Feature Story: My Year Without Sex

After opening the Adelaide Film Festival in February, Sarah Watt’s second feature My Year Without Sex will open in cinemas this week. Simon de Bruyn finds out why she considers it to be a perfect companion to her first film.

Sarah Watt’s first feature film, Look Both Ways, was always going to be a tough act to follow. The 2005 film won over critics and audiences alike and took home four AFI Awards, including best director and best film, three IF Awards and just under $3 million at the Australian box office. Little wonder then that she seems to have taken her debut film’s title literally, while awaiting the release of her second.

This second film as writer and director, My Year Without Sex, builds on the strengths of Look Both Ways, continuing its themes of love through adversity and the redemptive moments of daily suburban life. Told with a humour that comes from familiarity, it is a subtle exploration of sex, marriage and modern parenting.

Sacha Horler plays Natalie, a thirty-something mother of two who is married to Ross (Matt Day) and it is her story which anchors the film. We are given one month to get to know this family’s rhythm before Natalie is struck down, suffering from a brain aneurism, and it’s her recovery and adjustment over one year (with sex off the cards on doctor’s orders) that is the backbone of this family’s story.

“I wanted to continue to explore some of the themes in Look Both Ways, about people finding meaning in their life, whether you earn good luck or bad luck, and how you look at things, which affects how life happens,” Watt tells INSIDEFILM

“It’s very much a companion piece really while still being quite different. I didn’t want to stray too far away, as I’m still learning how to make films. I like the idea of people who have kids really young, but maybe never got the chance to sort through who they really were before they hooked up and had kids. So when a crisis hits they may not have started thinking philosophical things, this is kind of the first time they’ve had to think some of these thoughts about life and death.”

“I guess I get bored with the normal things. So whilst liking the structure of films, I get bored with the idea that redemption only comes at the end or that things are perfect and then something bad happens, or life is terrible until you’re redeemed and everything’s better. I like the idea that there’s no such thing as a perfect life,” she says.

“The whole film is about sex in one form or another, but it’s not necessarily Natalie’s story. The idea of the title is we don’t know who ‘My’ is; the idea is that everybody is having a year without sex.”

Watt has said before that she raids her life for stories, and as with Look Both Ways, it’s easy to assume this story is somewhat autobiographical. During the July 2004 post-production of Look Both Ways, Watt was diagnosed with cancer (now in remission), an issue which that film also addressed, along with the fear of death.

Prodded gently to explain the genesis of My Year Without Sex, Watt shies away from drawing a direct line between Natalie’s story and her own, instead referring to a friend’s experience.

“When I raid from my life I try to raid widely and obscurely, so this has come from a variety of raiding. So yes I had a friend who had an aneurism, and obviously I’ve had a situation of figuring out how to live, how to be around, and various anxieties and stuff like that,” she says.

“On set Sacha managed to convey this in a very real way. I think one of the most amazing things about her is her ability to be in the moment, and she has this transparency. The way she seems to work, is to completely be in the character. So she will react to a thought the character would be having. I think that was really important for the character of Natalie, that we really believe her, and there were levels of who she was, like there are levels of everybody.”

My Year Without Sex is a companion piece in more ways than one, with the creative triptych she formed with producer Bridget Ikin and associate producer Barbara Masel first formed on Look Both Ways coming together again for this film. Ikin says that with Watt she has captured that rare thing, a perfect creative collaboration.

“It’s rare to meet truly wonderful collaborators, but with Sarah I found someone who I could really work so well with. We are already talking about the next one,” she laughs.

“The great thing is work like Sarah’s has currency, and you want to make them now instead of waiting two years as they could go off the boil. We wanted to make the film as soon as possible so we could show it as soon as possible.”

She explains the creative trio works well, and says that Masel is as much a part of the core team as her and Watt.

“I make sure I’m across everything but I’m not an interferer. I’m careful in the choice of people I want to work with and then let people get on with it and trust them to get on with it,” she explains.

“The way Sarah likes to work is very loose and I stood a long way back while she was teasing out the story and ideas for My Year Without Sex. During this time Barbara, who was the script editor on Look Both Ways, worked closely with her. I trust that process.”

Segmenting the film into 12 short episodes, each representing a month in the family’s year, was an organic result of this writing process. Watt says she was interested in finding a structure that eliminated all the boring, in between bits of films, and also the predictability of screenplays that deal with more hackneyed topics of family in suburbia.

“I always find myself ahead of films and predicting them so I just wanted to try something where you were enjoying the ellipsis of story just as much you were enjoying the story itself. It was also a way of getting so many ideas into one film, and this way I thought you could tell a lot of short stories, which add up to a big picture which hopefully has a revelatory effect,” she says.

Whether or not it was their awareness of the second film syndrome, the team chose modesty over ambition when it came to the scope of the story they wanted to tell. In a decision designed to keep the story personal, intimate and relatable, Watt decided to eschew the pattern of second features which try to tell bigger, bolder stories with more expensive actors.

“We aimed to keep the budget around the same size as Look Both Ways and try to hone the craft instead of trying to shop it around and get big stars, so we made it for $3.8 million,” she says.

Obviously with a six and a half week shoot and the budget we had, we shot on 16mm, with two cameras for about half the time, especially for the kids’ reactions.”

Shot in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray by DOP Graeme Wood – the same suburb that Watt and husband, actor William McInnes, call home – the film is a burst of colour.

Watt explains that she worked hard with production designer Simon McCutcheon (who was art director on her first feature) to come up with a vibrant array of colours, which acts as a live action equivalent to the paints she used in her earlier work as an animator.

“My background is in visual art so I wanted to see if we could have an underscore of colours rather than music, which Look Both Ways used as what I would call an overscore. It was a conscious decision to be stylistically different from my first film,” she explains.

“When I went into live action I had lost a bit of what I really liked about animation, which was being in control of every frame, so I tried to regain a bit of that control in the visuals of My Year Without Sex.

“I worked with the designer Simon McCutcheon really hard on all that sort of stuff, so we had a different pallet for every month, and hopefully the whole thread of the story is supported through colour. So the hospital scenes are muted blues, and the busy months are busy.”

This is an edited version of the story which appeared in the February 2009 (#117) magazine issue of INSIDEFILM. Click here to watch the trailer for My Year Without Sex. The film opens in 25 cinemas this week.