Writer/director Rightor Doyle and actor Brendan Scannell collaborated on their latest project, the short-form sitcom Bonding, about a female dominatrix and her straight best friend who becomes her assistant. Needless to say, their lives go wild.
Brendan and Rightor took a few minutes during a trip to San Francisco’s fabulously queer Frameline42 film fest to chat about their own bonding, creating the show, and the current state of sex in America.
Rightor, the show itself is a blend of sex comedy and neurotic insecurity. What was the inception of all of this? What were your influences in writing it?
R: I’m neurotically insecure in general. Actually, the story is based on my real life. I had a friend who became a dominatrix, and I needed some money when I moved to New York City, and so I did it very briefly. But it became this really big, kind of party trick of a story that I would tell–this like 30-minute epic tale of when I was a dominatrix assistant. And eventually, I was like, God, I should be making money off of this. So I started pitching it around as a show. So the characters in the show—Pete, who Brendan plays, and Tiff, who Zoe Levin plays, are in many way similar to—Pete’s very similar to me, but in many ways, it’s very different. So it was really just a jumping off point for what the show ended up becoming.
R: I talk about my relationship with women in a lot of my work, and my relationship with love in a lot of my work, and how one can have sex with men and still have these—you know we’re all on this sliding scale of what love and what sex and what secrets we keep from each other, and how difficult it is to love someone and not want to have sex with them. That sort of is what’s at the core of the two of these characters.
Brendan, how did you get involved with this project?
B: Well, I read the script, and I’d kind of never read something before where I just felt immediately “this has to be me.” I’m a stand up comedian, and it felt like I had hired somebody to write my show. It felt like somebody had written it for me. So I basically texted everyone I knew who knew Rightor, floating “hey what’s the deal with this Rightor Doyle project?” You know, not being very casual. And I put my little energy webs out so when he saw my tape, he’d have to cast me. Otherwise it would be embarrassing for all of his friends.
B: So I just did a tape, and got it. And I’m based in LA, so it was really fun to be in New York for a month, to be in these sex dungeons in Chelsea. Working with Rightor and Zoe was so fun, because it’s a two hander. It was just like the three amigos—the three of us.
That’s awesome. So it sounds like you already had a connection to the character, having done stand-up comedy before.
B: I think that I identified with—I think he’s is somebody who really feels like he has something to say, something to contribute artistically. And he’s really not at a point in his life confidence-wise where he can express that. And he’s trapped in this circle of being in a dead-end job, and not being able to actualize what he wants to do. And so this job of being a dominatrix, sort of like empowering him, was like this really cool journey to explore. I definitely identified with him. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I felt like there was like no hope for anything. That’s where I sort of keyed in to Pete.
Ok, point of order: Is a male dominatrix still a dominatrix, or is there a different name for a man that’s a dom?
R: That’s a good question. There may be some sort of subculturey lingo that I don’t know, but I thought it was always just a male dominatrix.
Ok, so we’ll refer to Pete as a dominatrix, or a dominatrix assistant. You mentioned that you filmed on location in New York, and that you filmed in actual sex dungeons. Given the location and given that you guys are sort of pantomiming some very extreme sex acts in the show, Rightor, what sort of mood do you like to have on set? Was there ever a moment where you guys had to stop and sort of say, “wait a minute, what are we doing?” to sort of process it all?
R: I mean, it was hard to process because we shot—the script was 120 pages, and we shot in 20 days in New York City. We were working really, really fast. But we ended up in these wild locations like sex dungeons, and I think that we all had—it brought a lot of levity to the set, because it was so insane. I mean, we’re creating this non-reality, like a pink dom room, which is not part of a real dungeon. We’re sort of lifting it out of this sort of hardened BDSM culture. But at the same time, we would end up in these places. And the funny thing is, if you walk into any room, one is a school room, one is a sort of Indochina palace…
B: There was one where it was sort of like, general Asia. Or like, here we are in Eden!
R: I was watching the monitor in the school room section of this dom dungeon while Brendan is walking down the hall, so you couldn’t help but laugh.
B: And my chair was in medieval times…
R: Exactly. And we had to turn this over by 5-6pm, because clients were going to come in. And by the way, the whole place smelled like Clorox, because they like doused the place in bleachy Clorox like every day. And then every evening, everyone comes in and jerks off all over the wall, I guess…
Well it’s gotta be reassuring knowing that you’re in a clean dungeon.
And it’s probably good that there weren’t sex acts going on.
R: That was expensive, by the way, to rent out the whole place so that there wouldn’t be sex acts going on in the room next to us. But you know, a big part of the show is that we should stop feeling shameful. If we all told each other what we actually liked, and what we actually wanted, there would be no shame around it. You could just be what you wanted to be. So I think that like, going down into these sex dungeons was actually super freeing.
One of the things that I think the show is about—one of the sort of core tropes—is power dynamics. We see that realized in the dominatrix scenes, but also in a classroom. With Pete, in the diner, where people sort of treat him like crap. Even among friends—you describe Pete as a sub, and Tiff is a dom within their friendship, and how that reverses over time. That also establishes a certain sexual fluidity among all the characters. How are those two ideas linked—the idea of power and sex in your mind?
R: Sex and power are very linked. People use their power to obtain sex. People also have—in this particular moment in time, are it’s a big part of the show—the patriarchy, and how men have this sort of established identity politics, and how there’s a world with men at the top. And anyone who expresses any sort of femininity in any way, shape or form is sort of beneath them. And gay men have found themselves on this sort of equalized playing field of the patriarchy. For me, what I wanted to talk about in terms of power and sex, was how women are really the keepers of the kingdom. If we were able to alleviate men of their identity of needing to express their sexual power in a way that sort of subjugates everyone beneath them, we would live in a much more free society.
