"Where was it, Denise?" asked Tom, the quiet director.
"The left side," I answered.
"Where? Show us." This was from Andy, the punk assistant director with stringy hair.
"On the left," I replied.
"Come on, take it and show us," piped in Roger, the gnarly gaffer.
"Look guys, John's dick was on the left side, and he can move it himself!" I said.
Blushing, I looked up from my script notes and saw them all grinning, including the naked star of the movie, John Holmes. They got me.
What was a nice feminist doing on a porno?
It was 1977, San Francisco. And if you were breaking into film work in the Bay Area, sooner or later you'd have a chance to work in the thriving porn industry. In those days, porn films, or pornos, as we called them, were made in the San Fernando Valley, New York and San Francisco. San Francisco was especially popular because it was cheap, the vice squad was understanding (some said well paid) and the crews were eager. In fact, certain crew people, caterers and soundstage owners made a decent living working exclusively on pornos.
As for me, I was building my résumé as a script supervisor and needed the experience -- or that was how I rationalized it to my friends and myself. But as a feminist who had just completed a documentary on the emerging women's health movement, I had very mixed feelings about working in a genre that notoriously denigrates women. I couldn't even rely on the wise quote of my favorite director, Luis Buñuel: "To live is to contradict oneself."
However, my boyfriend helped by reminding me that certain practicalities of life also had to be addressed, like paying the rent and buying groceries. With this in mind, and a promise to myself that if there was any hint of sadism I would walk, I took the job as script supervisor on "Liquid Lips" (not the film's real name) starring John Holmes as Detective Johnny Wadd. At the time, I had never seen a porno, much less had any idea who John Holmes was.
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By 10 a.m. of the first day on location, which was a ramshackle loft in East Oakland, I had a pretty good idea why John Holmes was on his way to becoming a porn star. He really did have a huge penis -- or "cock," as everyone reminded me ("dick" was also acceptable). Fortunately, he was as discreet as a naked man with an 11-and-a-half-inch cock could be, considering he was under lights and shackled to a bedpost. But it wasn't just his physical attributes; he actually knew his lines and was trying sincerely to act the part of a film-noir detective who had been double-crossed by a busty and lusty blond.
Porn scripts are not subtle. This one, however, also suffered from atrocious dialogue, which John and I began to rewrite. For instance, we changed Mimi's endless quest for "hot and hunky man-meat" to more of a challenge, where she would order Johnny Wadd to "Fuck me to the moon, Mr. Wadd."
And this, in turn, annoyed Andy, who was not only an inept A.D. but an illiterate scriptwriter. Turns out, quiet director Tom was giving Andy his big break into porn and Andy was working for deferred payment and a weekend with a porn star -- or something like that. Anyway, by 10 a.m., John and the busty-lusty Mimi had already had frenzied sex in Mimi's office location and then proceeded, while groaning and shedding their pull-apart wardrobe, to Mimi's antechamber. Here, she tricked the infamous "Detective Johnny Wadd" and left him shackled to a bedpost. Four script pages shot in two hours. Phenomenal, by motion picture standards, but merely average for porn schedules.
I was relieved that the first sex scene was over. First of all, I had no idea what to expect in terms of whether the actors would really "do it" (they usually didn't), if I would be right there watching and taking notes (I was) and what the hell I was going to feel (nothing).
The sex scene just wasn't sexy. Pornography is a multimillion-dollar industry with eager -- if not insatiable -- customers, but I didn't, and still don't, find it a turn-on. For me, porn films feature lots of well-endowed characters who mimic being hot and turned on, but they're not. Granted, the scripts and story lines don't help and the actors, with all due respect to how hard they work, aren't trained. Also, most pornos are made on extremely tight schedules and budgets, with much of the production time allotted to sex -- not character development. And since it sells, why change?
Amazingly, during the six-day shoot, John and I would talk about ways to make porn sexier. One of his ideas was to adapt Shakespeare to porn. He would strut around in his kimono wrapped tightly around him and recite from "Othello" or "Macbeth." And he wasn't bad. In fact, had he made different choices in his life or taken different chances, John could have been a "legitimate" actor.
