"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Ladies and gentlemen, hide your daughters: John Stagliano is strolling down a riverside walkway and he’s got his mojo working.
Cradling a video camera in his hands, he sidles up to a curvy brunet and fumbles for a pick-up line. Gazing into the lens, the woman seems flustered at first, then amused, then — lo and behold — flattered. She follows him to a hotel room, and within minutes she is standing on a coffee table, peeling off her dress. A man knocks on the door and eventually there is a whole lot of naked writhing on a white couch.
Stagliano shoots. Stagliano scores.
Or so it seems. The interlude looks like the world’s raunchiest home video, but it’s a scene from “Buttman Confidential,” one of the year’s bestselling skin flicks. The woman, it turns out, is a Hungarian porn starlet, earning $1,100 for her troubles. And though Stagliano is posing as a bold tourist with a powerful zoom lens, this one-time economics student and self-described pervert is something else entirely. He is the man who almost single-handedly revolutionized the $5 billion-a-year pornographic movie market.
“The biggest compliment I ever get is ‘How did you get that girl back to the house?’” says Stagliano (the g is silent), pausing a cassette of “Confidential” in his porn-covered office in Van Nuys, Calif. “If I can plant that doubt in someone’s head, that means I’ve accomplished my goal.”
In the 10 years since Stagliano introduced “Buttman,” his tushy-obsessed alter ego, he has become a one-man dirty movie powerhouse and, depending on whom you ask, either the scourge or savior of an unabashedly sordid business. His radical innovation: Ditch the scripts, fancy scenery and stock characters, like the lucky plumber and the raise-seeking secretary. Instead, improvise the dialogue and stage a pseudo-documentary.
It’s the “Blair Witch Project” concept, only Stagliano aims for erotic heat rather than scares. Whether he hits his target is a matter of taste; suffice it to say, Cannes won’t honor his oeuvre any time soon. But he proved that anyone willing to max out some credit cards can nab a sliver of the adult film pie. For pornographers, nothing has been the same since. “After Stagliano showed up, every guy with a video camera started making adult movies,” says Bryn Pryor, managing editor of Adult Video News. “There’s been an explosion.”
That explosion has unalterably changed the arithmetic of the pornography racket, which Americans have quietly turned into a financial juggernaut. Since the debut of “The Adventures of Buttman” in 1989, the number of adult videos released annually has quintupled to nearly 9,000 — roughly 160 new releases each and every week. More than half of the films mimic Stagliano’s sin-ema viriti, christened “Gonzo.”
That’s a nightmare for the handful of companies sticking to Hollywood-style niceties, like plots, and spending more than 10 times as much as their Gonzo rivals to produce upscale titles such as “Interview With a Vibrator” and “Edward Penishands.” These are corporations, two of them publicly traded, run by executives trying to mainstream a decidedly un-mainstream product. They watch the stock market, not the Spice Channel. Recently, they hired a Washington lobbyist. Gonzo has gotten on their nerves.
Stagliano, however, is a hero to the nation’s independent video stores, which love the plunge in prices he spurred and which rely on their curtained-off adult sections to compete against Blockbuster. And Gonzo has rained small fortunes on dozens of schlemiels who watched Stagliano movies and figured, heck, if that guy can do it …
In Jacuzzis and rented rooms throughout the San Fernando Valley — a collection of strip-mall hamlets and the epicenter of the nation’s hardcore industry — the parvenus of porn are turning amateur orgies into gold.
“I usually shoot at my house, but we can do it anywhere,” says Adam Glasser, one of Stagliano’s most successful imitators and a man best known to his fans as Seymore Butts. “This is Mexico,” he says, pointing to a copy of a movie titled “Tushy Con Carne.”
An Italian-looking version of comedian Tim Allen, Stagliano could easily pass for an insurance agent if he wore a suit and tie, which is very unlikely. He’s 47 years old, single and childless. By adult film standards, he is a mogul. Evil Angel, the production company he founded in 1989, grosses about $7 million annually, $1 million of which he pockets in take-home pay. He employs 23 people in a 12,000-square-foot office, home to a mini porn empire, complete with an Internet department, a Buttman magazine staff and a video duplication lab with 440 VCRs.
