To say that author/director Stephen Elliott is a busy man, is a bit of an understatement. He is the author of seven books including the novel ‘Happy Baby,’ an erotic collection titled ‘My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up’ and a true crime memoir ‘The Adderall Diaries’. ‘The Adderall Diaries’ was called “genius” by Vanity Fair and made many of the year’s top ten lists. ‘Happy Baby’ was nominated for the New York Public Library’s Young Lion award and named one of the five best of the year by Laura Miller in Salon.com. When he is not busy writing some of the most griping novels around, he has founded of the online magazine “The Rumpus” and serves as editor for the print publication “Letters In The Mail”. As if that wasn’t enough irons in the fire, Elliot recently brought is first film, “About Cherry”, to the screen and has found it garnering him critical acclaim. The movie was written by Stephen Elliott and Lorelei Lee, a porn performer who is also a writer and lecturer at New York University.
The film focuses on Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw),an 18-year-old on the verge of finishing high school, who is rushing to escape her broken family life. After reluctantly taking nude photos at her boyfriend’s (Jonny Weston) behest, she takes the cash to skip town with her best friend (Dev Patel). Angelina gets a job cocktailing in a San Francisco strip club where she meets Frances (James Franco), an affluent lawyer who introduces her to a high-class world beyond her wildest dreams. At the same time, Angelina begins exploring San Francisco’s porn industry, using the moniker Cherry, under the wing of a former performer turned adult film director (Heather Graham). But Angelina’s newfound ideal lifestyle soon comes apart at the seams. ‘About Cherry’ challenges assumptions about sexuality and pornography, while addressing the common struggle of finding one’s role in life.
‘About Cherry’ was shot in the San Francisco Armory, home of Kink.com. At 250,000 square feet the armory is the largest adult film studio in the world. Stephen Elliott, a former sex worker himself, brings his unique perspective to the film and truly shines as a filmmaker. After seeing his first feature, you will agree that keeping a watchful eye on his present and future work is a must. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Stephen Elliott to discuss the creation of “About Cherry,” the challenges in bringing it from script to screen and what the future holds for him in the world of film and literature.
It’s great to catch up with you Stephen. How are you doing?
Doing well! Thank you for asking.
Your latest project is a film called “About Cherry”. I was curious to hear who you consider your biggest influences as a filmmaker and what inspired this film.
Ya know, I didn’t really start out wanting to direct this movie. I had written a script for James Franco and it was an experience that I really enjoyed, so I wrote another one. Then I was trying to get actors to be in it and to raise money. In the end, the budget being $550,000, I didn’t know that I could get a proven director. I didn’t know who would be good, so I just decided to direct it myself. As far as artistic influences, Paul Schrader would probably be the model. As a writer, I think “Taxi Driver” is the perfect screenplay. He is definitely someone I would look to. I also love Woody Allen. There are so many movies that I love. I did a year of cinema studies, about 16 years ago, when I was in college. I am a cinema lover for sure! Steven Soderbergh is really inspiring in the way he edits his movies. The early Terrence Malik movies are really important to me. [laughs] None of those movies seem much like “About Cherry”! [laughs] The characters really illustrate that link. I wanted to make a movie that is smart and real but I also wanted it to be accessible. I wanted it to be an independent film as opposed to an art film.
The film revolves around of the lives of people in San Francisco’s porn industry. For those who may not know, how did you first come into contact with that side of the city?
I was actually a sex worker in my twenties, so this is actually my world. I have worked with Kink.com a lot. They are based in the San Francisco Armory and they are the largest porn studio in the world! That is just a few blocks from where I live! [laughs] I hang out there all the time. I know everybody there and I have done a lot of stuff for them. I know a lot of sex workers and we are a community. It was certainly my world. I wanted to write something set in the San Francisco Armory for a long time. I had tried to write a novel, a short story and a couple of articles and after I adapted “The Adderall Diaries” for James Franco, I knew that this was the next story I wanted to try. I knew it was the next story I wanted to try because I had been thinking about it for a really long time. I contacted Lorelei Lee, who is a porn performer and also a really good writer. She also teaches at NYU. I contacted her to get that female perspective for the story I already knew I wanted to tell.
What was the biggest challenge that presented itself during the process of bringing the film from script to screen?
Probably raising the money! [laughs] That was probably the biggest challenge. Like I said, the movie cost $550,000 cash, plus there was some trade with The Armory for the location. The trade part was easy but coming up with $550,000 cash was hard! Even though we had well known actors on board for the project, I wasn’t going to take it on without creative control because there was no point in making the movie if I didn’t have final cut. How do you convince someone to give you that much money? — especially when you take into account that I had never directed before in film! That was very challenging! That was literally the hardest part of making this movie. It was hard after it was finished too. The actual shooting was stressful. I mean, you are working on the film 20 hours a day, you go home to sleep and then you wake up and go right back to work. It was invigorating, I don’t know if I would say it was hard. It is hard but I just don’t know if it is as hard as people say it is. It’s not impossible. We were very lucky to have a good crew, our actors were all great and our cinematographer was terrific. We had really great people working on this movie. I guess a lot of it is just luck, ya know? I didn’t know the art director at first. I mean, I had met him and I had interviewed him, Taylor Phillips, but I didn’t know him. Some of the actors came up to me and said that he was the best AD that they had ever worked with! We were very fortunate to have a guy like that running the set! He was the guy running the set when we were actually shooting. I hadn’t made a movie before, so I didn’t have a connection to anyone I knew would be good. We were kinda rolling the dice in a lot of different places and we got very lucky with a lot of them!