R: But power and sex is very exciting. Sometimes you want to be completely powerless, sometimes you want to be completely powerful. And sometimes your partner, or the people you are having sex with, don’t want to do the same thing as you. So in terms of the larger world, we wanted to talk about sex and dom culture as a sort of metaphor for what’s happening in the world. Specifically, with the characters, we wanted to talk about how sex is an exchange that isn’t always—one person has something in mind that the other person does not.
So Brendan, how do you think of Pete’s sexuality, because it seems like all the characters have a certain degree of sexual fluidity about them, and that their hang-ups aren’t so much on gender as they are on power dynamics?
B: I think that, for Pete, I think that sometimes he has this sense of sexual repression. I think that as gay or queer people, we can acknowledge or be discovering our identities, but that doesn’t mean we can live them as fully as we would like to. So Pete has walls up that prevent him from being casual with sex, or exploring sex outside a very structured “I went on a date, so I can sleep with a guy.” So a lot of the show for him is breaking down those walls, and discovering what he might be interested in. And you see that in the dom act that Tiff makes him do. And so he’s able to use the structures of being a dominatrix assistant to actually get off and discover the boundaries of his own sexuality, and to keep pushing that. I think that’s a cool kind of thing about the character, and the dynamic he’s living in.
You mentioned that sort of culturally right now, we’re having a larger discourse about sex and masculinity, femininity and power…which brings to mind the #MeToo movement. At its core, I think it’s a conversation about the role that power plays in sexuality, particularly in the workplace. Did the #MeToo climate influence your take on the material at all?
R: As we were filming, that’s what was happening. I had written the script prior to a lot of it coming out, but that sounds silly because it’s always been happening. It’s just that we started having a conversation about it, you know? So these are the ways that women—my girlfriends, and I have a lot of best girlfriends—have always felt. And these are the stories I’ve always heard, and these are the issues that as women and as gay men, you know, Pete and Tiff have a conversation about what it’s like to be a woman, and what it’s like to be a gay man, and how a woman is a woman is a woman. She can never stop being a woman, and that has its own sort of terrifying “I walk down the street alone” sort of quality about it.
I’ll talk to my girlfriends about how they get afraid when they walk in the street alone. And I don’t get afraid when I’m alone, I get afraid when I’m in a taxi with another gay man and we’re by ourselves. So the #MeToo movement is very necessary and a huge part of moving forward as a culture. What I wanted to explore in the show was the sort of gray areas that are sort of very difficult to define. Like, is sex sexy when you’re always asking for consent? You know, can I put my hand here, is it ok if I do this? There’s a point where it’s like “stop asking me that question.” And at the very same time, it’s like, “you should ask me all the questions.”
So it’s a very difficult thing, we’re talking about and exploring right now, but unbelievable necessary.
I think that’s very, very true, and along those same lines, it seems like characters didn’t have a problem with power or sex necessarily, it’s more like they’re afraid of intimacy, of ceding their own power, or admitting that they’re into certain things sexually. So they need to trivialize sex or glorify it in one way or another. With things like the #MeToo movement, or with the sort of modern sexual culture, or with gay liberation, and with reactionary movements to that, what does it say about our society that we’re so fascinated and terrified of sex at the same time?
B: Good question. I think that for these characters, what Tiff is trying to do with her clients, is to free them of their boundaries. For male clients anyway, of what it’s like to have a woman fully in charge, of what can get them off. You kind of see that with the character Fred, he wants to get peed on. And he’s not openly gay, but you see that he wants to get peed on by a man, and you see him enthusiastically consent it. And I think that’s part of what the #MeToo movement is calling out—the lack of enthusiastic consent that is necessary in our culture.
R: We’ve made sex taboo. The way that culture has evolved is that sex is secretive. And one of the larger things we want to do in this show is to say—one thing about the Fred character, is someone, as Brendan was saying, is someone who is giving enthusiastic consent. He’s also someone that has no shame about who he is. He’s freed himself. And essentially the person you think is the weirdest from episodes one and two becomes the most normal, grounded person in the entire show. And I think that the roommate character [Pete’s straight roommate, who wants to get anally penetrated] as a similar journey as well, and is not afraid to say as much. And this is where I meet Pete—I wish that I could say those things so freely and not be afraid. And I think that most people do.
One subject of humor in the show is this weird obsession that straight men seem to have with all things homoerotic, particularly anal sex. What’s the root of all that, and where did that fascination come from?
R: Straight men are obsessed with anal sex. I’m just going to say that. That’s just like, a fact.
Why is that?
R: Because if they’re having sex with women, that’s like their promised land. It’s like their Valhalla. It’s something they couldn’t even imagine. All the straight men I know always want to ask about anal sex. They’re so interested. But there’s also a pleasure—an erogenous zone there that everyone secretly knows about. And so I wanted all the men in the show to sort of get in there.
Interesting choice of words, by the way…
R: I meant it! Get in there!
Are we going to get a Season 2, and what are your plans for release?
R: Well Brendan’s too expensive really…
B: Not true.
R: She’s cheap. She’s cheap, really. There’s definitely hopes. We’ll see how Season 1 does. We went to Cannes, we went to Frameline, we’re going to Outfest as well, and maybe a few others. But it’s been wonderful to have this reception from these film festivals. We’re a short form series that being treated like it has some real legs on it. Hopefully early September of this year, it will be on BlackPills, which is a streaming platform, sort of a new short-form platform. AppleTV has an app for it.
Bonding plays at OutFest July 13. Tickets are available now.