Performers Turned Helmswomen Speak at AVN Expo

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By Tod Hunter

LAS VEGAS—Five women participated in the panel discussion “Stepping Up to the Director’s Seat,” held January 24 during the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo. Taken together, Joanna Angel, Casey Calvert, Kayden Kross, Lena Paul and Aiden Starr represent a wide range of adult companies, from gonzo stalwart Evil Angel to boutique brands BurningAngel and Deeper, from story-driven member site Girlsway to mega-brand Digital Playground. They also differ in their levels of experience, from newbie director Paul to 15-year veteran Angel. But regardless of what sets them apart, all have worn two hats in the industry: performer and director.

Moderated by sexuality educator Sunny Megatron, the event was the final seminar of the AVN Expo, which took place last month at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas. (Click here for the dates on next year’s show.)

Naturally, these performers-turned-directors were asked about the challenges involved in wearing both of those hats. Angel pointed out, “It’s complicated. You’re running the show. You’re in makeup, and cleaning your ass, and texting: ‘Are you lost? Do you need directions?’ Should we order lunch? The location owner is knocking on the door while I’m cleaning my ass: ‘How long are you going to be?’ When I performed for other people, it was the best day of my life. ‘I just have to have sex? Really?’ At the end of the scene, people applauded and said, ‘That was a great scene.’ When you’re the director and you end a scene everybody looks at you. ‘Do you have enough? Are you good? Do you need anything else? Can we go home now?’

“When you’re directing you don’t get to feel like a star,” she said.

Starr observed that when she’s booked as a performer with other talent she often directs, “They’re scared to have sex with me, because I’m The Boss. Especially men. They ask ‘Can I touch you? Is that okay?’”

Calvert said that her biggest challenge is “time management. I’ll be on someone’s set as a performer and I’ll be texting my production manager to ask if the locations are secured and the performers are locked. I do a lot of multi-tasking these days.”

Paul, relieved, said that the panel was “like group therapy. I feel really, really validated right now. You’re not just your own director, you’re also your line producer, you’re your regular producer, you’re your location scout, you’re the talent scout. You’re wearing multiple hats at multiple times. In October I did my first feature that I wrote, directed, produced and starred in. I looked around and thought, ‘I need an adult.’ My D.P. looked at me and said ‘Do you need five minutes?’ and I went to a bathroom to collect myself. I also needed to clean my ass out at that point.” Calvert concurred: “Ass-cleaning time is the best time for both coping with things that are going wrong and taking care of business. You’re in the bathroom. No one can bother you.”
“I think the thing I hate most now is looking back at some of the stuff I did to directors when I was a performer,” Kross said. The former Digital Playground star said she realized, “I have to write [director] Robby D. a letter.”

Kross continued, “I remember, specifically, there was a scene, it was just a dumb girl/girl scene. They spent three hours lighting this thing on a kitchen countertop. I walked in, I went ‘Nope!’ and I walked out. There are so many things, and I know I did them all. Performers complain about the long day, but everybody’s texting in the makeup room. I did that. And now it happens to me and I’m like, ‘Fuck you!’ I see both sides of it now. It’s a tough line to walk.”

Feeding the Performers—Physically and Emotionally

Segueing from that, Megatron asked the panelists what their experience as performers allowed them to bring to the table as directors. Angel, after initial hesitation (“I don’t know…” followed by Kross riposting “Yes you do”), reflected, “You try to keep the energy up. Sometimes I feel like my biggest job is being a camp counselor. I know good energy keeps the day going when I’m performing and everyone’s tired and grumpy and wants to go home. I spend a lot of time in pre-production trying to make sure things go smoothly when you’re there. Knowing who to pair with who. Planning out the day so you can run as quickly and efficiently as possible. Most importantly—snacks.” Calvert agreed: “Having real food for your talent on sets, because as talent it fucking sucks when all there is on-set is a bag of Lay’s potato chips.”

In addition to nutritional sustenance, Calvert said she also understands other physical needs of performers more fully than a director “who has never been in front of a camera.” Calvert said, “If you’re on top of a counter top, I can say, ‘I get it, how can I protect your knees?’ or whatever they need. The way I communicate with scene partners, I can communicate with my talent. It’s super helpful.”

Paul pointed out the importance of building the self-confidence of performers: “I have seen the difference in performance levels between a model when she feels beautiful as opposed to when she feels uncomfortable in her war paint. Wardrobe, too. If you take the pressure off the male talent and you make the female talent feel safe and feel pretty, it’s so simple but it really makes all the difference.”

Kross said she checks with her performers on wardrobe: “I get their feedback, because I’ve been the model dressed in something I fucking hate. Having been that model for a very long time, I see the signs of insecurity very quickly, and I head it off as fast as I can. I’m very careful about pairing and I’m very careful about who I’m shooting when I’m putting them in a place.”

