Good films and good sex don’t have to be mutually exclusive. That should be common sense but how many good films can you think of which have realistic, genuinely erotic sex scenes? And how many erotic films can you think of with artistic or dramatic merit? For Jennifer Lyon Bell, the answer was ‘surprisingly few’, and so she set about making her own. Her latest release, Silver Shoes, is a trilogy of erotic films woven loosely around the theme of clothing. In the first, a girl goes to borrow some shoes from a female acquaintance and, after discovering a wardrobe full of men’s clothes, finds her sexual curiosity is sparked. In the second, a housesitter explores the mixed feelings (both erotic and melancholic) sparked by going through the owner’s clothing. And in the third, a woman and a man end up having sex after a build-up in which the woman believes the man to be gay.
Lisa Williams talks to Jennifer Lyon Bell about clothing as sexual currency, feminist porn and how she likes to craft a film.
Lisa Williams: Clothes have emotional and sexual currency in this collection of films; was that the start point of it all, and what is it about clothing that creates this meaning for you?
Jennifer Lyon Bell: I started thinking a lot about clothing after I took a drag king workshop a few years ago by the brilliant European performance artist Louise Deville. Seeing the ways in which small changes in my outfit made other people treat me so differently was intense. And I enjoyed thinking about what items of clothing, anywhere on the gender spectrum, had come to carry erotic power for me. I was struck that the typical female ‘sexy’ clothes – fishnets, black high heels, bandage dresses – didn’t do much for me and never had. And I wasn’t even sure what men’s ‘sexy’ clothing was supposed to be, though I had certainly gotten an erotic charge from certain men’s clothing items in the context of my own life. It seemed only natural to start exploring these issues through the lens of a film.
There is that running theme but there’s also a nice balance to the collection (one woman and woman story, one woman alone, and one woman and a man story). Did you think of it in these terms or did it come about organically?
I’ve always enjoyed short films, and I liked the idea of creating a filmic kaleidoscope with short films, whereby certain elements change while others stay the same. So portraying a variety of relationships in Silver Shoes definitely was an integral part of that idea. In truth, I also shot a solo male scene because I thought it would make a true balance. But in the final edit, that short film felt so different tonally from the others that it made the film feel unbalanced and harder to understand. I liked it better as a trilogy, so I kept it that way. I decided to include the male solo on the DVD release for those who would like a peek at it anyway. I might also add that I like the idea of offering the viewer all kinds of hot sex without necessarily asking them to connect it to their own sexual orientation or desired real-life practices. People have a very flexible ability to identify with characters and get aroused by seeing things they don’t expect. So the sexual variety is quite intentional too.
Mainstream porn plays with fantasy (narratively and in the bodies depicted), yours seems much more concerned with realism. Are the characters and experiences on screen meant to be relatable to the viewer and do you think these are scenarios happening in real life?
It is so rare to see sexuality presented in a realistic way that I still find it fascinating when it is. Personally I need to feel a lot of sympathy and empathy for the main character, which means that there needs to be a fair amount of emotional realism even if the rest of the story is quite fantastical. Even in a non-erotic context, I’ve always been attracted to movies with an element of realism. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind strikes me as an especially strong sci-fi movie because it’s so realistic in other ways. As far as whether these scenarios happen in real life – well, without giving too much away, I can say that the plot of ‘Mimosa’ [one of the short films in Silver Shoes] is startlingly close to something that’s happened to me… more than once! And I know several women who have had the same happen to them. So I was dying to put it up on the screen.
Were there any mainstream porn conventions you wanted to keep (or send up)?
No, I let the stories develop on their own, rather than wrestling them into a particular statement about sex or porn. In some ways Silver Shoes is like porn – there are orgasms, there are wet and hard body parts, there are people enjoying themselves. But in other ways the film evokes something quite different from porn: there’s a lot of story, there are no pre-choreographed porn-style external ejaculations, there are some challenging emotional moments like when one of the characters gets teary. Nothing was off-limits for us.
I sensed the actors in Silver Shoes were friends; can you describe your casting process and what you look for in an on-screen pairing?
