|Courtesy of Dana Vespoli|
For several years, I have been aware of Dana Vespoli the performer--known for her beautiful butt (beautiful everything), engaged and enthusiastic performances, and for being married to Manuel Ferrara. More recently, Dana has steamrolled onto my radar as an exciting new director for Evil Angel and Sweetheart Video, producing impressive vignette and feature films such as Girl/Boy and Hollywood Babylon. I was introduced to her directorial efforts via She's Come Undone. Casually browsing threads online, I found someone talking about the film, specifically a flashback scene in what I had formerly assumed to be generic gonzo content produced by Evil Angel. Flashbacks? Editing? I was sold. Since that time, I have followed Dana's work and been consistently impressed with her aesthetic. There is something about the way she crafts a film that feels simultaneously gonzo and feature, elegant and hardcore, with a healthy dose of queer sensibility and punk rock feminist attitude thrown in for good measure.
I was intrigued and wanted to sit down with Dana and pick her brain about her life, her cinematic and pornographic influences, sexual politics, and the futures of her career and porn more generally. Thanks to Dana and Adult DVD Talk, I was lucky enough to to do just that.
How would you characterize your upbringing? Where did you grow up? What sort of childhood did you have?
I traveled a lot as a small child. I lived in a lot of different places because my father, who was from Thailand, flew in the service and then did commercial flying. I was born in the United States and then at one month old was living in Iran. My mother came to the States to give birth to me and then took me out of the country as soon as she could. But I guess my formative years were in Oregon, where I lived for elementary through high school, and went to university in the Bay Area.
It was a very chaotic childhood, and I would say my junior high school years were a lot more settled, a lot more calm. I went to school with a lot of out gays and lesbians and a lot of free and open progressive people. I went to a very serious performing arts school. People took what they did very seriously and were very committed. You’re around a lot of people who are very open-minded and encouraging you to express yourself and be who you are and be non-judgmental and stuff. I’d say my junior high and high school years were quite happy.
Had you watched porn prior to working in it?
I was exposed to adult entertainment at a very young age, probably too young really. It was just cable television. At the time there was a cable television channel called ONTV and at 8pm they started showing really graphic porn. Nothing terrible—it was all Caballero feature movies. I always had a fondness for those—Sharon Mitchell, Ron Jeremy, and John Leslie.
Can you remember specific titles?
There was Hot Dreams (1983), with Sharon Mitchell. There was Heaven’s Touch (1983)… The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976)…there was also another that was a take off on Some Like It Hot…
|Courtesy of Dana Vespoli|
Was it Sex Boat (1980)?
Yes! They sort of stayed in my memory banks, and then all through high school I would go to the adult video arcade—it was in my neighborhood—and watch loops. And then in college, I would rent or buy movies, following the careers of TT Boy and Christy Canyon. Because those were all the Vivid movies—I couldn’t find Caballero. They just weren’t putting out the movies that they used to. Then it was all Vivid stuff, which was dull but I was intrigued by certain performers like Christy Canyon and TT Boy who were really solid despite these cheesy storylines.
I just really enjoyed watching them have sex, and the way they had sex, because I believed them. I would see Christy in scene, and I believed her, and would see other people and would either not believe them or be bored by them. I was just drawn to certain people. I was drawn to TT Boy, which is funny because he seems sort of contrary to a lot of the stuff I’m drawn to now. I was drawn to him because he was having sex in a way that I wasn’t used to experiencing so I was sort of fascinated by him. He was incredibly aggressive, and it was interesting to me. I liked watching him. I also liked Randy West, Randy Spears…I loved John Leslie, Jon Dough, Mark Davis. I was just a fan of porn.
My boyfriend after college was also a fan of porn, so he would find stuff for me that he thought I would like, like Seymour Butts, and that was my first introduction to actual gonzo. After that I discovered John Stagliano and Joey Silvera and other people.
When did you first start getting involved in adult entertainment/sex work?
That happened right after college, right in the year after I graduated in ’96.
