Filmmaker Interview

Geoffrey Smith, director, Presumed Guilty, The English Surgeon: Julie, what is Guilty Pleasures all about?

Julie Moggan, director, Guilty Pleasures: Guilty Pleasures is a film about the gap between our romantic fantasies and the tragicomic truths of our real-life relationships between men and women. It follows five characters in different countries: three women who are avid readers of the books, one man — the only man that writes the books in the U.K. — and a male model who's been on the cover of over 200 romance novels.

What's at the core of it? Why are we watching this film? Why does it speak to people from all sorts of different backgrounds, all sorts of different countries even?

I think as Stephen, the male model in the film, says at one point, we're all yearning for love. I think when I started out I thought the film would be much more about women's lives, because the majority of the readers of Harlequins are women and the books are predominantly written by women. But as I went on the journey of meeting people and getting to know my characters' husbands and boyfriends and ex-husbands, I realized that these men were just as interested in finding love and keeping love as the women. So I think it's very much a film about this yearning in all of us to find love, but also it's as much about the way in which real life so rarely fulfills our hopes and dreams and expectations, and how we deal with, I suppose, the disappointment of real life.

Did you think it was going to be as funny as it was when you set out? Or has it become unintentionally funny on the way through?

When I was studying at film school a few years ago I made my first "funny" film and it was kind of by accident that that film turned out to be as funny as it was. It was a real joy for me to sit in a cinema with an audience around me and hear laughter. From that moment onwards I vowed to make only humorous films. At the time I came across an article about Harlequin I was going through my own kind of personal romance crisis. When I chose to make this film I realized that there was a very strong likelihood of there being a potential for humor.

It's quite tricky this question of humor in documentary-making when it's real people's lives. I think there's a real fine line between laughing at people and laughing with people and I know certainly for myself and my editor, it was a big concern for us when we were editing the film to always try and stay on the right side of that line. I think you know sometimes we are laughing with our characters. Sometimes they're very knowingly funny and saying humorous things, and other times I think we are laughing at the characters — but I hope with a real affection. And I think sometimes part of what we're laughing at is we kind of recognize ourselves in the characters. We recognize something funny about the way they're being or saying or doing, and I think a lot of the humor comes through that, but I think as long as there is real affection there, then I hope it's ethically in the right place.

I would hope an audience to feel when they watch the film some kind of recognition actually of their own lives in the characters, to be able to be entertained and to really enjoy the film, but also to recognize something of your own life in each of the characters and perhaps be moved by what some of them are going through. People can be quite derided for reading romance novels, you know, it's something that can be seen to be a pretty pathetic thing to do. But I hope that in this film the viewers will get beyond all that, and be able to get past any kind of clichés or stereotypes about the kind of people that read romance and actually relate to them as individuals and come to care about them. I think that's what I would most like, for people to have real empathy for their lives and relate completely to them because of their own experiences.

What struck me first and foremost is this is a subject that cleverly allows you, the filmmaker, with no position or intrusion, to go into people's lives very quickly and talk about things that probably under most circumstances they just wouldn't. But did you find yourself surprised at the level of intimacy and access people were giving you, almost straightaway.

Certainly with Japan, I remember people saying to me, "Wow, good luck in Japan! I think women there will not open up to you at all. They won't speak about these things, it's just not culturally what, what happens there. This is very private stuff." But in fact, I found that from the first meeting I had with I think 20 avid readers of the books on my first trip there, and straightaway we were talking in a very open and revealing way about their real life and marriages. So, yeah, it was much easier than I expected in Japan.

In this country, in the U.K., it was much more tricky. I was able to meet many, many women who were very happy to come and meet me for a cup of tea or invite me to their homes and to talk about how much they loved the books. But when we got to the point of discussing them appearing in a documentary and being on camera, they said there's no way that they would be seen on television admitting publicly that they really did love these books. So that was quite an interesting cultural difference.

Out of the people who are actually in the film, did they see a side of themselves that perhaps they didn't recognize or do you think they were very much aware, particularly in relation to the Japanese lady (Hiroko)?

