About Cherry turned heads on the film festival circuit this year, from Berlin to San Francisco, and not just because of its envelope-pushing content. It’s a surprisingly high-profile venture from first-time film director Stephen Elliott, starring James Franco, Heather Graham and Dev Patel. Elliott, already well known as an accomplished author (Happy Baby, The Adderall Diaries), activist (from national elections to neighborhood development) and publisher (TheRumpus.net), was himself a former actor in sex films. Along with co-writer Lorelei Lee, who successfully combines writing and lecturing with her blossoming porn career, and with actress Ashley Hinshaw, they tell us how About Cherry came into being while at the same time demystifying myths and stereotypes about X-rated movie-making. The film was made available as video on demand starting August 9; it opens in theaters for limited release September 21.
Keyframe: To what extent is your story a depiction of porn industry in San Francisco? Is this portrait rather realistic or imaginary?
Stephen Elliot: Well, it is both. I was a sex worker, Lorelei still is one. Moreover, we were shooting About Cherry in the San Francisco Armory, which is the largest adult film studio in the world. And for the whole time of our shoot there were real crews working on their X-rated pictures there. This place is three blocks down from my place, I worked with them, Lorelei still does. We are all part of the same community. So it is very authentic in that way. Porn industry is a world of marketing, resources, technology. Kink has their office with 150 employees there. These people wake up in the morning and go to work, like everybody else. This is the world we are presenting: People making conscious decisions; this is their job. In that way it is real, yet in the other, it is fictional. The film characters are only figures located in a real place, in the world we are extremely familiar with. That kind of environment was helpful to the actors…
Actors are my favorite people in Hollywood and I don’t have many people I like there. I love the actors because they are on the creative edge; it’s so vulnerable. What could be more artistic than acting? You are putting yourself fully out there, risking so much. Actors I found were very enthusiastic about working with a writer. They respected my writing, my books, and that went so far with them, much further than it did with the financiers or anybody else. They really responded to it. Once we had good actors, everything started gaining shape. —Stephen Elliott
Ashley Hinshaw: …extremely helpful! As an actress you don’t have connections with that lifestyle and that environment. I needed to bring myself to a certain place where I can give an interesting portrayal but not necessary a real one, because I do not really know what it means to be in that world. But being around Kink workers, hanging out in the makeup room with all the girls, gave me more realistic sense of it all. There is a general, sensational misconception about this business, while in fact these are normal people who have lives they live and jobs they do. Afterwards they go home to have dinner with their friends, or their grandma. They are like you and me. But as far as taking on this character, working in a different space would turn the energy of the film into something else.
Lorelei Lee: I think that both me and Stephen have seen so many films that do not portray this world in a way that seems real to us. So many stories about sex work and porn are highly dramatized and highly moralistic. And we just wanted to tell the real story. It is not THE story of pornography or THE story of the girl in pornographic business, but it is just one that felt real to us.
Keyframe: When people think about porn they very often think about women as powerless and subdued bodies, objects. This is everything but your character.
Elliott: …because this is just not the porn world as it exists, it’s just not an accurate portrayal of the porn world. Of course, there are really negative stories that are true. Somebody was asking me questions like: ‘What about sex slavery?’ Well, I am against it and never met anyone who was in favor of it. And I’m against indentured servitude too. But that doesn’t mean I am against porn.
Lee: This misconception is amazing to me. In terms of, when I go to work and I am performing for directors, they do not push me to do anything I don’t want to do. If you have a girl in porn doing something she doesn’t feel comfortable with, that’s a bad movie, bottom line! And nobody wants to watch that. At my first-ever shoot, when I needed to take my clothes off in front of strangers, I was terrified of being judged. Female nudity portrayed in media is all about ‘how does she look like, how big are her boobs, how small is her waist.’ And the first thing I noticed on that set was that everybody who was there, was just nice to me, the whole time. That was not because how I look like specifically, but because this is the industry, where nudity is celebrated, the body is celebrated in the way you wouldn’t expect.
