Josephine Decker and I fell in love September 2011. Intense, all-consuming, physical, mental, emotional, it was all-encompassing. Down the rabbit hole we went. She was smart, talented, outgoing, motivated, gorgeous, funny, generous—the perfect partner. Losing myself in another person was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. Until it became one of the worst.
We had both been dealing with that thorny moment when your love for someone turns into hard reality—and after a few fights, we decided we would deal with the complications arising in our relationship by making a short film. The first time we had sex was a catastrophe. Immediately we were thrust into the conversation of whether or not we were going to be parents. A difficult talk for any couple, it became doubly so when we decided to record it on film. Just days after this painful moment we re-enacted it for the camera. Our close friend and talented cinematographer, Ashley Connor, came to our aid. Shot and edited in two weeks, the short film was called “Madonna Mia Violenta.” It was as rough and raw as the subject matter. At the premiere some loved it, some were grossed out, some cried, and some even referred to it as a “sex tape.” And from there we were hooked.
Still in love and inspired by the success of the short, we decided to keep filming. Deeper and more real were the watchwords. With full hearts, we set about creating a film about a couple that was genuinely in love. In an aggressive and ill-advised form of art therapy, we were soon filming the most heavenly and harrowing parts of our relationship. In the blush of first love, the critic is an unwelcome guest and we certainly learned this as our love crumbled. Whereas most films would end on this note, we continued to film for five long years and uncovered even deeper revelations about who we were as ex-lovers and more importantly, as people.
The film was eventually called “Flames.” Eighty-four minutes long, it took six years and mountains of blood, sweat, and tears. It premiered at Tribeca in 2017 and has shown all over the world.
Six years of constant editing and reexamination of my character defects. Cutting, cutting, cutting through hundreds of hours of footage. It was shameful to watch myself being a horrible person, being a mediocre human, being just another schmuck for so many years. Editing this film changed not only the way I view myself, but also how I act in the world.
I’ll be frank, I cheated on Josephine. It was a one-night-stand with an ex-girlfriend. The dissolution of trust that followed afterward was one of the main factors that lead to our relationship deteriorating. Since our breakup, Josephine and I have gone on to be in long-term happy relationships. I have been with my girlfriend for over 5 years. The excruciating process of making “Flames” was one I would never repeat, but it has made me a better friend and partner to my current girlfriend. I’m definitely not the best boyfriend in the world, but I try on a daily basis not to be the worst either.
Here are five takeaways I have learned in those five years.
1. Listen To Her
When my girlfriend says something, even if I’m busy, I take a moment, turn, face her, and listen. If I’m not present, if I’m trying to talk over her, if I’m distracted, then how can I hope to have a quality relationship? I was a horrible listener with Josephine. I have tried hard to change that in my current relationship.
2. Talk When It’s My Turn
After listening and doing my best to understand her point, then it is my moment. I have a responsibility to share what is really going on with me. When I tell her my feelings, then we can discuss the roots of where they come from. After that, it becomes intimate, collaborative, and even fun!
3. Therapy Works
I was skeptical at first. I didn’t see why we had to pay someone to help us talk to each other when we could just sit down and do it ourselves. Through gentle persuasion, I was shown that there was much I had to learn about communication. My girlfriend and I have been to a few different therapists over the years and they have helped us immensely.
4. Include Her
One of the hardest things about making “Flames” was staying in my current relationship while working with Josephine. I give my girlfriend an enormous amount of credit for sticking by me while I worked through my issues with my ex. This is more than anyone should ask of their partner, but courageously, she hung in there and we are better for it. We have co-written a feature script together called “Lean” and will be shooting it this year. Our partnership is stronger when we include each other in our projects. I won’t be working on a film without her ever again.
Shoes! Purses! Jewels! Who doesn’t love the finery of life!? But more importantly, I have learned to try to think of what she really wants. Often a gift doesn’t mean a new piece for her wardrobe, but rather a trip to a cat cafe, reading her a bedtime story, or going for a romantic dinner. Gifts of time and experience tend to be the most appreciated. When I put my own agenda aside and try to truly consider what would make her happy, I find that it gives me greater joy to see her delight.
Like I said, I’m not a perfect boyfriend, but because of “Flames”, I’m a hell of a lot better today than I was then.