Sex & Death is a six-part web series that follows aspiring but hopeless actress Charlie and her lost cause attempts at romance. Produced by Tobias Willis (Now Sound, 2018) and starring Actor, Writer and Director Kathleen Lee (Bush Trip, 2016) as the protagonist, the series explores relationships, virtue, self-discovery and self-expression in a semi-autobiographical exploration of the neurodiverse life and brain of Kathleen Lee.
Not to say I don’t hurt others, I quite often do, especially now that I have learnt to release my honesty.Kathleen Lee, Writer, Director, Actor
Haunted by duplicitous lovers, selfish friends and a tyrannical acting coach, Sex & Death follows Charlie (Lee) on a tumultuous journey to emotional liberation and expressive freedom; drawing directly on Lee’s experience living with undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder. Featuring notable performances from Isabella Giovinazzo (Home and Away) and Raw Comedy winner Jonathan Schuster (Fancy Boy, Fresh Blood), and a few cameos from Tobias himself, Sex & Death is a fresh take on modern day relationships from an essential and underrepresented new viewpoint.
Sex & Death is available online here.
Around The Sound’s Sheldon Ang spoke to Sex & Death writer, director and lead actor, Kathleen Lee, about the making of the series and how it crosses paths with her own life and experiences as a woman living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Take it away, Sheldon …
Sex & Death, a title that could be more in step with a BDSM flick than a six-part web series, flirts with a relationship matrix between the neurodiverse Charlie and the neurotypical people around her.
In this semi-autobiographical account, Charlie (Kathleen Lee) continually finds herself in the shadows of her egocentric best friend, Tania, and waltzing in a one-way relationship with her duplicitous lover, Damian, while moonlighting between social roles in search of her place in this world.
The web series may be a self-proclaimed ‘romantic comedy’, but Sex & Death is anything but a stereotype; it is as hilariously entertaining as it’s thematically stern as Lee (also the writer and director) explores Charlie’s character traits of disconnect and emotional subservience.
Despite being a relatively short series, Sex & Death, ambitiously and successfully explores a multitude of themes, twists and ironies without cluttering the storyline.
You are writer, director and an actor for Sex & Death. Which of these three roles do you prefer, and why?
I love all three roles. I suppose the writing part is my favourite because it’s the part where I discover and craft the story the most. When I’m writing it feels very similar to acting except that I am all the characters, I have full control and I can take my time. Directing is more difficult because you need to constantly be reanalysing what the best result possible is; whether it is trying to recreate what you envisioned or going with an interpretation that one of the other creatives is presenting. You need to be aware of how every decision is effecting that scene but then also the story over all. On a low budget shoot like ours you have only a very limited time to do it in and you can’t afford any mistakes. Acting is the easiest bit because for that moment between action and cut, you are just that person, you are only aware of their point of view, their feelings; you actually have to ignore the broader perspective. The hard bit is having to switch from this perspective to the overall one in between takes. Because the story is largely told from my characters point of view, it was sort of easier. The audience is usually meant to feel what she feels so whatever I was feeling performing the scene was usually a good indicator of what was being captured. I had John Campell co directing and relied on him heavily to give me feedback and keep an eye on the overall perspective.
Since writing Sex & Death, you’ve been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Does owning this knowledge change your interaction with others? And if so, how much of Charlie’s character still resonate with you?
My ASD diagnosis is gradually changing the way I interact with others. I feel less pressure to force myself to try and perform social dances and just speak in a way that is more natural to me. However this is not always possible and still often I have to try and mask in order to not make others feel uncomfortable. I try to avoid these situations as they are exhausting and I am not good at them.
I still resonate a lot with the character of Charlie and her plight to exist in an honest way around the people she loves. However, she conceals nearly all her feelings from her friends and I now do the opposite: I tell nearly all my friends nearly all my feelings.
In the series, Charlie also is an actor. To what extent is acting an emotional release for Charlie allowing her to express herself in the safety of a fictional setting?
