How a Dunedin director turned his break-up into a hit film – and found his happily ever after.
Jan Oliver Lucks gets recognised when he walks around New York. The Dunedin-based director was there, earlier this year, after his new film had screened on a cable channel. Three different people stopped him to ask if he was “the guy from that threesome film”.
Lucks couldn’t believe it. “I wanted a photo with them more than they wanted a photo with me,” he says. “I was so excited to get recognised.”
His face seems familiar because Lucks’ new documentary, There is No I in Threesome, aired on HBO Max, one of America’s bigger streaming services. It’s also been reviewed, positively, by The New York Times (“startling!”), The Los Angeles Times (“shocking!”), and The Hollywood Reporter, which called it “a soul-searching tribute” to a failed relationship.
In New Zealand, Lucks is known for Wilber: The King in the Ring, a 2017 documentary about his friend, Wilbur McDougall, a former pro-wrestler. In his new film, which chronicles his failed attempts at polyamory with his ex, Lucks instead wrestles with himself.
It’s doing the rounds of the New Zealand International Film Festival, in the cities that are allowed to have screenings, and every major local news website has reviewed it. Even Kim Hill wanted a piece of him last weekend.
But Lucks hasn’t read or listened to any of it. “I’ve stayed away from social media,” he shrugs on a Zoom call from Montreal. “I deleted Facebook and Instagram a few months ago, and haven’t really looked at any comments on Letterboxd or IMDB.”
Even if reviews are overwhelmingly positive, Lucks says one or two negative comments will stay with him. “I’m a little bit blissfully ignorant,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how big a deal it was.”
Threesome is, according to everyone who has seen it, a very big deal. In 2016, Lucks turned the cameras around as he and his fiancee chose to open up their relationship and chronicle their exploration of polyamory – that is, engaging multiple sexual partners – in the build-up to their wedding.
Everything you see on screen really did happen. “No one in our circle was doing polyamory at the time,” says Lucks. “It made sense to turn around the camera on us.”
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.
Shot on iPhones and hand-held cameras, Threesome follows the pair down an intimate rabbit hole. Living in separate cities, they explore their sexuality individually, sometimes while the other watches – often jealously – on camera. They visit sex clubs together, introduce new, more permanent partners to each other, and have many discussions about egos, jealousy and how their feelings are getting in the way.
Then, Lucks’ partner leaves him for another man. A distraught Lucks kept shooting through his depression, chronicling his own misery. Afterwards, he trawled back through his footage to see what went wrong – and how he could turn it all into a movie.
To say any more would be to spoil the film’s delightful twists in its second half, the kind of gotcha! that some news websites have written elaborate explainers for. When I tell Lucks he’s made a movie that’s virtually impossible to write about, he says: “That’s great.” He admits he’s happy that something positive came out of his doomed relationship. “I’m definitely stoked it hasn’t all been in vain and people got something out of it,” he says.
Viewers definitely come away from Threesome with questions about polyamory. Lucks says he’s been doing plenty of interviews lately in which that’s all he’s asked about. But his relationship ended in 2016, and while he’s been working on the film for five years, he hasn’t had a polyamous relationship since. “It’s been so long since I dabbled in that, that I’m really past it and not that interested in it any more,” he says. “I’ve let it go.”
He can see the positives to the lifestyle. “Open relationships and polyamory can work for some people. It doesn’t work for me because, as you see in the film, I get too jealous, I’ve got too big an ego. It’s too much talking, too much time, it’s just a lot of effort … you have to say how you feel (constantly).”
How Lucks feels right now is happy. His ex has given his film her blessing, he’s signed a development deal with a production company owned by Freddie Highmore, the kid from Tim Burton’s reboot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has American representation, has been meeting with Netflix executives and is already working on his next project.
Like the work of Nathan For You prankster Nathan Fielder, who Lucks has been compared to, it will probably feature plenty of him in it again. He says he’s more subdued in real life, but as soon as the camera rolls something clicks. “I become a class clown, a heightened version of me that needs to make good content.”
There’s one other thing putting a smile on his face: a new relationship. Yes, this is one story that comes with a happily ever after ending. Lucks is in Montreal, waiting for his American visa to be approved, with his new partner, Julia, a New York Times columnist. The pair met when she interviewed him about his movie, and they began talking on Facetime, extensively.
In April, Lucks took the plunge, travelled to New York, and met her. “It was a perfect fit straight away,” he says. “We got engaged after … two months.” The pair plan to split their time between her home in New York and his in Dunedin once his visa is approved and the pandemic has eased.
Is he rolling cameras in his current relationship? “No, I’m definitely not,” laughs Lucks. “It’s very traditional.” It turns out Lucks has learned a few lessons from the film he made about his failed attempts at polyamory. “I’m just not interested in opening up that can ever again.”
For screenings near you, visit nziff.co.nz