Zalman King died of cancer this year at the age of 70.
A shared passion for Roy Orbison.
King got his start when he co-wrote and was executive producer for this film in 1980.
King’s Two Moon Junction deals with a soon-to-be-married Southern belle who wants to run off with a carnival worker. In their book Lady Chatterley’s Legacy in the Movies: Sex, Brains, and Body Guys, Peter Lehman and Susan Hunt analyze this kind of film narrative.
Richard Tyson in Two Moon Junction—a masculine type in U.S. culture.
Elena (Audie England) in Delta of Venus thinks she wants romance, but discovers an alternative in sexuality.
Mickey Rourke and Carrie Otis in Wild Orchid.
Bridgette Balko in Red Shoe Diaries: The Movie "couldn’t be so confident with herself" because she "basically had to kill herself."
Richard Tyson in Two Moon Junction: In a common narrative in film and literature, a body guy closely associated with the land or blue collar work awakens sexual desire in a woman married or engaged to an upper-class, highly educated professional man.
by Peter Lehman
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!
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.