Stuart Blumberg wrote or co-wrote some of my favorite films, including “Keeping the Faith” and “The Kids are All Right.” His new film is “Thanks for Sharing,” with Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, and Pink (billed as Alecia Moore) as people who struggle with sex addiction and sometimes other addictive behavior as well. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a woman who dates Mark Ruffalo’s character. I spoke to Blumberg about directing and co-writing the film.
You very powerfully show us how your characters feel that they are immersed in distracting sexual stimula wherever they go, on the street, in the subway, in cabs, online. How do you show that without distracting the audience?
I think it was very purposeful. I wanted the audience to sort of be in the character’s skin and understand the stuff they were coming up against, especially in New York City, trying to deal with the kind of triggering environment. I wanted to really get the audience to empathically feel sort of what they were going through.
But how do you put those images up on the screen without risking the audience being distracted?
It’s the risk you take. If you’re going to do a movie about alcoholism, you might have to show a bottle. It’s kind of a homeopathic remedy where you’re going to have to have a little of what kills you. The only thing is that it can’t be gratuitous. It has to actually make sense and be grounded in some kind of reality.
We follow three characters at different stages of their recovery. What were you trying to show?
I was just trying to show the range of the experience of recovery and how simultaneously people can be at different stages of recovery with different levels of maturity and commitment. But I also wanted to show that despite however many years one could be in a program for addiction, it’s only a one day reprieve and you can just sort of, you can return to the darkness pretty quickly. It’s a program that requires a constant kind of spiritual maintenance. I kind of wanted to get that across too.
I liked the way that you addressed the issue of spirituality. One character spoke to a lot of people by saying, “I’m just not really into the God thing.” I really liked the response: It’s just about connecting to something bigger. How do these groups help people feel like they’re connected to something bigger?
My sense is that what helps people is not having people who don’t have the problem preach to them. Caring people who are going through the same things that they are, sharing their stories, the darkness, but also the ways that they’re dealing with it, the light of it. It’s like soldiers swapping war stories. Whenever you hear somebody who’s like you telling you their story to you, you feel kind of belonging and a kind of healing that comes from feeling like you’re not alone. Someone is also going through this with me. I think that’s where a lot of the healing happens. It’s that people are going through this process together.
So if one thing we’ve learned from these programs is that people who are in it with you can help you in a way that all the experts in the world can’t, how do they form relationships with those who are not a part of that world? How do you think this movie will try to explain that world to them?
Through sort of showing what these guys are going through and what these women are going through but in their addiction and in their recovery and hopefully in kind a non-preachy way, people will get a better sense of what it actually looks like. And when they get a better sense of what it looks like, hopefully they’ll get a better understanding of not only what those people are going through but in some ways sort of what we all share and how addictions are sort of a more extreme form of what we all do. We all try to kind of go towards pleasure and avoid pain. We’re all about short-term symptom relief. And so I think if people understand, oh that’s what they’re talking about when they’re talking about that, judgement is replaced by understanding like there are many things that people are sort of unclear about.
I was particularly interested in the conversation between the characters played by Joely Richardson, as the long-time wife of a sex addict and Gwyneth Paltrow as someone newly in a relationship with one. There was a level of truth there about the friends and family of people who were dealing with this. What kind research did you do to lead to create that moment?
I’ve gone out on those meetings myself, I just find it all very fascinating and I couldn’t quite understand how one could be addicted to a person who’s addicted, meaning you’re addicted to fixing them. That itself is its own pathology. In sort of going through that,I found this very helpful in my own life, this whole idea of you’ve got to keep the focus on yourself. You’ve got to keep focus on yourself and let the other person take care of them. And that’s sort of what I was trying to get through in that scene. As soon as you think you’re in control of somebody else, you’re out of control. And so Gwyneth Paltrow is sort of trying to hold on to Mark Ruffalo’s character and make sure he doesn’t veer off into the dark side and that’s causing her to act out. That’s causing him to do weird things. And so I just wanted to tackle that side of it.
Why did you want to make it about sex addiction versus all the other kinds of addictions?
I think sex is very interesting. People love sex in movies and people love sex and it’s just an integral part of our lives and it was an addiction that I feel like was never really explored. It was just one that hadn’t been tackled very well. And also, I also felt that recovery almost in any movie hadn’t really been shown well. So it was the combination of two of those things I wanted to put together. I started thinking about this when there were a lot high-profile cases of people coming out of sex addiction. Okay, this isn’t a joke. Let’s delve in here and see what this is about.
I particularly want to thank you for leaving out the one scene that is in every made-for-TV movie about addiction which is where the character tries to explain how it all happened, which is always so simplistic and reductionist and in its way, it takes us further from understanding because it allows us to separate ourselves and feel smug about our differences.
It’s a lot of things. It’s genetic. It’s environment. The other thing that I think is really true is like the Buddha once said, once shot with an arrow, are you going to just go, oh what’s this arrow made out of? Is it made out of wood? What poison is it made out of? No, you take the arrow out. You can worry about why you are that way and there is something to it but let’s deal with what’s to it and how you work with it.
Another thing that I appreciated is it’s actually a funny movie. So can you talk a little bit about why you felt that that was important?
Most of my movies are like some mixture of comedy and drama. I’ve never made a drama and I’ve never fully made a comedy. I love that space in between. Those are the movies I like to go to see. And the other thing is that when I would go to watch, research, a couple guys I knew came up to me and they said would you just give me a favor when you’re portraying this? Don’t make us seem like it’s really serious guys all the time. There’s so much humor between us. So it’s in the meetings and outside and you really need to capture that or else you’re going to miss it. And I felt like they were right. And that needed to be a huge part of it.
Do you think humor is important for recovery?
Very much so, otherwise people just shoot themselves. I think humor is important to anybody trying to get through this life. Otherwise we can just get pretty grim.