Porn Hacks: What the “Legitimate” Indie Moviemaker Can Pick Up From Pornographers

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In the summer of 1977, filmgoers flocked in record numbers to behold the rousing tale of a jejune moppet ripening to vigor and masculinity by tarrying about seedy bars, wielding with swelling confidence his lambent saber, locking lips with his sister, consorting with a colossal, hirsute non-English speaker and an acerbic iconoclast, and eventually delivering a persuasive (if temporary) death blow to an evil, totalitarian empire.

Made on a budget of $11 million, Star Wars went on to gross nearly $500 million worldwide.

Just down the street from theaters playing George Lucas’ space opera, cineastes devoured a perky, euphonic musical-comedy featuring eight million donuts, thousands of bad bikini lines, a half-dozen dancing dildos, a stunt cock, a banjo, lyrics that would make Rodgers and Hammerstein flip in their graves (“I’m not deformed/I’m not a cripple/So why won’t you let me hold your nipple?”), along with deadpan turns from Cindy Williams and Ron Howard. Made for $125,000 and earning but a Lilliputian share of Luke Skywalker’s eventual purse, The First Nudie Musical was a truly independent film—produced on the fly with the unflagging ingenuity and buoyant zeal of an Our Gang barnyard pageant, by a band of penniless comers pining for their big breaks—and also one of the rare cinematic exhibits that artfully gangplanked the hippodromes of indie cinema and filmed pornography.

“We found 10 people willing to put in $15,000 apiece and that was our budget. We flew by the seat of our pants with angels on our shoulders,” says Bruce Kimmel, Nudie Musical’s producer-writer-director, now a Grammy-nominated record producer and prolific author. “That’s probably how a lot of independent films were made back then, and pornographic movies too. It’s where a lot of us learned how to make movies, how to connect with audiences, how to do what we felt we were born to do—but very quickly and very, very cheaply.”

But by the time Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape in 1989 puissantly petitioned cinephiles to swap the mildly disparaging phrase “low-budget movie” with the more robust riposte “independent film,” searing the Sundance Film Festival into the collective consciousness, some dirty little secrets were effectively wiped from public view. Namely, the fact that revered mainstream filmmakers like Barry Sonnenfeld, Wes Craven, Francis Ford Coppola, and Still Alice writer-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer all went through artistic puberty as early career purveyors of porn, with titles like The Florida Erection, The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and The Fireworks Woman to their names. And that the DIY, indigent making of cinematic sausage (with or without hardcore sex) requires equal gumption, frugality, stratagem, and chutzpah. Indie flicks occupied an esteemed—or, at least, charitablecultural perch, with porn being exiled once more as show business’ redheaded stepchild.

While the average studio film in 2013 cost $71 million to make, according to Hollywood Reporter, the Sundance Institute recently stated that films they screen at their annual festival are more commonly budgeted at about $750,000—a figure not too disparate from the $25,000 spent producing a feature-length adult film in 2014. And while mainstream film offerings in 2014 numbered only 692 titles in total, grossing a combined $10,407,793,011, the porn industry last year released almost 11,000 titles, earning roughly the same revenues. So maybe—just maybe—the “satirists of human pretension,” as English novelist Angela Carter once referred to pornographers, have a hot tip for shooters hoping to pop as the next Soderbergh, Tarantino, Nolan, Jackson or Cairo.

Write a Script You Can Afford

“If you’re writing a script you know you’ll only have $300,000 to produce, that fantasy epic about the female barbarian that concludes with a massive battle between 500,000 armored warriors and 200 flying dragons might not be the best way to go,” says Bryn Pryor, a Roger Corman veteran and writer-director of the forthcoming mainstream steampunk Western Cowboys & Engines. Pryor’s extensive adult film credits recently earned him a spot in AVN’s Hall of Fame (the porn equivalent of the Academy Awards). “Realism is your friend in low-budget filmmaking situations, whether you’re shooting penetration or people talking around the dinner table.”

Erika Lust, the 38-year old erotic filmmaker whose new series, XConfessions, is enjoying a warm reception from adult film fans and progressive mainstreamers alike, agrees that working with what you’ve got is critical to no-budget filmmaking that looks like some-budget filmmaking. When dreaming up her next film, Lust draws on her years as a location manager, writing films around locations that are available free or very inexpensively.

Feminist erotica director Lust, who has just started production on the fourth volume of XConfessions. Photograph by Mireia de Sagarra

Feminist erotica director Erika Lust, who has just started production on the fourth volume of XConfessions. Photograph by Mireia de Sagarra

Tristan Taormino, author, sex educator, and the producer-director of 26 adult films, including Rough Sex and the Expert Guide sex ed series, concurs. “Finding a great location with a low-key owner and tons of rooms is ideal,” Taormino says. “Often if you book multiple days there, you get a better deal. I look at every inch of a place to see how many different sets I can get out of it. I’ve shot multiple movies in one house where I just get creative with décor and re-arranging furniture to make it look like a different room in a different place.”

