Mickey Rourke in Nine and a Half Weeks: charming, not frightened of women, and with an animal instinct.
Mickey Rourke in Wild Orchid: he has “the key to that lock.”
Henry and June, dir. Phillip Kaufman, feels more “literary” to King than his own movie, Delta of Venus.
Henry and June: Kaufman sticks more closely to the literary and biographical sources to tell the story of Henry Miller and Anais Nin.
Images from the television series Red Shoe Diaries, with descriptions from amazon.com for each episode.
You Have the Right to Remain Silent. A policewoman, obsessive in relationships, has met her match. When he doesn't notice her, Lynn can't stand it. She arrests him and takes him to a loft where she has his complete attention, she won't let him go until he wants her. Dir. Zalman King.
The Cake. When Juliet, an innocent housewife, goes shopping for her husband's 35th birthday cake, she meets Leonardo and her entire outlook on the meaning of a birthday cake changes forever...for Juliet actually becomes her husband's cake. Dir. Brian Grant.
Double Dare. A married woman carries on a game of dare or be dared with a handsome businessman she's never really met via fax, but as the stakes get higher how far will she go before she's actually cheating on her husband? Dir. Rafael Eisenman.
Liar’s Tale. Corey, a burnt out photojournalist sent to cover the L.A. sex scene, meets a high-class call girl who fascinates her. Suddenly she's participating in acts she'd only ever photographed before, Corey is forced to feel in a way she'd forgotten. Dir. James Gavin Bedford.
ZK: Well, I’m the wrong person to ask, but I’ve seen it so blatantly happen with some of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever worked with. A guy will come along on the set and women will think they have it completely made and then this guy will say “Shut the fuck up, was I talking to you? Did you wash your hair today? You really should wash your hair.” And then he’ll go on to talk to somebody else and two days later he’s in bed with her and he’s got her completely.
PL: Well, that’s like the guy in Two Moon Junction.
ZK: Yeah, he was, but it’s a terrible thing to learn because you don’t want to have a relationship with women like that.
PL: And you don’t think your films promote that model?
ZK: Well, they shouldn’t promote that model, not all my films. Some maybe, but not all. No, I’m not promoting it, but I explore it because it interests me. I think I would personally have the ability to be like that. I’ve been married for a very long time and it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but do I have Mickey Rourke in me? Absolutely. And do I want to be Mickey Rourke? No. You know, Mickey, in many ways, is still learned; he plays the character in Nine ½ Weeks. I’ll show you. I have screen tests that show how the most attractive women in the world respond to him, the character. But it’s a gift and a curse to have that kind of power.
ZK: To open up, to have that, everybody would do that in their own way. It’s a curse to have that. In Nine ½ Weeks, for instance, the overall theme for me, is the male character who has become so hardened and so manipulative—for whatever reason—and that makes him completely seductive and completely attractive. The only way he can feel is to walk through pain, so he seduces women into his world. The greatest pain would be if they killed themselves, and the second greatest pain would be if they leave him because that’s how he knows he’s alive, that’s how he knows who he really is. And otherwise he can’t feel. From my point of view that’s what I’m looking at as the goal I’m going towards and that’s why I get pissed off when people say my work is soft-core pornography.
PL: I don’t like those terms myself.
ZK: No, I know, but if I have a chance to defend myself, I mean, soft-core people don’t think this way.
PL: I’ve noticed a pattern in several of your films where some male characters, after they set this hook you’re talking about, get involved with these female characters for very long, extended scenes with what I call “alternative scenarios” where there’s no penetration intercourse, the emphasis is not on penetration and thrusting and that sort of thing. Then, usually, or maybe even always, there will be excessive scenes of conventional lovemaking with sweating, pounding sex. In one of the movies it comes at the end. You’ve got these scenarios where it’s not in place at all and then usually in one or two places, it’s really prominent. What do you think the attraction of that polarity is with these extended scenes where it’s not about genital sex and then it is, in an extreme manner?
ZK: I think it’s about wherever people are in terms of their journey. Their sexual awakening, that part of their journey, or where they are in a relationship or where they are in terms of the characters, You know, it’s so interesting, because they just become really erotic scenes, really interesting scenes because the beginning is so romantic. In Delta of Venus she figures out he’s German, and then she taunts him into fucking her in the most horrible way, but it’s her character and it’s her journey and it’s her defiance and her challenging herself to let go. That’s what interests me about porno actresses and this might be interesting to you but it’s really interesting to me—these girls push past anything that we would understand conventionally.
