Director Brian Crano Talks Fantasy, Romance, and His New Film 'Permission'

"I wanted to reflect the lives and social problems that I'm seeing, both personally and in my community." - Brian Crano
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With the sheer number of romance driven films it's always refreshing to find one unique in its approach. Director Brian Crano has risen to the occasion with his latest film, Permission, the story of a couple together since childhood who decide to have individual flings in their relationship. Can their love survive? Ordinarily the immediate answer would be no, but the beauty of Crano's film is found in genuine discussions that leave things unpredictable. Crano sat down with Kristen Lopez of Cinema Sentries to discuss his film and how he attempted to avoid copying other movies.

The obvious question is what was the impetus to write and direct Permission?

I like this genre, and [I like] focusing on interpersonal relationships because it's very difficult to live with someone else. I thought that a lot of the films I had seen in this area were all on one side or the other and were kind of silly. I wanted to see if there was a film that could be enjoyable and still played off tropes of romantic comedies, but have a little bit more edge and left people looking weirdly at their wife.

The film navigates things very deftly. Did you have any specific movies you wanted to avoid so as not to color the narrative?

When I'm [writing] I don't watch any fiction. I only watch documentaries and reality TV. You want to shelter you mind a little bit from other people's ideas, at least in the same area. The films that I love and watch over and over again are John Cameron Mitchell's films, Todd Haynes' films; I watch the Yves St. Laurent movie a lot for this movie in terms of the style and beauty and craft I wanted to go after. I wanted to make things romantic and beautiful.

You have several narratives competing. What inspired the various roads you took? 

I wanted to make a movie where there was no villain, that was really important. I think often there's a lot of "Oh, he's gonna go around on her so he's the bad guy" or "she's cheating." I wanted to do a movie where there wasn't a villain and the characters just had needs that didn't intersect. I think about being a gay man of a certain age; I think about children and the acquisition of children a lot, it's a very present issue in my life. That story's a natural counterpoint to me where the gay relationship - they're tackling a bigger question in that regard. I wanted to subvert the idea that the secondary couple is there for comedy purposes. It was a lot of looking at tropes of the genre and going "How do we engineer a better mousetrap?" Where the woman has sexual agency without judgement being placed on it by the film. I wanted to reflect my friends; I wanted to reflect the lives and social problems that I'm seeing, both personally and in my community.

You took the words out of my mouth. How did you specifically focus on Anna's character? Because she is a woman who's able to go out and have sex without being demonized for it.

For me, it is one of the craziest ideas I see in films over and over again that every average male character is suave and sexually dexterous, can pick anyone up, and it's not reflective of my life experience or my friends' life experiences. In the beginning of the process with Rebecca [Hall], we played a game that I encourage you to try which is think of a female character in a film who has sexual agency and isn't a psychopath. If you can come up with more than three I'll give you a bottle of Smart Water. It's impossible and ridiculous. That's where that motivation came from. Let's a tell a story about a smart, beautiful, capable woman who is finally beginning a journey to find out who she is. In that way the movie is more about her processing her life then it is about non-monogamy or anything. It's about her waking up to the idea that she's limited herself in some way through a societal pressure and we wanted to address that head-on. I think Rebecca did a brilliant job with it. 

She's complemented beautifully with Gina Gershon's character who could have easily been written as a boozy divorcee. How did her character come about? 

That character probably changed the most, and we were aware that in the casting process we were gonna have to find somebody who had an advantage over Will's character. It wasn't really age specific. It was all personality driven and when I met Gina she had a really strong response to the script and really felt connected to it and had this energy that if Gina told me to jump off a bridge I'd probably do it without thinking twice. There's something about her magnetism that I was like, "Oh, this would be the perfect person to draw someone out of their shell, out of their really repressed space." Because I think that's the journey that Will is on, feeling like he's had to be narrow in what he really wants and not talk about it. So I feel like having a character who can grab him by the neck and drag him on was really important and Gina was fabulous for that.