I had a friend who confided in me that she was working as a stripper at Mitchell Bros. I had no judgment about it—it was like, oh this is interesting, tell me about it. And then after graduating, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do for graduate school. I was exhausted from working two jobs through college, and my student loan debt was quite a bit. I was writing lease proposals in the financial district in San Francisco. I hated my job, I wasn’t making a lot of money, my boss was a jerk—I quit my job at the office and became a dancer. I found it very liberating and I was happy.
I met a lot of the features—Nina Hartley came through, and Kylie Ireland. And Marilyn Chambers—it was amazing. I was beside myself. I remember bringing home Behind the Green Door (1972) and watching it with friends and we were just blown away by Marilyn Chambers.
So, that happened a few times and a few of the girls were also doing porn. They would pass through town, and down to the club, and I would say, “Have you worked with TT Boy?” [laughs] Then I ended up moving to L.A. I was doing some mainstream commercial work, and still dancing at Mitchell Bros., and then SAG went on strike. This was the second time SAG had gone on strike and it was eating through my savings. I was doing second AD work for softcore and a couple of people said, “Why don’t you try [hardcore]? You seem to enjoy the movies, you’re somebody who would probably actually enjoy it.” At that point I was 31 and thought, “I’m gonna try this,” and that’s how it started.
So between graduating from college and getting into porn at 31 you had been dancing and doing commercial work?
Well, there was a year where I coached novice rowers, because I rowed crew in college. At night I would work at Mitchell Bros. and a couple of times a week in the morning I would be coaching high school girls. And I did some ads and things like that. So I had some formal acting training. I did some commercial work…it was a very bohemian existence I was living. I was still trying to decide about graduate school but I had friends who were dropping out of law school, burned out. My boyfriend at the time said, “You have to think about what you really want to do and stop thinking about what it is that your mom wanted for you, and what you think you’re supposed to do,” because then you end up $100,000 in debt, with no law degree…
The one consistent thing was: creating stories and porn. The things that made me happy.
Did you know if you wanted to perform on camera?
Yeah, and at Mitchell Bros. I would do girl-girl sex shows. I had no problem having sex in front of other people. So, it wasn’t a huge jump. I knew I wanted to make this stuff, but I didn’t know about performing on camera until it was proposed to me by some of the talent on the softcore shows. I think one of the first people [to propose it] was Aria. Part of me was curious about it because it was exciting, and the other part of me understood that sometimes the easiest way into making the product is through performing. Joey Silvera was a performer, John Leslie…that’s how a lot of people started out. So that’s what led me to going in and talking to Jim South.
So, you already had an eye on creating films?
Absolutely. I remember watching all of Catherine Breillat’s movies and realizing I had a better chance of making a movie like that as a XXX vs. something mainstream.
What was first porn movie you performed in? How was the experience?
It was really, really amateur. I went into World Modeling because as a porn aficionado I knew all about Jim South. I didn’t know anything about LA Direct or [Mark] Spiegler or anything. The name that I remembered was Jim South and so I looked him up. The first thing I ever did was for Ed Powers, which was super duper amateur. He did Dirty Debutantes. The first thing I did was called “research & development.” It was a thing he would do with people who were still trying to figure out what they were doing. So I’d do a little solo masturbation, and then I did some girl-girl with a girl who, like me, had never done anything before. It was just him with a camera and a tripod and me with a girl. And then I did a couple more very amateur lesbian scenes for Rob Spallone, and I said, “Ok, I’ve got this down.” I wanted to start with girl-girl because I wanted to make sure I didn’t freak out and at the end of a boy-girl scene suddenly say, “Oh my god! I’m having buyer’s remorse! I can’t do this!” With girl-girl, I’d done so many lesbian shows at Mitchell Bros., I was like, it’s a live sex show; it’s just going to be recorded. So, I felt good about it. Seeing as I knew Ed, I said “Ok, I’ll do my first boy-girl with Ed Powers.”
It was really super easy. He’s so easy. And from there, Randy West…and with Randy West and TT Boy, it was so super exciting. I was embarrassed, like, “I’m having sex with you!” I was super excited because I had grown up watching their stuff.
And then the productions gradually got more and more elaborate. All of a sudden I was doing features for VCA, Adam & Eve and stuff like that.
How fast did you become successful?