Charlie has spent her life not being herself, trying to conceal her emotional reactions and studying other people to see how they behave. So getting to fully become another person is a relief to her and a kind of freedom. However, the reason Greg’s class is so challenging to her is because he wants her to be herself and to draw on her own emotions. This is the very thing she has spent her life avoiding having to do at all costs; the reason she has surrounded herself with friends that do not notice her. Not only is she challenged to face her greatest fear, she is asked to do it in front of a classroom of people who will judge how real she is being.
How would you describe Charlie’s relationship with her best friend Tania?
At first it seems as though Tanya is a bad friend; she runs off with Charlie’s boyfriend and doesn’t seem to realise that this might be hurtful. Charlie’s lack of reaction would indicate that maybe Tanya is taking advantage of how nice Charlie is, however throughout the series we discover that this is not the case. Charlie wants to learn how people work so she wants someone she can study, and because she does not understand how to behave she wants a friendship where she doesn’t really have to behave. So, Tanya is the ideal candidate; whilst she is not necessarily selfish, she is very easily distracted with the subject of herself and will only really notice Charlie’s feelings if they are obvious. Charlie indulges Tanya’s self-interest and obliviousness so that she can have a safe place to hide and observe her friend. Tanya loves having such an avid audience and Charlie loves being her audience. So, whilst from their outer behaviour it would seem as though Tanya is taking advantage of Charlie, it is actually Charlie that is taking advantage of Tanya.
Charlie is forgiving, accepting and even embracing of her selfish and self-centred friends — unconditionally. Why do you think that’s the case for Charlie?
Charlie’s priority is to be accepted, not to be loved. So Charlie doesn’t mind when her friends hurt her with their selfish actions, so long as they still accept her. She does not expect or even feel love from them because she has never revealed herself to them; so even if they did love her she would not feel as though they were loving who she actually is as this is something she has never shown anyone. However, Charlie loves her friends a lot and gets her sense of meaning from loving as opposed to being loved. Their actions do not bother her as long as they still let her love them. Being loved is not a possibility for Charlie as she has never felt safe to reveal herself to anyone. However this changes when she meets Pat and does reveal herself to him.
Initially, Charlie is perceived as the vulnerable protagonist, and Tania the impervious ‘cool’ best friend, yet Charlie oozes resilience and is hardened by her life experience, while Tania breaks down upon succumbing to a relatively innocuous backflip. As a writer and director, is that the key message that you’re conveying – that we shouldn’t undermine the strengths and contributions from the likes of Charlie?
Charlie’s strength is in her ability to accept and love her friends without judgement. However she takes advantage of their egos in order to hide her real self and this is unfair as it enables her friends to behave in hurtful ways without them realising. So Charlie does have good qualities but she is not an ideal character. She needs to overcome her fear of revealing herself in order to show respect to her friends.
Tanya’s highly reactive, often contradictory personality seems to lack integrity but ultimately, does not. Her ability to have perspective on her actions is limited but when she is able to, she is a loyal and kind friend.
Sometimes, the protagonist’s key strengths shape the storyline. Are Charlie’s persistence, selflessness and forgiveness also her downfall?
Yes. The friendship dynamics that Charlie has carefully constructed to protect her from being noticed begin to backfire on her when she finally does desire to be noticed. Whilst Tanya’s obliviousness and lack of investigation into Charlie’s real feelings has been Charlie’s safety blanket it begins to be the source of her pain and something that she needs to confront.
Greg the acting coach reminds me of George Costanza from Seinfeld, a neurotic character who can be bitter, loud and obnoxious. Yet we also see his gentle side, and I’m starting to believe he’s the opposite of George. So, has Charlie driven Greg to neuroticism?
No, I don’t think Charlie herself has much effect on Greg. He certainly seems annoyed by her but I’d say he enjoys being annoyed and does it as often as possible. His display of intense emotion is as much a tactic to get her to reveal some emotion as it is a cathartic release for him and evidence of his lack of touch with the rest of the world. I think he has probably been ranting at various students for years.
How challenging was it to both direct and play the protagonist in Sex & Death?
