City Paper is not for tourists.
It seems only logical that the defining structure of a film about Alfred Kinsey would come from the thousands of interviews conducted by the mid-20th-century sex researcher and his associates. Yet Kinsey writer-director Bill Condon, who previously wrote and directed Gods and Monsters and created the screenplay for Chicago, admits that it took him 18 months to grasp the device.
“I feel stupid about that,” says the black-clad Condon, whose agile, articulate sentences quickly establish that he’s not at all stupid. “I knew I wanted to show the scope of his entire life because there are so many events in childhood and early marriage that led him down this path. And I don’t like flashbacks.”
For a year, the filmmaker worked on developing a central character, based on a real person, who would tell Kinsey’s story: from repressed child to wonkish entomologist specializing in gall wasps to controversial advocate of erogenous candor and tolerance. Ian McKellen, who played Frankenstein director James Whale in Gods and Monsters, had even agreed to play the role. “The problem was that it still put the entire story into the past tense,” Condon says. “And there was still this fear that you kept getting thrown out of the story to come back to this guy.”
Eventually, he recalls, “I applied a Kinsey idea, which is ‘Every gall wasp is different; everybody’s sexuality is different’—then every biopic’s got to be different. What is it that’s unique about Kinsey? I made a list of things, and looking at it, it was like, Oh my God, that genius he had for sitting opposite a total stranger and getting him to open up about his sex life. I remembered that he used to use his own sex history as a way to train the team. What if the whole movie was just his sex history? It clicked right away. My God, could it be that simple? And it was. All the stuff that I had worked really well within this new framework.”
The 49-year-old Condon, who was born the year before Kinsey died, began the project at the suggestion of Gail Mutrux, whose previous films include Quiz Show. The director connected to his subject “on a human level” because both men grew up in households where sex was seldom discussed—though he adds that his dad otherwise “in no way resembled Kinsey’s father,” who’s depicted in the film as a prudish, self-righteous bully.
“This was a life that really played itself out both on a public and on a private stage,” Condon says. “So you could give enough time and credit to the work part of it, which I think always gets short shrift in movies like this. In this case, the work is so personal. And then he applied what he learned to his personal life, so that the whole thing could really illuminate his character.”
Both Kinsey and Gods and Monsters are about older men who become outsiders, even pariahs. The films are also similar in their gently humorous dispositions, which Condon calls “just something I come naturally to. I’m a great lover of theater, and of actors. So in casting, which has so much to do with the tone of a movie, I found that because there were so many speaking parts and people had to make a quick impression, that there is something just slightly—maybe ‘exaggerated’ isn’t the right word—larger-than-life about a lot of the performances, [which] you can only get away with when you have great actors.”
He cites John Lithgow, who plays Kinsey’s father. “A certain actor would try to humanize that, soften it early on,” Condon says. “But he instead found the slightly comic thing about it.” When Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, in the roles of Kinsey and his wife, “start laughing about [his father], I think the audience laughs along, because there’s something slightly ridiculous about him. An awful lot of these actors have got great comic instincts. That became the style of the movie: slightly heightened, slightly comic, but real, so it could be emotional, too.”
Though he’s battled to get his films financed, Condon doesn’t think they’re far from the mainstream. “I make these movies in a very classic Hollywood style,” he says. Although Kinsey is “a complicated figure and not treated in a heroic fashion, this to me is actually what used to be typical studio drama: not costing a lot of money but having a certain amount of scope.
“Studios used to make three or four of these a year,” he continues. “There’s nothing avant-garde about it, and it doesn’t have that edge that we think of with independent films except maybe for the content. It’s just a good example of where the business is that things like this have to struggle so hard to be made, and have to be made outside the system.”
Condon began his research in 1999, a year after Gods and Monsters was released. Having made that movie, he notes, provided “no tangible benefit. I can’t tell you all the people, once it had a bit of success, who came up to me and said, ‘Gosh, I wish we’d had a chance to make that movie.’ Either you’re polite and don’t say something or you point out that they turned it down three times. And then you go to them with the next thing and they turn that down. If Kinsey is any success, I’m sure I’ll be hearing from the same people again. And it won’t be any different with the next one.”
The formula for financing American independent films hasn’t changed since Gods and Monsters, Condon reports. “It’s mostly foreign-driven. Foreign pre-sales,” he says. “We thought it would be easy because it’s about sex. But everyone said, ‘No, it’s an American idea of sex—it doesn’t translate to our cultures. We don’t have that same puritanical strain.’ I don’t believe that.”
Finally, the $11 million budget was funded by Michael Kuhn, whose London-based Qwerty Films was designed to boost the British film biz but has invested in such American movies as I § Huckabees and Being John Malkovich. Kuhn, in turn, has a U.S. distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures, the “indie” film arm of Rupert Murdoch’s empire.
Condon laughs at the irony of Kinsey’s corporate association with the likes of The O’Reilly Factor, on which “we were called a ‘sicko flicko’ a year before we got the funding for the movie, when there was first an announcement.” (That was also, of course, before Bill O’Reilly had his own little sex scandal.) The blast wasn’t the only attempt to discourage the project before the cameras ever rolled: “Liam Neeson’s mother,” Condon recalls, “got mail in Ireland begging her to intercede and convince her son not to make this movie.”
“You just know that’s part of it when you take this on,” he says. “I think that people think, Oh, you’re fanning the flames, and it’s good for the movie. But there’s good controversy and bad controversy. And some of this is really nasty. That part of it I’m not actually looking forward to.
“There’s a huge, interesting conversation to have about Kinsey and his impact and what was good and bad in the science. But these people are just interested in complete character assassination, under the misguided idea that, if they can destroy his reputation, the last 50 years will disappear.”
Condon admits that when he began the project, he was unsure of some of Kinsey’s notions, such as his emphasis on bisexuality. “The idea of sexuality being fluid in that way—I have to say that I was skeptical about it, going into this process.” Now, he says, “it seems to me it’s almost the point of the movie, to look at your own biases. Even if you feel that you’re in some way progressive. Even if you’re opening it up, you still want to control the boundaries in some way.”
Reading transcripts of the Kinsey Institute’s sex-history interviews, Condon says, he was “so struck by the fact that almost every interview ended with people saying, ‘Am I normal?’ It’s such a basic human need, especially with sexuality, which is so private. I think it’s still something where we have that anxiety about. Are we doing the right thing, the right way, and where do we fit into the whole scheme?”
Ultimately, Condon suggests, his film is a critique of the notion of normality. “I loved Kinsey’s formulation,” he says. “‘In nature there’s no normal or abnormal; it’s only common or rare.’ Which I think is a very important idea to keep reminding ourselves of.
“Not to say that things aren’t right or wrong in some way, or that society doesn’t have a right to impose certain rules, but yeah, absolutely: It’s about the search for the common and the rare.”—Mark Jenkins