• Writer-director Kathleen Lee, second from right, also stars in 'Sex and Death' (SBS)Source: SBS
Neurodiverse writer-director Kathleen Lee talks us through the process of drawing upon her own efforts to fit in. (SBS VICELAND, 23 November)
Kylie Walker

4 Nov 2020 - 7:30 PM  UPDATED 4 Nov 2020 - 7:31 PM

Charlie, the central character in Sex and Death, is a terrible actress with a terrible love life. That sounds like plenty of material for a plot, but it’s not what’s at the heart of this quirky story.

Sex and Death is about trying to fit in, about being afraid to show the real you.

When we meet Charlie (played by Kathleen Lee, also the project’s writer-director), she’s having a bad day. A really bad day. Her sort-of boyfriend Damien (Robin Brown) dumps her, her acting coach Greg (Greg Ulfan) humiliates her in class, she has a strange encounter with a guy at the local chicken shop, and there’s something that would make most of us go ‘what the!?’ going on with her best friend, Tanya (Isabella Giovinazzo), too.

But Charlie seems strangely unworried by all of this.

“Charlie is a person who is innately different trying to navigate how to fit into a world where she doesn’t seem to belong. When we first meet Charlie her method of coping is through completely masking her differences, being passive, unemotional and hiding all her feelings,” says Lee.

Since writing Sex and Death, Lee has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Charlie’s way of dealing with the world, Lee says, reflects her own life-long struggle to make sense of the way other people act.

“What’s interesting and different about this story is that it is the main character – the observer, the eyes through which we see the world – that is the weird, the different, the neurodiverse character and because of this it’s the neurotypical people around her, Damian, Tanya and even Greg, who become the absurd characters. And that is often the neurodiverse experience. You’re very aware that you’re different, and that you’re the one that has to adjust to fit in but to you, they all seem weird. Unless you know it intuitively like neurotypical people do, what’s ‘normal’ is actually completely Illogical, unpredictable and impossible to memorise,” Lee says.

Sex and Death producer Tobias Willis – look out for his cameo in the film as one of Carlie’s fellow acting students – tells SBS working on the film has made him think about how we all interact with the world.

“It’s been an interesting experience seeing how Kathleen sees the world around her. I think this story is a beautiful testament to that period where you're finding your feet and learning to love yourself. I’ve always been quite an emotional person, fundamentally I feel connected with the characters in the script and feel like I know them. Maybe it helped me understand and appreciate the beauty in people’s flaws a little more.”

Lee is one of the creatives working with KEWL, an emerging film production studio based in Melbourne and started by Willis in 2017. Sex and Death was filmed in the area around the studio – keen eyes might recognise the streets and shops of Clifton Hill and Fitzroy North – and all the artists on the soundtrack are Melbourne locals too: Sunbeam Sound Machine, Christopher Coleman, Sister SoCrates, Mouth Tooth, Mike Nolan, Mount Saint Leonard and Grand Salvo.

“Kathleen writes and performs her own music, and this particular soundtrack is in line with her music tastes and fits the tone of the series perfectly,” Willis says. “The artists are all beautiful lyricists in their own right and have an introspective quality about them.”

Sex and Death is the sort of show that rewards some reflection.

By hiding her true self, Charlie is failing to live her life. Are there some life lessons for everyone in that, we asked Lee – a message about the importance of taking risks, of letting yourself be seen?

“This is something I’ve been learning to do more and more. I hid a lot of myself from a very young age because my observations of other people told me it would not be safe to show these things – that if I showed them I would be rejected from society (the schoolyard). In fairness, this was probably true. Groups of people can be cruel and the things I was hiding would have been too foreign and confronting for them to accept. They would have rejected it out of fear that if they accepted it the group would reject them as well.

“I do think most people probably hide a lot of themselves for this same reason. I think often it is a fear left over from when we are very young. For me it was extreme – I hid so much of myself so well for so long that it is actually easier now to hide than to be myself. It has become my instinct. Only when I feel very safe around someone, or if, for some reason, I do not care at all what they think of me, will I be able to switch of this ‘mask’ that I hide behind.

“Two years ago, I was diagnosed with autism and my inflated need to hide myself from others suddenly made sense. Whilst everyone hides parts of themselves, maybe a goofy laugh, maybe an embarrassing insecurity, I hid my entire way of thinking and communicating and a whole bunch of confronting movements and noises I like to make on a regular basis.