Well and there are so many preconceived notions with her as an actress that I think watching her in this role shows off her talent so wonderfully.

She's awesome! She's just an awesome person and a great actress. I loved working with her.

I have to ask about the big moment where Dan Stevens ends up spitting in Gina's mouth. How do you prep the performers for a scene that's funny, shocking, and is really the apotheosis of what Anna and Will are doing which is pushing sexual boundaries?

Gina asked me when we first met how we were going to do it and I said, "practically" because it needed to feel real. She was cool with that when she and Dan [Stevens] met. I'd never been on a set that was so tense, even in this movie where there's a lot of nudity - that's pretty tense and weird - but everybody was freaked out because we didn't know how it was going to happen. When we did it she was such a pro; she was like, "Okay. Let's go again." She put everybody at ease, so I have a huge amount of respect for her. I do think it's an important moment in the movie, and Dan was terrified to do it, to be honest. He's such a nice and decent man. But I think it was really important because it's shocking in a way where, when you see it, even if you know it's coming, it still viscerally hits you. We all have some sort of sexual proclivity that we don't want to talk about or share, and that we probably keep from our partner. So it was just a good way of visualizing that concept and seeing how that character was suppressing all of his desire for some concept of what his partner wants.

And it's a scene that makes you think because sexuality and intimacy comes with a fluid exchange, to be perfectly frank. So I had to think about why this moment is so shocking to see when "swapping spit" is such a common concept. 

It was important to me that it wasn't a moment of sexual violence, that his desire wasn't to dominate this person or any of that. He just had this weird thing and like you say it was normal enough that it doesn't alienate you from the character, but it is shocking. That was one of the areas that I was trying to look at the movie and [say], "Nobody really knows what goes on in anybody else's relationship. And in terms of who you are within the four walls of your house with your partner are very different from how you engage with the rest of the world." And I think there's some inherent drama in trying to square that circle, even in the question of self-identity, much less how do I integrate with the person I love.

You mentioned earlier wanting to make a movie about your friends. The actors all have such an easy camaraderie together. Was that something you helped shape or did they bring that out naturally?

I'm sort of cheating because Rebecca and Dan and I have all known each other since we were in our teens. Rebecca's the godmother of Dan's children, so their chemistry is kind of like brother and sister already which is how I wanted that relationship to feel. And then I'm married to David [Joseph Craig] who plays Hale and obviously Rebecca's married to Morgan [Spector]. So our friendship family is like a real family, and the two of them are really close friends so that relationship was there and as we were developing the script and they were reading together it was a nice way to not have to fake it. You're asking people to be very intimate, to do intimate scenes, and play naturally off each other. It's hard in a relationship film to keep an eye on the horizon line in how these characters are interacting with each other. A) it's a nice way to go to work with the people you love, but I'm also very proud of what they were able to get out of each other.

[SPOILER WARNING]

I have to ask about the ending which I felt was very Douglas Sirk in that characters come to these realizations about themselves but it comes at the expense of their relationship. Was there an ending written where Anna and Will stay together or did it always end with them parting?

First of all, I'm so happy that you picked up on the Douglas Sirk. A lot of the designs and shots are very heavily influenced by his work. 

Do you have a favorite Sirk film that factored in specifically?

I don't want to narrow it down. I don't want to let the cat out of the bag on what we've used as reference. We were very particular about how we built the film, reference wise. So I'm gonna stop short of answering that. But in terms of what I take from his work in general is heightening the environment and heightening the scenarios externally so you can have a naturalistic performance and it still elevates the tension and that's something I'm always looking to do, amping up the environment around the characters. Like, obviously, all the homes in this movie are a fantasy idea of what you would live like in Brooklyn. That's my nod towards that direction. And in terms of the end of the film, I did write other versions and they never felt honest. The more we got deeper into the process and the more Rebecca was involved it became clearer that the movie was really about her awakening and having a journey that she's about to embark on.

Permission is in theaters and VOD on February 9th. 

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