“We [played] this game early on, which was ‘Think of a movie in which a female character has sexual agency and isn’t psychotic,’ and there are very few that we could come up with,” writer/director Brian Crano explained with a laugh as to why Permission, his dramedy about a couple who open up their relationship, is mostly from the point of view of the woman. “A lot of it has come out of my relationship with actresses and seeing the kinds of scripts they get where usually they end up playing some kind of furniture while a guy does hurdles and backflips to save the world, and it just feels really reductive.”
It’s not saving the world, but Permission, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, is about radically reshaping how one looks at relationships. The idea came to Crano after he and all of his friends, approaching 30, were hit with the same “viral fear” of how statistically improbable it was that they would find lifelong happiness with their partners when all of their parents’ divorces foretold otherwise.
The flip side of that fear was a fascination with what Crano called the “different kinds of geometries of relationships”—couples exploring polyamory and other forms of nonmonogamy, creating relationships and family units that don’t include just the traditional two partners. Listening to friends’ experiences and drawing research from public figures like Dan Savage, with his “Savage Love” podcast, gave Crano more insight into what it means to open up a relationship.
“I believe that monogamy is really difficult, if not crazy, and yet I am participating in it very willingly,” he said. “So, there’s that kind of cognitive dissonance, which is really a minefield and also ecstatically exciting.” Gripped by the same mix of fear and curiosity, Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) decide to sleep with other people, just to see what it’s like, before their inevitable marriage.
Permission marks Hall’s first role as producer. She and Crano have known each other for over a decade since he approached her to be in a reading of his play when he was 19 and she was 20. Working with Hall on those three planes—producer, lead, friend—was “cool,” Crano said, though he admitted that “it’s a little weird directing essentially your sister in a sex scene. But there’s a lot of communication, and also it helps that Rebecca’s husband and my husband play boyfriends in the movie. There was a lot of emotional triangulation about that.”
He then adds, “The thing that’s really nice about directing people you know is that you have an emotional shorthand where you can relate a story to a time that you experienced and shared in your life with each other; there are a lot of shortcuts, you don’t need to talk this much.”
Their other “collaborator” of a sort was New York City itself. The city has provided the backdrop for an entire subgenre of romantic comedies, which makes following up anything from When Harry Met Sally… to Sleepless in Seattle to last year’s Sleeping with Other People a daunting prospect. However, Crano’s approach is very much in line with the characters’ radical honesty.
“It was really important to us to make a version of the movie that didn’t feel alien if you live here,” he said, which included not trying to set big moments against landmarks, like an inauthentic date in Times Square. In fact, nothing in the movie takes place north of 14th Street.
“Obviously, the city is a great place to meet someone and fall in love, and have this sort of special and romantic vibe if you’re in that moment particularly,” Crano said. “Because the city becomes an extra character, all because you live out a lot of your life in public space here, that is an extra layer of pressure if you’re having an argument or if you’re leaving someone or if you’re breaking up, or making out or whatever.”
Contrasted with Anna and Will’s explorations are their best friends Hale and Reece, who hit a very different crossroads in their relationship when the notion of children comes up, first casually and then more urgently. While Crano’s husband David Joseph Craig plays Hale (and Hall’s husband Morgan Spector is Reece), Crano said that he didn’t intentionally set out to dramatize his and Craig’s relationship onscreen.
“God, no,” he laughed at first—and then he thought about it. “Well, the one interesting part of that is the baby discussion… On the last day, driving back home with Rebecca, I was like, ‘You know, after the movie, I think I’m gonna be ready to have a baby?’ And she just looked at me and started laughing. I was like, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘This is the whole B-story.’”
He adds, “I hadn’t made it personal for myself. I see a lot of myself in all the characters, and that’s the way I approached it: I’m afraid; I’m also all in.”
Crano hopes that audiences not only see themselves in the characters as well, but use the dilemmas presented by Permission as jumping-off points for their own relationships. “For me, the movie’s not a win if people like it—that would be nice—but if you leave and have an awkward or in-depth conversation with your partner,” he said, joking about the mantra being nobody gets out alive. “You can’t see the movie and just go, ‘Oh, that’s nice, guess I’m still dating my girlfriend.’ You have to go, ‘Uhh, is this something you’re into? Have you ever thought about it?’ instead of just taking for granted whatever kind of relationship you’re in.”
He also made one thing clear: “We’ve made the movie with the assumption that Hillary was going to win.” Things turning out very differently actually increased the resonance of the film’s message, making a story that might be relevant vitally important to the cultural conversation.
“Especially when gay people’s rights are being challenged and everyone’s rights are being challenged. I feel like there’s even more of an appetite for stories that are about characters who are emotionally intelligent,” Crano said, “just because our media is being predominated by the opposite.”
Permission premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. No word yet on when it will come to theaters.