Elliott: Mika Tan, a great porn performer, said this very interesting thing. She has acted in regular movies and was sexually harassed all the time while she was in Hollywood. She was never, even once, sexually harassed when making porn.
Keyframe: Was it hard to find proper imagery for the movie? Was it under any discussion what should or shouldn’t be seen, how to balance it not to show too much or not enough?
Elliott: There was definitely a conscious decision: because it is set in the porn world and because there is a certain casualness about nudity when you’re in the porn facility, it should be more casual. There shouldn’t be any shock value, anything gratuitous. It should not be exploitative. I think that because you know you are in porn facility and you know you’re in a movie set in the world of porn, the sex is kind of infusing the movie, you don’t actually need to see it that much.
Lee: And another part is that this world is so familiar to us, but for most people it is very distracting to see someone naked. So we wanted to walk that fine line between making this world real as we know it but also not distracting viewers from the story that we wanted to tell.
Ashley: I remember, I was asked earlier: ‘How much did you talked about the script and take out the parts you said you wouldn’t do?’ And there was nothing, because we had a conversation early on and later there was never anything that I felt was wrong. From the very beginning Stephen wanted the movie to be tasteful, real and honest. There isn’t the necessity for vulgarity. That’s not the story that we are telling. And I think nudity for the sake of nudity is boring. I think telling the story about porn by just showing certain images and going above and beyond, just because you could get away with it, would’ve brought the movie down.
Elliott: Yes, exactly.
Hinshaw: It would’ve made it so much more cliché. This is what you expect to see, this is what you are seeing, goodbye.
Keyframe: Could you say anything about how you worked on making Ashley comfortable in front of the camera?
Lee: Did I tell her anything? Oh, I don’t think she asked me anything. (Laughs.)
Elliott: Because we were doing it in a porn facility everything seemed more casual. Ashley has never been naked in a movie before and initially we were careful with her: closed set, always a robe close at hand. The case is, almost everybody that play porn actors in About Cherry, other than Ashley, is in fact real porn performer. They would come and hang out on our shoot, while they were shooting their stuff. So someone would come naked or dressed in some sexy lingerie… By the second or third week, when we were doing the boy and girl sex scene, Ashley already felt comfortable with the role of person who actually works in porn. In between takes she walked around in her lingerie playing pool, oblivious to the world.
Lee: This is a place where no one would stare at you when you’re in your lingerie.
Hinshaw: It was incredibly intense! I was on the phone with my mom and in comes Isis Love [a top porn actress] in her leather, amazing get-up. I was like: ‘Oh, but she’s just in her uniform.’
Elliott: That world was really infusing. It was so important for the actors, I think. I would have never gotten that any other way.
Hinshaw: These guys know that this is their lifestyle. We actors, we were ready to go there, but we needed guidance. I knew that going in there I would probably walk away with a very different view of the porn industry. I come from a very small town full of religious people. But I was modeling for years before I acted and thanks to that I was living on my own, seeing the world… that was the time my eyes opened. Sexuality is something that I have never been afraid of or had walls up to. Whether you admit to it or not, so many people—I can’t say everybody—watch porn. Let’s just be real about that. But then the same people are going to judge and throw nails at the people who are involved in the business. But porn is around for a reason, because there is audience, a market for it. As an actor, to go into that, and know that you are taking this on today… there is a certain amount of ‘I need to leave myself n the hotel room.’ I am walking in this building as Angelina, and until I take my make-up off I need to stay in this. Because it would’ve taken so much more energy and would’ve been so much more of a struggle to go in and out of it, in and out… rather than just pack up and say, ‘Here we go, let’s sink or swim,’ and stay at that level all day.
Keyframe: In your film, the director, played by Heather Graham, is a woman. How many porn directors are female? How often actresses turn into directors?
Elliott: Lorelei has directed a lot of porn… it is getting much more common.
