Q&A: The Method to Axel Braun’s Wicked Madness
Madness flickers in his eyes, their smoldering depths agleam with hypnotic mania. It is a look possessed by few, for rarely do men of lesser ilk, of more sluggish spiritual tempos, seize existence with such intensity... with the transcendent fury that dares carve its name, undying, into the tapestry of life.
You see, Axel Braun is not mortal.
Certainly, that which is bound by flesh and form, that which can be named in the pages of magazines… which can be photographed and written about and passed casually across gossiping lips... that which can be crowned with multiple XBIZ Awards and proclaimed godfather of parodies time and time again…that which is the man himself, is subject to the cycles of creation and death.
But his mind, dancing like a maelstrom amidst sub-atomic particles, animating the gravity-bound husk that walks in time and space, is attuned to another world… a hallowed realm of comic book legends…of archetypal characters tracing their ancestry from Neanderthal cave paintings to Homer’s “Odyssey,” from religious gospels to Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, from forest-felling American folklore to the ink stains of Justice League illustrator Alex Ross.
His is a legacy of imagination.
And no degree of camera-work, high-tech hijinks or temporal spectacle can ever touch even the bottommost fringes of bona fide imagination… of narrative world building, of sculpting tangible personalities from nothingness, of giving voice to inanimate silhouettes, of birthing beings and entire cinematic universes that spawn untold billions of toys, books, films and ever-evolving paraphernalia.
To wear such rainbow-hued, starlit robes of sheer fantasy, is to limitlessly defy the gray tones of mundane society. And yea, he may one day be cast against the gales of entropy, his remains borne aloft by a dusty nevermore unto the great abyss, but his smiling infinity will yet inhabit every frame of adult entertainment… echoing even from the so-called mainstream… his brushstrokes tracing the hands of bygone masters with newfound interpretations.
For nothing is new and all tales have been told, yet what the tailor parodies with patchwork precision is the very definition of a storyteller. And this, with detail-oriented, keenly budgeted, machine-like engineering, is what Braun does with his every film. He can distill that lightning lord aura dancing from his shoulders into blockbuster successes…smashing records and expectations with every release.
To merely list his accolades with journalistic dreariness, to dispense his greatest works with droning summaries and generous paragraph breaks, would be a heretical disservice to such a titan… which is why XBIZ embarked on a most audacious undertaking, to reflect at least a memorable sliver of Braun’s immortal vastness, in the span of this humble interview.
XBIZ: Tell us how your father, Lasse Braun, influenced your career and trace your filmmaking journey from Italy to L.A.
Axel Braun: I started working with my father in 1986, sporadically at first, polishing up scripts and helping with the story, before I began writing complete scripts. I idolized my father at the time, because he was such a different character from anybody I’d ever come across within my environment in Italy. He didn’t give a fuck what people thought and was a true non-conformist.
I just started learning and absorbing everything about the way he approached things. And when you learn from somebody who’s in a position you want to be in, I think it’s always important to learn from their mistakes as well. So, I would see things that he was doing and I would understand why, but I would also imagine how I’d do it differently… not because I’m better, but because I’m me. You want to make sure you preserve the essence of ‘being yourself’ no matter what you do, because if you bend over backwards to become somebody else, you’re never going to be happy.
So, over the next three years, I worked on some productions in Europe with him, and at the time, he was also doing some softcore movies in Holland. I was basically being his assistant and taking care of whatever needed to be done and you can’t really put a label on a position like that. If a PA wasn’t doing something right, I would just jump in and do it myself. It was not about the pay grade, it was not about the title, I was just trying to help. And the thing that I absorbed the most was his discipline and work ethic. It’s something that, when you’re in your 20s, it’s hard to grasp, because your focus inevitably is shifted towards partying and having a good time… not worrying about what you’re really going to do when you grow up. And, I always wanted to grow up fast, since I was a kid.
So, after experiencing the allure of being a gypsy and traveling the world and stuff… I had a solid foundation. My father also encouraged me to finish my PhD in psychology. Because, before you drift off into some kind of dream, you should have something you can fall back on, and I did. Once I got my ticket to come here, everything changed. I’d never been to L.A. in my life… I’d never been to the States. I can say from literally the moment I arrived, despite having traveled everywhere in the world, there was something about when we were landing at night… when you see this really strange, crazy spread of lights, I can’t explain it, but I really felt that bond… that I’m home, and I’ve felt that way ever since. So, I started here, where the greatest movies are made. I don’t know what it is, because look, this is not the most beautiful place in the world. I mean, where I grew up in Milan, my house was from the 12th century. My ceiling and my bedroom, there were frescoes, and there wasn’t a large room in the house that wasn’t a national monument. But, you take all of that for granted, because you grew up in it, it doesn’t really matter.
