How They Did It: When Genres Collide: Making NC-17 Found-Footage Porn Thriller Lucky Bastard

Lucky Bastard is an NC-17 “porn thriller” about an adult entertainment shoot gone wrong.

A website gives a regular guy the chance to have sex with a porn star, but when he fails to perform, his humiliation leads him to commit the most horrendous acts imaginable. We wrote and executive produced the film together: Robert directed while Lukas raised the money.

Although Lucky Bastard is descended from many genres—thriller, suspense, slasher, found-footage and mockumentary—we saw it as an opportunity to say what we wanted by combining genres in a way that upended audience expectations, creating an art film in the guise of an exploitation film. Along the way the movie’s DNA mutated into something even we didn’t recognize, which delights us to no end.

We started with a shared belief: that many movies set in the world of pornography, with some notable exceptions, seemed tailored for an R rating or otherwise feared offending audience sensibilities. They are defined as culturally “safe.” Pornography is a taboo product. We consume it but don’t talk about it at dinner parties or backyard barbecues. As a result, a “safe” film depicts people who work in the adult entertainment industry as depraved outsiders deserving of unhappy fates. We wanted to do the opposite. We wanted a modern, empathetic take on adult-film actors and filmmakers as ordinary people earning a living. We didn’t want to let the audience do what they might be inclined to do: look down on the characters as somehow less than human. After all, we weren’t making the movie for a studio; we didn’t need to worry about having an opening weekend of $75 million.

One of our earliest important decisions was drawing the line on explicit content. We needed the audience to believe they were watching real people in the adult entertainment business but we wanted no one mistaking Lucky Bastard for pornography. We looked not to earlier films but to the cottage industry of late-night HBO documentaries like Real Sex, Cathouse and Pornucopia. These programs show everything except sexual penetration and erect penises, widely understood as the distinction between “softcore” and “hardcore.” We had no interest in asking our actors to perform actual sex acts and every interest in making a film suitable for home video and cable distribution. That was our boundary. We created a few shots with pixelated “naughty parts” to sell the illusion that sex was taking place, while the actors were, in fact, simulating the action.

We discovered, however, that in our naiveté we failed to consider that our explicit content would garner us the dreaded NC-17 theatrical “rating of death.” We realized this only after the film was completed and distributors balked at the content (while they applauded our audacity). Believing that cutting for an R, if even possible, would ruin the movie, we accepted the NC-17. Why? Because despite the commercial damage it would do, we abhorred the idea of the movie being seen by young and inappropriate audiences.

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Not worrying about the rating when we started had a liberating upside. It gave us the freedom to include sex, nudity and violence as the story demanded. Primarily we wanted to establish verisimilitude at the front of the film. Sex and violence in and of themselves are repetitious, hard to watch, and not very interesting. So once we established our bona fides we kept our cast (mostly) clothed for the drama comprising the bulk of the story. In fact, we underplay most of the climactic violence, which, we hope, contrasts with some of the earlier extreme content. This provokes the viewer into questioning why they come to a movie for violence in the first place.

Our next major creative challenge was making the found footage or mockumentary format new. Even in the time since we shot the film, the general population—frustrated by cheap, repetitive and ridiculous films—seems to have turned against the genre. We don’t blame them. We had no allegiance to the format and knew we wanted to do it differently—deliberately eschewing dramatic music, non-diegetic sound effects (“whooshing” cameras pans and the like) and other film-editorial “sizzle.” We wanted an austere, cinema verité style that we weren’t sure had any specific precedent.

Our story’s conceit fortunately allowed us to avoid the single most ludicrous flaw of most found-footage movies: which is to say, after Bigfoot devours the first camper, why do the survivors persist in filming the experience while they ostensibly flee for their lives? Here, we establish that the proceedings are being documented by a professional porn film crew—aided by a house outfitted with “wall cams” for a reality show. Thus we have a believable reason for all of the footage to exist—with virtually none of the “shaky cam” endemic to these pictures.