Lee: A lot more women are involved in porn and making images they believe in very strongly. There is a whole genre of feminist pornography. Porn as an industry has been controlled by men the same way that every industry has been controlled by men. Yet, more and more now, you see women who are saying, ‘Those images do not represent me or what I want.’ And also a lot of pornography that’s been directed at women has shown their sexuality the way they would not like it to be presented. There are a lot of women influencing porn now, both performers, who are driving the scene in direction they would like it to go, and directors.
Hinshaw: When you think about it, porn needs women, so better respect them! (Laughs.)
Elliott: It is just a matter of shifting, the labor taking control of the process. People that made porn are becoming the owners, becoming directors. When you look at the NBA, the players don’t own the team, you know, but you always hope that labor ends up in charge of something.
Keyframe: Lorelei, is the common belief that female demand for porn is rather minimal true?
Lee: No, I don’t think so, I think that’s just a stereotype. I agree that women who openly talk about their sexuality or who are open about watching porn are judged much more harshly. This is the Madonna/whore complex that is centuries old. So I think there is a difference in the way people are judged for viewing porn. But I don’t think there is necessarily a difference between the desires of men and women to want to see explicit images.
Making this movie we all knew that people were going to have varying opinions, some would oppose it strongly. At the same time, isn’t the idea to be creative and just make artistic projects to provoke conversation? This is just one story. —Ashley Hinshaw
Keyframe: Stephen, this is your first film, and it touches upon a tricky subject. Yet you’ve managed to gather this amazing cast: Ashley, James Franco, Heather Graham, Dev Patel…
Elliott: Amazing, right? Well I already knew James, because he had optioned my book, The Adderall Diaries, so I presented him the script because of that. He was also optioning my novel Happy Baby. I think Heather Graham and everybody else just really responded well to it, they liked the writing. Actors are my favorite people in Hollywood and I don’t have many people I like there. I love the actors because they are on the creative edge; it’s so vulnerable. What could be more artistic than acting? You are putting yourself fully out there, risking so much. Actors I found were very enthusiastic about working with a writer. They respected my writing, my books, and that went so far with them, much further than it did with the financiers or anybody else. They really responded to it. Once we had good actors, everything started gaining shape. It is extremely important to get good actors when you are getting your crew together, as well as having a first-rate cinematographer, first-rate director, first-rate costume designer. It is very helpful.
Keyframe: Ashley, weren’t you afraid that, image-wise, playing in a film about porn industry at such early stage of your career, could be a risky idea?
Hinshaw: No. My team, which presented this script to me, also presented the pedigree behind it, that, in my opinion, speaks for itself. It was all up to me to decide whether I wanted to do it or not. It was an artistic decision and I made it. There are so many dynamic relationships that this young girl has that are letting her down. She is a very real 18-year old girl who wants to have love in her life, who wants to give love. To me, when I first read it, the porn industry part was an imperative part of the movie, but it isn’t what could make my decision or not.
Keyframe: In the film Angelina is continuously judged by the outside world. First of all by her mother, then by her best friend…
Elliott: …Who thinks that she shouldn’t do boy-girl porn, but he watches her in girl-girl porn and likes it, which is very common.
Hinshaw: Making this movie we all knew that people were going to have varying opinions, some would oppose it strongly. At the same time, isn’t the idea to be creative and just make artistic projects to provoke conversation? This is just one story, nobody wanted to change the way the world looks at the porn industry…
Lee: Yes we were. (Laughs.)
Hinshaw: I think it opens up people;s eyes and gives them another opportunity to look at this world in a different light. But at the end of the day, to each his own. You’re entitled to your own opinion. Yet, this world, and this girl specifically, is just who she is, she doesn’t need you to agree with her decisions.
Keyframe: I think there is a difference between how Hollywood or mainstream films and porn film tell their stories. Were you afraid that your professional experience is going to affect your ability to tell a story that’s not porn?
Lee: No. (Laughs.)
Elliott: Lorelei is a very accomplished writer. She graduated from New York University, she lectures there, has been awarded a NFAA award [National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts youngARTS Scholarship]. AND she makes porn. So what? Almost all of the best writing—all my favorite writing—is protagonist-author: On the Road, The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises… I’ve written seven books from personal experience.