“Empathy for performers and performers’ spaces is the thing that performers can bring to the sets most often,” Starr said. “I worked for, like, really fucking shitty directors who made me do a lot of shit that was fucking unnecessary because they were being sadistic assholes. As a sadistic asshole myself, I like to say that I can rein it in.”

She added, “I’ve seen directors make girls cry on sets for no fucking reason. They have no fucking empathy. As a performer, I’m able to connect with them more deeply than those directors. If you give performers a higher level of ethical conduct, they’re going to demand that from other directors and they’re not going to take any shit. I will hire you and I will be nice to you and I will take your fucking needs into consideration. I will not put you into an uncomfortable place. They do not have to take money from shitty directors who will treat them in a way that dehumanizes them. It’s nice to be able to change that culture.”
Panelists also responded at length to a question from Megatron about what they liked most about storytelling. Kross observed that all-sex material is appearance-based, but “story-driven stuff allows you to put layers on that and add psychological elements as well. I feel that you can access things—the fantasies of the people—that you cannot access with straight-up sex.” Paul concurred, saying she likes to access “parts of the shadow self. So much of our sexuality is entwined with our subconscious. To be able to display darker themes beyond ‘Here’s a white sofa and a man in boxers’ is something really special.”

Calvert added, “When you put a story behind your porn, you can access the fantasy world that you can’t access when you’re doing a gonzo scene. My personal preference is more fantasy-based, more story based. I love being able to craft that world.”

“I do both,” Starr said. “Rather than an actual narrative script, I just do visual elements. I like being able to tell a story, especially with darker themes: transgressions, stuff like that.”

“I direct a lot of features, but I also direct a lot of gonzo, technically vignettes,” Angel said. “Writing was my main thing. I did go to school for writing: writers’ groups, writers’ workshops, all through high school and college. I wrote a book about two years ago. I’ve always been a writer. When you write a script, you make this come to life with other people, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s also really fun to cast. There are a lot of actors and actresses who aren’t really known as actors, and I pull that out of them. They come to set and say, ‘I don’t do dialogue. I don’t know what to do,’ and I’m like, ‘We’re gonna do this. I know we can do this.’

“But because I’m so neurotic about writing a good story, if I can’t think of a good story, I’d rather not do a story at all. I do Cum on My Tattoo, which is a really beautiful story. There’s a lot of tattoos to choose from. It’s dramatic,” she summed up, unleashing one of the many waves of laughter that ran through the room during the talk.

‘Money Speaks Louder Than Gender’

The mood was more serious as Megatron asked the directors about issues of power and control. “Being women, how does that affect not only the way your scenes and your scripts play out, but how are you changing the genre and changing the industry as female directors?”

“My brand is all about power play,” Kross said matter-of-factly. “That’s it. All I do is write stories where power is transferred or changed in some way.”

“As a director for a large corporation, my scripts are handed to me,” Paul said. “It was interesting being able to write my own script. It’s different when it’s you who did the script and are putting the performers in an uncomfortable position. I think I’m never gong to put my name on an actual script again. I can say, ‘I don’t know who wrote that.’ Any time I get an opportunity to write or create something, I love introducing subversive elements to the genre.”

“I also often direct for a large corporation,” Calvert said, “and I’ll say, ‘They asked you to have sex in the bathtub, it wasn’t me.’ When I’m directing, and when I wrote the script … I push for ethical production. Female-focused production. Hiring a lot of female crew. And really trying to empower all of the women on my set. They have control over the situation and they can influence what we’re doing. When a script comes down, we make small changes to make people feel more comfortable. I turn it into more of a collaboration with my performers and my crew rather than ‘I am the director, I am in charge, you do what I say.’ In my all-girl shoots, creating this feminist space makes my performers feel more comfortable and helps them do a better performance. The porn viewer sees it as girls who are comfortable and fun having sex rather than non-comfortable and not having fun when they’re having sex.

“On one production, I was encouraged to hire mainstream crew,” Calvert continued. “Having someone come on set who’s never been on a set before is terrifying. But they wanted it, and my first-camera was a woman who had never been on a porn set before. We shot our first sex scene on the second day of production and she said, ‘I just realized that was the first time I ever watched people have sex … and it was amazing. And it was beautiful.’ And it’s her job to make sure the penis going into the vagina is in focus and she really watched those people having sex, and she was asking me really, really amazing questions. And I sent her back into the world, knowing about what we do, that she can take to her mainstream sets: ‘Those porn people, they aren’t creeps or assholes.'”
“How is it different as a woman? Sometimes, when I’m shooting camera, my tits get in the way,” Starr said. “Do the tits get in the way? It’s a legitimate question. Is it good that I have big fuckin’ tits, because people want to talk to me and I can get my fucking foot in the door and have a conversation with people about being a director? Or is it bad because they don’t see me, they see my fuckin’ tits—and how much do I choose to use that to my advantage? Is it anti-feminist? These things are confusing. Sometimes my tits get in the way, and sometimes they don’t.”

