2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Interview with Zalman King
“In defense of myself, it’s not soft core”
by Peter Lehman
by Chuck Kleinhans
Peter Lehman’s interview with producer/writer/director Zalman King (1942-2012) provides new insight into the man and his work. Beginning in the 1980s, King helped establish a remarkably successful Hollywood cycle, the “erotic thriller.” In 1986 Nine ½ Weeks, on which King executive produced and was one of the writers, became a small sensation for depicting a professional woman (Kim Basinger) who has an intense brief affair with a rough masculine guy (Mickey Rourke). A flurry of similar films followed, including Wild Orchid, Red Shoe Diaries, Lake Consequence, Two Moon Junction, and the extremely successful premium cable TV series, Red Shoe Diaries (51 episodes from 1992-1996), and Delta of Venus.
While not original (Nine ½ Weeks plays out a theme offered a decade earlier by Last Tango in Paris), Zalman King’s body of work arrived at a key moment in the Reagan era when the “Sex Wars” and “Culture Wars” was provoking a new way of thinking about women’s sexuality than the normative Second Wave feminist commonplaces. These films and the rise of cable TV softcore programming fit into a changing market and distribution niche, crossing over the narrative functions and appeal of Harlequin Romance novels (undergoing its own set of transformations with more explicit description and a wider range of characters, types, and situations). Low budget direct-to-video features, a clear cable niche for female-oriented erotic fantasy, and demographic changes created a different terrain, one that King and his collaborators fit into perfectly. Throughout this body of work a high class visual and cinematic style carefully concealed and revealed the underlying sexual imagery. Style not only created meaning, it provided the excuse for the underlying content. Porn vs. erotica? It’s in the lighting.
Remarkably, some talented media studies scholars were in hot pursuit of the phenomenon and three major studies appeared in a very short period of time. David Andrews wrote Soft in the Middle: The Contemporary Softcore Feature in its Contexts (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006). With original research into the industrial aspects of the cycle, Andrews highlights how softcore managed success by being a middlebrow genre. Linda Ruth Williams looked at the cycle from a larger perspective, seeing the erotic thriller emerging from Noir patterns of the femme fatale and good-bad girl in The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005). Williams contrasts the big budget and star highlighted blockbusters such as Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction with direct-to-video imitations often done by cross-over directors such as Gregory Dark who worked both the hardcore and softcore side of sexy cinema. Nina K. Martin’s Sexy Thrills: Undressing the Erotic Thriller (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007) continues the discussion by concentrating on the feminist tension between empowered and adventurous heroines and coopting social constraints on female heterosexuality.
In the United States sexuality remains a battlefield with whopping contradictions and crazy disparities. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, can actually say, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” U.S. Catholic bishops go on full offensive against the Obama healthcare insurance provision that employers must include contraception in plans and the annoying fact that Catholic religious women (nuns) are ignoring commands from on high while Catholic couples almost universally disregard the ban on contraception. And the Republican Party as a whole continues its war on women’s reproduction, wages, protections. At the same time, on the cultural front, the new TV season multiplies shows with gay parents and lovable queer characters, and the tawdry porn of 50 Shades of Gray keeps it on the best seller list. Desperate attempts to control with policy are undermined by actual behavior and choices by the rank and file. Kind of like parents and teens.
Within this framework Zalman King and his immediate associates occupied an interesting place, and there’s something to learn from their practice. Lehman’s interview touches on what King thought his own strategy and technique was, how he regarded male actors, negotiating the MPA classification system and adjusting to radically changed technologies. Zalman King remains fascinating as a creative person passing through a specific and rapidly changing time and place in the industry and changing social facts and ideas about sexuality.
[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Lehman, Andrews, and Martin as an editor; they are professional acquaintances and friends.]