First of all, as soon as I got here, my father had a friend who was a big movie producer and he gave us tickets for the Oscars. And we were in like the seventh row and Tom Selleck was sitting right there, Warren Beatty’s in front of me and I’m like ‘Warren Beatty has a bald spot!’ So, you’re propelled into this world of things that you’ve always seen from far away. And I wasn’t necessarily star-struck, but when you’re exposed to this… it’s like the essence of what I do now. There’s these comic characters or these movies or these TV shows I grew up with and here I have an opportunity to take them and play with them and put them in a sexual scenario. It’s the same thing when I first saw this world of glitter and actors and movie stars on a magazine, and now I’m like touching them. It felt so strange and yet organic, not like I was drooling, but it was just really odd. I’m at the bar and Tom Cruise is striking up a conversation with me, and I’m like wow, he’s really really short. And I don’t know, there was a sense of belonging for me.
The way the movie business is approached, compared to Italy, it’s so completely different. When they say… and take this with a grain of salt… when they say the Mafia doesn’t exist, it’s a typical thing that all the mafiosos say. You know, it may as well be true because the truth is that in a lot of countries like Italy, whether it’s Colombia or places like Brazil, the culture, the way they think is like a mafioso. Like, it’s all made of favors, it’s all made of things done under the table… it just permeates the whole culture. And here in the States, everything was black and white, straightforward. So, right away as soon as I got here, we started working on this story that I’d written, called “Fantasy Nights.” And I developed it into a screenplay. It was the first thing that had my name, ‘Axel Braun’ on it, in the credits. And it was like wow, this is great! This was in 1990. There was a semi-truck that was the catering truck, that just grilled the filet mignons. It was a feature and it was a 16-day shoot, so you know, I got to see what that was like. Everybody was kissing my ass because of my father, which was great, because I’m on set with Tom Byron, Joey Silvera, Jon Dough and god, Samantha Strong. Nice thing is, they let me into their world.
And I always thought a good director should be able to understand acting, editing, everything, because this way you know what the electrician is doing, how much downtime he has, why is he bored, why is he hungry, you know, all these things. I just got a really comprehensive view of filmmaking for this industry. I have to say it’s priceless. And what I wanted to do from the very beginning was to have a career that becomes bigger and longer than his. First, I wanted to get where he was at, and then I wanted to do more… not just for competition, but I think that everybody should try to surpass their parents. I want to challenge myself, otherwise I get bored. Also, I learned how to not let your ego get the best of you. I just think you adapt, you survive and you thrive, so before you try to fight what’s going on, try to find a way to keep your mind in front and then take the next step. There’s a lot of compromise in many ways.
What I learned is how to be very quick and I learned budgeting. That’s another thing. I’m very anal about things. I need a spreadsheet for everything. If I’m buying a motorcycle, let me do a spreadsheet and calculate all my things. Budgeting was something that was very important for me. If I don’t own the movie and I shoot it for somebody else, I give them a budget. I mean, stuff happens, if you’re shooting a big movie, sometimes you’ve got to rework or re-plan, start lighting a place with pre-lighting, or rehearsals. So, you get there with an idea and somehow it just doesn’t come out right. Adapt and do something else, do something different.
XBIZ: What distinguishes a parody movie from a non-parody movie, both behind-the-scenes and during a shoot? Where do you foresee the parody market going in the future and will you ever incorporate VR into your movies?
Braun: I haven’t shot an original non-parody feature in almost 15 years and my goal is to shoot a really big feature on my 15th anniversary. So, I shoot parodies and it’s a completely different process. What the parodies entail, at least my parodies, is months and months of preparation before I can even start casting. There’s a lot that has to do with costumes, fabrics and finding the right characters that have the right connection with each other. I don’t parody anything that I’m not emotionally attached to. There’s just so many shows that are successful and the fans are like “why don’t you do this?” and “why don’t you do that?” I’d like to. I see the financial rewards, but I can’t. Like “Power Rangers,” I think the movie is going to be successful because I saw the trailer and was like wow, this actually looks good. But I was an adult when “Power Rangers” came out so I have zero attachment and I can’t just go and shoot a parody about it. On the other hand, things that I parody, I know the subject matter. I know the source material so intrinsically well that it’s not just about “okay I’m going to do some research.” I know the characters, the look, the picture of their personalities, so I know how to place them.