“From day one in this industry, I wanted to go full steam and put out a good product and make cool shit,” Angel said. “Bulldozing my way through this business that I wasn’t supposed to be in anyway. I never thought about the fact that I was a woman, because I never let anyone say no to me because I was a woman. I never put that out there. Not everybody has the same story. I’ve done things in other industries—music, fashion—and I’ve always felt very respected as a woman in this industry. I think porn has always respected women, more so than most industries. Especially entertainment. Money speaks louder than gender in this business. If you can walk into an office and prove to someone that you can make them money, they don’t care if you have tits or not. They want your work more than they want you.”

Advice for the Ambitious Performer

Megatron’s final prepared question asked the panelists what they would recommend to performers thinking of becoming directors. “Pay attention on set,” Calvert said. “Watch what everyone is doing. Watch what the director is doing. What the gaffer is doing. What the PA is doing. Pay attention to how production works, and learn. That way, when an opportunity comes along for you to step behind the camera, you don’t have to rely on someone. You already know what to do. All of us would be open to answering questions.”

“You don’t need big distribution,” Starr added. “Make some shit no one sees. Fuck it up a few times. See how hard it is to deal with someone who’s holding the money. I did my own website in my late teens and early 20s and did everything myself. Learn how to do everything. Learn how to shoot camera. Learn how to edit. If you want to be a director, just fuckin’ do it.”

“You’re going to make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes,” Angel said. “New directors think that if they hire all their best friends it’s going to be easy for them. ‘This person is a friend, they’ll cut me a deal.’ When you walk on a set, you’re nobody’s friend. You’re the boss that day. You pay them what you can afford. Don’t mix friendships up with work.”

“Recognize that you can’t do every single thing without support staff,” Paul said. “Find people who know more than you do and bring them onto your team. It’s extremely vital for me.”

Kross agreed: “I don’t think you need to know the technicalities, I think you need to hire everyone on your crew who know more about what they’re doing than you do. If you can do it better than them, you hired the wrong person. If you want to do something well, figure out what you do well and lean into it. Focus on that. You’re only going to improve in the direction you’re taking.”

An audience member asked if the panelists had problems with creative control in their productions. “I didn’t get to pick who I had sex with in a movie that I wrote,” Paul lamented. “It’s a constant battle. I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission, so I do what I want, pretty much. If they have a problem with it, they just tell me.”
“I’m working for a corporation. I am creating their content, I am shooting their content the way they want it to be shot, the way they want it to look. I’m shooting their scripts. That’s my job,” Calvert said. “I do my job. When I’m shooting my own stuff, I shoot my own stuff how I want to do it, and that’s my job. I get to do all the different things.”

“Some of my porn is distributed through Evil Angel, and if it doesn’t sell well I don’t make the money I pay all my bills with,” Starr pointed out. “I’m motivated to pay my bills with that. At the end of the day, you have to say, ‘What part of my creative vision means something to me? What hill am I going to die on?’ It depends on what you make and who you make it for. It’s subjective and individual.”

“I sold my company, but I still have full creative control for things I direct for BurningAngel,” Angel said. “Full creative control is really exhausting. It’s stressful. When you’re directing six days a month, that’s a lot of ideas. I’m in a good place because I have creative control over some projects, and when I’m given a script I can make it my own and make it shine. Having balance is a help.”

As time ran short, an audience member let the discussion end on a light note: “Is there a porn cliché you’d like to kill off?”

Angel said, “There is something I won’t say any more. I won’t let it into scripts. It’s ‘What are you doing here?’ We all know why they’re there. You have to come up with something better.”

“The myth I hate is that we don’t care about our health and well-being,” Starr said. “Our testing system is unknown to the general public and people think we don’t care about our health. That is not the case.”

“If I see another fucking shower in a script, I’m going to scream,” Paul said, leading to Calvert differing: “Pool scenes, shower scenes, bathtub scenes, I love it.”

“I hate when people act like we’re doing this because it’s easy, and we don’t want to have a real job, because it’s fucking hard,” Kross said. “It’s a lot of work.”

“The porn trope I would like to get rid of for all time,” Calvert concluded, “is ‘This is the first time I’ve had anal sex. I’ve never done it before.’

“And then there’s a big gape.”

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