Interview with Zalman King
by Peter Lehman
For my friend Zalman
I met Zalman King for the first time when I went to L.A. to conduct this interview in 2006 with the intention of using it for a book I was editing for Rutgers University Press titled Pornography: Film and Culture. I decided not to include the interview in that book, planning to use it in another anthology I was working on at the time, which was comprised entirely of my own collected essays. I abandoned that project, however, and with it this interview fell to the back burner. Last fall I decided to update and publish it. On that note, let me go back to the beginning.
While doing my research for my interview with Zalman, I was totally surprised to discover that his first film was co-writing and executive producing an obscure Alan Rudolph film, Roadie (1980). I had published my book Roy Orbison: The Invention of an Alternative Rock Masculinity in 2003 and Orbison’s contribution to the soundtrack of Roadie had seemed to me the overlooked turning point in his ‘80s comeback. After we were done talking about pornography, I was eager to ask him about Orbison. That, as the saying goes was the beginning of the end.
Our common interest in sexuality in films escalated when the subject turned to Orbison and we discovered further shared interests in country and other forms of pop music. He told me he wanted to show me some things he was working on, I cancelled my afternoon appointment with a studio executive, we had lunch and I discovered a very creative music documentary filmmaker with a fondness for figures outside the mainstream of their forms. I told him about my plans for a Roy Orbison tribute project I was developing at Arizona State University, invited him to be part of it, he expressed strong interest, and we parted sensing a mutual feeling of friendship being born. We were right.
Zalman was an incredibly generous as well as talented man. When the Roy Orbison Tribute took place in January 2008, he was there to introduce Roadie and to shoot a documentary about the weekend. When he had a rough cut, he invited me to sit down with him and the editor for input. When it was done, to my total surprise he asked me to take producer credit and gave the copyright of Mercy: A Tribute to Roy Orbison (2008) to the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture, of which I am the founding director. He then asked me whether I would help him and his wife and frequent co-screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop revise a screenplay they had by working an entire soundtrack of Roy Orbison’s songs into it. I did and he invited me to their home for a weekend, which included a working session with me introducing them to many Orbison songs they had never heard. Zalman once asked me whether I knew why he committed himself to the Roy Orbison Tribute and I said, of course, “To honor Roy.” To my surprise, he replied, “No, I did it for you, because of your vision and passion for the tribute.” Besides being honored, I was struck by how all my interactions with Zalman were totally unaffected by his success and the world of status and celebrity of which he was a part.
From music back to movies and sexuality. While coauthoring Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains and Body Guys (2010) Susan Hunt and I interviewed Zalman about his films in relation to the argument in the book, which both recognizes his artistry and importance, and offers an ideological critique of it. Throughout he was articulate and open and never defensive. When we came to the point when we were simply at loggerheads about fundamental sexuality issues he didn’t back down or get angry. In fact, he suggested we go to a nearby club later that evening where a musician he was working on a documentary about was performing. When the book was in press he wrote a supportive blurb for the jacket and when the book came out he wrote me an enthusiastic email about how stunned he was about the analysis of Two Moon Junction, for which Susan Hunt gets much of the credit. He said he thought no one would ever get what he was trying to do in that movie and that meant more to him than the fact that our analysis included strong criticism! Which returns me to the beginning of this introduction.
When I decided to finally publish this interview in fall of 2011, I contacted Zalman and asked him if he would like to update it. I knew from several conversations since with him, and from new work and work-in-progress that he had shown me, and about which we had talked, that he had new ideas about some of the issues. He was happy to do so and said he was about to contact me since he wanted to do a video interview with me for a film he was making about his life. I also proposed he visit my spring semester class on Masculinity in Film to talk about Two Moon Junction, and that we do something on his music documentaries through my center. He simply replied, “Yes to everything.” Those words were literally the last ones I would ever hear from him. I was shocked when he died on Feb. 3, 2012 such a short time after we had made all these plans. He never had a chance to update this interview but I hope this updated introduction serves an important function: to let people know that Zalman King was a serious, generous man, and a true independent artist whose work deserves more attention than it has received. Call it soft-core porn or erotica or whatever if you must categorize, but do not underestimate it. When he wrote the jacket copy for Lady Chatterley at the Movies, he defiantly ended with, “Long live the body guy!” – a defense of a type of character he helped create to whom Susan and I say good riddance. Our publisher understandably said they couldn’t use the line and I said I was sure he’d agree to drop it, which he immediately did. He was just sincerely praising a book that substantively critiqued him while simultaneously defending himself. Long live Zalman King!