Lee: When you are telling a story in porn, the point is actually to titillate, to be vulgar, to excite people through the sexual imagery. But that is not the point of the story that we were telling. It was to tell a story that’s much more fleshed out about people involved.
Keyframe: In porn, seduction is the key. Stephen, Lorelei, you are both authors. Is writing about seducing the reader too?
Elliott: I think my writing is particularly flirtatious. More so than the average, maybe. Especially my letters, which I have been writing for almost three years now, and sending out to a email list that now has almost ten thousand people on it.
Lee: During one of my classes last year, there was a whole lecture on seduction in writing. What they meant was that it should draw you in from the first page, the same way you would have on a date. The person should not even know they’re being seduced. It’s a funny metaphor.
Elliott: But it’s true, for some people. On the other hand, some authors want to remove themselves from the experience, some readers prefer that as well. Not me. In my novels the protagonist is always a stand-in for me.
When you are telling a story in porn, the point is actually to titillate, to be vulgar, to excite people through the sexual imagery. But that is not the point of the story that we were telling. It was to tell a story that’s much more fleshed out.—Lorelei Lee
Keyframe: How much is About Cherry about boundaries?
Lee: Boundaries are something that goes back and forth all the time, both in life and in pornography. One of the points of the film is pointing out that people are crossing boundaries all the time and they’re not even willing to question them once. Characters in the film are people who are making choices that are right for them at that time.
Hinshaw: I don’t think that Angelina has shame or ever regrets decisions she makes. To me she became very real and very close. When you see the film and think about her as a human being, her life continues after we leave her. Maybe she decides to leave it later, maybe she doesn’t. There is a possibility that she is doing things in a different way. This is just a story of growing up.
Lee: The truth is that she IS fighting shame. The shame that society wants to put on you all the time. Boundaries are fixed ideas to some, and that’s probably an easier way to live. People like tradition or religion to tell them when to be ashamed. When you’re queer, like myself, you’re questioning them all the time. You’re breaking them just from what’s inside you.
Keyframe: Does your experience make you redefine certain terms and definitions, for example humiliation, or shame?
Lee: Before I started working in porn, I worked in a coffee shop. I was getting up at 4 am, working morning, going to school, then working at night at a different place. I was exhausted all the time. I thought: Why is this scenario supposed to be SO MUCH better for me?
Elliott: Why is this supposed to be less humiliating? Who decides what is humiliating and what isn’t? Would you lecture someone who’s working in Walmart, wearing that stupid little coat with buttons on it, being a slave to a corporation? Walmart was encouraging their employees in how to get aid from the government! How is working for them less humiliating than making porn? Of course, for some people the answer is obvious. We all have right to think differently.
Lee: For most people it is easily laid out what is humiliating and what isn’t. For those of us, for whom those rules do not apply, you have to figure it out for yourself. And that is what takes a long time.
Keyframe: What about shame?
Lee: When you perform, it is absolutely different than in real life. It’s an outside experience in a way, not vulnerable, not emotional. It’s all a performance.
Elliott: Well, it is vulnerable in a way. You are putting yourself out there to be judged. I believe that every time you come out of the closet, there is another closet. You don’t know the depth of your shame until you begin turning in that direction. It’s like a transvestite who puts on a dress for the first time in his home, then goes outside for the first time, then some time later he dances openly in the club, being who he is… soon he realizes he has all those issues with his parents he wasn’t able to explore earlier, because he was so preoccupied with wearing a dress. The process of keeping your desire inside and hidden is so consuming of your intellectual facilitiy that you won’t be able to deal with all those other things. There’s always another point of shame and only coming out of the closet allows you to address it.
Anna Bielak is a Polish freelance film critic, contributing writer at Stopklatka.pl, Portalfilmowy.pl, Magazine EKRANy in Poland and Smells Like Screen Spirit.com in Texas, USA
Anna Tatarska is a Polish freelance film journalist, working for film.wp.pl, KINO, Portalfilmowy.pl, Aktivist, ELLE and Stopklatka.pl.