Photo courtesy of Erika Lust.

So you want to direct porn?

Throughout quarantine, adult entertainment has emerged as one of the world’s most resilient trades — here's how to make it in the industry.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
|
08 July 2020, 7:27pm

Photo courtesy of Erika Lust.

Of her many victims, the pandemic has neutered few industries with the vengeance she has the arts. Reports of mass layoffs in the media aside, all film and television production was suspended overnight due to the close quarters required to create content. There’s no telling when filmmaking might return to regularly scheduled programming, or which projects will be prioritized when it does. As such, breaking in looks less realistic for outsiders than ever.

Unless you adjust the lens. There are many mainstream innovations we owe to adult entertainment (hello YouTube’s hovering video previews), and its recalibration in response to quarantine testifies to the industry’s innovativeness once again. With self-isolated performers directed via video calls or submitting self-shot visuals, porn is perhaps the only filmic genre that has persisted — coinciding, naturally, with skyrocketing consumption — which means, cabin fever-inflicted filmmakers: this may be the outlet for you.

However, there’s always been some who never needed the hard sell on hard content. For long-time fans with creative cache, entering porn was a natural progression. In her teens, Hentai was Brittany Franklin’s “hidden habit,” gravitating toward the heading because it offered reprieve from violently unrealistic sex. Determined to tackle social issues through art, the Brooklynite decided her thesis film at the New York Film Academy would probe sexual assault — therein catalyzing a deep dive into depictions of healthy intercourse onscreen. Although, she had to wrestle with her own reservations before definitively dipping her toes in adult entertainment.

“I had written erotic stories, but never published them out of fear of being discredited,” Franklin reveals. “I held some notions; porn is for sex crazed, immoral heathens... with the stigma surrounding porn, I would lose respect for my other works as an emerging writer-director.”

Then came a guest filmmaker open call from Erika Lust, the director on the frontlines of Europe’s 'ethical porn': workable budgets, compelling plots and an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. The opportunity for Franklin to unravel harmful social stereotypes while indulging her love of erotica was too much to ignore: she heeded the call. Casting actress Anya Ivy in her first film (IGNITE) for Lust’s production company, she immediately set to gently subverting the harmful hyper-sexualization of Black women rampant in pornographic content.

“As love interests, Black women are labeled ‘bitches,’ ‘sluts’... Black femme bodies, and bodies with physical disabilities are rarely, if ever, treated with tenderness,” she explains. “What separates Bangbros from HBO is that the latter has a bigger budget and a plot. There are filmmakers who value the art of storytelling in all of its forms, even in porn. With leaders like Erika Lust, there is a change being made.”

When Lust pitched her first project in 2004, she was told it was an “interesting concept,” but there was no market for women watching sex. She ploughed on, forming her own production company, XConfessions, that’s since become widely known throughout the industry for dismantling the male gaze in adult entertainment, offering content that expertly navigates the nuances of female and queer sexuality with actors of various races, genders, body shapes and abilities. That encompasses credible portrayals of marginalized or misunderstood fetishes, mutual communication and men and women who are “masters of their own pleasure.”

“Changing the rules of porn is no easy task, especially if you’re a woman in a field that is so overwhelmingly dominated by white cisgender men,” offers Lust. “Just because I make porn from the female gaze doesn’t mean that the sex I represent is just softcore porn with sheets and roses.”

What Lust wants to represent the most, is “respectful sex relationships,” wherein both men and women are aware of their power: “Many people defined my movies as ‘porn for women,’ reaffirming the stereotype that women don't enjoy mainstream porn just because it is 'too hardcore,’ ignoring the fact that women don't feel truly represented by that kind of movie instead.”

As a Black, hearing-impaired woman in film, Franklin acknowledges “there are immediate barriers to entry in the entertainment industry” and strives to uplift and amplify other minority creatives, as well as educate consumers as to how they can engage with adult entertainment, consciously. Besides, adds Franklin, the social ramifications of frequently watching performed sex is territory that’s still somewhat uncharted, so there may be lot of good to be done by a different kind of porn.