June 5, 2012
PL: People use terms such as hard core, soft core and erotica and I’m wondering what those terms mean to you. Do you think there are important differences between those categories?
ZK: Yes. I think that pornography is a special category because it’s really the prurient, for the most part, and with the prurient nature of it, it’s made for a specific reason to stimulate people in a way that allows them to make their fantasies real. And most pornography, and I can’t say all, is not about romance. For the most part, it’s just about the act of making love, it’s about the act of sex. If you talk to the pornographers, I mean, it’s… I’ll show you some of the footage I have, because I do a lot of work, not in pornography because I don’t do pornography but I’m very interested in the girls who do pornography and it’s interesting to hear them talk about their typical day, which would be interesting for you to hear.
PL: I’d like to hear that.
ZK: I really dislike the title of soft core because a lot of people categorize my work as soft core, which I don’t see it as. In defense of myself, it’s not soft core. Soft core means soft-core pornography and that’s really not what I’m interested in. Eroticism has a real place in my vocabulary personally because eroticism usually needs to move out of a relationship or some sort of tension and that’s what I’m very interested in. I usually think of my work as romance, and for the most part, when I say romance you might call it romanticism, but romance would be closer to the way that I would categorize my work. Eroticism is a good word; soft core is a horrible word.
PL: When you say romance, do you think of romance novels?
ZK: No, no, not like romance novels, although there is no doubt about it, there is a certain amount of eroticism in romance novels. But I’m very interested in Nine ½ Weeks (1986) because I’m very interested in journeys that especially women take in terms of their sexual awakening or their erotic awakening and it’s usually embracing romance and then rejecting it, which is very interesting to me.
I think of women in a journey towards sexual awakening—well, it’s a very short phase in women’s lives, although sometimes it continues on. When I say this awakening is a short phase, you can see its awakening in Nine ½ Weeks (and I use this film because it is probably the best film I’ve been involved with that shows this) in the seduction of the Elizabeth character (Kim Basinger). She is open for romance and the Mickey Rourke character really knows how to push her buttons of romance. In terms of what’s happening in the world, for me, especially, is that most people are much more interested in their careers and eventually in having a family and other things and what happens in the film, what you see in Nine ½ Weeks—and what I think was the formula for success in that particular film—is that a man comes along and says “During the day we’re one thing but I’m going to devote myself to romance, to our relationship, and I’m going to find ways to make it continually exciting for both of us, and we’re going to find ways to make it the focus of our lives for this period of our life.” And I think that’s very, very seductive and attractive. I think there’s a phase in men and women’s lives where that’s very, very important. And once the Mickey Rourke character sets the hook of romance, then the hook of experimenting begins where the characters take lovemaking to another realm. Mickey blindfolds Elizabeth, they’re playing little games, throwing food at each other or whatever, and the concept is, and what I have always said, in terms of the sexual awakening out of the sexual seduction of Elizabeth, is that she is becoming addicted to an easy access to an orgasm, an orgasmic condition. I think that through periods of women’s lives they do become addicted to orgasms and I think once they’re into that realm of excitement it’s an addiction that happens, and basically, they lose themselves within it.
