexual, I was completely willing to just just be 1,000 percent in it all the time, just to get myself distracted from the horrors that were going on around me.
Shadows and Dreams: Did you find the restrictions of money, budget, time, liberating in a kind of interesting or counterintuitive way? Or did that intensity the pressure to get everything done?
Deborah Twiss: Actually, since we were shooting a lot of times, 23 pages in a day, during a 10-hour day, it felt very much like we were in a play. I think it was very liberating in a lot of ways. We could just go, and improvisation happened. I recast the role of Liam about five days before we shot so he was not off book. There would be many scenes where he just didn't have the lines. I’d say, “Look, you basically know what the scene is. Let's just improvise. We've got multiple cameras, and we'll be able to pick up on reactions. Let's just do it.”
That made everybody have a little bit more excitement and creative thrill, because we knew we had to get the scenes done and stay in it. There were maybe 10 minutes between setups in between the scenes. Once you get on set, you just go, go, go, go. You are in that character all day long.
There’s not that moment of stopping for an hour so they can reset, or anything like that. We had food breaks, but just long enough for people to get nourishment, and dive back in.
Shadows and Dreams: How has your work as an actor has now shaped your identity and personality as a filmmaker?
Deborah Twiss: I think with age and time, everything gets better and deeper. Any art form gets better and deeper. There's more and more perspective about human beings and human nature. I know, for myself, as an actor, the more I am around, the more I am exposed to different kinds of people, different characters of the films I am in, or television, or whatever. It enriches the way I approach a character, and the way I approach directing.
There is so much more information to work with. There are different levels of subtlety. More and more, I love playing with the moments where there are no words. It’s about the showing, and not telling.
Shadows and Dreams: In your life and art, you have had to make choices, about your body, and your sexual representation of the body. What’s it like now, being the director and theoretically the author of your own body as the writer and director, in terms of what you wanted to reveal in the more intimate moments?
Deborah Twiss: I am a big believer in the European style, who approach sex scenes from the perspective of art. I wanted our sex scenes to feel like moments from paintings. It was all very choreographed. We didn’t have an intimacy coordinator. I dealt with them before, and they do nothing but make actors incredibly self-conscious and feel guilty about being in a sex scene.
I worked as a stripper in the 90s, so I'm very comfortable with my body. I don’t feel like I am being degraded, or anything like that. I think bodies are art in themselves. Look at all the most beautiful sculptures. They are naked bodies because of the musculature. Everything about the body is really beautiful. It’s art.
A lot of women are taught to believe that their precious body cannot be shown to anybody except who they are in love with. People in Europe don’t feel that way at all. They see an ass on television, or in the subway, and they think it’s just art. It’s part of being human, and no big deal. I think it’s a much healthier way to live, and a more comfortable way. The guys I have worked with, especially in the United States, were the ones who are far more scared in a sex scene than I am. They're so terrified, and I'm just there to try to make them feel better. They’re scared to death they are going to do the wrong thing.
I just said, we are going to go through this, and make it really good. It’s better to be artistic. “Go a little bit slower here, go a little faster there, and use yourself.” The more comfortable you are with yourself, the easier those kinds of things are. They’re not really difficult, and there’s no sexual attraction or anything. It’s literally about what looks best in the light, what conveys the feeling that’s in this moment. It’s super, it’s simple, if people allow it.
Shadows and Dreams: How did you make the transition from stripper to actor, writer and filmmaker?
Deborah Twiss: I've been acting and writing since I was in third grade. I got accepted to NYU, and came to New York to study acting. I was getting involved in a lot of plays. I did the usual things. I was a nanny, and I worked in restaurants. I did a lot of student films. I was working as a receptionist at this film production company, and I met Todd Morris. We got to be friends, and then we hooked up, and we had these dreams of making movies and everything.
