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Interview: “Strictly Sexual’s” Joel Viertel and Stevie Long

August 22nd, 2011 by Ben Collins Editor

When the word first got out about Joel Viertel and Stevie Long’s movie, that word was “sex.”

Yep, that’s probably the primary reason people started watching the movie “Strictly Sexual” on Hulu a couple of years ago—its provocative title.

It was principally watched by a curious few, maybe expecting something pornographic or steamy or otherwise, well, strictly sexual, who instead came upon a movie that was quirky, warm, and pretty funny—one that made those curious few feel better about people in general.

So then the actual word got out. And that word was truly a few words: “This thing is a good movie.”

That’s why they’ve decided to turn it into a series.

Long and Viertel’s “Strictly Sexual: The Series” debuted on Hulu last week, and it was the second-most watched episode of the day for a couple of hours after its launch. It’s not because it’s sexy—even though it is. It’s because this thing, too, has a lot of heart.

It’s a one-of-a-kind turnaround for a movie that was shot on $100,000 with no megastars involved. Now it’s got its own TV show, its own ecosystem, and its own fanbase.

Long is the show’s writer and producer and Viertel is its director and producer. They’re still kind of in awe about the whole thing. And just like any good underdog story, they still love to talk about it.

Hulu: You guys have had arguably one of the most remarkable, unique success stories with this movie. It seems like something that, in history, could’ve only happened exactly when it happened.

Stevie Long: It’s the best example of how the Internet can make a movie popular. There’s no other circumstance a movie like this would get popular before the Internet. It simply became this hugely popular word-of-mouth thing, where people were watching this movie and telling everybody online, “I really enjoyed this movie. I think you should check it out.”

So how did this the movie initially get made?

Joel Viertel: Stevie and I knew each other when I was an exec at Paramount. We’d made this big effort to get it made, and eventually we got it made at a fairly low budget. What happened was, well, the independent film industry started to sort of crumble. By the time we went to sell it, it was tough to move a movie without any stars in it. We did get a distributor to get it up and put it out there. Then, all of a sudden, it became this cult thing.

Isn’t it even more flattering that the general public decided it’s a good movie? Isn’t that more rewarding, if you’re making a film, than getting a studio to love it?

Any movie that gets most of its recognition after the fact—that’s the group you want to be in. I mean, I saw “The Hurt Locker” in the theatre. But most people saw the hurt locker on cable TV. It’s one of those movies where they have to turn on the TV and go to it to see it. But we were just trying to make a sweet little romantic comedy. We were happy with the film. The sort of exceptionalism, how much people liked it—I don’t think we banked on that. You can’t really say, “We’re gonna go out and make a Blair Witch Project.'” It’s flattering and surreal how this has done on Hulu, but I wouldn’t say we’d expected that.

It reflects nicely on the audience, honestly. They don’t like to be told what to watch. They’re saying they’re not easily bullied by marketing campaigns. They found this arty little indie film, they like it, so they’re telling their friends about it.

So when did you get the idea to turn this into a fully-fledged series?

After it got popular on Hulu, it got a lot of press because how it got that way. CNN covered it. I was interviewed on (NPR’s) “All Things Considered.” So I called up the guy I knew over at Hulu, Alex, and I said, “I’m the guy who made that movie. why don’t you guys have original programming?” And he said, “Check back with me in a month, kid.” A year or two later, there’s an original show.

How much effort did you go to make sure the show stays true to the movie?

It’s not the same story told again, but we wanted to make it feel like its very much in the same universe with a lot of the same people.

Anyone who liked the movie is gonna like the show. It’s funny and it’s touching in the same sort of ways. You’re not watching a guy who is trying to get laid; you’re watching a guy trying to fall in love. My character isn’t a sex addict. We could find a guy who’s after that and wouldn’t have much (to work with).

That’s what I think works about the movie—and this is tough to do with a romantic comedy—is that it’s not gender-specific. It’s not men going, “Ugh, what’s the matter with women!” and it’s not the other way around. It avoids that trap.

Yeah, the show is equal parts “Sex & The City” and equal parts “Entourage.” Most importantly, I think it shows when those things—those two worlds—crash together. I wanted to show what women and men think privately, and I hope that’s why the show will catch on.

But, yes, we’ve spent a fair amount of time that it does feel consistent to the movie. It’s a continuation of that world—and where we left it—in that it appeals to men and women. We don’t take sides. Women would roll their eyes and call it misogynistic. We’re all the same, women and men—young, old, black, white—in that we have this need to get laid, but we also want love.