Leather Life Online Exclusive: Interview with the Creators of “They/Them/Us”
Interview conducted, transcribed, condensed and edited by Steve Lenius
“They/Them/Us” is a new romantic comedy film that I wrote about in my Leather Life column. The film incorporates kink and BDSM, as well as a non-binary character and the use of gender-neutral pronouns. I had the chance to interview some of the creators of “They/Them/Us”: Jon Sherman, co-writer and director; Melissa Vogley Woods, co-writer; and Barak and Sheba, co-producers and BDSM consultants for the film. You can read my Leather Life column about “They/Them/Us” at this page or in the printed magazine.
Where did the idea come from of putting kink and BDSM, gender-neutral pronouns, teenage drug abuse, conservative Christianity, and the creation of a blended family, all in the same film?
Melissa Vogley Woods: [The film] was really based on actual experiences that we’ve had, that we channeled in the film. Things that we felt helped explore things like being open about new experiences, or challenging people’s judgments, or giving second chances in life and finding yourself later in life. There are parts of the film that are fictitious, but there’s a lot that’s real, that we actually experienced.
Jon Sherman: A lot of people get to their 40s and think, I don’t need to try anything new, my life is set already. This movie is the antithesis of that. It’s about being open-minded. There are certain preconceptions about the Midwest. When I moved to Columbus, I remember driving around with a real estate agent and him telling me, this is a white bread town. And I was like, I really bet it’s not. Maybe you’re in the white bread world, but I bet you there’s more here. Romantic comedies all tend to be set in New York or Los Angeles, and I really wanted to make a movie that’s about the Midwest and about people in the Midwest. People have certain stereotypes about what the Midwest is, and this movie is about really exploding a lot of those stereotypes.
So that’s how all those different elements came together. I teach at Kenyon College, and there’s a Christian college right next door. And I was like, well, what would happen if I got fired, and I had to teach at this Christian college? How would that go?
I had certain preconceptions moving here from New York City. Columbus is often portrayed in the movies as a generic American city. And I thought, well, no, actually, people live here. And they have personalities. I think the Columbus press and the community here have really embraced the film, and I think that’s something that you would not get if you were in New York City—you couldn’t get that same groundswell of support.
The pronouns in the title—let me tell you some of my interpretations of the film’s title, and you tell me if I’m off base or not. First of all, there are the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them” that apply to one of the characters in the film. But also I can see “they” as one family and “them” as the other family. And by the end of the film, the two families become “us.” Is that accurate?
JS: You got it. 100 percent.
Another interpretation: I also see the “us” as the kink/BDSM community. For me, watching this film, it’s like seeing “us” on the screen. And another “us” I see on screen is, I have a lot of friends who use they/them pronouns. And it’s good to see them on the screen, and being treated sensitively. That makes the movie very contemporary.
Sheba: I think Jon’s done a good job of bringing that to the forefront, because that is really timely right now. And it’s a message that I think a lot of people need to see now and need to take in.
Where did the story element of gender-neutral pronouns come from?
MVW: Well, again, it’s a lived experience. The kid that this character is based on is actually gender non-binary. And so we had a lived experience of them going through so many difficulties with that over the years—it’s been, like, six or seven years of teachers not understanding, friends not understanding. People saying, oh, you know, the English language, that’s not grammatically correct. People saying it’s a phase, they’re trying to get attention, all of that stuff. The lack of understanding is just staggering.
So that was a very important element in the film, and we wanted to make sure we got a gender-nonconforming, non-binary actor to play that role. That actor, and the person that the character was based on, got together and talked through the character, so it was really rooted in a total real lived experience. We really wanted to create empathy for kids who go through this with teachers and authority figures who just don’t get it.
JS: A lot of people are surprised by how sweet the movie is. And what I tell people is, well, it’s actually a family movie, you know, a contemporary family movie. And there’s a lot of different families in this movie. When I first visited Barak and Sheba, I was like, oh, look, they’re a family. This is a family, you know? I was wondering how all these disparate elements were going to work together in the script, and it was only when I visited them for the first time, and I saw how they created a family atmosphere—it was like, this is what family is.
Barak and Sheba, how did you get involved with this film?