I’m so pleased you thought they were friends, because I pride myself on finding couples who genuinely like each other and have great personal chemistry. But in truth, these people all met in real life for the first time the day before their shoot. Usually, before I do any auditions, I like to meet actors and actresses myself over coffee to get a sense of their personality and reasons for getting involved in erotic film. But, in this case, geographically I was considering actors and actresses from all over the world. So I knew I couldn’t rely on in-person meetings or a long rehearsal process. I narrowed down the actors and actresses I liked best to a shortlist, had them do an acting audition with me by Skype or in person, and then put them in touch with each other by Skype to see who hit it off. The final three who won the roles live really far apart. Joost is from Belgium, Liandra lives in Australia, and AnnaBelle lives in the United States. In each case it worked a little differently. Liandra and I were friends when she lived in Amsterdam. I liked her a lot, felt I had a grasp on her personal style, and had recently auditioned her for a different project, so I knew she’d be great if we could find her a match. Joost contacted me about the project and he had a lot of natural connection to it. We chatted by Skype, and eventually I auditioned him by Skype too – though I went over to Belgium to visit with him personally before officially casting him. And AnnaBelle I simply met with and auditioned by Skype. I loved her and thought she had a nice collaborative mentality. Fortunately, she was so open and forthright that I was able to get a good sense of what she was like. They all Skyped with each other and it was a clear ‘yes’ with these three. I’ll also admit that in the brunch party scene, the party guests are all personal friends of mine, so maybe that friendly vibe comes through. I know we had a lot of fun on the set that day, which maybe makes it fun to watch.
How scripted were your films; both in the sense of dialogue and action? Was there any room for improvisation and did much change in the process of bringing it to life?
I’ve worked before in very different modalities, from a full script (Matinée) to total improvisation ((Headshot). This time I decided to try something in between: us all agreeing on a theme and the key plot points, and then letting the actors/actresses improvise the dialogue. While it was a little nerve-racking for me, I think it worked out great. Particularly for performers with no formal acting training, it helps a lot to be able to speak with your own style and rhythm. It also helps a lot that my editor is very talented; he helped me find ways to put the best parts together, so it had a good flow even when we had to cut pieces out.
As far as the sex scenes go, I like to give the performers as much freedom as possible. We do discuss in advance what they would like to do sexually with each other, how the sex fits into the story, and generally what parts of the set we’ll use. After that, I let them take the reins because I think it’s the best way to preserve the real chemistry between them. Usually I’m working with actors and actresses who’ve never been sexual on camera before, so for them it’s especially important not to stop the flow. But now I know that even performers who’ve had sex on camera before do appreciate the freedom to stay in the moment and try out what feels right. Later I can always get a pickup shot if necessary. This method is a heck of a lot more work for the camera people (in this case, the director of photography and me as second camera), the lighting person, and the editor, because we aren’t sure where the best shot or best light will be, and have to stay 100% present during the shoot. But having tried different methods, I think this works well for capturing the kind of spontaneity that I most like to see.
All these films appear to be in ‘real time’. Is this an important convention to you and how long, in reality, did they take to film?
Perhaps it’s just the way my body is built, but I’ve always been attracted to physical continuity in sex scenes. I like to mentally get into the characters’ bodies and then stay there pretty much the whole time. When I see a hard edit between sexual positions, for example, I can feel my body disengage from the characters a little. It’s worthwhile using that effect sparingly: in Matinée I purposely include some distanced shots that force you to imagine yourself as one of the ‘observing’ characters rather than one of the couple; but in general I want to build connection between viewer and performer. The end result is pretty close to real time. But that doesn’t mean the sequences were filmed in real time. Usually I plan for the performers to enjoy the whole sex scene twice, and we use multiple cameras. As a result, we have lots of extra footage which can easily cover the moments that the actor/actress wanted to take a break. You wouldn’t believe the great material I have had to leave on the cutting room floor because there just wasn’t room for it all!
As for the narrative portions of the films, so far I have taken a fairly classical approach in the structure, but I’m very open to playing with nonlinear storytelling. The trade-off is that I need to make sure I don’t confuse the viewer’s understanding of the characters’ interior states too much while trying to create drama. Drama with no erotic connection would be a silly bargain for me.
I was interested to read that you cite films such as The Piano Teacher and Baise-moi among your favourite examples of eroticism. Would you say you are inspired more by sex scenes within a narrative than straightforward porn with little or no plot? Also, these two films arguably show extremely surprising expressions of sexuality; can you describe what you appreciated about each film?
