‘You were so freaked out that I was like well, I gotta make her do it now,’ co-showrunner Ross Duffer told newcomer Sadie Sink, who recalls being ‘stressed out’ on set.
The inevitable Stranger Things 2 backlash is a cautionary tale for anyone trying to salvage a scrap of joy out of this unbelievably terrible year. The Netflix phenomenon began as a pure pop-culture confection; a thrilling piece of pastiche that starred some cute kids and Winona Ryder. Now, over a year later, Stranger Things fans are learning the hard way that nothing good can ever stay. Stranger Things 2 has arrived and so has the end of our communal innocence, between Charlie Heaton’s cocaine bust and the first wave of tepid reviews. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon acknowledged that the second season of the Netflix original was faced with “monstrously high expectations,” and concluded that the latest Duffer brothers offering “doesn’t live up to the hype.”
But while Stranger Things may not be immaculate, it’s still a feel-good series—as evidenced by the adorable cast of kids who can now be spotted grinning in formalwear on red carpets. Watching the real-life Stranger Things gang adapt to their whirlwind fame was one of the purest joys of 2016—so I guess we should have known.
This season of Stranger Things culminates at a Hawkins Middle School “Snow Ball” dance. The wintery wonderland apparently proved a rich source of inspiration for the Duffer brothers, who decided to add a last-minute, unscripted kiss between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and new addition Max (Sadie Sink). While a relatively chaste kiss might seem like fair game for two professional child actors, the circumstances surrounding the scene, which were openly discussed in an episode of Netflix’s Beyond Stranger Things after-show, has raised red flags on social media.
In the relevant clip from Beyond Stranger Things—itself a gimmick that’s only accelerated Stranger Things’ inevitable overexposure—the 15-year-old Sink sits down with her fellow middle school dance attendees and Duffers one and two. Ross Duffer opens a discussion of the kiss by telling a visibly worked-up Sink that the scene was “all [her] own fault.” Sadie points out that “the kiss was not written in the script.” She recalls, “I get there, the first day of Snowball… one of you, I think it was you Ross, you say, ‘Ooh, Sadie, you ready for the kiss?’ I’m like, ‘What! No! That’s not in the script… that’s not happening.’” She continues, “So the whole day I was like stressed out, I was like oh my god, wait, am I gonna have to… and it didn’t happen that day, but then the second day of Snow Ball.” At this point, Duffer explains, “You reacted so strongly to this—I was just joking—and you were so freaked out that I was like well, I gotta make her do it now… that’s why I’m saying it’s your fault.” And no wonder Sink was so “stressed out”; as she goes on to describe, the kiss was filmed in front of a full room of extras, plus “their parents, and the crew, and my mom.”
The entire conversation, in which Sink repeatedly recalls feeling caught off-guard while the Duffers giggle, strikes an odd tone, particularly in light of ongoing conversations in Hollywood regarding the exploitation of underage actors and issues of consent. The Duffers’ response to Sink’s initial pushback against the kiss—to insist upon the unscripted scene and then mine it for laughs during their after-show—feels deeply insensitive, grown men essentially bragging about their decision to ignore a 15-year-old girl’s justified discomfort. As Teen Vogue noted, “Many are now taking to social media to discuss this decision and question why the director didn’t comfort the actress, leave the kiss unscripted, or work with Sadie to capture the scene in a way that was comfortable and worry-free for her.”
Making matters worse—or maybe just more embarrassing—is the fact that Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard recently left his agency after sexual assault accusations surfaced about his now-former agent. (Representatives for Sink and Netflix did not return requests for comment.)
Of course, this strange interlude isn’t happening in a vacuum; as the entertainment industry continues to be upended by sexual assault and harassment allegations, Netflix in particular has come under scrutiny.
There’s no denying that writer-director Angela Robinson has excellent timing. Her new film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, about the creation of the Wonder Woman comic book character, has been in the works for years. But it finally came to fruition the same year Warner Brothers’ Wonder Woman climbed the box office charts and made a huge splash for the character. Interest in Wonder Woman and her strange, colorful, bondage-filled history is at an all-time high, and Robinson’s seems poised to fill in the gap. The movie comes to theaters disguised as a lively, colorful origin story for a colorful character — a conventional biopic about a creator whose fierce lady superhero character met a prudish, scolding response when he introduced her in 1941.
But Professor Marston is in no way conventional. Robinson is a gay black writer-director whose previous films, the action-comedy D.E.B.S. and the Disney adventure Herbie Fully Loaded, both focused on adventurous female leads who felt subversively smuggled into theaters. And while her new film looks at Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (played by Luke Evans), it’s even more interested in the women who shaped his life: his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their lover Olive (Bella Heathcote). The movie tracks how William and Elizabeth Marston’s psychological studies led to his theories about the emotionally curative powers of bondage and discipline, which William put directly into his early Wonder Woman comics. And it explores their relationship with Olive, particularly around Elizabeth’s fears of being judged, and William’s fight to get his theories recognized. It’s an unusual story, but Robinson keeps it lively and compelling. She has a light, playful hand with the material, and the movie is alternately erotic, funny, and fiercely supportive of sexual freedom and exploration.