Barak: We have run a kink organization for approximately 20 years. We purchased, built and created a facility in Columbus, a brick-and-mortar facility, and used to run new-to-kink classes. So people who were new to experiencing it, we taught them—you know, gave examples, showed them how to do it safely, talked about the tenets of what it stood for, consent, all that.
MVW: We knew we had to bring them on to help us deal with all of the elements—the sex scenes and even some of the language, talking about BDSM. They helped write a lot of those parts, and tried to make the scenes very accurate. Trying to get it accurate really involved them helping on this.
JS: There’s a job now on every film set, where any time you have any intimate scenes you have someone called an intimacy coordinator. And a lot of what they do is based on kink. It’s all about consent. And everything that Barak and Sheba were talking about, I was like, oh, yeah, this is what movies do right now. For me, not being in the [BDSM] scene, I think it was a long process where I had to visit and have Barak and Sheba understand that I wasn’t trying to exploit in any way, that I wanted to show the scene accurately and with love. And I think that made a big difference in terms of the way it is depicted on screen and the people that are in the film. It’s very joyous. The representations of BDSM that you’ve had on screen before this are like “50 Shades of Grey,” where it’s skinny people being really serious. Or it’s the male businessman with the dominatrix. The representations that you have on screen are so limited. Superficial.
Sheba: And there’s a weird idealized fantasy world that doesn’t exist in the real BDSM community. We were asked prior to this, probably three or four times, to be a part of different television series or movies. And every time we had to say no, because it felt like it was going to be exploitive, and unreal, and not really represent the community that we love. We have no intention of ever being a part of something that would hurt them.
JS: I mean, it’s a difficult thing because, you know, those scenes are going to be humorous. But you have to do it in a way that is not only grounded in reality, but also respectful, completely respectful of everyone who’s in the scene, but also in the movie—the dignity that you need to give each character. If you make films the right way, there’s dignity to everybody on screen. There’s no reason why anyone should seem less dignified than anybody else. I think that people are really surprised when they watch the movie, like how the BDSM is just part of the film. It’s not like, oh, here’s the kink scenes, now here’s the other scenes, you know what I mean? I think we’ve worked very hard to integrate.
You have to make the actors comfortable too. Joey Slotnick [who plays Charlie], who’s very fearless as an actor, he had to be comfortable too, especially when he saw what we had planned for him (laughs).
Was he as much of a newbie to BDSM as he looks like on the screen?
Barak: And one of the things that we did to make him comfortable as consultants is, we went through the scene prior to the actual doing of it, to make sure that he understood what the ropes would feel like and what it felt like to be suspended. The whole time I was rigging him, I was talking to him. And as I was doing it, I was also explaining the tenets of what it is that we do.
JS: I don’t know if [Joey] took in the words. I think it was more like the calmness of Barak’s voice that really made him feel comfortable. You know, when you’re being tied up by Barak, you’re in good hands.
Sheba: One of the agreements that we made when we were talking to Joey about what we were going to do was an agreement about, if there are marks this is what they might look like, or what they might feel like, and he’s, yeah, I don’t want that. I don’t want to feel pain, I don’t want to be hurt, I don’t want a lasting mark.
What does everybody want to accomplish with this film? Why did you make the film, and what do you want to see happen to it?
MVW: I would say consciousness-raising about pronouns. Also giving a real face to the BDSM community—showing that it’s fun, and not some crazy thing. And also, you can have a second chance in your life and you can keep pushing and developing and learning.
JS: What I’ve learned as a film teacher, what I’ve learned from my favorite movies is that if you want to teach someone something, you better make them laugh—teach them through comedy. Because if you try to just tell them a lesson, they’re not going to listen. So you always want to disguise things like that in comedy. So yes, the “entertaining” part is part and parcel of the other parts.
MVW: And make it look real, you know?
Sheba: When we go to events and we teach, we usually joke about it being edutainment, because in order to get those people who are trying to learn about BDSM to relax and let that information in, you have to get them involved—lighten it up and get them to laugh with you and interact with you. Then they can be in a space where they can learn. And for me, I wanted this movie to really show my community as normal people, because that’s what we are. You know, we’re no different than anyone else.
I appreciated that there wasn’t porn.
Barak: One of the things that Sheba and I really put out on our website, and in our speaking to new people, is that this isn’t about porn. Porn is for voyeurism and exhibitionism in an unreal sense. What we want to do is make sure that people can really see the heart, soul, and connection between the players of SM.