Joe and Harry Gantz, of the HBO peephole-fest "Taxicab Confessions," say it's a good thing they attend Reform Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. "It's the most liberal synagogue in town," says Harry, 43, the more easygoing Gantz. "No one raises eyebrows about what we do."
Cinematic voyeurism is what the brothers do best. In 1995 -- before shows like "Survivor" launched the reality TV craze -- "Taxicab" broke boundaries (and earned Emmy nominations) by filming passengers with five hidden, lipstick-size cameras. Strippers, morticians, junkies and grandmothers spilled their guts to the cabbies, who were told what to say by the Gantzes (they communicated via earpiece from a van). The Washington Post praised the brothers for shaping "their material so that it seems neither voyeuristic nor judgmental."
The brothers took the same approach to "Sex With Strangers," a feature-length documentary about the swinging lifestyle, opening today in Los Angeles. The stark film, which focuses on three couples, is a narrower portrait than David Schisgall's 2001 doc, "The Lifestyle," which offers a broader social perspective.
During an interview in their Woodland Hills office -- where a dusty "Confessions" cab graces the front yard -- the Gantzes described how they got the idea for the movie. "When we were filming 'Taxicab' in Las Vegas, we picked up a couple from a swing club called The Red Rooster," says Joe, 47, the more soft-spoken, intense Gantz. "They started talking very matter-of-factly about these over-the-top sexual experiences, and we began to wonder if the experiences impacted other aspects of their relationship."
After scouring swingers clubs and magazines around the country, the brothers eventually settled on three couples, including a pair of Washington state medical professionals who cruised bars in their RV "love boat." To shoot the sex scenes (which constitute only seven minutes of the film), the Gantzes watched on a remote monitor while directing cameraman via an earpiece. The startlingly unsexy movie has more to say about jealousy than sex, prompting the tagline, "And you thought monogamy was hard."
Since the controversial movie was filmed, four of the subjects have lost their jobs -- including a National Guard helicopter pilot a year shy of retirement. "We felt terrible about that, but I don't feel our work exploits anyone," insists Joe, who's also a writer and photographer. "We're giving regular people the chance to tell their story in a straightforward, nonjudgmental way."
The brothers -- whose office is lined with photos of their respective wives and children -- trace their approach in part to their Jewish roots in Cincinnati. Their open-minded parents refused to follow the white flight out of their inner-city neighborhood, so most of the brothers' childhood friends were black. "Our folks believed in the Jewish tradition of questioning, and that sexuality is an integral part of the psyche," says Joe, who like his brother had a Reform bar mitzvah.
Adds Harry, a former actor-director: "It's no coincidence that Freud was Jewish."
Probing human nature was the goal when the Gantzes teamed up to make their first cinema vérité-style documentary, "Couples Arguing," for PBS in 1987. They found couples willing to beep them the moment they started fighting and to retreat to separate rooms until the filmmakers rushed over.
"Taxicab Confessions" came about when networks refused to buy their series, "Life at Random," about people whose names were plucked out of a phone book. "But we were able to convince HBO to do 'Life at Random' in a cab," Joe notes.
Today, the brothers are proffering even rawer fare on their Web site, Crushed Planet, and they are also developing a fictional feature film that's the virtual opposite of "Sex With Strangers." "It's a comedy about monogamy," Joe says. "It explores what it's like to be married."
"Sex With Strangers" opens May 3 at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information call (310) 478-6379.