It doesn’t mean that they’ve changed in terms of their romantic view or being able to be manipulated—and it might come very early in their life—but there’s something, and each person has his own reason but there’s a certain type of freedom that comes from pushing beyond what is acceptable. Most of us live in a realm of manners, including myself, of what’s acceptable, and these girls push past it in a way, and there’s a freedom they seem to find past what is traditionally acceptable. You know, what they do with that freedom is another story but there is a freedom of being able to push past their sexual hang-ups. In Delta of Venus you felt the character, Audie England, defiantly pushing past what was traditionally acceptable. Henry Miller and Anais Nin were defying these conventions also, testing limits that they had in terms of pushing past where they were and there’s a freedom in that. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but there is a freedom.
PL: Do you think that in this polarity between extended scenarios where there’s no genital sex and then the excessive emphasis on genital sex, the latter is at a certain place on the journey, at the end, as it is in Delta of Venus?
ZK: There’s a time that she connects with her orgasm and there’s a point where she connects with her sexuality and becomes addicted to it, the same thing that happened in Nine ½ Weeks, although it’s less graphic.
PL: Yes, it is less graphic, but do you believe that that moment is the privileged moment, what you’re calling “connecting with the orgasm”?
ZK: Yes, I think it is a privileged moment. I think it’s a rite of passage in a sense, and I think people handle it in different ways and some people never experience it, I would say.
PL: Does that mean that once you’ve accomplished that you never go back to things like blindfolding and throwing food?
ZK: No, no, no. I mean what you hope for is that you still go on with your life and still enjoy a very healthy, satisfying sex life. I’m usually finding people either at the beginning of the journey or the end of the journey or somewhere. What I’m looking for is the ripe fruit in the journey to celebrate the courage of these people surrendering themselves in this period of their lives to their sexuality, to their sensuality, which I think is healthy. I think people should have that. I’m trying to show a celebration of it. And it is a celebration, but you can’t get back to it. For some people it might happen much later in life. Once that happens, you’re not coming back to it. It can be different, you can have a whole different thing but there is a time in your life where you’re genetically programmed to celebrate that aspect of your being.
PL: Are you interested in historical forms of sexually explicit materials such as literature and the Marquis de Sade?
ZK: I read a lot, but I don’t necessarily read eroticism, although I have read a lot of it. Literature interests me, but I’m not interested in the Marquis de Sade, not very much. It’s interesting because Philip Kaufman did a film on Henry Miller and it was an interesting film, but a much different approach than I took with Anais Nin, and he also did Quills (2000), which was interesting, but I find myself more literary while he’s more tangibly literal, literary than I am. In Kaufman’s work you can feel the source material much more than you can in mine. I think my work is much more thematically interpreted.
PL: Did the ratings board give you specific instructions of what to cut in order to receive an R rating on the Delta of Venus?
ZK: Well, on Delta of Venus, yeah, completely. When I was first doing Nine ½ Weeks and Wild Orchid I actually went and argued with them. It got to a point where I got on a plane and went to New York and had a hearing, maybe three times on different films, and basically argued the fact that I didn’t mind them having a separate rating from an R rating to an NC-17 rating, but it wasn’t fair then to group pornography into the NC-17 rating. The concept, I believe, was that there should be ratings, but I thought that they were lumping the NC-17 rating in with the XXX rating—there was no demarcation either—which meant, this is pornography. It is a big difference because you are losing a tremendous amount of business because certain theater chains across the country unequivocally will not accept a film with an NC-17 rating and I didn’t think that was fair. I think it is fair to have ratings, I think it is fair that people should understand what they’re getting into when they go to the movies, but my argument was there has to be more—you can’t just say this is going to be a catch-all for anything explicit. There is a difference between Delta of Venus and Wild Orchid and Behind the Green Door (1972), or a Jenna Jameson movie, and I didn’t think it was fair to lump them all into the same rating. Philip Kaufman made the same argument, every single time. And then I got to a point where, basically, I probably spent more time with ratings than most people because it becomes arbitrary. Delta of Venus, yeah, there was a huge difference between the NC-17 and the R. And at a certain point, you just give up because you can’t beat them.
PL: When did they tell you what to do and how did they tell you?
ZK: They’ll say, there’s too much thrusting in so-and-so and so-and-so, or they won’t tell you specifically but sometimes they’ll go back six or seven or eight times before they’ll finally get where we’re going. And it’s expensive, and it’s arbitrary.
PL: What’s acceptable for an R rating or what’s not acceptable? Do you have an idea in mind now when you’re going to make a movie about what is unacceptable for the R rating?
ZK: Well, you know, sometimes I do very sexy stuff, I mean really sexy stuff and it wouldn’t be accepted for an R rating, but I’m glad that I can also do an R film because I think that a lot of my stories are very, very attractive, even without the sexuality. So I’m glad that I have a form that I can get into Wal-Mart or Blockbuster or whatever the hell it is.
PL: What’s not acceptable?