Evil Angel’s first floor is dentist-office bland. A middle-aged receptionist and a few copies of Parenting magazine sitting on a coffee table greet visitors. Climb a flight of stairs and the place starts looking like a very smutty college newspaper. Stagliano’s office is covered with lewd photos and Adult Video News plaques, porn’s answer to the Oscars. “They never give me the award for editing,” Stagliano says, bitterly eyeing the plaques as he offers me a seat. “They don’t understand editing.”
Stagliano is shy for a guy whose sex life is a matter of such public record, and he’s wary of interviews. Throughout our three-hour chat, he veers between sullen introspection and a twinkly eyed mischievousness, a few parts brooding filmmaker, a few parts frat boy. He takes himself very seriously given the product he peddles.
I’m not among those who believe Stagliano’s profession of choice makes him a reprobate; porno is legal and harmless, after all, and arcane constitutional arguments aside, millions of men avidly consume it. But let’s stipulate up front that Buttman movies would unnerve a proctologist. Once his starlets disrobe and the intro-tease is over, Stagliano crams in more close-ups than the Surgery Channel. Never mind your own love of the female backside, buddy, Buttman is possessed. Anal sex rules his life.
And might end it prematurely. In 1997, Stagliano startled the adult film world — and gave new meaning to “Greek tragedy” — by revealing that he is HIV positive, the result of an unprotected tryst with a preoperative transsexual in Brazil. Many in the business were aghast. Stagliano should have announced his apparent bisexuality years before, they argued, a news flash his female co-stars deserved to hear. Once a performer in his movies, Stagliano these days is strictly a panting bystander. He lives now with a former adult film star who is also HIV-positive.
The son of a garbage man, Stagliano grew up in a Chicago suburb, and when other kids were swapping baseball cards, he started collecting dirty magazines. “I was 10 or 11 years old. This was in the ’60s, when you had bits of nudity but not yet hardcore,” Stagliano says. “I remember one layout of Raquel Welch in a magazine called Pageant. Seeing all that tease, I think it had a significant effect on me.”
No kidding. Stagliano became a regular at strip shows and by his own account a chronic masturbator. He ended up studying economics at UCLA, figuring that he’d land dates if he became a professor. He chucked the dismal science when he came up with a better idea: modern dance. After leaving college, Stagliano landed in the first ever Chippendales show. He’d hit the stage as Dracula in chains and bite the neck of a few ladies to the tune of Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.”
Stagliano had been appearing in X-rated loops since he left college and by 1983, like so many actors before him, he wanted to direct. Saving up $8,000 in stripping cash, he financed his first film, a fetish movie called “Bouncing Buns.” It earned him $24,000.
At the time, the humble video camera was upending the X-rated industry, a change lamented in the porn epic “Boogie Nights.” VCRs were becoming household items, porn movie houses were being shuttered and the era of the 35 mm X-rated movie was ending. Even when video took over, however, pornographers still spent money on scenery and insisted on back-story. Until Stagliano came along.
For years, he’d been seeking ways around a perennial adult film problem: The actors can’t act. One day, he set his camera on a beach in Santa Monica, then walked in front of it and started talking straight into the lens. A gust of wind blew the machine over. Perfect, Stagliano thought. What could suggest reality more than a mistake like that?
By then, he’d already shed every other member of his crew and refined his shtick to a solo act. It worked like this: He’d hire an actress or two and dispatch them to a beach or sidewalk. He’d arrive and pretend to sweet talk them to a waiting lair, all the while playing the shambling, slightly desperate doofus. “I usually tell them to react not just to me, but to my camera,” Stagliano says. “I want them to be like ‘Why is this guy pointing a camera in my face?’”
