It really shouldn’t have taken this long. Not after spending as long in the LALA as I have. Because you come here with a list. Not a real one, but a mental one and mental in every sense because the shit you put on it is pure flotsam – scraps of magazine fantasy, telly nonsense and movie moments. Well, that’s what my list was, anyway. Stuff like:
- Playboy mansion party.
- Weed with Snoop.
- Extra in movie.
- Hang out on porn set.
- Vintage convertible.
You get the picture. The list of a teenage tourist, a suggestible sack of testosterone and esteem issues who, bless him, just didn’t know any better at the time.
I do now. Having failed to tick any of those boxes when I had the youth to tick them properly, I’ve done that thing that middle agers do so well – I’ve told myself that the boxes are past their sell-by, that youth itself is foolishness, and what I’ve lost in vigor I’ve gained in “wisdom”, the tooth at the back that hurts. Wise people don’t want convertibles or bunnies, they’re above all that – that’s what I tell myself. And yet if you were to show up one day with Miss August in a 57 Plymouth saying, “hey Sanchez, Snoop’s making a porno at Hef’s house”, then budge up, I’m getting in. In fact those are my footsteps you hear charging down the stairs.
This is all to say that I ticked one of those boxes recently. I did a story for Esquire about the porn star James Deen, who’s all over the place right now talking about The Canyons, the new Lindsay Lohan film.
To be honest, I’m not a total virgin with this stuff. I once helped make a sneeze fetish video, which was vaguely porny, a story I’ll probably tell at some point. And before that, I covered an orgy in New Orleans, which was a baptism of fire for the whole watching-people-fucking thing. It was one of those swinger conventions, and they had the whole hotel to themselves, a blandiose three star Marriot-version with tinkly muzak, only this time with schtupping in the lift, in the lobby, in the corridors. All you can eat breakfast buffet.
Anyhow, porn sets are different. Much more controlled and commercial, but no less bizarre, in their way. I get why porn people call the rest of us “civilians” like soldiers – they too have become inured to another normality, a world apart where animal natures are given vent, certain extremes become passé, and the goal posts have been moved. Here’s some of the stuff I discovered. Warning: sweeping and probably false generalizations ahead:
– It’s a smoking crowd. Not smoking hot, but smoking cigarettes. Everyone’s at it. Of all the things that get sucked on out in Porn Valley, cigarettes are the most popular. Skinny little short things with a burning tip.
– Not everyone gets to watch the sex stuff. Come show time, a runner throws everyone out except essential crew, and even then you need to stand out of the line of sight, because as an assistant producer, a nice chubby girl called Charlotte explained in so many words, the sight of my leering mug might “kill the mood”. Something I’ve long suspected. And even that access is hard won. It’s not like you just call the film company and say, “hey we’re Esquire can we shoot on set?” There’s all these hoops and forms and NDA’s and checking with head office. You’d think a bitty porn studio would love a bit of attention from a big brand but then you remember – publicists.
– Porn people are mostly a nice bunch. Courteous, friendly, patient, they’re like ambassadors for their industry. I think they see civilians as an opportunity to dispel any lingering prejudices that porn is full of depravity and abuse. I also like to think they’re just being hospitable to outsiders who might feel uncomfortable in this taboo world where people wander around fiddling with their bits and talking about the weather. Perhaps that’s naïve, I don’t know. But they took care to explain all the little quirks and foibles of their business. And, as you’d expect of people who fuck for a living, you can ask them pretty much anything.
– Before make-up, it’s hard to guess who the talent is and who isn’t, especially on an “all natural” set. And, as is often the way, the makeup girls are as hot, if not hotter than the stars.
– The only people on set who are a bit cagey are the crew. They often freelance for Hollywood too, and they’d lose those jobs if their porn associations came out. But it’s a fact – the same grips and techs who work on Nickelodeon and Disney are working on Butthole Avenger 14. I’m sure it’s well meaning, to protect kids and so forth. Because one thing they’re strict about at Disney is protecting kids from say, drugs, DUIs and shaving their heads.
– It’s still kind of a big deal to pop your porn set cherry. If I sound a bit blase, it’s because I was prepared somewhat by the orgies and what-have-you I mentioned before. The photographer Esquire assigned for the story, however – not so much. It was a thing to see.
Let me explain that last one.
Day one was out in the Valley, on the set of this tame, “couples porn” title that was heavy on the dialogue and light on the filth; more crust than topping; the mildest mustard. And even before we got there, the photographer – let’s call her Gemma – seemed nervous. She called the day asking that we arrive at the same time, “so we can go in together.” Then when we got there, more or less in convoy, she dismissed my outstretched hand and went for a hello hug, as though shaking hands was just too remote and formal for what we were about to experience together.
She was perfectly nice – a soft-spoken, willowy type from a pretty little neighborhood called Larchmont in the middle of LA. She made pretty fashion pictures with cheekbone girls, the starved elegant ones you see toying with their lentils at Cafe Gratitude, down the street. So she was just a bit thrown by Planet Porn. When I introduced her to James, he told her “you have the most amazing eyes!”, and there was this awkward silence. I think she took it as a full-on invitation to the Bang Bang Club, but I think James was just being nice. And the rest of the day, she didn’t shoot anything, opting to just follow me around as I talked to people.
“Is it OK if I just sit and listen? I’ll be really quiet.”
“Sure, but don’t you want to take pictures or…”
“No that’s fine. I’ll just follow you, as you do your story…”
Photographers never say that shit. It’s usually “this light sucks, let’s go somewhere else”, or “can you stand behind me while you interview” or “oh, can you grab that bag.”
Anyway, I started chatting to these actresses, with Gemma just sitting there nodding, watching the conversation go back and forth like a tennis match. I remember Andy San Dimas saying that she wasn’t into people spitting in her mouth, but in her face was OK – and then she had to go and do a scene or something. Gemma whispered to me: “You’re really good at this! You just ask them questions and don’t judge them!”
Then we learned that the only sex scene of the day was happening in a couple of hours, give or take. Finally! That’s what we came here to shoot after all, a bit of nookie. But then Gemma was outside, on her phone across the street, and when she returned, she was biting her lip. “My brother’s got this screening this evening and I’ve got to go to it. Sorry! I didn’t know the sex was going to be so late in the day…”
And that was the last I heard from her. The next day, her agent called to say “yeah, this isn’t really Gemma’s wheelhouse.”
In other words, the porn freaked her out. Which just goes to show that even though smut is more mundane and extreme than ever in history, it can still shake your cage.
It was a box worth ticking.