It’s worlds away from Warner Bros.’ darker, more serious Wonder Woman, but there’s a recognizable thread running through both, a defense of women’s independence and self-determination, and an acknowledgement that no matter what social mores of a given era may say, mutually supportive relationships between equals are exciting, sexy, and life-affirming. I sat down with Robinson at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about how she got this startlingly original film to theaters, what went into the writing, and what makes a good sex scene, both for the actors and for the viewers.
As a director, how do you get from Herbie Fully Loaded to an erotic historical biopic? What was the path there?
[Laughs] I think you start with a deep commitment to and interest in strong female protagonists. D.E.B.S. was my first feature, back in 2003 or 2004, it’s all a blur. And then I did Herbie right away. But actually, my first job ever in Hollywood was as a writer on the first season of The L Word. That was a really groundbreaking show which explored a lot of elements of sex and female sexuality. So after I finished doing Herbie, [series co-creator] Ilene Chaiken invited me back to The L Word to direct. And I found I really loved working in cable television, because I felt you had the freedom to explore a lot of different ideas. And so I stayed and worked at Showtime and HBO for a number of years. And still, to this day, that’s my primary job, writing and directing for television.
I feel like I was part of the cable renaissance that happened through the last 10 years. I was able to participate in this really exciting stuff happening on television. I felt like the movies had kind of… maybe not gotten stale, exactly, but they ceased to explore. They used to talk about these concepts, but not anymore. I started writing this movie on nights and weekends, as a passion project. And then I was finally able to get it made.
Did Warner greenlighting Wonder Woman as part of its big superhero universe help you get financing?
I don’t know! Everybody’s commenting on how incredible the timing is. But for me… I’ve been actively trying to get this made for the last four years, and the movie came together and fell apart a couple of times. So it feels more like a coincidence to me. We shot this movie a year ago, and nobody was anticipating the huge success of the Wonder Woman movie, which I’m so fucking excited about. [Laughs]
I do think we started to see a growing Wonder Woman moment three or four years ago, with this reembracing of Marston’s ideas in a number of different mediums, and that led to a Wonder Woman movie finally coming out, after 75 years, she finally got a film. So I do feel like it all merged this summer.
Given some of the critical and fan backlash against earlier DC Universe films, were you ever concerned about what would happen if DC completely botched the character? Did you worry it might reflect badly on your film?
You know, I just really wanted to tell this story, and really wanted to get my film out there. It was such an indie, and Stage 6 and Sony Worldwide really took a chance on the film, and greenlit the project and really believed in it. So those would have been luxurious thoughts to have! [Laughs] I didn’t even know if we were going to get distribution. I just wanted to make it and hope for the best.
Wonder Woman is an inroad to this story, and a framing device, but she isn’t the primary focus here. As you were writing it, how did you approach balancing your story between the origins of this popular, familiar character, and the relationship and people behind it?
For me, it always was fundamentally a love story. That is what I set out to tell. And then how this really unconventional love story ended up reflected in the pages of the Wonder Woman comic, and the character we came to know. So for me, it was always about the relationship between William and Elizabeth, and how Elizabeth and Olive inspired him to create Wonder Woman, and how he put their lives into the comics pages. And I wanted to discuss his philosophies about women, sex, and gender, and how his psychological philosophies emerged from his life, very literally.
Elizabeth and Olive haven’t gone on the record much about their personal lives and what their relationship looked like from the inside. How did you approach how you wanted to characterize them?
It was really important to me. There are certain facts in the Marstons’ life that are indisputable, that everybody agrees with. And then there are certain facts that are open to interpretation. And so this film is definitely my interpretation of all of my research, basically. I do things you do in all historical biopics, where I condense time and locations, and there are some composite characters and stuff like that. But I had a story that I interpreted all of the facts around. I started out just trying to tell a very organic love story. The biggest thing that hit me very early on is that Olive and Elizabeth lived together for 38 years after Marston died. That fact just blew my mind. I was very compelled by how much love there was in there. Elizabeth named her only daughter after Olive. They formed a family and lived together in this way.
What was most important to bring across about each of the characters in order to shape the story you wanted to tell?
What was most important about Marston was, I became very obsessed with his ideas and DISC theory, which I feel like was his main jam. I really honed in on that. Every scene in the movie kind of revolves around “Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance.” And the question of “Is he a feminist, or like, an exploitative pervert?” [Laughs] I thought, “I just don’t know about this guy! So in order to figure him out, I felt I had to figure out Elizabeth. With her, I became fascinated by the fact that all the reports say she was so smart and she had three degrees, but she ended up for much of her life supporting the family, and working as a secretary. Which is how Diana Prince [Wonder Woman’s secret identity] became a secretary as well. That’s how Elizabeth was reflected in Wonder Woman. A lot of the movie is about men and women, and masculinity and femininity, and entitlement, and how Marston was able to go on and be the one who was known, whereas Olive and Elizabeth were kind of hidden by history. I thought that was very much a reflection of their times. You feel a lot of that frustration in Elizabeth, and how she’s most engaged in and aware of [the social and political] reality.
