William Sullivan on his lesbian-inclusive improvised rom-com “That’s Not Us”


That’s Not Us is a different movie experience. This romantic comedy that follows three couples (one lesbian, one gay and one straight) over the course of a weekend getaway is completely improvised.

Your eyes will be glued to long-term girlfriends Alex (Sarah Wharton) and Jackie (Nicole Pursell), who are struggling with lesbian bed death, but handle it–shockingly–like adults.

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We spoke with writer/director William Sullivan ahead of the movie’s world premiere.

AfterEllen.com: The acting in That’s Not Us is improvised. Have you ever worked on a project like this? Why did you decide to go this route with the movie?

William Sullivan: I had never done an improvised film before. I wanted to do something that was going to scare me a little bit. And this idea of going into a shoot with only an outline and letting the actors improv dialogue led to this very intangible realness to the words that were coming through.

When you watch it, you can’t put your finger on why it feels so natural, but it’s because these actors are so in the moment and have no idea what they’re going to say next. I think it lends itself to the way that couples find themselves acting when they’re alone together, which would be hard to script.


AE: How was it for you as a director to take in these improv scenes?

WS: On set, some scenes were working and some scenes weren’t working. That’s the magic of editing. The testament to the actors’ powerful and emotional performances is that you couldn’t just show up with six people and do this in eight days. We had a tremendous amount of rehearsal that was involved beforehand. It sounds weird to rehearse for an improv film, but essentially we needed to do chemistry building. These actors, I knew all of them but they didn’t know each other. The rehearsals were more of, “Hey! Here’s this couple on their first date” and “Here’s this couple and they’re moving in together.” Essentially filling in the memory gap so that when we get to the present time when the story starts, they know all the history of what they’ve been through together and then they can reach for that emotional groundedness when they need to harness it.

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AE: The movie centers around three couples–one lesbian, one gay and one straight. Why did you feel the need to show this diversity?

WS: I wanted to make a gay film that wasn’t just a gay film. I wanted it to feel a little more universal.


AE: But you must have been aware that this doesn’t exist out there in abundance. Did that make you want to make this film all the more?

WS: Absolutely. I’m a very, very firm believer in not adding to the canon of film unless you have something very important to say, and that you’re trying to make something that’s filling a gap. Trying to tell a story that doesn’t exist already. Don’t repeat the same thing. Also, the nuances of being one-on-one with your partner, working through the challenges that you’re facing, hasn’t been so subtlety addressed onscreen before.

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AE: The relationships in this film are so real. We don’t have the usual Hollywood drama of cheating partners or exes coming back into the picture. How important was it to you that That’s Not Us reflect real world relationships?

WS: That was the total impetus for the film. We wanted to show the marathon of romance and not lean on those Hollywood clichés that you mentioned. When you’re writing a script those are the easiest ways to make drama happen. But this wasn’t about sudden twists and turns. This is about people that want to be in it for the long run and what it’s going to take to make it through that.


AE: Our readers might be a bit upset about the fact that of all the couples, you chose the lesbians to have the crappy sex life. What was your motivation there?

WS: It wasn’t a conscious choice. It was sort of built over time. As soon as we cast Nicole and Sarah, we decided that they were going to be the couple that has been together the longest. I think we decided they were together for eight years. They met in college and now they’re in their late twenties. And that’s a really long relationship. Having been in a relationship for quite a few years now, I think one of the things that I feel is one of the more prevalent things that come up is keeping things fresh. The more and more you get to know a person, the more and more comfortable you get with them, so to speak. And that can actually be a scary thing.

I think we just naturally gravitated towards that being their obstacle that they were dealing with. It wasn’t–I didn’t even hear the term “lesbian bed death” until we were halfway through a rehearsal and I think Nicole came to me and she was like, “Did you know this is like a thing?” And I was like, “I had no idea it was a thing.”


AE: You had no idea what LBD was when you chose to go that way with Jackie and Alex?

WS: No, because I knew we were going to be dealing with three different things. One was vulnerability, one was physical separation, and one was a sexual offseason. The thing to understand is, as you said, we didn’t want to build any clichés into these characters. We wanted them to be really fleshed out individuals as well as couples that felt unique to each other. Yes, we incorporated this element of the girls not being able to connect, but it goes beyond being able to connect sexually. On another level, on a deeper level, it’s about being able to connect verbally too. That leads them down a path to being able to reset their relationship. 

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AE: The world premiere of your movie is taking place at the Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto on May 23. What do you hope the audience takes away from That’s Not Us?

WS: What I would hope is that people would walk away from this movie seeing something that they haven’t seen before, which would be this really fresh and honest take on contemporary relationships in the LGBT community. That they can see these characters that aren’t the comic relief or the sidekick or the tropes that we know. Just that they feel they can see a piece of themselves in it, and that it gives them hope and courage that healthy long-term relationships are something that you should be proud of and that you should work hard for.

There are so many films about falling in love, but there aren’t that many about making love last. I think that’s what people are going to connect with.


That’s Not Us is available for pre-order now at thatsnotus.com. AfterEllen.com readers can get 10% off their order with coupon code AFTERELLEN. Alternatively, you can check with your local LGBT film festival to see when it’s playing near you.

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