Charlene deGuzman only wanted to tell producer Mark Duplass that he was her hero when she sent him a direct message on Twitter in late 2013.
What the Los Angeles-based actress and writer wasn’t prepared for was for Duplass to ask her for a script. DeGuzman hadn’t written any new material at the time.
Growing up, I so badly wanted to see a Filipina woman on TV and in the movies, and I didn’t have that. Maybe now, other young women will see this and not be afraid to tell their stories or say ‘I can become an actor too!’
“It wasn’t until a year later after I wrote a pilot based on my experiences with addiction and recovery that I reached out again,” deGuzman said, referring to her time in a 12-step recovery program for love and sex addiction.
That script would became “Unlovable,” a feature-length film that follows the character of Joy (portrayed by deGuzman), a sex- and love-addicted woman who learns what real intimacy is when she starts making music with a reclusive man, Jim (portrayed by John Hawkes). The film is loosely based off on deGuzman’s experiences.
Following a successful crowdfunding campaign and support from the Sun Valley Film Festival’s 2017 The Film Lab program for in-progress projects, “Unlovable” has garnered some acclaim, making its festival debut at South by Southwest (SXSW) in March, where it received Special Jury Recognition for the SXSW LUNA® Gamechanger Award aimed at supporting female filmmakers.
The film is scheduled to screen at the Bentonville Film Festival and the Center for Asian American Media's CAAMFest in May as well as the Nantucket Film Festival in June. It was also chosen to be screened as a part of Rooftop Films's New York summer series.
DeGuzman’s first feature-length film, "Unlovable" helped her cope as she went through recovery. She said she often changed the script based on what happened in her life. It ultimately helped her keep moving forward in her recovery, she added.
“There’d be times where I was just working on the script all night, but it was something to make me feel like there was value in what I’m doing," deGuzman said. "And what drove me to continue writing my story was because I wanted to help people and bring awareness to this.”
DeGuzman noted that while sex addiction has been portrayed in mainstream films before, most of the time it comes off in a glamorized and exaggerated way and usually from the perspective of a man.
“In past movies, we’ve seen guys going to sex clubs and doing all these crazy things,” deGuzman said. “That wasn’t my experience, and having a woman’s perspective is important because women have this addiction, too. This is a very real thing that people around you that you know could be suffering from, yet are very regular people.”
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous characterizes the addiction as any unhealthy and impulsive sexual behavior that interferes with one's daily life. Research is split on whether sex addiction is a mental disorder or something else.
DeGuzman and Suzi Yoonessi, the film's director, both said that while the topic of sex and love addiction aren’t discussed enough, they hope their film will normalize it.
“We talk about a subject that is still considered taboo,” Yoonessi said. “But both sex and love are universal.”
“I hope that people who are going through what I did can watch this and feel less alone and feel understood,” deGuzman said. “I want them to feel good about themselves.”
What especially helped make the film’s storytelling authentic was that a majority of the crew was made up of women, deGuzman noted. Duplass, who served as an executive producer for the film along with his brother Jay, introduced deGuzman to producer Jen Roskind — who worked on HBO's "Animals." Roskind then introduced deGuzman to Sarah Adina-Smith — who served as the film's co-screenwriter, and Yoonessi.
“It was really cool and interesting to work with Suzi because even though it’s obviously a very personal story, it’s different to have someone direct that,” deGuzman said. “The gift in that was that I could have her outside eye tell the story in a way that would be unique, but still relatable to everybody.”
“Women are natural storytellers,” Yoonessi said. “I’m Iranian and my grandmother would tell me these Persian fairy tales when I was a kid and that’s how I learned about storytelling through the years. It makes sense for female voices to be different and have unique voices, and Charlene’s story definitely has a powerful, unique voice.”
It makes sense for female voices to be different and have unique voices, and Charlene’s story definitely has a powerful, unique voice.
One of the reasons Yoonessi was drawn to the project was because "Unlovable" explored a dark issue, but in humorous way, she noted. Yoonessi was especially interested in the character of Joy because she saw in the character a common thread that she’s enjoyed exploring in her past works — loving characters with open hearts.
“There’s something sweet and kind about Joy,” Yoonnessi said. “She is a flawed yet loving character who leads with her heart.”
DeGuzman added that more than just telling the story of a woman, she also grad to be able to tell a story about a woman of color.
“It means so much to me that I get to be myself—a Filipina woman starring as a Filipina woman,” she said. “Growing up, I so badly wanted to see a Filipina woman on TV and in the movies, and I didn’t have that. Maybe now, other young women will see this and not be afraid to tell their stories or say ‘I can become an actor too!’”
CORRECTION (May 10, 2018, 12:26 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated when Charlene deGuzman first contacted producer Mark Duplass. It was in late 2013, not October 2014. The article also misstated how deGuzman met screenwriter Sarah Adina-Smith and director Suzi Yoonessi. They were introduced by producer Jen Roskind, not Duplass.