Stagliano was peddling a time-tested male fantasy brought vividly to life — the everyman getting lucky. And the less money he spent, the more popular his productions were. A typical Gonzo movie costs just $12,000 to make, about one-tenth the cost of a scripted feature.
Mockumentaries had been around for years — “This is Spinal Tap” came out in 1984 — but nobody had dragged the idea into the porn realm. When “The Adventures of Buttman” debuted, a small group of established players ruled the X-rated video shelves, companies such as Vivid Video and VCA. They took one look at Stagliano’s handiwork and they were appalled. As an economist would put it, Stagliano demonstrated that there were virtually no barriers to entering their business.
Steven Hirsch was among the alarmed. The company he co-founded in 1985, Vivid Video, is the largest producer of adult movies in the world, releasing about 30 shot-on-film features a year, some of them costing $150,000. By porn standards, Hirsch is selling an upscale product, packaged in slick, airbrushed video boxes and featuring a heavily promoted and highly aerobicized coterie of actresses. Echoing the old Hollywood studio system, Hirsch signs the “Vivid girls,” as they’re known, to exclusive deals and reportedly pays them about $100,000 a year. In a nod toward minimizing health risk, all of Vivid’s male performers are required to wear condoms.
Hirsch had little choice but to start offering his own line of shot-on-video Gonzo flicks, christened the “Raw” series. His main product, however, remains the glossy plot-and-script feature, which apparently is a serious creative challenge in a business filled with actors and directors who, let’s face it, couldn’t cut it in nearby Hollywood. Judging by “Seven Deadly Sins,” a summer release, the silicone-to-talent ratio of Vivid’s posse is way, way off and the sex scenes too often veer toward the cruel. At one point an actor named Jon Dough sits on a chair, looks bored and slaps at a woman’s breasts. Whose idea of scintillation is that?
Don’t ask Hirsch. He doesn’t watch the movies he makes; he hires someone to do that. Tan, buff and intense, the 37-year-old Hirsch is fluent in business school jargon and the only curves in his oak-paneled office one afternoon are charts of stock market gyrations on a jumbo television. He has a payroll of 175 employees to make.
“It’s a business, a tough business,” Hirsch says, drumming a pencil on a massive desk in his frigid office. “I arrive in the morning, sell our product and try to collect our money. It just happens to be adult films.”
It was a different business when Hirsch first entered it, following the footsteps of his father, a former X-rated film producer and now a Vivid employee. For years, there were 10 percent annual increases in X-rated video rentals, with more video stores opening every week and the raincoat crowd that once patronized porno theaters delighted in indulging themselves in the privacy of their homes. Through much of the ’80s, a house like Vivid could expect to sell close to 30,000 copies of a new release at $20 apiece. With the Gonzo invasion, a blockbuster moves just 13,000 pieces at about $12 a copy.
“There’s a huge amount of cheap product out there and that’s definitely taking its toll on the business,” Hirsch says. “Retailers who carry adult product are having a tough time, so it’s more difficult to convince them to carry big-budget, well produced movies. They’re fighting for their lives and if they can save a few bucks here and there, they will.”
Vivid is spread out in a warren of tin-roofed offices, and I’m guided through the place by the company’s full-time public relations rep. The company is no more rapacious than any other thriving corporate enterprise, but there’s something remarkable about a business that makes all of its money by helping men masturbate. In one wing, there’s a surround-sound home theater system so visitors can sample the latest in smut technology. “Guys love this stuff,” chuckles Jim Monroe, Vivid’s DVD meister, as he clicks through the bloopers section of a recent release.
Over in the Internet division, a scrum of young men is plotting new ways to turn erections into cold cash. For $49.95 a month, Vivid’s Web subscribers get unlimited access to film clips, an archive of photos and a set of nearly 60 interactive “channels,” which broadcast live sex over Web cams planted in studios and bedrooms all over the country. “There’s total price elasticity to this business,” gushes David Schlesinger, the hopped-up 26-year-old who runs the department. “I started off charging $12 a month, now it’s $49.95, but I want to go to $100 soon. The price doesn’t matter. Men sign up, regardless of the price, stay for three or four months, then leave.”