“Receiving this label from someone as valid as a medical expert has given me the permission to be ‘unusual’. However, letting go of the instinct to hide has been a long process and the fear of confronting people with my self is so great that sometimes I just can’t do it. When I meet someone for the first time, I am usually sussing out whether it is safe to be ‘weird’ around them. By weird, I mostly mean blunt and direct as opposed to polite and small talky, I don’t bust out the weird movements straight away, although I have met several people who wouldn’t have minded – they are my favourites – and usually also autistic. I think this sussing out is something everyone does, it’s just extreme in my case.”

Lee not only wrote and acted in Sex and Death but directed it too. How challenging is it to be all three on a project?

“The writing-directing combo I don’t find challenging at all. The acting-directing combo I do. Despite the few acting classes I took with Greg (the guy who plays Greg was my actual acting teacher and is also called Greg) I don’t have much training and so the acting technique I use is to just pretend it’s real. This involves having to enter a subjective viewpoint and let go of overseeing the scene objectively – which is what you want to do as the director.

“So after each take (provided I was able to enter this viewpoint – often I can’t do it) I would know how the scene felt to Charlie but I wouldn’t know how it came across to an audience. In most of the scenes these two things were the same thing, as the show is largely told from Charlie’s point of view. However, I did not feel safe to trust this so I had a co-director, John Campbell. He would watch all the takes through the monitor and be the objective eyes on the show and tell me what had come across on screen. He is a great comedy director and was able to heighten the humour in the scenes.”

She wasn’t the only one juggling multiple roles, with Willis appearing as Pete, a fellow would-be actor.

“Tobias’ cameo was one of my favourite things about the show. I love the character Pete because I find it funny that however low in the pecking order I put Charlie there was still someone lower … It is also funny because Tobias, who played the most pathetic character in the show, was actually running the entire thing. He would go from organising and managing everyone like the kind and strong boss he is, to sitting in that chair whilst we all suggested pathetic facial expressions he could try.

“We had such a great team. Largely because of Tobias. He has a great skill in assembling excellent combinations of people – everyone was weird and kind. The team was very small, which I love. There was just four of us at the core then the rest of the crew changed from day to day as we were working with a tight budget. At the core it was Tobias Willis (producer), myself, Jonathan Haynes (cinematographer) and John Campbell (co-director) and the cast of course. Jonathan Haynes was excellent. Dedicated, skilled, enthusiastic and super respectful. We all had so much fun making the show.

“The cast were so good. Both on screen and off. Isabella Giovinazzo is an actress I have worked with a lot and a great friend. She encouraged me for years to finally shoot the project. It was an honour to have her play Tanya. Jonathan Shuster was so good as Pat that I can no longer recall how I originally saw the character – all I see is Shuster. Robin Brown we found through doing a round of auditions, during which I was far more nervous than him. He was so dedicated to his role and so professional.

“Having Greg Ulfan play Greg was a very special thing. I used to do acting classes with Greg years ago. I found them very confronting. I realise now it was because he was challenging me to be real, a thing I had successfully avoided doing my whole life. Tobias and I discussed for a long time who would be good to play the character of Greg, but we couldn’t think of anyone, and eventually I said, ‘maybe I will ask the actual Greg’. I sent him the script full of exaggerated and incorrectly remembered lessons he had given, didn’t even change the name, told him it wasn’t him (it’s not – real Greg is gentle and complex and not a bitter loner who lives with his dying mother) and asked if he’d be interested in playing the part. After a suspenseful day or so he replied saying he loved it. Then you can imagine the rest. It was very special.”

Originally planned as a six-part series of short episodes, Sex and Death packs a lot into just over an hour: lying lovers, selfish friends, and some change for mushroom-munching Charlie (not death, though: the title comes from something Greg says in the film about drama only ever being about those two things).

Lee says she hopes a lot of people will relate to Charlie’s fear of being herself with her friends and others around her.

“This fear may be well founded but it is something she has to overcome in order to have a genuine connection with them. I think a lot of the time this would be a healthy step for people – it depends on what’s at stake. Sometimes it is necessary to protect ourselves – sometimes we have judged correctly and we would be rejected if we revealed a difference, and maybe that rejection would damage us. I am able to be open with new people in my life a lot easier now, but it is because there is less at stake. I now have so many friends that accept me for who I am that the rejection of a new person would not leave me isolated. But when I wasn’t open with anyone, the rejection of just one person would have been humongous – it would have felt ultimate.

“For exactly this reason we empower people by accepting them for who they are and not judging them, and giving them the strength to be themselves around others. It spreads.”

Watch Sex and Death Monday 23 November at 9:25pm on SBS VICELAND.

You can see more work from KEWL filmmakers in KEWL Originals, a series of short films made with support from a City of Melbourne Covid-19 Arts Grant, and released on YouTube.

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