The movies I find sexiest are the ones where I want to emotionally engage with the characters and feel what they’re feeling. Usually those end up being narrative art films that show the characters overcoming a struggle or barrier to get what they want sexually, in a story that I can somehow relate to. In The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert’s character is full of struggle. She has a deep sexual itch that she can’t seem to scratch, which is tragic yet wholly relatable to me. I also find it very relatable that her inner sexual life is so at odds with her conservative ladylike self-presentation. People assume all sorts of things about women’s sexuality, especially about women who present themselves as heteronormatively feminine. Women come up to me all the time to confess that their sexuality is darker or odder than they dare to tell their partner. They have no idea they’re not alone.
Having said that, I also enjoy a lighter approach to sex as long as it’s grounded in emotional realism. Especially because I like the idea that sexuality doesn’t have to paired with violence to be appropriate fodder for cinema. John Duigan’s little-discussed film Sirens (with Hugh Grant) is light-hearted, but the individual relationships have enough weight in their power dynamics to make the sex scenes memorable. Or John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, which had some intensely emotional sexual plotlines yet is fundamentally uplifting. (I wish Shortbus had gone even further with its erotic and explicit potential – I’d pay good money to see that darling male threesome played out completely.) As for Baise-moi, I mention that film on my site as a landmark example of the millennial movement incorporating explicit sex into art film, which I totally applaud. And I also liked the aesthetics of the film, pairing a rough punk aesthetic with a feminist revenge narrative. But the film is not an example of eroticism, at least not for me.
How do you position yourself within your feminist porn peers? Would you say there is an industry or a community, and are there any other filmmakers/companies you admire?
Of the handful of us making feminist porn, our styles have turned out to be fairly different. I think that’s an entirely good thing. We’re pretty close-knit and trade tips when we see each other at the erotic/pornographic film festivals that have cropped up in Europe and the USA. I would say I personally like creating narrative context (even if not full narrative storyline), creating an intimate feeling through close-ups, and using sync sound with an emphasis on sex sounds rather than music in the sex scenes. Australian filmmaker Gala Vanting has an entirely different production style, more formal and distanced than mine, but she combines beautiful images with unflinching eroticism (sometimes including kink) in a way I love. Queer French filmmaker Emilie Jouvet is a photographer, and hers might be some of the only pure-sex films that I find hot. Her casting is incredible. Erika Lust is also doing some brilliant casting, and she creates fantastic, creative stories. Tony Comstock was one of the first to pioneer the erotic documentary genre, and his relationship interviews are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Other erotic/pornographic filmmakers I’m inspired by include Sadie Lune, Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Ms Naughty, Zahra Stardust, Maria Beatty, Marit Ostberg, Petra Joy, Travis Mathews, Michelle Flynn, Anna Brownfield, and Madison Young. And performer Wolf Hudson’s great collaborations with Aiden Starr.
You say on your website that your reason for making these films has nothing to do with commerce but how does the company fare commercially? Other feminist porn filmmakers we have spoken to have complained of distributors being unwilling to pick their films up. Do you feel you are getting these films out to the people who want to see them?
I have had lots of interest from distributors, but not always the ones I want to work with. The heavy porn consumer who is used to making selections entirely by keyword, and who is accustomed to crap porn quality, apparently does not want to pay a fair price for my genre-crossing erotic movie. In contrast, mainstream outlets like Amazon have been a great place for me to reach people who like good movies and good porn. And as our little community grows, online distribution outlets are cropping up slowly. Pinklabel.tv in San Francisco carries films that you can’t see anywhere else; Erika Lust’s LustCinema has a great selection too. MakeLoveNotPorn.tv offers great amateur films. Little by little the film world is changing. If we can convince the entrepreneurs who make mainstream VOD sites, social media sites, and video hosting sites that it’s worthwhile not to exclude filmmakers who incorporate explicit sex (I’m looking at you, Vimeo), the film world could change a lot – for the better. In any case, almost all independent filmmakers are, as you probably know, getting creative with making their films available directly to interested viewers. Distributors can be very helpful, but since formal theatrical distribution usually isn’t an option for us anyway, we can fill in some of the gap ourselves. We’re an enthusiastically DIY community and a lot of us are enjoying doing it ourselves.
Interview by Lisa Williams