However, most porn stars never make it to legitimate films. They talk constantly about auditioning for different TV or straight film roles, and while there are many reasons why porn actors stay in porn, including that porn "taints" an actor, the fact is that it's a lifestyle that gets comfortable. Despite the grueling 14- to 16-hour workdays, bad food and cheesy motels, it's family. Moreover, it's a family of renegades that thumbs its nose at snooty, uptight, hypocritical outsiders.
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After the first couple of 16-hour days, we had covered 25 pages, which was at lightning speed compared with most straight film productions. Unfortunately, we had fallen behind schedule. And while I enjoyed fleeting fantasies of chaining Andy, who was now whining, to the grip truck door, the truth is it wouldn't have helped. We still had to shoot the remaining 35 pages in just three days. And if this wasn't daunting enough, there were now drugs in the real-life scenario and a surreal soap opera unfolding both on and off the set. In fact, what came down behind the camera was far more entertaining that what was happening in front of it.
First of all the male actors (including the star) began to have problems getting it up. As a result, John descended into a vile mood for much of the shoot. And this was a serious problem -- not John's moodiness, but the fact that the clock was ticking and there were several more sex scenes scheduled for each day. Not to mention a final orgy.
"Call in the cock-ins!" yelled quiet Tom. And within 45 minutes, three stocky, middle-aged guys showed up at the Golden Gate Motel, our second location. With their clothes on, they looked like white-collar middle managers from Foster City, which meant they looked like the few straight, male Republicans in the Bay Area. However, in seconds, their clothes were off and they were proudly displaying their huge, stiff penises. I mean, cocks. They were day player cock-ins.
We proceeded to shoot all the close-ups -- "monster shots," as they are called. When I suggested to Tom and Andy that the skin tones and body shapes, not to mention dick sizes, were different between the actors and the cock-ins, Andy assured me, "It's a porno! No one cares about continuity in a porno, Denise!"
But the actors cared. They took great pride in their ability to perform and they were humiliated. They proceeded to enter the cock-off, where they would try the most imaginative ways to get hard -- from the usual hands and mouths to the lubricated nozzle of a vacuum cleaner to wrapping their dicks in warm popovers from the toaster oven and on and on. They would then thrust their hard cocks in front of the rolling cameras (two cameras were used for sex scenes), and attempt to do their own close-ups. Sometimes it worked. When it didn't, the always-primed cock-ins would take over. My script notes read like an X-rated version of "Animal House":
Take one -- Victor removes cock from popovers and Jenny sucks it. No good. It's too hot for Jenny. Take two -- Victor uses Crisco on cock and rubs it on Jenny's face. No good. Crisco smudges Jenny's makeup.
Meanwhile, the actresses began to complain because the ones who were "penetrated" were featured, while the other actresses weren't. Mimi, by the way, was now arching her pelvis front and center as John entered her -- with some success. During camera roll changes I asked Mimi why certain scenes had simulated sex and others featured the real thing. Obviously, monster shots required penetration, but other scenes could be shot either way.
"Periods," she answered. "When we get our periods, we don't have real sex. And it's pretty wild when we all get our periods at once, which happens a lot." I nodded, "What happens then?" "The guys get real horny," Mimi giggled. Mind you, this was in the pre-AIDS era where "safe sex" didn't exist, so many porn stars were engaged unwittingly in a deadly field of work. (John Holmes, in fact, died of AIDS in 1988.)
To add to the drama, most of the actors knew one another quite well, and had formed romances or, at least, alliances. They wanted to be paired with certain people. But during the close-ups, the actors were swapped and shuffled and they were indignant.
"We're being treated like slabs of meat," they said. And they had a point. Fortunately, quiet Tom was a pro. Though it was Andy's job to run the set and keep the actors comfortable, Tom took over before it got ugly.
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Tom cleared everyone off the set, except the actors. Since we had just moved to our last location, a soundstage, the crew shuffled off to other rooms.
When I asked Tom later what he had said to the actors, he told me that he asked them for help. He realized that no one had bothered to explain to the actors that their close-ups with multiple partners would add excitement to the final orgy scene. Like any good director, Tom knew that if he treated actors with respect and dignity that they would do almost anything he asked. He was right.