That’s great! Now that you have made it through the first one successful, is making another film something that is on your short list of projects?
Yeah! I am going to shoot another movie based on my novel “Happy Baby”. We start shooting on March 15th, 2013 in Detroit.
That’s great! Jumping right back into the fire are ya?
Well, ya know, we shot “About Cherry” in June of 2011, so this will be almost two years later. It feels like it has been quite a while. I wanted to be shooting my next movie within a year of finishing the first one but it has taken longer than I had anticipated.
What is you take on the whole experience of making your first film? And what was it like for you to have your two worlds finally collide?
The experience of making it was great! I really feel in love with directing. It as creatively satisfying as anything I have ever done. In terms of the worlds, it was amazing to shoot movie in The Armory! There were ten porn films being shot at any moment while we were making this movie. With all of those porns being shot in the building, there was a lot of interaction with the people making the porn while we were making the movie about porn or a movie set in the world of porn, more specifically. That was actually really helpful. Heather Graham showed up five days early and was learning about that world. I took her onto a porn set when she got there and Lorelei Lee was actually in the porn that they were making! So, here is Heather Graham and here is her co-star naked, doing whatever with this other woman and this was immediately as she stepped on set! Then Lorelei was like “Hey there!” [laughs] This was Heather’s first introduction to this world — just right into it! It was great! I think it really helped all the people in our movie understand more about the world their roles were based on. Being on set, they knew what that world was like because they were living it.
You have a ton of great talent in the film and it really shines through. In terms of the actors, did anyone bring something to the table that you might not have expected when you were first starting out?
Yeah! Every one of them! That was actually one of the biggest learning experiences of making the movie that I did not anticipate — every actor is an artist and every artist wants to make something good, even if they are a bad artist, they all want to make something good. An actor knows the character better than you do, better than the director does. The majority of what an actor does for a character is not in the script. There are all sorts of things that they do with their hands, face or emotions that are not written down. The primary collaboration in the movie is hugely important, the editing is hugely important, the photography is hugely important but the most important collaboration of all, I think, is between the director and the actors. I had no idea that was the case going into it. Every actor plots so much to these walls and taught me something about all of these roles. When I am doing readings now for the next movie, that is what I am looking for, ya know? When somebody does something with the character that I had never thought of. It’s a collaboration and I am not the only one responsible for these characters. The actor is your partner in creating this person.
You have a wealth of great material to work from that you have personally created. I guess it is a two part question. Where do you look for inspiration and would you ever entertain the idea of bringing someone else’s screenplay to life?
I just want to make good stuff. Ya know, “About Cherry” was an original screenplay, not based on a book. I would certainly direct someone else’s screenplay, if I really connected with it. I wouldn’t have a problem with that and I think that would be really fun. I think you just go through life looking for that connection and then one day you just see something that grabs you, so you start exploring it. That is how I ended up writing a book about the 2004 Presidential Election! These things just happen! You just follow your interests. I am lucky in that I don’t have a wife or children or maybe I am unlucky maybe! [laughs] But I don’t have anyone that relies on me financially and I don’t have hold a job. I can just keep my expenses low and just basically keep doing what every I want. That’s really fortunate. Ya know, I was a ward of the State and I don’t have any contact with my parents. I wasn’t a trust fund kid. I have been able to get by from writing and doing the different creative projects that I want to do.
That is inspiring. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, filmmakers, actors or creatives in general, that you can derive from your experiences over the past few years?
I don’t know what I can tell filmmakers, right? Because I have only made one movie! So what do I really know about making movies! I will say that every day when you are making a movie, wether it is in pre-production or on set shooting the movie, every day something so bad will happen that no one will blame you for quitting. You could walk away and everyone would say “Of course, they had no way of knowing that was going to happen! It was horrendous what happened to that poor person! There is no way! It makes perfect sense that they aren’t going to make this movie because of this terrible thing that happened.” Something on that level happens every single day. So, you kinda have to be determined and say “I don’t care! I am going to do this movie!” At one point, I was telling people when we had no money to make the film, “I am going to shoot it on my iPhone!” I only had James Franco for a limited amount of time and if I had to shoot the movie on my phone, that is what I was going to do! I think it helps to have that attitude but probably everybody does it differently. I like to set a date and do one that day whatever I have scheduled. If I don’t have enough money, I just do it for less, ya know? But again, I think it is just different for everybody. Ya know, when I am teaching writing classes, the main thing I tell people is that you can’t write a book that everybody likes. There is no such thing as a book or a movie that everybody likes. The only thing you can do is try to write your favorite book, make your favorite movie or make the favorite movie of your ideal movie watcher, even if that means you have a really small audience. That is what I usually tell writers.
I know our time is short, Stephen. What is on the short list for the next few months?
Gosh, the main thing at the moment is “About Cherry” hitting theaters. To be honest, I am so deep into making “Happy Baby,” it is hard for me to even think of anything else. It is all I am doing at the moment. We still have to raise as much money as we can. I haven’t quite cast the entire film yet. I have cast a lot of people but I haven’t cast it entirely. That is really the main thing I am focused on at the moment. I also have a magazine that I founded that I work on a lot called “The Rumpus”. I do a lot of creative work on there when I have the chance. When I have free time, I usually do something on “The Rumpus” like emails, articles or interviews, otherwise it is all “Happy Baby” right now!
That is awesome! You did a terrific job on “About Cherry” and we look forward to spreading the word. Good luck with your next project and we will talk to you again soon!
Thanks man! I really appreciate that! Talk to you soon!