In the summer of 1992, I got fired from a restaurant job. I’d gotten fired because I got cast in a play, and they wouldn’t let me change my schedule. Many times, the manager of the restaurant was a failed actor, so there was a lot of resentment about anyone who was actually achieving something. During my training and doing theater things, I met somebody who worked as a stripper. It was kind of in the back of my mind, or something like that. I wondered if I could actually do it. It sounded so crazy. What kind of people are there? What are the guys like? Are they gross, or horrible?
I finally mentioned it to Todd, and said I couldn’t find a waitressing job. Maybe I should find out what working as a topless dancer would be like in New York. He said, “I think that would be great for you. That would open you up so much because you are inhibited.” He said I was like a Connecticut housewife. That was insulting. I saw myself as an artist living in New York, where I’d been since I was 17. He took me to a strip club, and we sat there, and I said; “God, I don’t know if I could do this.” It felt so scary to be up there, in front of guys, but I also saw the dollars just being given to these women.
I went to the manager, and he gave me a card of the booking agent. A week later, I went with one of my cool friends, this girl. I went and auditioned for this guy. I was so scared, but I walked in. This guy looked like he was 90-years old. He had all of these photos on his wall of strippers from, I think, the 50s and 60s. The women had tassels on. Very matter of fact, he said, strip down to your G-string and heels, and show me what you got. He looked at me like a doctor, no sleaziness, or anything. He said, “You’re fine. You got all of your parts. I am going to book you.”
The first place I worked was on Sixth Avenue. There were so many parts of it that weren't anything that I had expected. There weren’t any table dancers. It was all just half an hour onstage, and an hour off. The base salary was $55, plus tips. The first day I worked was at lunch. It was noon to six, and I made $250.
The girl said $250 to $500 was a normal lunch day. That was freaking great money in the 90s. Nobody touched me. Nobody insulted me. Everybody was nice. The guys that ran the place were like uncles. They protected the girls as if we were their nieces. If a guy did anything that was the least bit sketchy, he’d get thrown out on his ass. I thought, wait a second. They don’t have to do that. I could stand up for myself.
It was a very fascinating transition through my personality, and really helped me grow into who I became. I was not necessarily inhibited, but I was very shy about speaking my truth and standing up for myself against people that were jerks. That’s how I ended up stumbling into movies. I was making better money, and I thought I could finance some things. It only cost ten grand to put on a play. What if I tried to ask some of these customers if they'd be interested in investing in a movie, maybe $400,000. We could make something like a play, but it’s forever on film.
That is how A Gun for Jennifer was born. It came out of some of the horrible experiences I had working. They were just disgusting guys who were jerks, and they’d come in and talk shit. Luckily, that was only a small percentage of the people. I’d write in the dressing room during my half hour off. The other half hour I’d be up on the stage making more money. One thing led to another.
I wanted to stop dancing when we made A Gun for Jennifer. The guy who I found to be an investor presented himself as a loan officer for a Japanese corporation. It turned out he was an accountant, and he was embezzling. He was taking money on the sly, investing it in this film of mine, and cars, but also these other weird businesses he had going on. When it all fell apart, and he got taken down, Todd and I had to go testify at the District Attorney’s office. It was crazy, and the dream of being able to live off film was put on hold.
I wanted to stop dancing. I was starting to get attention from different casting directors, and they wanted me to work in New York television. I only wanted to dance for a year or two, get some bills paid and put some money away. I ended up doing it for 10 years—ten freaking years—which was eight years too many.
Shadows and Dreams: What do you feel like you have learned about yourself during this incredible odyssey you just described?
Deborah Twiss: I am far more resilient than I ever expected I could be. Everything in life is about how you respond, and pivot, when obstacles come. No matter what those are, personal, professional, creative. That is creeping into my work more and more. I am trying to help.
I want the world to realize there are bad people, and there are really bad situations. It’s all about how we respond, and who we become because of it. Every single movie, every show, is about that. It’s about a situation that comes into a character’s life, and changes the path. That is what we long for in stories, and I think to make us feel better about the things that come out of nowhere, and spin us in one direction or another.