“I truly believe storytelling is a powerful weapon that can dismantle oppressive systems in society and open up the floor for much needed reflection,” she explains. “We’re just beginning to consider how porn influences the way young men and women interact in real life, let alone how it influences the way people find value in themselves.”

Like Franklin, Sally Fenaux Barleycorn also came from a traditional film background before her sidestep into adult entertainment courtesy of Erika Lust. The Belgium-native was working on commercial sets when she produced Skinhearts, a film focusing on touch, and decided to commit to a sequel with XConfessions centering on the previously unexplored sexual elements of the same story.

Ethical porn, the director says, follows the same strict code of conduct that the filmmaker experienced on commercial shoots. That mandate is updated annually, with new norms added as to how to make a set comfortable for the crew and actors. Fenaux Barleycorn, who is mixed race and well aware of the privilege associated with her lighter skin tone, is determined to acknowledge the colorism in the industry. She’s the first director at XConfessions to cast two dark-skin Black protagonists, and makes a point of hiring Black crew members.

“I am tired of how the adult industry is a creator of stereotypes, with sites organizing their content under tags that represent the worst of already existing discrimination,” she claims. “[Directors should] aim for change. Don’t support the status quo. Creativity is not only about what you write, film and how you do it, but also how you position yourself within the industry and what models you change.”

Fenaux Barleycorn, who won Best Sci-fi Film at the Toronto Porn Film Festival in 2018, was “surprised” that when she entered adult entertainment, many figured it was the end of her directing career. “I guess that comes from thinking that adult entertainment can only be poor quality videos of abused women…That has not been the case,” she says.

This is all too familiar to Casey Calvert. The Los Angeles-based, former nude model now splits her time between directing porn and performing, and is still shocked by the outlandish misconceptions of the industry by those on the outside.

“[They think] a porn set is a party — that's not how it works. A good porn set is just as professional as a good mainstream set,” Calvert says. “When I'm directing, I have a client I'm shooting for, and what I'm making has to meet their requirements. We collaborate on choosing talent, they send me scripts and ideas that I am then expected to flesh out and make breathe.”

For this narrative, as well as that of “abused actresses,” and the disturbing labels delineating genres, Calvert blames the industry’s obsession with profit.

“Everything porn does is driven very simply towards making money, sometimes without taking time to consider the ethics of a situation,” she admits. “This has resulted in things like problematic keywords like ‘BBC’ and ‘tranny,’ even ‘MILF’ and ‘teen,’ which drive everything from script creation to casting. On my sets, we're always very concerned about hiring people because they're professional and talented rather than that they simply fit the keywords.”

Lust similarly seeks to subvert the system. “Through my films, I aim to smash the stigma that is attached to those bodies that are commonly fetishized by letting performers express themselves as they want to,” she says. “This is how you are more likely to represent real pleasure, and the chemistry between people who are involved in sex, instead of a mechanical shoot of it, so that the public can really relate to what they are watching.”

Of course, you’re going to have to start from the ground up. Calvert advises moving to an industry epicenter, like LA, and working as a production assistant for a reputable director. For those who want to go a less traditional route, they can start by shooting their own content and selling it online. Or, you can guest direct for a company you respect.

“Before my first shoot for Erika Lust, I watched every single making of previous films I could find on her platform. All the actors and director interviews,” Fenaux Barleycorn shares of her first experience with XConfessions. “Follow actors on social media and pay attention to their claims to the industry — let actors teach you, pay attention to what they want. Also, to consent: in your sets but also in your stories, the way you shoot and everything related to the project.”

“You have everything you need,” is the best advice Franklin has received from an industry mentor. “This statement really helped me get out of my own way, halting the release of work because I didn’t have the right equipment or enough crew.”

It may have been Lust herself who imparted that wisdom. While she accepts many aspiring directors may find themselves deterred by the stigma, when it comes to experimenting with adult entertainment, the storied director suggests not to overthink, but to simply lean in, “whatever your equipment is.” Hell, you can even do it from the quarantined comfort of your own home, so consider this is your call-to-action.

And if all else fails, Franklin has one final recommendation.

“Contact Erika Lust.”

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Sally Fenaux Barleycorn