It’s like they become a sex-addict, the same way one might become like a drug addict or a gambling addict, something like that, they want to go back to the table, they want to feel that experience again. And once that happens, it’s a very, very dangerous time. It’s a very dangerous time in women’s lives or even in men’s lives, in the fact that you lose yourself to this other person and that is what really interests me, that was the particular journey that I found particularly interesting, in terms of Nine ½ Weeks. And then how the Elizabeth character moved herself out of that relationship and surrendered her control, her will, herself, to this relationship or addiction, and then eventually caught herself before falling off the real edge. In the film, Mickey Rourke could have turned her out easily, turned her into a prostitute, whatever he wanted to do, but she was strong enough to fight back and basically put herself on an even keel. The other film that I did, that I directed, that I think shows some of this journey, is Delta of Venus (1995), which was from a collection of Anais Nin’s short stories.
PL: I think it’s one of your best movies.
ZK: Yes, well, Delta of Venus is a wonderful movie and what’s wonderful about this film is that it’s about a woman who’s seduced and basically believes that she wants romance and doesn’t even know that there’s an alternative to romance and then she finds herself sexually and discovers her erotic nature. She doesn’t go over the line with it but she dabbles with going over the line, when her lover comes back to her this person that she lamented losing, this moment in her life she’s already past him and that’s not what she wants with her life, and it’s like the beginning. I can’t say it is the beginning because that’s pretentious, but it is a feminist moment. It’s the beginning of a war, and it’s as though she is saying “I’ll take control of my life and how I derive satisfaction to me, and I don’t need it from a man, I’ve learned through these experiences that it excites me to be able to be in charge of my own sexuality.” And because it’s at a time—the Second World War, maybe 1939 or 1940—it’s a very exciting time for women, and Anais Nin expressed it very well. She was saying that women have fantasies. D. H. Lawrence said this, and then she said it, and I think that was very powerful. My wife Patricia and I worked on Nine ½ Weeks together and what was of great interest to both of us was the journey that Elizabeth was on, sexually and otherwise.
PL: I wanted to talk to you about what you just referred to as feminism. How do you see your work in terms of appealing to the female audience and the female spectator?
ZK: I feel that women have access to the work that I do and I think it is much more powerful, it speaks much more to women—and it’s meant to—than men, mainly because for some reason while I approach sexuality from a man’s point of view and I think I write interesting men, the films are basically directed at women. And I do it consciously, which you can see in Red Shoe Diaries. The entire series was directed at women. Men watch it because it’s sexy, but consistently it is about relationships and it is about women struggling with their identity and having romance. I don’t know why but I do try to speak to women. I think maybe I do this because there is very little for them in terms of cinema and in terms of this “high romance.”
PL: Do you have any market research, by the way, that tells you about this, both for TV shows and movies?
ZK: Yeah, for sure the TV shows are 60/40 female/male viewership, from Showtime, which is interesting and Nine ½ Weeks was obviously a women’s film, or a couple’s film, and it’s basically a powerful how-to video in terms of the art of seduction. And that’s what our goal was for that, mainly because I think Kim Basinger was appealing to men, much more appealing than most, and at that particular time in her life she was particularly stunning, and just because having hit the perfect sort of space in time, that’s what made the film work.
PL: How do you do your casting?
ZK: The casting is very difficult because of the fact that most directors have access to an entire pool of 100%, but when you work in romantic eroticism, or in romance or in eroticism there are certain people, women and men, who don’t want to do anything with it at all. They don’t feel comfortable with the subject matter and they don’t want to give themselves to it, and so then you’re down 10% or 5% of the talent base, which leaves you constantly searching for new, brave, engaged women to be in this stuff. Sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s harder. It depends on the times, in a sense. There was a time, three or four years ago, when pornography became more inviting. Even Paris Hilton would do this sort of stuff and so a lot of people became intrigued with doing eroticism, or doing romantic pieces, but now pornography is not as in-vogue as it was. It’s sort of like pornography’s stuck its big toe into the mainstream for a very short window, but I think it has retreated at this point. I don’t hear as much about it.
PL: Do you have certain ideals of feminine beauty that you invoke when you cast?