ZK: I don’t know. It’s very specific. I guess if you see a man with an erection in a film, which would go into NC-17 because it’s very shocking for some people. You know, if a man were going down on a woman and we actually saw all of that, that would probably be too much, so you would give the indication of what was going on but then not see it. I just wrote a film about a guy and there is a scene where he stands up and takes his pants off and takes his cock in his hands and says, “Is this what you want? Is this what you want?” Well, I had to put a note in front of it in the script that said this would be indicated but not seen because you don’t want the actor to think that he’s going to have his cock in his hand, but there’s no other way to describe what he’s doing.
You know, studios have a lot of power and the studios just go to the ratings board with a lot of volume, they make the case we’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars or fifty million dollars in this. Then this little guy comes along and if they can beat anybody up they can beat us up. I don’t even think that it’s a corrupt system, don’t get me wrong, but I think you can lobby much harder if you are a studio. They have people who are paid just for that, to look out for their interest in every area. They have to; it’s a big investment that they have.
PL: I know it’s not a clear cut ratings issue, but explain your attitude toward the male body since you just gave that example. The only image of the penis I remember in your films is when Sherilyn Fenn looks through a hole in the shower in Two Moon Junction and you see one of the guys showering. What is your attitude about showing the male body? Do you believe your audience doesn’t want to see the penis represented?
ZK: I don’t believe that anymore, but I used to. I do show it sometimes, it depends who the actors are. You definitely see it in European films a lot. You do see it in a lot of my films, you just haven’t seen them all. I think that feelings surrounding this have changed and that now, women basically are almost demanding it. From 1980 to now, women are much more aggressive about what they want to see and I think they are much more comfortable looking at erotica. I think that’s what’s sliding off from the porn industry. I think a lot of girls grow up watching porn, for one reason or another, so they’re much more used to it. That’s what I’m saying, there was a peak, and I have a feeling that now it’s diminishing. I don’t know why. I have been doing a lot of other things so I haven’t been around it, in the same way that I usually am, but I think it is diminishing to a certain extent. I think it’s moving back. Some people say it’s political or what have you, and I think kids are becoming more conservative, generally.
PL: You said it depends on the actor and some actors will do it and some won’t? Is that something you discuss with them?
ZK: Yeah, exactly. I usually write specifically what I’m intending to see because I don’t want people to be surprised at what the role entails. I’ll never seduce anyone into doing what they don’t want to do. Basically I say, “This is what I intend to see, if you’re not comfortable with it, you really shouldn’t do the movie.” So if I want to see male nudity, it’s not negotiable. If a guy says, “I’ll do your film but I don’t want to do nudity,” that’s when we negotiate. I don’t wait until “Now, baby, come over here and let me talk to you.” I never do that. Because you have to have trust and it has to be about the drama we are doing or trying to do, it has to be a film that becomes something, you know, that’s the Holy Grail for the time being.
PL: Set design seems to play a really important role in eroticism in your mind.
ZK: Yeah, well, that to me is eroticism, there are all different kinds, but for me it’s lifestyle, especially when you’re trying to appeal to women for the most part. Set design is interesting to me and it means a lot to me. It’s about the sensuality. I like dirty sex too, but it’s a whole different thing. It’s just something that’s second nature to me, something I like, it’s life. In a certain sense, what you’re trying to do is seduce the audience and I know that in some of my films, it’s the style that makes the film acceptable to many. In films such as Nine ½ Weeks, and probably Two Moon Junction, it’s the style of the film that makes this type of sex okay and allows some people to sit and watch it and see it and accept it in another kind of way. And it’s amazing because so many of the ads now are rip offs of the stuff that I did in my films, which is fashions’ way of a compliment. I would see a lot of images or parts of images that came out of my films, especially when Nine ½ Weeks and Two Moon Junction came out.
PL: Can you discuss with me the influence of working with your wife, Patricia? How does that affect your stories, your characters, and your visuals?
ZK: Well, my wife is a phenomenal writer and she’s also a sculptor and she’s really accomplished and just adorable. Patricia has a very humane point of view and she’s the last person you would expect to write eroticism. She’s very attractive and sexy to me, but she’s so non-erotic and so the last person on the planet that would write eroticism.
PL: How does that affect you?
ZK: Well, it affects me in different ways. She writes beautifully although we used to write from different points of view. Two Moon Junction I wrote by myself, and she has been involved in many of the films that I’ve done which she hasn’t written and many that she did write. It’s a real back and forth, with my stuff and hers. I don’t know really how to explain it. It’s not that she’s soft or anything, she’s not soft as a writer. It is a good collaboration between the two of us.
PL: You were trying to reach the female audience before you started writing with her, so she’s not the only reason, but do you think she has helped you reach the female audience?