What prompted that break?
|Courtesy of Dana Vespoli|
There are two times where I cried on set because I was unhappy. The first time was when my vagina swelled up because I was allergic to the lube, and I was just frustrated, and the second time was after that scene [with JM Productions]. I said [to myself], I need to take a break because I’m losing my sense of personal boundaries in the scene. I don’t want to hurt myself. It also meant I was dissociating.
At that point I had also started dating Manuel Ferrara, and he was very vocal about being uncomfortable with me working with guys, which is typical of these guys [laughs]. They’re like, “I can do it, but I don’t like it when you do it!” It just so happened that at that moment I said, “I need to take a break indefinitely.” So I stopped, and it was the right thing to do. I was just running myself ragged. There was just such a high volume of work during that period of time, 2002-2005. If you were a girl doing well in the business, you could work twice a day every day if you wanted to.
And there were quite a lot of elaborate gangbangs and larger scale, higher budget gonzo.
Oh yeah. It was a period when really, really rough sex was the thing. Everybody wanted that style and that’s a lot of what I was doing. I was doing so much extreme stuff and it’s hard on the body, it’s hard on the soul. I’m all for that stuff, I just feel like…well, John Leslie put it really well. John Leslie was like a mentor to me. Drop Sex (1997) was hugely influential for me; I just loved him. He shot me a lot, and was very kind, and he said, “Don’t let this business tell you when to leave. You decide when to leave.” He also said, “Back when I was a performer, you worked maybe five times a month. Now, you’ve got these girls who get chewed up. And what’s with beating these girls up? I don’t understand. Where do you go from here?” He was just really perplexed.
How long did you take a break for?
About a year and a half.
What made you return to the industry?
I was ready to come back. That was August of 2005. I came back and performed for about five months and then started directing. I worked a lot for New Sensations. I really loved Scott Taylor. Jonni Darkko was directing there for a little bit before he went to Evil Angel, and Darkko said to me, “I was in Scott Taylor’s office and he mentioned that he’s looking for people to shoot stuff,” and so I immediately emailed him and said, “Hey I’d like a chance.” I should mention that when I came back to performing, about a month into it I went and I bought a camera and I started practicing shooting. I sent [Scott] a concept—five psychosexual vignettes. He liked them, and I said, “I have a camera and I’ll shoot it myself,” and he gave me a budget. So, in January/February of 2006 I shot Cock Starved.
Did you feel you were bringing something distinct to the table as a female director?
I don’t know. I didn’t really think about it. I just wanted to direct really badly, and when I came into the industry there was Mason shooting camera and I think Francesca Le was also shooting camera, so I saw that you could. I knew it was different, just being a female and shooting camera and communicating with the girls, which is something I would always see Joey [Silvera] do.
There seems to be more female directors now than ever, I think, whereas in Hollywood there’s nobody really—maybe one or two...
Yeah. There’s like, Kathryn Bigelow…Sofia Coppola…
Right. Yet it seems like in porn, people are really ready and ok with having female directors, and they’re quite sought after. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be the case?
I don’t know. When I first started, there was nothing that really stood in the way. There was no resistance. I just assumed that there weren’t that many females who had any interest in directing besides Francesca Le and Mason. Maybe it’s just that there are more visible women like Mason, and women who are producing content that’s interesting, so it sparks an interest and an impulse, and [they’re producing] material that resonates with women.
I’m a huge movie nerd. The authors and filmmakers I’m most influenced by are Mary Gaitskill, and Joyce Carol Oates, and obviously Catherine Breillat had a huge, profound effect on me with her representation of female sexuality, and the challenges that women face with female desire. In Romance (1999), there’s a scene where she’s divided; the lower part of her body, they’re running a train on her, and the top part of her body, she’s this nurturing mother. You’re not allowed to be sexually voracious. If you are this makes you a slut, and if you’re not then you’re a prude.
When I got to Evil Angel [as a director], John [Stagliano] said, “Do what you want.” It was just a crazy experience, like, “I can do whatever I want, within reason. This is amazing.” So I just made stories that reflected a little bit of what was going on in my life. John said, “Why don’t you make a horror movie, something scary, because some of the vignette stuff you did for Combat Zone was a bit scary,” so I did Forsaken (2013). It’s kind of an existential nightmare about being faced with death, the regrets that we have, and missing the sensuality of being alive. And with Descent (2013), it was about an anatomy of a marriage and sexual jealousy. A lot of what I do has to do with things that resonate with me in my own life.