Know Your Partners Well

In 1982, acclaimed writer Jerry Stahl was angling to make a big splash as a filmmaker. He teamed with a maverick, punk-inspired director, Stephen Sayadian, to write a post-apocalyptic take on Romeo and Juliet. The only financiers the upstarts could seduce were owners of an X-rated movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard. They funded Café Flesh with quarters “from peep shows,” Stahl cracks. The pair (working under the name Rinse Dream) went on their merry way, crafting a visually arresting, deeply evocative art film that was, to their moneymen, lacking about eight pivotal scenes, as Stahl remembers—“the scenes with all the fucking.”

Stahl (who just published his new tome, OG DAD: Weird Shit That Happens When You Don’t Die Young) recalls his first foray in filmmaking fondly, but cautions aspiring filmmakers about grabbing every dollar offered to their production. “You’ve got to know who’s giving you the money,” Stahl says. “And try not to get financing from guys who carry guns.”

Same goes for your intended audience—know them, intimately. “If it’s not going to sell, you’ve wasted your time. If you want to make another film, this film has to make money,” says James Bartholet, who has appeared in films directed by David Lynch and Blake Edwards, as well as porn parodies like Cinderella XXX and Untrue Hollywood Stories: Oprah XXX. “So do your homework. Know who you’re making your film for. Learn from the mistakes and successes of other filmmakers. That’s true for mainstream; it’s true for adult.”

Go Digital. Duh!

“If you’re seriously considering shooting on film in 2015, you’re a pretentious, snobby douche with no clue what you’re talking about. Lab costs alone will bury you in film. You’ll never even get to telecine,” says Pryor, who wrote and produced Star Wars XXX, one of the adult industry’s most successful titles ever. “Get the best digital camera you can afford, a couple of good zooms, a DP who knows their ass from their elbow, and make it beautiful. Don’t sabotage your own movie out of hipster romanticism.”

Don’t Forget the Foreplay

Lee Roy Myers, the 37-year-old co-owner of porn site woodrocket.com and award-winning filmmaker behind porn parodies Game of Bones and Guardians of the Galaxy: 50 Shades of Groot, says it’s impossible to overstate the importance of preparedness before you jump straight in. “When you’re making a film for five bucks, you don’t have weeks and weeks to shoot a single scene. I know what I want before I show up each day. Like, exactly what I want.”

“Pre-production will save your ass,” says James Deen. Deen has starred in nearly 2,000 adult films, like Art School Sluts and Big Red Asses 7, and opposite Lindsay Lohan in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. “Twenty grand will get the job done, but you have to go fast and cheap. You get two takes. Only two. So you’d better be ready. Most indie films don’t work on Terrence Malick time.” Neither does pornography.

Physiological challenges often prevent, or at least delay, second takes in pornography. “Retakes are possible, but not always,” says Taormino. “I don’t want to interrupt organic chemistry and momentum between performers because of some technical issue. Spontaneous things happen all the time when two or more people have sex, and I don’t want to miss anything, like a performer giving her partner an intense look or the build-up to an orgasm. So be ready. Don’t miss your best moment.”

Game of Bones, the Woodrocket-made porn parody of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. Courtesy of woodrocket.com

Game of Bones, the Woodrocket-made porn parody of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. Courtesy of woodrocket.com

Do Two or More (Tasks) at Once

Whether you’re directing a low-budget indie or porno, the buck always stops with you. “Get the best people you can for each department, but understand that the real head of every department is you,” Pryor says. “Be ready to go buy props and wardrobe yourself. Be ready to pick up the camera package or extra lights. Every job is your job.”

Deen, who is producing Cowboys & Engines with Pryor, believes that technology allows low-budget filmmakers to multitask. “On one of our films, you might be the DP, the gaffer, and the grip. There’s no reason why an electrician can’t pick up a light. There’s no reason why a producer can’t push a dolly,” says Deen. “That’s violating union rules and policies, which are important to keep people safe and working—but anyone can pick up a C-stand and move it from here to there. If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

Sound: the Biggest Turn On

Stephen Elliot, writer-director of IFC’s About Cherry (2012, founder of the online periodical The Rumpus, and author of several books, believes the biggest difference between porn and mainstream films is sound. He notes that many adult films are shot on soundstages where built-in microphones are sufficient. “For indie films, which are almost never shot on a stage, you need much better sound,” Elliott says. “You might be able to find a cinematographer with his own camera or actors who will act for free. But there’s no such thing as free audio.” Elliott says filmmakers need to budget at least $200 a day for sound—“more in New York.”

Essential Shots First

Woodrocket’s Myers advises filmmakers to shoot the angle they know they’ll use before attempting any “fancy shots,” a lesson he learned on a mainstream feature in which his lead actress cried masterfully in the master shot, but went bone dry during her close-up. “We were stuck with a tearless close-up. I will not ever make that mistake again.”

Be strategic, especially around your talent. In porn, “you are destined to cast a few actors that can’t act the way you want them to once the camera is rolling,” Myers says, diplomatically. “Think about your edit, and pick the best ways to shoot around your problem spots.”

On that note, B-roll matters. About Cherry’s Elliott encourages filmmakers to use a second camera whenever budgets will allow. “It’s not for taking planned shots. The second camera is getting everything you don’t know you need—close-ups, mostly,” he says. “You’ll be so glad to have all this extra footage when you’re editing.”

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