We knew what we wanted but weren’t sure it could be done. Then we got lucky. (Never underestimate luck in making a movie.) We were gifted with a genuine wizard as a cinematographer: Clay Westervelt, a veteran of narrative, documentary and reality filmmaking. Clay blew us away with his ingenuity, creativity and shrewd judgment, supported by his good-humored personality. As early as the first day of tech scouts, when he was thinking aloud about how to shoot the picture, Clay began inventing a new visual language to suit the script. First and foremost he worked to establish verisimilitude. Although a RED Epic was available, he chose Panasonic P2s for handheld and GoPros for the wall cams, shooting 1080p at 29.97 fps for a rich video look that was HD feature-quality, but not so cinematic as to be unrealistic coming from a porn crew.

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Found-footage excuses many sins. Lighting is faster so shooting is faster. You don’t need perfect continuity. But the form creates its own problems. The story must justify every single shot. For the first half of our film this was mostly not a problem; we establish that the characters are filming their experiences for their website. But when the murders commence we slowly lose our cameramen. The action has to be captured by stationary cameras. We had to carefully plan where the wall cams were established early in the story so that the later action could believably be captured. For the final act Clay found that the shooting style, as modern as it is, ironically takes on the quality of early 1930s-era talkies; the acting and blocking has to carry the day, with scenes played in proscenium masters and with mediums where close-ups would today be the norm.

Every director will tell you the basic secret of filmmaking: Cast it right and everything else takes care of itself. We gambled that even though many actors (and their agents) would turn down roles because of the subject matter and trivial pay, others would love the challenge of difficult and provocative work. All we had to do was find them, and again we got lucky. Christine Sheaks, our casting director, whose credits (purely as a coincidence) include Boogie Nights, assured us she could cast the film. Many found footage movies have deliberately used unknown actors to preserve the illusion that the footage is “real”—some, like Blair Witch Project, even using the actors’ names for their characters. For us the bloom was long off that rose. If our actors were recognizable from other work, so be it. Robert had been casting television episodes for 20 years (on hit shows like ER and Law & Order), many with ensemble casts, and he responded to Christine’s vision of an ensemble as a tapestry in which no single part can be cast in a vacuum. Christine presented us with her lists of “Ideal,” “Hoped For,” and “Just in Case We’re in Trouble.” Then we got seriously lucky. In the end every actor cast was an “ideal.” We could write an entire essay about each actor’s magnificent performance and perhaps another time we’ll do that.

To complete the illusion of found footage, one essential piece of “casting” remained: the house where the second and third acts are set. We looked at several houses before having a “Goldilocks” moment. We found a house that perfectly matched the descriptions in the script: a modern Woodland Hills “chateau” commonly rented for actual porn shoots. With a hillside view, a stripper pole, and visually distinctive rooms large enough to accommodate handheld work, but intimate enough for “wall cams,” it was as if the house had been built for us. (Can we say it again? Never underestimate luck in making a movie.)

Our greatest blessing in the luck department came in the person of Jim Wynorski, our producer and UPM. In three decades of filmmaking, starting with Roger Corman, Jim has made everything from monster movies (Piranhaconda) to cult classics (Chopping Mall) to hilariously titled late-night erotica (The Hills Have Thighs, The Devil Wears Nada). Jim was the gift that kept on giving. He hired our entire crew—including our brilliant editor, Tony Randel (himself famous among horror fans for directing Hellbound: Hellraiser II).

This is Robert’s first film as a director and Lukas’s first film of any kind. If we have any advice for first-time filmmakers it’s this: Find talented people with collaborative personalities and a passion for serving the film. Listen to them when they disagree with you; they know their craft and fairly often they’re right and you’re not. You’ve heard this wisdom from every producer and director, just as we had, and nothing is more true: Find good people, let them do their jobs, and everything else really does take care of itself. MM

Lukas Kendall is the founder of Film Score Monthly. Robert Nathan is a Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated television writer-producer who has been on the staffs of many acclaimed television series, including ER and the three series in the Law & Order franchise.

Lucky Bastard opens in Los Angeles on Friday, March 7 (with additional cities throughout the spring), courtesy of CAVU Pictures.

 

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