Filmmaker Tao Ruspoli was 8 years old when his parents split up. His mom, an actress, moved back to Los Angeles, where Ruspoli was raised, and his father, an Italian prince and notorious playboy, stayed in Italy. His parents’ relationship wasn’t exactly traditional to begin with: His mother was 16 when she met his father, then 50 and still married to his second wife. The couple never got married, but their split affected Ruspoli in profound ways. He thought he’d finally found the stability he’d longed for when he got married, to the actress Olivia Wilde, in 2003. The marriage ended eight years later, leaving Ruspoli not only with a broken heart, but also with a debilitating existential crisis.
Monogamy clearly hadn’t worked for his parents — was he foolish to think that it would work for him? Is it unrealistic to think we should stay with one person for a lifetime, and why do we continue to equate marriage with happiness when the divorce rate in America is roughly 50 percent? These are just some of the questions that Ruspoli posed to family law attorneys, relationship psychologists, sex therapists, and plenty of happily married and unmarried couples in his new movie, Monogamish. Though he began making it as a form of personal therapy after his divorce, the movie eventually became a thorough exploration into the history and sustainability of relationships of all kind, from the monogamous to the polyamorous and everything in between.
We asked Ruspoli about the process of making the film and what it taught him about the state of modern relationships. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You were married to Olivia Wilde and it was this whole tabloid thing after the divorce. Does she know about this film, and are you in contact with her?
Yeah, I’m very friendly with her and her whole family I still think of as my family. I in no way ever want to be seen either in the publicity of or in the film as exploiting her celebrity. I think it’s completely incidental to the subject. And if anything it would make it seem more alien. I would never want it to seem like I had some wildly different experience from other people. I didn’t… I think the only thing that makes it interesting is the gender dynamic of being with someone who’s very successful and is a very modern and career-driven woman. I think I nod to that in abstract in the film because I do think that we [as a society] have different gender roles now and I think it’s wonderful how they’re changing and that it no longer has to be the male breadwinner model.
It seems like this is an incredibly personal story for you. How soon after your divorce did you make this film, and at what point did you decide, “This is what I need to do”?
So right as I was going through my divorce I met this amazing little old lady named Roberta Hayes, who you see in the film with the purple hat. She was my neighbor and I started chatting with her. She got up early, like 4, 5 in the morning and I was having trouble sleeping so I’d see her light on and I’d call her up and I’d go and have breakfast with her. So we just struck up this amazing friendship and then I made a short film about her and I showed it to Oliver Stone and he loved it. I showed it to a bunch of people and it had great comments on Youtube, and that’s when I thought, “Well, this could be expanded into a bigger film.”
There were definitely parts of the movie where it seemed like you were going to make an anti-marriage case, or that you were going to advocate for polyamory, but you really gave everything equal play. You show people who have been happily married for years and years, and it leaves a lot open to the viewer to weigh everything.
[To paraphrase advice from Dan Savage], people just need to be able to have the conversation without shame and realize that they’re not weird if they find themselves longing for something different. We’re these constantly evolving creatures who are always hungry for change and at the same time we want stability and we want adventure. [Psychotherapist] Esther Perel talks about this really well, that the two are kind of opposites, what did she say?
She called monogamy a paradox, right?
Yes! [She said] it’s not a problem you can solve, it’s an issue that’s managed. That could be the slogan of the film — that could be on the poster.
This idea that it will never be perfect, or one size fits all.
I was just amazed at differences of what bothers people. I remember talking to a woman, she didn’t make it in the movie, but she said, “I would a thousand times rather find out that my husband slept with another woman than to walk in on him masturbating to his computer screen.” She’s like, “I find that so degrading to him and these women who are objectified as images on a screen. I’d much rather he be with someone flesh and blood and there’s an emotion behind it and this and that.”
Wow. That seems very cool of her.
Exactly. And she was an older woman, and you know, I talk to other people that say, “My husband has had lovers and I’m grateful to them for taking care of something that he wants more than I do.” There’s other people who say — this girl in the movie that says, “If I ever saw my boyfriend watching porn, I’d leave him.”