For me, she and Olive both really represented Marston’s conception of women. I’m exploring his notion of Wonder Woman as this kind of combo of the two women. Elizabeth goes on this tremendous growth throughout the movie. And then what Bella [Heathcote, who plays Olive] does in an extraordinary way in the film is present incredible vulnerability and strength, simultaneously. Wonder Woman is embodied by tons of contradictory ideas, which I think is why she holds so much space in the popular imagination. There are certain things I think of as the third rail of the American psyche, those pop culture things that just like make people’s brains go [electric zapping noise]. They can’t quite reconcile it. “How can she be a feminist if there are these bondage scenes? Her outfit is too kinky! She doesn’t represent me personally!” Wonder Woman has always been a lightning rod for criticism. And Marston created her expressly to be psychological propaganda, to get people to think. But he he based her in this belief that women are inherently loving, and men are inherently violent, so women hold the path to peace on our planet. And that the highest emotion is love. And Wonder Woman was created to represent that. So that was my biggest takeaway for all of them.
The film isn’t sexually graphic, but it’s fairly daring about its eroticism. How did you decide how far you wanted to push the audience with the sex scenes?
Two things. The sexuality was really what a lot of Marston’s theories were about. He and Elizabeth were psychologists studying sex, so I didn’t want to shy away from their exploration of what that was like. A lot of times, sex in stories isn’t essential to the story. But here, you literally can’t understand the people if you don’t understand this part of them. That was essential here. And overall, the scenes revolved around this DISC theory, around dominance and submission and so forth. So I was obsessed with exploring not only the male / female desire, but the dimensions of female desire, and how complicated that can get. I was obsessed with the notion of consent, and I thought that’s what was sexy about it, about the emotional limbs they were going out on.
I think often when directors shoot sex scenes, the movie’s going, and then it stops, and actors stop acting, and then do the sex scene. Everybody just wants to get it over with, because it’s uncomfortable to shoot. And then the movie resumes. I really wanted to direct the actors through the sex scenes, and not put a big ellipsis in it where the movie stops. I’ve done a lot of work in cable, so I actually think my perspective was different. I spent a decade working on shows like The L Word and True Blood and other things where you’re allowed to explore that stuff. So then returning to a movie format, I feel like I had developed a different perspective on these scenes from my work in cable that of brought to the film.
Did the actors have barriers you had to get over, in terms of getting them comfortable, or getting them out of that movie mindset?
Not really. All three of them are extraordinary talented, and incredibly committed to telling the story. And in all my initial conversations, I really made it clear about how I wanted to shoot the scenes, to give them a comfort level. But it was mostly them understanding what I was doing, and how I was going to do it, and why. Then they were fully committed and trusted me fully, and it was really easy from that point.
Films tend to forget that sex is fun. That’s one of the extraordinary things here — the sense of play and exploration involved.
Yeah, totally, yeah yeah yeah!
How did you get to that approach?
I remember talking to the people at Stage 6, who financed it, and I said, “The sex in the movie is in the lie detector scene. That’s where it’s transpiring. The sex scenes are about freedom and discovery and fantasy. There’s a dialectic in the movie between fantasy and reality. And this is when they become most fully themselves. It’s about them transcending the real world, and losing themselves in the sense of fantasy, where they can be their freest, truest selves. It wasn’t like, “You’re doing that thing to this person.” It was about discovering this space with each other.
Earlier this week Netflix shut down production on House of Cards in the wake of actor Anthony Rapp’s sexual abuse allegations against Kevin Spacey. Today, the streaming service announced it is going a step further, and will no longer work with the actor in any capacity whatsoever.
“Netflix will not be involved with any further production of House of Cards that includes Kevin Spacey,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement. “We will continue to work with MRC during this hiatus time to evaluate our path forward as it relates to the show. We have also decided we will not be moving forward with the release of the film Gore, which was in post-production, starring and produced by Kevin Spacey.”
In a statement, Media Rights Capital says that Spacey has been suspended from the production, effective immediately.
Production on the show’s sixth season was well underway before Rapp’s allegations surfaced in an interview with BuzzFeed. Spacey responded by coming out as a gay man publicly on Twitter, in what was widely criticized as an attempt to divert attention away from the accusations. Soon thereafter, word broke that the sixth season had already been planned to be the last hurrah for the political drama. On Halloween, both Netflix and production partner Media Rights Capital decided to put production of the series on hold. In the days since, an increasing number of people have come forward with sexual harassment allegations against the actor, with a report from CNN detailing multiple incidents during production of House of Cards itself.
The show’s producers have reportedly been considering ways to move forward, either by killing off Spacey’s character, or perhaps moving to spin-off shows. As for Spacey himself, a representative for the actor said on Wednesday that he is “taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment.” The actor was dropped by both his publicist and talent agency CAA on November 2nd.