Meanwhile, as I was cleaning up my notes, I discovered that we had not shot a scene in the last location. I was devastated. It was my responsibility as much as Andy's to catch these things and I blew it. While I was rolling my eyes at Andy's ineptitude, I was just as guilty. I felt sick to my stomach.
When we were called back to the set, I got Tom aside and apologized as I showed him the scene that we had missed. It was a scene where John calls Mimi and lures her into his trap. In other words, it was crucial to the story. Tom frowned as he read the scene. He then looked up and said, "No problem. We'll record this as narration as John drives to Mimi's. We didn't need this scene anyway." I could have kissed him, but he was not the touchy type, so I just thanked him. "Next time," he added, "don't let anybody rush you in your work."
One of the cardinal rules of script supervising is to never "cross the line." What this means is that once an actor's screen geography is established -- for instance, if John is frame left and Mimi is frame right, then their close-ups have to match this geography. John has to look from left to right as he talks to Mimi and Mimi must look right to left to answer John.
On film sets, there is also another form of crossing the line. This exists between management and creative people, who are listed on budgets as "above the line," and the crew, caterer, teamsters and service people, who are "below the line." In terms of earning the big bucks, getting the motor homes, gift baskets, massages and P.R., it's the "above the line" people who rule. However, in terms of telling the funniest stories, playing the best practical jokes, solving the technical problems and being "the coolest," it's the "below the line" crowd hands down. And as a film's budget increases, so does the division between the two crowds -- meaning that porn sets are some of the most democratic.
Everyone talks, eats and fraternizes with everyone, and this can include sex. The crew guys who did sleep with actresses were very discreet. Most of it happened after hours and all of it in private.
Personally, after seeing naked bodies all day, the last thing I wanted to do was have sex -- even with my eager boyfriend. He couldn't believe that I wasn't turned on and that he wasn't the beneficiary of wild sex. No thanks. So imagine my surprise when Chuck, a cock-in, began flirting in earnest with me.
"No, thanks" and "live-in boyfriend" didn't deter him. Chuck was seriously looking for a lifelong partner. He didn't come out and say this, but he looked wistful as he showed me pictures of his parents and his siblings and their kids back in Minnesota. The more he opened up, the more contrite I felt about declining his invitations. And in a moment of weakness, I considered the fact that he would always be ready for sex. But like most women, I'm attracted to guys for many complex reasons besides hard dicks -- no matter what pornos show.
And then I realized that this was Chuck's mistake. He was assuming that all women react to men the way actresses do in porn films.
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The day came for the finale. Everyone -- even John -- seemed happy on the last day of production. Exhausted, we had survived a wild ride together, and we had made a movie. No, it wasn't a work of art, but we had made something that was going to provide some pleasure and entertainment to lots of horny guys and gals across the country.
Naturally, it was sexist. Busty Mimi forfeits her power to the invincible Johnny Wadd. But when you consider how blatantly sexual, violent and sexist most advertising, TV shows and movies are, then pornography is, at least, honest about its content. And you have to choose to see pornography, whereas advertising is inescapable.
The final orgy scene was inescapable too. I really wanted to avoid it. Not just because I dreaded the extra work of keeping notes on different camera angles, lens changes and film rolls but because I was tired of looking at and recording the action of so many writhing bodies.
I seemed to be the only one feeling this. The makeup team remained ebullient as they touched up one gorgeous body after another. Mario, the bald money guy with white shoes from Chicago, commandeered the choice seat next to the main, "A" camera. He was pumped. Andy was flirting with actresses and snapping pictures. Even quiet Tom was chatting with the three cameramen as they set up shots. What was my problem?
I just could not relate to the idea of tribal sex -- where everybody does it together out in the open. For me, sex is an intimate affair, so this whole orgy concept was seriously challenging me. Fortunately, I didn't have time to get too uptight about it, because it doesn't take much to start an orgy in a porno. This one began as considerate Johnny Wadd indulged lusty Mimi "one more time" before she got arrested. And as they were "humping" -- and I wasn't sure if Mimi was penetrated or not -- Henry, the gardener, stopped by with plants and stayed to join the fun. Then Susie, Mimi's neighbor, came by to chat and proceeded to take off her clothes. Before long, a dozen or so bodies pumped away in Mimi's living room: twosomes, threesomes, four-square. Women coupled with men, women with women and men with men. Everyone was fair game. And the cameramen kept panning their cameras across the roiling tableau. I took notes feverishly and felt oddly disconnected.