I identify as a feminist, so that’s going to inform my work, but I don’t identify as a feminist pornographer. I identify as a pornographer who happens to be a feminist. The feminist movement isn’t why I make porn; I make porn to tell stories and I make porn to work through shit. I’m really interested in things like gender transgression and power transgression and I’m happy when it resonates with people and they can identify with it and be moved by it. Girl/Boy (2013) came about because of Jiz [Lee]. I wanted to do a feature but couldn’t afford to do it. It was going to be about identity and how we self-identify. Do we allow society to tell us who we are or do we make those rules ourselves? In it, I wanted to have a scene where there’s a lesbian who likes to have sex with men sometimes and comes under fire from within her own community; and a man who’s really racist who goes to rape a black woman and she turns the tables and rapes him, and he wants to be her slave; and a sort of Ozzie and Harriet couple where at night he wears a dress and she wears a suit. It was going to be a Robert Altman, Short Cuts, type thing where all these groups bump up against each other.
So I was talking to Jiz about it, and I really wanted to shoot Jiz in a scene, and I knew I couldn’t wait until I had the money to shoot that project, so Girl/Boy came about. I want to do another one before the end of the year.
Possibly. It’s funny because I wonder sometimes if they get lost. So much of what I do is…sensitive. And by “sensitive” I mean there is a context that’s more gentle. You think of Evil Angel, and you think of big gaping assholes and really voluptuous women and aggressive sex. Sometimes I wonder if movies like She’s Come Undone get lost at Evil Angel. It probably would have worked better at a place like Girlfriends [Films]. So I don’t know sometimes. There’s some stuff that works really well [at Evil], and certainly Stagliano’s happy to have these things come out at Evil Angel because it’s different and he appreciates that. [Consumers] mostly know Mike Adriano or Jonni Darkko, but the same time, I think the transgressive nature of the stuff I do makes sense at a place like Evil Angel.
What I love about John is that he believes so much in pornography. He is a true pornographer. He was willing to go to prison for something that wasn’t his title. He would take the bullet for any one of his directors. There are companies who would just throw their directors under the bus. The thing I love about Evil, and why I wanted to be there, was that [Evil Angel content] had this integrity to it and the directors seemed to love what they were doing.
When I show some people the Evil Angel homepage, they’re shocked. They think of Evil Angel as the big mainstream gonzo company, and yet it comes across as quite queer.
It is very queer. I think about that. Earlier, I was talking to somebody about the first TS movie I’d ever seen and it was by Nacho Vidal, and the box cover art had Belladonna with her head shaved holding onto Nacho’s erection, and holding onto the TS girl’s erection. I don’t think [Belladonna] even had make up on, and I just loved it.
What strikes me is that they don’t categorize the trans and strap stuff away from the more standard boy/girl stuff, so it’s all there running before your eyes. It seems almost more radical to put it all on there together.
Yeah. I don’t think it occurs to John to [categorize]. I really think his mind just doesn’t work that way. Which I really think is cool.
|Courtesy of Dana Vespoli|
Absolutely. In fact, in Fluid 2 which comes out next month there’s a scene with Vaniity. It’s a blowbang with Vaniity, Wolf Hudson, Chad Diamond, and me wearing a strap on, and Adriana Chechik. It’s not like a traditional blowbang. I wanted everyone to kiss Chechik and connect with her, and we all connect with each other, so we’re all involved. It’s not just all these penises coming at Chechik’s face. It was really amazing. We were all just in tune with each other. So often with blowbangs, it can feel like this onslaught of aggression at the face.
It seems like what you’ve done involves more subjectivity, including for the guys. The guys often are just dicks.
Exactly, and I like to see everybody having sex, and that was one of my problems early on, watching porn—I couldn’t see the guys. Sometimes my interest is not just in watching the woman’s reaction to what’s happening, but it’s also the man’s. I like to see the connection between two people, not just a girl getting railed. So, when I shoot I like to show the guys reacting also. Seeing the guys enjoying what’s happening, and seeing her making eye contact, that for me is what makes it sexy.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s refreshing when people dare to show the man’s face, feeling something. I wonder if you’ve met any resistance from either Evil Angel or from fans in terms of daring to show male response.
