February 10, 2021

Doc Star of the Month: Ollie Lucks, 'There Is No "I" in Threesome'

From Ollie Lucks' 'There's No "I" in Threesome.' Jan Oliver “Ollie” Lucks (left) and his fiance Zoe (right). Courtesy of HBO Max

There Is No "I" in Threesome is certainly a doc I would not have predicted to have world-premiered at the WarnerMedia Lodge at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Set for a pre-Valentine’s Day streaming debut on February 11 (as an HBO Max Original), the project is directed by and stars New Zealand-based filmmaker Jan Oliver “Ollie” Lucks. Lucks is the son of an Iranian-Indian mother and a German father, and only moved to New Zealand a decade and a half ago to pursue his craft. Once there, however, he met an actress named Zoe. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love and plan a wedding. And then boy and girl hatch another plan: open their sexual relationship to other boys and girls. And, most consequentially, record their entire polyamorous journey.

What were they thinking? Well, that was just one of a multitude of questions Documentary had. Which is why we hatched our own plan to spotlight the sexually intrepid Lucks as our February Doc Star of the Month.

DOCUMENTARY: Considering both you and your partner were used to having a camera around—you being a documentarian, she being an actor—how did recording this journey into polyamory alter you as an individual and the relationship itself, as well as your relationship to the camera? 

OLLIE LUCKS: There was definitely internal conflict between me as attentive, loving partner, and me as filmmaker—keen for good dramatic content. That conflict was unnoticed at the start but became external and dramatic later on, when things moved much faster in the relationship. 

On the one hand, it altered my behavior and I said yes to things that hurt me personally but were good for the film. On the other hand, my partner lost me not to another lover but to the camera. Keeping us united became less important to me than getting good content. This is not something I am proud of, but yes, I did tend to put the film over everything else.

In terms of my relationship with the camera, I am actually quite a shy, introverted person in real life. I don’t do selfies or social media (apart from now, for the film) and am more than happy to not be in the spotlight. So as soon as I finished the filming process for There is No "I" in Threesome, I was hugely relieved. Whether or not I put myself into future work is something I am currently wrestling with. The hunt for good content can definitely lead to self-sabotage.

D: It also struck me that one of your reasons for exploring polyamory—that it would make for a good documentary film—is probably the last reason anyone should embark on an open relationship. At one point you even admit to “running away from what’s really happening by putting a camera in front of it.” So over the course of filming, were there particular moments when you regretted subjecting yourself and your relationship to the lens? And if so, why continue?

OL: Ha! Yes, going into polyamory for our art was stupid. And brave. And stupid. But to be fair, in a pie-chart scenario I would give that reason only about 8%. However, that percentage grew over time. I felt my partner slipping away, and the film became more and more important to me—to a point where it was all I had left. We did not have a poly community around us—I didn’t even know about Dan Savage or Esther Perel at the time—so talking to myself on camera was my way of dealing with it all. She had Tom, who was a good listener.

Me filming more and more was part of the reason we drifted apart—and letting go of the thing we sacrificed so much for felt too hard. We started the film together, in order to show that an alternative to monogamy was doable. If nothing else I wanted people to see how not to behave in an open relationship, with polyamory. What is the point of learning all these lessons if I cannot—with the full consent of my ex-partner, of course—share them? And yes, my ex is much better off now, without me. She is happily married to Tom. My attention was diverted and not focused on her. That’s a recipe for a swift breakup, be it in monogamy or polyamory.

D: The film also plays as a sort of after-action report. Was being both the star and the director a form of therapy for you?

OL: Making the film was definitely therapeutic. That said, the producers and I were always aware that the film would have to be much more than mere therapy to justify its existence to an audience (not to mention funding bodies). The whole project—and certain aspects of open relationships and polyamory—had the potential risk of being too masturbatory to be enjoyable to anyone that doesn’t know me personally. So we kept those therapeutic moments to a minimum. 

It also helps that self-deprecating humor is a Kiwi trait I have embraced hook, line and sinker. Friends of mine that grew up in New Zealand, especially Wilbur, feast on my moments of perceived pretentiousness. 

Interestingly, the ending of the film changed a few times, both before and after HBO came on board. There was so much I learned about love, memory and relationships that I wanted to cram in there. But keeping it short and tight meant that the tone stayed consistent, and the reveal in the final act kept its punch.

D: “Rejecting monogamy means negotiating jealousy” is one of the film’s mantras, which made me wonder what other types of negotiations were involved. Were you always upfront about the doc with everyone you and your partner dated? Was there some sort of “safe word” to stop filming when boundaries were crossed for you or anyone else?

OL: There was no hidden camera sneakiness involved. Filming explicit sex was never in the cards in the first place (at least not for the documentary). This feels like a good point to also mention that we worked with an intimacy coordinator (Tandi Wright) during production. We were one of the first films in New Zealand to benefit from the initiative.

During the actual relationship we did not have a safe word. (Which is a bad idea, I know!) But later in the scriptment phase we did include the safe word “Montauk” (taken from “Meet me in Montauk” from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Although it did not end up in the film, we put it in writing as a way to wear our cinematic influence on our sleeves. 

D: Has appearing onscreen in such a raw way subsequently made you more sensitive to those you film?

OL: I will answer this question assuming that I am not putting any romantic partner in front of my camera again. (Here’s hoping!) Outside of that I don’t really think so.

But I am much gentler and careful with documentary subjects that are not me. In general I hate conflict, so I always veer on the side of polite caution with people I do not know. Friends of mine, like Wilbur, I am more direct with. But I know that they are strong and honest about their boundaries. In other words, Wilbur will tell me when to fuck off. I don’t think that making this film has changed anything in that regard. 

I do love documentaries where the making of the film is woven into the story being told. (I was lucky to have Kitty Green as my mentor on this film.) So if I am insensitive, chances are it is not by accident, but with the knowledge that the documentary subject or talent agreed to me and the film going there. Films need antagonistic forces and I have no problem being the asshole—if the story needs it.

 

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.

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