Make or break-up
Writer Clara Mendes and director Amalie Næsby Fick tell DQ how Danish shortform drama Sex charts a young woman’s journey through a complicated web of sexuality, gender and relationships.
For writers, the inspiration behind an idea for a series is often a personal experience. That was certainly the case for Clara Mendes, whose can trace the foundations of her six-part shortform drama Sex to a break-up she experienced when she was 22.
The series introduces Cathrine (Asta Kamma August), a young woman paralysed by conflicting emotions of confusion and desire. At home, she is in a relationship with Simon (Jonathan Bergholdt Jørgensen), who is her best friend but has lost his desire for sex. After staying late one night at the office where she works as a sex counsellor, she shares a drunken kiss with her colleague Selma (Nina Terese Rask) that leaves her torn between safe, familiar Simon and her new, exciting crush. And when Cathrine lies to protect the people she cares about, she ends up making the situation worse.
Produced by Profile Pictures for TV2 Denmark and distributed by Reinvent Studios, the drama was screened in full at Berlinale earlier this year. It marks the first series as lead writer for Mendes, who worked for Nordisk Film before joining the Danish Film School to study screenwriting in 2017.
“Two things happened when I was developing the series,” she tells DQ. “One, I was going through my first break-up. I was 22 at the time, and now I can see I was in the process of my own coming out, even though it’s not a coming-out story.
“I also became interested in the Danish sex information call centre Cathrine works at. I was fascinated by the fact it was young people in their 20s giving advice to other young people about sex, gender and body issues. Then the cliché about being better at giving advice than following your own seemed very true, and true to my own life and situation at the time.”
While Mendes didn’t know exactly how the story would unfold when she first started writing, she was certain that Cathrine’s sexuality should not be the main focus of the series. “I knew what I was working with, and it was a fiction story, but I wasn’t fully aware of what lied behind it,” she continues.
“It would have been very nice for me growing up if, in all the stories about people being gay or bisexual, that was not the conflict of the story or something that made their friends shun them or their families cut them off. We tried to make Catrine’s fluid sexuality not the problem, but just part of the story.”
Developing the series for 18 months alongside producer Marta Mleczek, Mendes then found her creative match with director Amalie Næesby Fick, who agrees that Sex is the kind of show she wished she could have watched growing up.
“When I first read the script, it really shocked me. If this had been in my life as a reference for conversation in my life as a teenager, it would have meant the world, trying to nuance the whole language of sex and relationships and gender sexuality,” she explains.
“I also felt growing up that it was only gay characters portrayed and it was not as nuanced or fluid as sexuality really is. We wanted to do something relatable where sexuality is not a problem and where you can look up to these characters because they’re normal, relatable and cool but not out of this world.”
From the outset, Sex was always designed to be a shortform series, created in response to a call from TV2 for stories told in bite-size episodes. The format did not dictate the style or pace of the series, however, with Mendes and Næesby Fick wanting to focus on character and emotion and allowing time for the drama and humour to unfold slowly. They also paid particular attention to Cathrine’s environment, with the character living in a small apartment with Simon and working in an unremarkable call centre office.
“That was super important for us because there are other shows in Denmark where young people are super rich, even though it’s not a part of the story,” the director says. “They just work in ordinary jobs, but they’re super rich and have a jet-setting lifestyle. That creates a distance [between the characters and the viewers], so we wanted to make it real in the sense of normal economics for young people. We also did not have makeup artist on the set, so there’s no makeup at all, only when they’re at a party – and then they did the makeup themselves.”
Central to the series is Cathrine, who features in every scene. Mendes describes her as “ordinary,” adding: “She’s full of flaws but she means the best. She has a hard time talking about the hard stuff and she’s very shy of conflict, so she avoids it all through the show.
“She has all these conflicted feelings about being rejected by her partner and being attracted to someone else. Instead of taking the bull by the horns, she avoids talking about what’s really hurting her and how much in doubt she is about everything. She’s trying to figure it out herself but she just ends up hurting everyone, including herself.”
