For a feature on storytelling in the adult industry that ran in the April 2014 issue of AVN magazine, reporter Jason Lyon interviewed a dozen big names in the business, including director Dana Vespoli. Her DV Productions titles are released by Evil Angel, and she also directs all-girl movies for Mile High Media studio Sweetheart Video. AVN is posting longer versions of the interviews as separate stories online. Click here to see the digital print edition; see bottom of article for links to individual interviews online.
Vivid imagination, blurred lines between dreams and reality, intense sex and stunning conclusions—all these aspects of Dana Vespoli’s work orbit around an essential element in her films: an expertly told story. I contact Vespoli by email, and we arrange a time for a phone interview.
I start by asking Vespoli if her stories arise out of her vision for the sex scenes, or if the story itself forms in her mind first.
“You know, I never think in terms of sex scenes. The sex scenes just come. What I think about are relationships between people. That’s the thing that really interested me, and that’s why so much of my work I think is very psychological. I mean, most of my features are about people, romantic relationships—not even romantic, but just relationships that are charged—and conflict. And so the sex just sort of naturally comes out of that, because sex for me has always been about more than getting off. In fact rarely is it even about getting off. It’s a means for working through things. And also the getting off happens! But an orgasm to me is also about more than getting off. So that’s really what drew me to making porn, and that’s mostly what drives the stories that I create.”
When I ask Vespoli if she feels she can express things in adult that cannot be expressed in other forms of storytelling, she replies, “No. I think of [mainstream] filmmakers like Catherine Breillat who never let the sex stop her. A lot of her stuff is incredible graphic—it’s just not as long!” Vespoli laughs.
But then Vespoli recalls what attracted her to porn, mentioning the work of Radley Metzger, John Stagliano, John Leslie and Joey Silvera. She adds, “I like the freedom! You know? I like the freedom that comes with making movies in the adult industry. There are no restrictions for me, really. I mean, certainly there are restrictions—I can’t shoot enemas or fisting. But the technical stuff aside, I feel like I’m free to do a lot more.
“From a time when I was very young and discovered my first porn movie, along with being sort of aroused, to me it represented this freedom to do whatever you feel like. And that always stayed with me as a very weird, nostalgic, kind of romantic perspective. I think being young and seeing old Caballero movies for the first time, the world that these people lived in where they had sex on airplanes, and they would have sex everywhere, and they were having so much fun,” Vespoli laughs. “So that always stayed with me, and that kind of began my love of adult movies.”
I ask Vespoli about the convention of four or five sex scenes so often expected in adult movies.
“I throw it out the window. I don’t obey those rules. I don’t direct the sex. I think every director has their own goals when it comes to the actual sex. It’s really important to me that the sex be as authentic as possible. The hard part for me is really just in the casting and finding the people that I believe can do what I’d like to see them do. And then I also like to leave room for discovery. I like to watch people find something in the scenes for themselves. So I keep the sets very small, because I feel like you’re going to get a better performance if you don’t have a million people watching.”
While viewing Descent, I had a powerful personal response that I share with Vespoli. The intensity of some of the scenes were beyond my personal comfort level, but the heartfelt way the story was being told and the sincere manner in which she portrayed her character inspired a level of trust in me as a viewer. It kept me watching, even if it was difficult, because I wanted to see where her artistic vision would lead. So I asked Vespoli if she thinks about this relationship with viewer.
“It’s funny you should say that,” she replies. Vespoli describes the editing of a scene in her soon-to-be-released Evil Angel feature Hollywood Babylon. (“A kind of a love letter to Los Angeles, to Hollywood. It’s very pulp,” says Vespoli. “It’s very strange, kind of creepy, like a lot of the stuff I like to do.”) In the scene, a woman speaks with a detective, describing an audition she recently took before a producer.
“He [the detective] is asking her what happened. So we see her, she’s narrating it as it’s happening, and what she’s saying contradicts what’s happening in the scene, which is she’s trying to lead the detective to believe that it was a regular audition and that she had to read a monologue—and what we’re seeing is that he had forceable sex. And I remember just sitting with the editor, and it made me so uncomfortable watching it. It’s not a rape. It’s not a rape. And it’s not even forceable,” says Vespoli, as she recalls elements of the scene.