You know, nobody’s said anything to me about it. I wonder if it’s one of those things where they’re not aware that it’s happening, but maybe their perspective has changed and they don’t know why. Sometimes I wonder if the fans even notice. Are we making a decision about what the fans want, and we’re not really giving them the option? I’m providing the option, and there doesn’t seem to be any resistance to it. So I wonder if, subtly, it’s a new way. I also think some people think it’s too homoerotic to see the man enjoying himself. I don’t necessarily think it’s homoerotic, and if the guy’s getting turned on by another guy, who cares?
What are the next steps in your career? What are your goals?
I would like to shoot more trans stuff, but I also really like blending. I know sometimes for marketing it’s challenging, because where do you put Fluid if there’s a trans scene in it? It’s not just, “Let’s do something shocking; let’s put Vaniity in a regular boy/girl movie.” I like to shoot movies where maybe there’s one lesbian scene, there’s one trans scene. I’d like to do more blending of different genres and niches.
Are there any directors or companies that you think are exciting or that you’re keeping an eye on?
I love Nica [Noelle], especially what she has done with gay porn. Her movie, about the boy’s prep school [His Mother’s Lover (2012)], made me think of Pedro Almodovar. I see her as a pioneer. She brought back the romantic seduction movies.
Is that something you could see yourself doing? Directing gay porn?
I would love to! I’ve been trying. [laughs] I told Stagliano, “I want to make a gay movie.” He said, “We don’t do that.” Not because of any resistance—that would just have to be it’s own film company. But, that’s something I’ll probably do for internet. I came very close to shooting something, and it just fell through.
But [Nica] did that, and it’s something where you just realize the possibilities. I was really moved by it, affected by it. She’s incredibly encouraging; she said, “You should shoot gay movies!” It’s something that’s definitely right there, and I have gay performers who I absolutely admire and would love to shoot…so it might be that I end up having a gay scene in a feature. You know what? I’m talking to you right now and I think I’m going to do that.
Do it! It’s baffling to me that when Nica came out with gay porn, some people were asking, “Do women watch gay porn?” And I was like, “When haven’t they watched gay porn?”
I always have to use myself as a barometer, and I think I watch it, I’d watch it.
All that to say, Nica has been hugely influential, and Mason just sets the bar for beautifully shot [content]. She’s like the Dave LaChappelle of porn in a lot of ways. Her stuff looks fucking fantastic.
Being innovative, and not underestimating the audience, seems to be a way of making money in a business that is really struggling. For a long time people have been saying porn is dead, that torrents and tube sites are killing it—do you think it’s over? Does it have a future? and if so, what is that future?
I think that porn is going through a kind of renaissance. I don’t think it’s dead, and I don’t think it’s over. I think people will always want it. I think that right now everyone is jockeying for position. I think what’s exciting about porn right now is that, back when I came in anybody could be a porn star. You look good, you don’t even have to do a good scene and you’ll get a contract. You don’t have to have any integrity or believe in what you’re doing. You just have to have a camera, a couch, and two people and you become a millionaire. And now, you have to love it to be able to sustain in this industry and that’s who’s left. The porn stars we have now are people with huge personalities who are smart: Asa Akira, Lisa Ann (who’s this solid, smart businesswoman), Stoya, Dane Cross. You have people who are multi-faceted, who write articles for The New York Times, who are vocal in the face of all this conservative opposition. You have people who care about what they’re doing.
I feel like the future of the industry is made up of smart, together, really progressive people that believe in this. So, there’s this high turnover of people who come in and they’re like, “Oh! I have to work, and I have to diversify,” and then they leave! So I feel like what we have are these people who are going to take this industry into its next phase. It’s smaller, and it’s a little more difficult, but it’s made up of people who have gumption. It’s scary, and we’re on this new frontier, but I’m happy to be here and I’m happy to be with these people. I’m proud to be among these people. It is an uncertain time, but I believe in this industry, and I feel like I’m standing strong because there are other people who believe in it.
You can follow Dana on Twitter @danavespoli.