If Gonzo has frightened the likes of Vivid, it’s provided terrific career opportunities for some aspiring auteurs. Behold the curious career of the scraggly, transplanted New Yorker Adam Glasser.
In 1991, Glasser opened a gym in Los Angeles. Stuck in a lousy location, he struggled to cover his overhead and ended up trading memberships for paintings with cash-strapped local artists. The place was usually empty, but it looked snazzy, and a friend suggested that Glasser raise money by renting the site to filmmakers. A few Hollywood types came calling.
Then Stagliano walked in the door. “He said he wanted to make a movie too, but an adult movie,” Glasser recalls. “I said, ‘Fine.’” Instead of the usual cavalcade of lights and crewmembers, Stagliano showed up with just a video camera and a few Lycra-clad actresses. The result was a full-length feature called “Where the Girls Sweat.”
Glasser was awestruck. “I’m in the wrong business,” he said to himself, then started plotting a life change. He offered Stagliano the gym at half the going $3,000-a-day rate in exchange for the use of a video camera for 24 hours. Glasser went to a nearby strip club and recruited a woman, then headed to his gym and started shooting.
The movie stank, he candidly admits. Still, with chutzpah and a few business cards he wangled a deal with a manufacturer and started cranking out Gonzo-style movies. Within a few years, “Seymore Butts” — an onscreen moniker that doubles as a promise — became one of the largest franchises in the adult-film business. Borrowing heavily from the Stagliano formula, Glasser either narrates the action or participates in it, sometimes at the same time. A seven-year chronology of his sex life is now for rent in thousands of video stores across the country.
Seymore Inc., his production company, releases about 36 films annually, most of them shot for less than $15,000, each of them grossing more than 10 times that sum. Glasser employs 12 people, including his mother, who serves as the company bookkeeper.
Now 35, Glasser has curly dark hair and the smile of a man delighted to earn a fortune cavorting naked in his backyard. After years of litigation over the rights to his first movies, he is beginning to relish his success. There’s a Jaguar in front of his five-bedroom house, nestled on a quiet street in L.A.’s wealthy Brentwood neighborhood, where he moved in February to find better schools for Brady, his 5-year-old son.
The morning I visit, Glasser looks like he’s just awaked from an orgy and a bender. He sits at a dining table, sips a Diet Coke and groggily explains his chosen craft. Behind him, Brady is padding around with a slender young lady in a silk nightgown. It could pass for a picture of upper-class domestic bliss, Los Angeles-style, until Glasser says that the living room is a frequent backdrop for Seymore sex scenes and the lady is Alisha Klass, who just happens to be “the hottest adult-film actress in the world right now.” Later that day, I will pop a “Butts” production called “Knocking on Heaven’s Gate” into a VCR and watch Klass gratify three men at once in ways that look profoundly uncomfortable. For now, though, she’s seems like a baby sitter.
“I was with a few Hollywood friends the other night and I gave them each a copy of one of my movies,” says Glasser, who seems amazed by his improbable fortune. “They now think I’m the Steven Spielberg of the pussy.”
If Spielberg were addicted to raw group sex and unable to hold a camera steady, the comparison would seem less of a howler. Still, few in this trade have enjoyed success like Glasser. Developing a name brand is tough in a field so competitive and where, to untrained eyes anyway, nothing differentiates the rivals. The trick is sticking to what he only semi-ironically calls his “vision.”
Thanks to Gonzo, that vision is worth a tidy sum. Glasser points over my shoulder to his tennis court and pool. In any other home these are mere tokens of success. For Glasser, they’re a miniature movie lot. He films there twice a month, shielding the neighbors by putting up tactically placed screens. Do the neighbors mind the moans?
“Nah,” he says. “I cover the sound by turning on the Jacuzzi.”
David Segal is a former Democratic Rhode Island State Representative and the executive director of Demand Progress.More David Segal.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)