ZK: No, I don’t, because what’s beautiful to me might not be beautiful to someone else. I did a film called Two Moon Junction (1988) that had Sherilyn Fenn, and of course Kim Basinger is very beautiful, and Carré Otis, who did Wild Orchid (1990), was absolutely gorgeous, and then I’ve had some not-as-beautiful girls who were also absolutely phenomenal actresses. I did a move called Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue (1991) with a young girl named Nina Siemaszko who is to me a phenomenal actress and she’s beautiful, but not in a Kim Bassinger sense, not in a Sherilyn Fenn sense. Then I also did Red Shoe Diaries: The Movie, and the girl in that was not as beautiful as some of the others. Bridgette Balko was sort of neurotically attractive, which was what I was looking for, but she had to basically kill herself in the piece, so she couldn’t be so confident with herself. Actually, Sharon Stone had committed to doing it but she was in Basic Instinct (1992). It would have been a much different piece with David Duchovney and Sharon Stone. Bridgette Balko’s performance is very interesting in Red Shoe Diaries, but I wouldn’t consider her a world beauty.
PL: What about the male casting? For example, what makes Micky Rourke good for this genre?
ZK: Well, nobody wanted Mickey because he was a struggle. Everyone thought he was a thug. He’s a character actor, and Mickey, to me, was always beautiful, always dangerous, and always charming. There are so few people who really have charm. There are a lot of people who can act, but to be able to act and also to have charm. Well, Mickey’s charming, and he can be very charming. It depends what day you get him on, but he’s also very charismatic. He also is not frightened of women, and women can sense that, and he’s an animal, I mean, he’s got that animal instinct. Very few men have it and Mickey has it. When I was casting for Nine ½ Weeks I said, “You people are going to think I’m crazy but this is the guy I think should be in Nine ½ Weeks.”
PL: Does the lead in Two Moon Junction have it?
ZK: I thought that Richard Tyson had it. Well, he had it for that particular movie. It was a different movie and I was looking for someone who was a teen idol. And he did have it in that movie, I thought. It was one of the few times that I could see his beauty, because I love the way his face looked. When I met him he was a football player and he was very beefy and drank a lot of beer. And I asked him to please lose weight and he did, and for that amount of time I thought he was very, very attractive.
PL: I think so too. Susan Hunt and I are interested in that kind of “body guy” character. He’s a blue-collar worker, outside the law, in trouble with the law and possesses knowledge of what women want, and how far he can push them, and how he can satisfy them. Two Moon Junction is one of the classics of the “body guy” genre and one of your best movies, too. What do you think the appeal of that type of guy is for this female audience?
ZK: Richard Tyson—more than Mickey Rourke—is out of a romance novel. Two Moon Junction is about a wealthy girl, a debutante, a Southern belle just getting married and this carnival comes to town and there’s this “Ringling” guy there… It was romance, although not much of a plot, and that’s what I needed: someone who was bold and strong, and was cut and ripped, and he had charm—I don’t think he was everybody’s cup of tea, 100%, but I thought he fit quite well.
PL: I agree about the acting, but I mean the character. Do you know why, or have you thought about why, women respond to that type of character?
ZK: Well, yes. The characters I write are basically written to inspire women to become involved with them. It’s like they found the key to the lock. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to say this in a gentle way: there are keys to locks, if you want to play certain cards, even with very beautiful women, in my experience. Mickey Rourke, the guy knows how to seduce women and not frighten them.
You can see it watching guys who really know how to operate, I’m not talking about guys you meet in a club, I’m talking about guys who basically get the key to that lock. I have a lot of friends who are pimps, believe it or not, mainly because I film them for other stuff that I am doing and I have endless interviews with pimps talking about their strategy in terms of manipulation of women.
PL: That’s exactly the question I wanted to ask you: Why is this type of character who’s got the key to the lock, and is frightening in one way, attractive to the female audience of the genre?
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.
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