Yeah, I was shocked by that. She was so young, too. A lot of the younger couples seemed to be more traditional about it.
There’s a million perspectives. Obviously the person who thinks her boyfriend should never look at porn — I don’t know, maybe she’ll never find a boyfriend who doesn’t look at porn, I think everybody does. But for the most part I think as long as you’re able to talk about what it is that you want — and again, Dan Savage talks about this a lot [in the documentary] — but I think when somebody is able to recognize that they don’t want to be in a monogamous relationship they should just say that and find somebody else who wants the same things because there are more and more people who are okay with exploring another way of building a relationship with somebody.
Speaking of open relationships, [the ending reveals you were in one.] . Are you still in that relationship and what is that like?
Like every relationship in the movie, one thing I’ve learned is that there’s no way of freezing a relationship in time. Like, every fucking interview I did, by the time it was a year later, the relationship had changed. Even people who were so-called “happily married, forever after,” something has changed. The only constant is change. So that story [about my polyamorous relationship] the way it’s evolved, I could make a whole other movie about it. So you could say that, you know, I’m continuing the journey of exploring, but it’s something that I and everyone else is going to continue to explore their whole lives. That’s all I can say for that one.
The other thing that I found so interesting is not just that you’re inserting yourself into the narrative in terms of your own divorce, but you have this incredible family history that you really get into: Your grandfather ran off to Italy, he started a commune there, your mom went to find him, she ended up meeting your dad there — pretty big age difference — and they never got married, right?
I grew up in a completely untraditional background. Again, I don’t want to spoil it for people, I think they should watch the movie, let’s just say it adds a lot of layers and humor and unexpected twists to the story. I think that when I look at my own family history, and it goes back a thousand years, and you look at how patriarchy and religion and all of these things played into that, it was nice to see how the specifics turned into the universal, and it was really obviously kind of a cathartic experience to go to Italy and dive into my weird, long history. My family brings to the forefront this idea of like trying to find the balance between tradition and evolution, right? So I think that my father really pushed the boundaries in his relationships and in his lifestyle and you know wreaked some havoc, but also lived a fascinating life. I learned as much [from him] how not to be as how to be.
I think you say at one point your first memory in life was your parents splitting up and so you had this fear of abandonment and you talk about how that played out in your marriage. Do you feel like your parents’ relationship affected your idea of monogamy?
Oh, absolutely. I think everybody’s does. But we’re always like having a conversation with that. We’re not just following in their footsteps. We’re not just rebelling. It happens sometimes in those stark ways, people who had very untraditional backgrounds, they end up kind of swinging the pendulum hard the other way and trying to be very conservative. But usually I think, and in my case especially, it’s a dialogue with [your family history]. I mean I’ve never had a totally normal family situation — a little bit with my former in-laws. They provided a little bit of that stability that I hadn’t had and I still love them to death for it. But I think that for sure [my upbringing] gave me the ability to question assumptions a little more than the average person let’s say.
It sounds like you didn’t come away with any one answer in terms of how to make monogamy work. Do you feel like you came away with a better understanding of who you are and what you’re looking for after making this film?
Well I do have some conclusions in the sense that for now I’m trying to live an ethically non-monogamous life. It’s taking me in really interesting directions and I’m meeting really amazing people and I find it suits me right now for who I am and where I am in my life. It’s been really gratifying to meet other people who are in a similar enough place that we can learn from each other in deep ways and be intimate and transgressive at the same time. But I wouldn’t want to say that that’s how it is forever for me or that that’s what other people should do. I think that the only constant that makes things better is honestly about how you’re feeling with yourself and with other people. I think people get into big trouble when they pretend to be something they’re not and they lie to each other because it’s easier.
Do you think you’ll ever get married again? Are you opposed to the idea or you’re open to it?
Absolutely not opposed to anything at all. I’m radically open to all possibilities, including a monogamous marriage. I have trouble imagining or being said to by somebody, “It’s an absolute dealbreaker if you hook up with anybody else.” I think I’m past that in my life and I think somebody I would fall in love with would be sympathetic to that. But it’s not for everybody.