Playing Charlie and directing was less difficult than the acting/directing combo can be as Charlie is mostly quite passive and aware of her surroundings. So within the scene the things that I was observing and feeling as Charlie were usually quite similar to what was being captured through the lens. The interactions with Pat were actually the most difficult as this is where Charlie is less passive. And so I would be more likely to need to watch playback for these scenes. Having a co director that I trusted was essential to me. He was able to watch my performance and let me know how it was reading on screen and oversee the running of the set. I made sure that me and the DP were on the same page long before the shoot days so that I could trust we had the same vision. As many of the scenes play it in single shots it was quite easy to watch playback and direct in between takes and be fully aware of what was being captured.
How would you describe your approach a director?
I would say that in this series I was more focused on the acting. The story is very much dialogue and character driven and not so visceral. So the role of the camera and sound was to communicate the action as best as possible. I did work closely with the DP. Especially in the planning of the shoot but we decided a fairly minimal and classic approach to coverage was going to tell the story in the best way. During the shoot I trusted him completely with the lighting and framing; to great effect. As I am also an editor, I am quite technical as a director in terms of coverage, angles and eye lines. In terms of performance I like to see how each actor interprets the scene and then provide direction if I feel it is necessary for the overall story. I love directing actors and like to use backstory as a way of developing their understanding of the characters.
As a director, are you pleased with the acting, direction, cinematography, and the post-production?
So pleased. I was very lucky to be able to work with an extremely professional and talented team. The performances we got are so true to the characters and often hilarious and moving. Jonathan Haynes, the DP, was excellent to work with – extremely talented, efficient and able to work to a professional standard and gather an excellent camera crew with the tiny budget we allowed him. We got post production funding so our colour grade by crayon and sound mix by windmill are both top class. I am happy with John Campbell’s and my direction and my edit. The great team and reason it all came together is, of course, because we had an exceptional producer, Tobias Willis. He brought the team together and is the one who made it all happen; he also has an ongoing cameo throughout the series as Pete (the weird guy with a moustache in the acting class).
Sex & Death could’ve probably ended on Episode 5. The final episode feels like a review of the themes, yet we find ourselves with another twist. It seems that Charlie is more concerned about hurting others than being hurt herself. Do you think this is an act of selflessness or naivety? Is this act a reflection of Kathleen Lee?
I’m not sure it’s either. I think Charlie has not often been presented with the opportunity to hurt others as she has avoided people that notice her and therefore could be hurt by her. To hurt Damian or Tanya would not make sense as she loves them and loves watching their lives play out but has no interest in experimenting with how her actions might affect them. She also really values them and does not want to lose them so hurting them does not make any sense to her. In hiding herself from her friends she is not trying to protect them from being hurt but trying to protect herself from being rejected by them. She has no desire to hurt anyone as she does not feel as though anyone has wronged her. She just accepts that they did what they needed to do, even if she can’t understand why. She gains the courage to be honest; which is different to being cruel. It is a reflection of me, just as the whole character is.
I find it much easier to be hurt than hurt others but that isn’t just for selfless reasons; hurting others has external implications that can make life complicated, whereas being hurt yourself doesn’t necessarily have to. Also, intentionally hurting others is rarely an act of emotional maturity and usually comes from an inability to understand their point of view or an unwillingness to accept that it is as credible as yours even if you can’t understand it. Not to say I don’t hurt others, I quite often do, especially now that I have learnt to release my honesty.
Sex & Death is a semi-autobiographical. How did you come up with the rest of the plot? Was it a multitude of storylines from different parts of your life?
I slowly constructed the story over a long period of time. Certain moments, dynamics and story threads are based on different parts of my life and others are entirely fictional but they all weave together and become so real to me that it’s hard to actually remember which actually happened and which didn’t. The “real” bits stop being what they were in my life and become this other thing which still lives in my mind like a memory, just as the actors portrayal of each character takes over from the real people I based some of the characters on.
Will there be a sequel? Tell us about your next project?
I don’t think so. However the series I’m working on now explores similar character archetypes to this one. It is semi autobiographical again and this time explores my discovery of my own autism through meeting and falling crazily and far too quickly in love with another autistic person. It will be similar in it’s character drivenness to this one but explore the darker sides of undiagnosed autism, loneliness and being different, it will also have a lot of humourous sex scenes.