On casting the role of Cathrine, Næesby Fick adds: “It was especially important for us to cast an actor who was very likeable, warm and humorous because the character is actually fucking up from episode one and doing many unsympathetic things – not by choice, but they just happen. Asta is just an amazing talent. It was also easy to have her in every scene because she’s so, so good.”
Like Mendes, Næesby Fick’s work on Sex marked her first on a TV drama, having previously worked in animation. She admits to being nervous at the prospect of the busy three-week shoot but says her “wonderful” team made the process stress-free.
“It became a very personal project for all of us,” the director continues. “It was very much about sharing different, vulnerable and funny stories from our own youth. We quickly became this unit, all of us collaborating.
“I was also nervous about how to do the sex scenes, but we made a decision that Asta would have the final cut. It’s not normally done like that, but it was very important this was a collaboration, and she’s putting so much of herself and her body into this. I was so nervous of crossing some of her own personal limits, but knowing that, in the editing room, we could just remove things if there were any problems was nice for her and for me.”
As an increasing number of productions utilise intimacy coordinators and place more emphasis on how sex scenes are filmed, Næesby Fick says Sex’s intimate moments were choreographed in detail beforehand with just the fully dressed actors and the cinematographer present so everybody knew how they would play out.
“We don’t want to objectify the body,” she adds. “We want to be with [Cathrine’s] emotions in the sex scenes. That was a very good experience for all of the actors and myself.”
Mendes emphasises that the emotion of the characters in a particular moment is more important than the sex itself. “Showing sex scenes was a natural part of the story, but it was very important for me that every sex scene had a turning point for Cathrine,” she says.
“All the emotions came out of having or not having sex. That’s the exciting thing,” Næesby Fick adds. “‘Sex’ is a very clickbait title, – ‘Relationship’ or ‘Sexual Emotions’ would be a very crappy title.”
Filming took place on location across Copenhagen, including at the city’s real sex-focused call centre that contributed to a lot of Mendes’s research. The most challenging element of the series wasn’t in production, however, but in ensuring that Cathrine and Simon’s relationship was one viewers would root for.
“We didn’t want to make the choice [Cathrine has between Simon and Selma] too easy,” the writer says. “They had to have a relationship that was worth fighting for, even though someone else appears exciting, new and shiny. It was hard to make that relationship believable and flawed. But we had to build all the characters so they weren’t just functions in Cathrine’s story.”
Næesby Fick says the duo faced a lot of questions about Simon’s character, largely based on an assumption that if he didn’t want sex, he must be either impotent or gay. “Those were the only two options people could think of if a guy doesn’t want to have sex, so [his character] became more important to us,” she explains.
“The thing where a guy should want to have sex all the time and a woman should want to have sex when the man wants to have sex – that whole way of thinking was important for us [to address]. When we met Jonathan, who plays Simon, he was just the right balance of having this very calm energy that Cathrine doesn’t have, while not being boring. That was the hardest part, but it was made a lot easier when we met Jonathan.”
Mendes and Næesby Fick are now planning season two, which is set to focus on Nanna (Sara Fanta Traore), Cathrine’s best friend, while Reinvent Studios is in talks to send Sex into more than 100 territories worldwide.
“I hope it’s a universal story,” Mendes says of the show’s international appeal. “That’s what we tried to make – a story about how hard relationships, close relationships and monogamous relationships are to maintain.
“Cathrine loves her boyfriend. She’s just also falling in love with someone else, and the story is about not being able to talk about the hard stuff. If she was able to share her mixed emotions, maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much. That’s something we hope all audiences will take from it, as well as the part about how sexuality is fluid and complicated, not just one thing and not black or white.
“All these assumptions we have about the sexuality of men and the sexuality of women, and how the relationship and the dynamic should be between them, may be also be why it’s so hard to talk about,” Mendes adds. “We just hope people see this and maybe feel a little bit less wrong about themselves and how they’re flawed or making the wrong choices, because we also want there to be hope.”