Sook-Yin Lee: "People just assumed it was going to be a porno."

Canadian broadcaster/musician/artist Sook-Yin Lee discusses crossing boundaries in Shorbus.
Cannes, May 2006

How did you feel when you watched the film for the first time?

“Well I saw it last night for the first time with all the bells and whistles on. It was like, ‘There’s a lot of sex in this movie. . .’ But I also got really excited. There were a lot of things that just tickled me to see my friends doing their thing. I was really amazed by certain scenes and certain stories and so forth. I was really excited to be sitting there and sharing it with people because we’ve been working on it for a couple of years and we’re not quite sure what it is. Then to share it with other people and see their reactions was really great.”

How did this whole idea mature in your heads over the two years about what you wanted to do and what you wanted to express?

“A lot of us were strangers to each other and John cast the leads before there was a script. So it took a while to get to know each other just as people and have a level of comfort. And it took a while to excavate the characters, to research the characters and formulate the characters, try to come up with story and explore and do all the background and go out into the world and try to piece together our characters. So yeah, it was quite an interesting experience. When you’re in High School in Canada you go to camp, or you’re a Brownie or a Girl Scout, and I was never part of those kinds of groups, so this was kind of my adult camp, with friends, and just got up to weird experiments.”

What was the audition process like? Was it protracted?

“It was really fun. John knows how to throw a party, that’s for sure. It was a non-stop party. It was a strange social experiment so all of us put together a video tape and he chose the ones that were captivating to him and invited all those people to New York to play all kinds of games and improvisational games. We’d get drunk together and party together, play spin the bottle together, rate each other, just do weird, odd, funny things. He then found a system of pairing people up and threw them in the room together to see what kind of sparks flew.”

Are you still a journalist?

“I am, yes.”

Did you find any conflict between your acting job and your other work, or did you stop for that period?

“Yeah, I would take unpaid leaves of absence from work.”

Does it concern you what your work colleagues might think when they see the film?

“There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the beginning when they found out about the movie. Yeah, there was some reluctance to allow me to appear in the movie but a number of terrific artists like Coppola and Yoko Ono and Julianne Moore and Gus van Sant and Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, the top Canadian creators, came to our support, because I don’t think my employers really knew what we were trying to create.”

Did they speak in the press about it?

“No, no, they said to me it’s not a good idea to be doing this movie.”

What did Cronenberg et al say?

“They said John is a credible artist. What had happened is there were a number of people writing separate letters in support, speaking on behalf of the project. Because the sound of it, with lots of sex and stuff, people just assumed it was going to be a porno. And, of course, it’s not. You know, it was just different people coming to its defence and saying it’s a proper narrative movie.”

How did you explain it to your parents, though?

“That’s difficult. I didn’t explain it to my parents. My dad knows that I’m here in Cannes but I’m not really crazy for him to see me having an orgasm and stuff. I’m sure he’s proud of me but he’s probably in agreement with me there.”

We still talk about sex as a taboo. What were your barriers that you had to overcome? Were there times when you thought you couldn’t do something and were shocked?

“Yeah, there were times. I was going through a lot of, ‘Is this okay? Is this betrayal? Is this loyalty?’ My partner was fine, he’s a cinematographer, and he was like, ‘Go out and make some good art.’ It was more me confounded by my own feelings of, ‘Can I share these things that I share with one person with another person, and in what context?’ So I really had to wrestle with that one. The other one was having to negotiate the female condom. Because in our scene where we have sex together, it wouldn’t make sense if my husband was wearing a condom and we’re married, right? I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a female condom. It’s like a large rubber thing. Whenever I remember this scene, I always remember the soundtrack [sings circus tune]. It’s like a big top. It’s like a tent. So that was a bit . . . you know? I didn’t know how to insert that apparatus.”

Do you think the current political climate is the reason for a film like this?

“In conservative times, and we are living in fearful conservative times, it’s a good time for art because there’s the opposition or the wondering about this, grappling with this neo-conservatism of this time, so I think it makes for good art. There’s a lot of interesting music coming up and art and movies. You need to have dialogue in those different opposing views.”

What were your motivations for taking part in this? Was it to test yourself? Was it to make a political statement?

“Ideologically I really liked the idea of putting sex in a narrative in a different way than we’ve seen, with some heart and humour, and awkwardness and humanity. I really loved that idea. So just from a let’s make some good art and make an interesting experiment I was right on board from that.”

Because of the way you were working presumably you were drawing on a lot of your own experience and feelings. So did that blur the line and was that sometimes difficult?

“I was really excited about working through some stuff. To be given a safe environment in which to explore aspects and then also in a fictional context, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can go there and explore, and then detachment as well. I’m not going to have to carry it back home and continue living that life.’ It’s kind of like a licence to go and play around, so that was really great. Because I have by no means understood sexuality, and self love, and I’m just beginning to understand, so it was really fantastic for me to have that experience. To be able to go in there and muck about.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2006


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