But not for long.
A young actress, dressed and made up as an Arabian princess, entered the scene on some foolish pretense and began to shimmy and dance around the room. She disrobed slowly and provocatively as she moved to an internal hypnotic rhythm. Her bracelets, ankle bells and earrings jingled and the stone in her bellybutton flashed.
When she had stripped down to a gauzy purple scarf, she used it like a violin bow, rubbing it over her full body. Her nipples stood up ripe and crimson as she arched backward. She then coquettishly shook the scarf open like a courtesan's fan. Remaining in a supple backward bend, she played with the scarf over the liquid, pink lips around her vagina -- or pussy, as was the patois. A collective groan ran through the set. Inadvertently, she had stolen the scene.
"I was wondering how you were going to react." I turned and saw Mario grinning next to me. "I've watched you this whole shoot and you have not cracked except for now," he added. I laughed, but I was actually embarrassed that he had caught me in my private reverie. "Well, what do you think of her?" I asked him.
He nodded, "Unbelievable."
So why was this dancer so sexy and the rest not? Why did the women, as well as the men, find this performance a turn-on? My guess is that the young dancer was trained in the vanishing art of film seduction. She knew how to charm the actors in the scene and, more important, the camera too. She always found the key light and knew how to undulate past each camera lens. She was also completely committed to the part. She enjoyed seducing the camera and us, and she exuded both power and vulnerability as she swayed and invited us to devour her. This was the high bar of porn.
When the third camera rolled out, Andy called, "It's a wrap." It's a sweet tradition on film sets where everyone stops and applauds. Then the directors who are considerate shake everyone's hand. Quiet Tom thanked everyone.
"I may have another movie filming up here in a few weeks -- interested?" quiet Tom asked me with a little smile. How could I turn him down? I handed him my card and told him to send me the script. I had just received the ultimate compliment. Then, moneyman Mario counted out some bills efficiently and paid me with a conspiratorial grin. Even Andy was agreeable to my request that he drop off my lined script at the office in a day so I could clean up the notes.
The only glitch in this eventful day was that I couldn't find my car keys. After searching through my bags and set chair and checking my locked car, I felt like a real dope asking Andy if anyone had found some keys. To my surprise, he smirked and pointed to gnarly gaffer Roger. Roger grinned and pointed up to the lighting grid above. And there, swinging 20 feet above, was an extension cord with some keys dangling off it. Judging from Roger's smug expression, the keys were mine.
"We want you to strip for your keys," grinned Roger. I must have looked stricken with fear because he quickly assured me that he was just kidding, but that I had to stay for the wrap party. And he wasn't listening to my protests.
The truth was, not only was I looking forward to driving home in the peace and silence of San Francisco at 2 in the morning, but I was also too nervous to stay for the party. I mean, I had no idea what would happen at a wrap party of a porn shoot.
What happens is cocaine. I had never seen such a mound of the stuff. Never would again. George, the production manager, lorded over the coke and cut lines expertly for the eager crowd around a huge circular mirror. And yes, like both our former and current presidents, I inhaled and did lines. Though I would have much preferred a higher day rate than the free drugs, it wasn't my party.
During many laughs and intense, drug-induced conversations, I realized that I had taken this job not only to add to my résumé and pay the rent but because I was just as intrigued about making porn as the next person. What I found was that while making a scene sexy requires artistry that few filmmakers possess, the crews and actors on pornos are sweeter than, and just as creative as, the raging egomaniacs on the high-budget, overblown "legitimate" productions I would end up on. Meanwhile, two hours had whizzed by. It was definitely time to go.
Miraculously, Roger handed me the keys and Chuck materialized and insisted on walking me to my car. He carried all my bags and put them in the trunk. He then opened the car door and gave me a brotherly peck on the cheek, saying, "Drive carefully." Very nice. I made a mental note to go through my phone book to see if I could help find him a date.
With a wave, I drove away from the soundstage. I was looking forward to curling up beside my own eager boyfriend and trying out some of the belly dancer's moves.