It's tricky because unfortunately we didn't have the budget for me to go and watch the final film in Japan with Hiroko and her husband Seiich. So, my amazing fixer, who I worked with in Japan, Miriam, went and sat with them and watched it. To my surprise they were very happy with the film. I was very nervous about the revelation in the film that Hiroko had a bit of a crush on her dance teacher. And I had real concerns about how that could impact on their relationship. But I was reassured by some Japanese translators I worked with in London and also by Miriam that in Japan it's very common for women to be very critical of their husbands and to talk about having crushes on other men. So apparently it wasn't such a big deal that she appeared to have a bit of a crush on her teacher. But when I was leaving Japan after my final day of filming, Hiroko said to me that the process of being in a documentary and the kind of interviews we were doing and the conversations we were having and the questions that were being raised, forced her to reflect in a way that she felt was very positive on herself and her marriage.

For people that haven't seen the film, there are some very cinematic cuts between a thought process that's going on and then we find ourselves in the life of one of the new characters, because the beauty of your structure is that you can cut backwards and forwards between all these alternating stories. There's a lot of subtext going on all the time. The further the film goes on, the much more interesting and darker in some cases it gets. It gets very real about the drive and the split between fantasy and reality and people's ability, or otherwise, to deal with that. Did you expect it to go down those roads to some extent?

I had a feeling that this film would enable me to not only make a funny film but also a film with quite a lot of sadness in it. When I first met Phil and Shelly, the couple from England, they made me laugh straightaway. They were very, very funny, but I sensed a sadness there from the very beginning, and found out quite soon that Phil's bipolar [disorder]. I had gone to Warrington in the north of England for a week to do some shooting with an assistant who was working with me at the time. We had a schedule kind of planned out of what we would be filming with Phil and Shelly every day. But on Day Two we got a text from Phil saying that he's gone into a very dark place and that we wouldn't be following through with our schedule for the week. Obviously, I had to completely respect that. But part of me was like, oh, we need to make the film, we're running out of time, and what do we do? Then I realized that it could be really important and interesting to try and show the reality of this aspect of their relationship, what that was like. So, I texted Phil back and said, "You know, I completely understand if you're not keen, but how would you feel about us documenting this in some way or featuring it in the film to show other people what it's like to have this bipolar [disorder]. He texted straight back and said, "Yeah, please just come around, maybe we'll see how it goes." He said, "I would like people to understand what it's like to have this bipolar [disorder]."

Once you'd chosen people, were there any issues about access? And areas that both you felt you wouldn't go or they felt they didn't want to go?

I think a lot of documentary-makers maybe angst quite a bit about this idea that you're taking from your characters, you're exploiting, and that the process of filmmaking, of documentary-making, is quite ethically questionable in that way. And I certainly struggled with that myself in my own experiences with different films. But, that's not necessarily the way your contributors see it — that as much as you may seem to be taking, they are enjoying expressing something of their lives. For me, I hope that the process of filmmaking was, rather than an exploitation from me, more of an exchange. So off-camera we spent quite a lot of time talking just as much about my private life and my personal stuff as them, and hopefully I would like to think that I had a real friendship with each of them, and that's really important for me in the work I do.

Did you go and talk to Harlequin itself? And what did they have to say about how they wanted to be seen or presented?

I went and met the editorial team in the U.K. and they were lovely and very accommodating about the film and keen to help out, very supportive about my proposal. And they had a sense of humor. They know some very, very intelligent editorial stuff and they know that these books are not the most serious literature, but they have a real passion for the romance genre, same with all the writers. There's no one who I met who was in any way cynical. I've heard people say, "Oh, I should write at Harlequin. It's the easiest way to earn some money." But actually if there's any cynicism, it'll never work and your book will never convince. So I found a lot of very passionate people in that world who have a sense of humor about what they do but actually really, genuinely love this genre.

What about advice for first time filmmakers, people coming up through the ranks? What would you say is the most important thing to pass on to others?

I worked on it for two and a half years, and it wasn't a cheap film. I was filming in lots of different countries over a long period of time so it's very difficult to keep your head above water and have enough money to live. But somehow you've just got to keep persevering. Perseverance is a big thing I think.

And the other thing is to really have faith in that 'reality' will deliver to you as well. It's a big question, particularly with feature documentaries, "But what will your story be?" This is always the question that you'll be asked by funders and commissioners and broadcasters, and that's fair enough — understandably they need to know that they're going to get a story. But very often you can't really say that in advance — you can't be sure what that story is and you can't be definitely that there will be a story, but there always will be. Reality delivers. People are amazing and things happen. You don't always need huge narratives and sometimes the small things in life can be full of drama and be very important if you observe them and follow them in the right kind of way.