ZK: No, I don’t think Pat thinks about eroticism. I think she thinks more along the lines of “this is a really good story and this is how it should be told.” It’s weird because we live a very—well, I can’t say we live a normal life, because we don’t—but eroticism is not a prime thing in the way that we live. I mean, we’re not swingers. It’s more about romance; I think we’re very romantically inclined. This is a hard question to answer—she’s just a really good writer and really talented. If she was writing eroticism or Andrew Lloyd Weber music, or if she were writing for Striesand, she could do it. She’s talented like that. She’s written for lots and lots of other actresses. She has a play that’s opening in New York today. She was involved in called Milwaukee Minnesota, which is a very small town. She writes all kinds of things. Pat’s worldly and I think that her worldliness and sophistication is very helpful to me.
PL: How do you work with other people to get them to replicate your style and aesthetic when you’re doing a series? There are some names that pop up such as David Saunders.
ZK: Yeah, yeah, he started as my producer for Wild Orchid. I thought he was really talented and I brought him along because I needed other directors and we were doing Red Shoe Diaries with around 50 episodes. I needed him as a director and so it was great for me because he adapted really well. I also use very young DPs [director of photography] always, and because I turned into a DP myself and eventually even established a style. The style I developed is a style that we used with long runs on Red Shoe Diaries because we had a very small space. You know, certain styles are dictated by where you are and what you’re doing. I watch the scenes very carefully and I edit. I’m in the editing room anyway, so I edit. It becomes a collaboration, even though they’re directing and they do a very good job. It’s not like they were directing—it’s still my football
PL: Exactly. But isn’t it hard to find people like that with whom to work?
ZK: Initially it is hard. Rophie is very talented on his own, I wouldn’t diminish him in any way, shape, or form, but he wasn’t when he started, he wasn’t as talented when he started, but he moved into it.
PL: Could you tell me briefly what the organization of your company is and how it operates?
ZK: Sure. I have a company. We do all sorts of things; we just did a reality series on Bravo. We do everything, all kinds of stuff. I have a whole other line of stuff that I do which is sort of bad boy stuff, which is not for women at all. When I say bad boy stuff, I have the idea of something, which is for a completely different sensibility, which I’ll show you, and it’s bad boy. It’s called Whiplash now but it was called Sex YZ, it’s sort of a collection. I film all of the time, anything really, from extreme sports to beautiful women, comedy or stupid stuff. Some of the craziest shit you’ve ever seen in your life is on my camera.
PL: How do you determine the budget for certain projects?
ZK: Well, my world has changed so much because the technology has changed so much. All that stuff you saw downstairs, that’s all I need, basically just the high def camera. I shoot by myself. Literally by myself, all by myself, no sound man. I have a producer who goes with me because it gets complicated in terms of the logistics. I mean there is such a thing as a budget, but the paradigm has changed, my business model has changed so completely. Where I used to need a crew of 100 or 70, or 50, now I need a crew of 10 or 12 and you’ll see the same exact movie.
PL: How do you decide if you are going to develop a project for a movie or for Showtime or for cable or for television?
ZK: I was away from movies for some time. I write all the time for movies, but I got involved in other stuff for whatever reason and I had a lot of fun, but when I went back to film I sort of had to start from the very beginning again. I had to change. This is a very difficult thing to explain, but there was a business model and we all became comfortable with a way of doing things, but then three years ago I realized they came out with a really lightweight camera, and I had to start thinking about new and different ways of doing this. Panasonic came out with the 24 P camera and I really liked it, so I started to shoot with it and realized that I can shoot anything with it and I can make it fantastic. And I didn’t need a dolly, I didn’t need cranes, I didn’t need a sound man, I didn’t need anything. I could do it, I could go out and if I wanted to shoot a feature, literally, I could shoot it by myself. Once I realized all the potential, I became really enamored with it. So maybe I shoot three or four days a week while I’m writing and it is very fulfilling for me.
I basically shot the series Forty Deuce by myself. It’s a TV show and there’s no crew, nothing. You can’t get mad at anybody, everything is your own thing, and so now I do the features that way and I’m really confident with it. I have a feeling that my features will be fantastic. I won’t only shoot myself; on theatrical features it will depend. On a musical, if it’s a really big musical, then I’ll shoot a camera but I’ll bring a cameraman in because it’s choreographed. If it’s a big movie I’m still going to do it very inexpensively, unbelievably. I could do the same movie someone else might for less. Like my friend Stephen Goldblatt who’s a DP just shot Angels in America (2003), and he’s doing Rent (2005), so I had to meet him. I had dinner with him last night, and he said, “I can hardly do this.” I said, “What’s the matter, Stephen?” and he said “I only have 68 million dollars to do Rent!” I said, “Wow!” And after I said, “Steven, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, “What? I can’t, I need to use a techno crane, 50 footer, and there are only three or four bricks, I can’t afford it.”
And I’m thinking, do it different. That’s the concept, it’s just making your mind think a different way, and you can do it. Robert Rodríguez is doing it, but even Sin City is an expensive film. I just think if you can take the same talent, but try new things you can have such freedom to do better films.