“But there was a moment where I said ‘is this too much?’ I could feel the discomfort,” she continued. “At the same time I was like: it drives the story, this is happening. And it happens in life. So there are those times when I’m telling a story and I have to remind myself—and Stagliano has done this for me before, he’s like: ‘remember, this is a porn, you have to remember that this is a porn.’ And so sometimes through shooting or through editing, I struggle a little bit with what is my goal. What am I trying to share? And what I always maintain is that for me, sex is about more than just getting off. Sex drives us. And I like to believe I make movies for people who are active viewers, not passive viewers, and it forces people to feel. Because again, if I believe it’s about more than getting off, if it’s about self-discovery, communication, and all these things, then I’m sharing something that’s moving and difficult … I don’t like the porn that’s there just for shock value, just to upset the viewer.”
Speaking of the performers in the Hollywood Babylon scene she just discussed, Vespoli says, “These were two performers I trust very much, and they understood what they were doing going into it, and the female—she was very happy with it and it was also an experience. It’s kind of like a trust exercise, because we’re there and I’m trusting her to let me know if things get to be too much, and she’s trusting me that I’m not exploiting her or there to upset her. We understood what was happening. We check in, make sure everything’s OK.
“So yes, to answer your question, I do think about the viewer a lot.”
I ask Vespoli what it feels like to see the end result of her creativity and imagination on screen.
“You know, it’s hard for me to watch a movie all the way through, because I’m going to pick at it. I just do. It’s something I have to go look at a long time down the road,” Vespoli laughs, “because it’s still too new I’ll want to just pick at it. ‘Oh, I should have held this shot longer’ or ‘Damn, there was a dog outside the whole time, barking. Why didn’t I know this during that scene!’ These kinds of things.
“I just sort of have the process with me always,” she continues. “I’ve never watched Forsaken from beginning to end. Or Descent from beginning to end. I can’t.
“In a couple years I’ll go back and I’ll watch. I’ve done that. I’ve watched movies that I’ve shot—a long time later. And then it’s been a long enough time that I have new eyes, and I can have some distance from it, and watch and go: ‘Oh, that was good! I like that.’ Or have some nostalgia related to it, like I remember what we did that day.
“Actually, you know what? I think I’m just really neurotic!” Vespoli concludes with a laugh.
I ask Vespoli if there’s anything else she would like to say about storytelling in adult.
“I enjoy the process. The features, those were always my passion projects. And I’m just happy to do them, and I love it. It’s torturous, but I love it.”
I started off with a notion that storytelling in porn is a quiet creative force within the industry. But as I spoke with these writers, directors and performers, I quickly realized I was wrong about one thing. There is nothing quiet about the art of telling a story in the adult industry. It defines all aspects of adult entertainment at its best, from providing the compelling narrative for a single scene all the way to constructing the architecture of a grand epic adventure.
The only thing quiet about storytelling in adult is the silence of those who take it for granted.
And so as I end my journey, I find myself looking ahead at what’s to come. The challenges that the future will bring are as real as ever. Yet I have found renewed hope after hearing these storytellers share their tales of hard work, creativity, ingenuity, dedication and pride. They are uniting sex with an art form that is timeless. They are traveling through the most mysterious corridors of the creative process, all for the chance to feel those fleeting, but powerful moments of joy when they finally emerge with a well-told story onscreen. They are conjuring up a hopeful future every day they bring their storylines to life—one character at a time.
Celebrate them. Make sure their story is told from every rooftop in the industry.
And when I look into the future, I am left with one thought that is perhaps the most hopeful of all:
I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Links to other interviews:
Wicked Pictures directors Brad Armstrong, Stormy Daniels and Jessica Drake
Actresses Jesse Jane and Veronica Hart
New Sensations director Jacky St. James
Girlfriends Films founder Dan O'Connell
Skow for Girlfriends Films director B. Skow
BurningAngel Entertainment founder Joanna Angel
Girl Candy/Hard Candy director Nica Noelle
Sweet Sinner director James Avalon