“Justice League” is going to be a huge undertaking and I’ve got another huge project that I’m tackling right now, that I need to figure out if I can make it happen because I’d have to shoot some stuff in New York. Everything has to make sense in a million different ways. There’s a tipping point in the budget where you’re like “okay, I still want to be profitable.” That’s why I couldn’t shoot “Empire Strikes Back” because half a million dollars for a movie today, sure it’s going to be great, but it’s going to lose money. I don’t want to do that. So, the elements that are the same with parody and non-parody is I try to keep it very light. I’m open to suggestions. I know what I want in every single shot, but I’m not the type of director that’s just going to put his ego in front of everybody else. It involves collaboration with everybody, from the lighting guy to the photographer. Having a team of people that believe in the same things you do is very important, it’s a big strength. So, the elements that are the same is, it’s not about me, it’s about the movie. An all-sex movie is very easy to shoot but then again, because it’s performance-driven, you want to elicit the best performance out of your talent. That just requires me asking the girls and the guys “who do you want to work with?” and try to pair them with people that they’re comfortable with or have always wanted to work with. Something that makes them excited. And you know, there’s not many frills, there’s no partying or joking around, no hanging out, it’s just like let’s get this done on time.
When it comes to the parody market, it’s interesting, because I can tell you that maybe a couple years ago, people thought parodies were already dead. I’ve been doing this for 27 years, I don’t think I’ve ever sold as many DVDs as now, in a time where DVDs don’t sell. So, I think that it’s not about the parody market, but quality products. And I mean, this goes for everybody. No matter what. If you give people quality, you give them something that they want to own, they want to have, they want to be fans of. It’s just a different approach. Look, I know people that have been in this business a long time, that shoot complete garbage and still make a ton of money. They sell millions of DVDs for like 50 cents each, but I don’t look down on that business model. It’s just not me, it’s not what I want to do, it’s not how I do it. It’s just a different approach, so I think that... look at the superhero trend. A few years ago, same thing, people thought “okay, now enough.” All of a sudden, what’s going on this year? Netflix has like five superhero series at the same time and they’re all good. So, there’s something really interesting going on and you know why? It’s because they’re good. It’s not about what they are… superheroes are just a good starting point to tell stories a different way.
So, I’m going to keep doing parodies as long as there’s something that I want to parody. I can tell you that until 2020 I have a lineup of things that I want to do. I don’t know after that. But right now there’s a bunch of stuff that I want to do. And at this moment I have zero interest in VR, there’s nothing appealing to me about them. And I’ll tell you why. To me, it’s about the movie, the shots, getting people to fall inside of the world you’re creating for them. If this world is 180 degrees, I don’t know what they’re looking at, I can’t create tension, it’s different. I see the appeal… but not for me. It appeals to a different target audience, not the one that I built a fan base on and especially not me. I see that there’s a demographic, gamers or people that just like it. I have friends who are actually producing VR content, people I respect and it’s just not really what I want to do, it’s a cool gimmick. I was more interested in 3D, like “Ghostbusters” in 3D is one of my favorite movies and “Avatar” was a lot of fun because you can actually see things in a way. But, you’re creating them, as you shoot you’re seeing what is going to be in focus, you have a way of manipulating that. I strongly believe in suspension of disbelief when it comes to filmmaking and you just need to be able to direct that attention. So yeah, no VR for me. Where are they going to look at? They’re going to miss the shot that I’ve focused on so much.
XBIZ: What was it like being interviewed by Empire Magazine? What kind of a legacy do you hope to leave behind in adult entertainment?
Braun: Empire Magazine was, probably, the pinnacle of my interviews… until today, haha. It’s really funny because the editor-in-chief of Empire Magazine sent me a Twitter message, a private message, and it was like the President calling. Then within two weeks, he sent this world-renowned photographer and this journalist who was really great and gracious and it was a fantastic experience for me. Knowing that it was coming out and waiting to see, waiting to see… waiting to see. I remember I started going to Barnes & Nobles and being like “it isn’t out, it isn’t out!” and wondering “what’s going on?” It should be out! It was almost eleven days late and I was freaking out. Finally, I bought all the copies and gave it to my friends, people and stuff. I’m so happy and the fact that they never did that, a story about a porn director before, makes it’s one of the things that is a career milestone. I really want to be proud of the movies I make, and I’ve accomplished way more than I set out to. I’m stoked that I was able to build a business around many facets of the industry. I own a post-production company that I started just to edit my movies and a couple people I knew, and it spiraled into being a mainstream post-production house and doing visual effects. So everything’s stemming from this.
And I joke around that in 1990 I sold my soul to the devil. It was a game with some friends, they said what would you want from life, if you had three wishes. You want fame? Money? And as those wishes started coming true… not because I sold my soul, but just because they happened to be coming true, I started thinking fuck, what was I thinking? All you’ve got to do is… if this was real… wish for happiness. I went through a stage, like I’m sure a lot of people who are focused on their career do, where I was profoundly unhappy. And on paper, man, you cannot paint a more amazing picture, so it was like, what? You start thinking, to put it into perspective, about movie stars that are suicidal, and you’re like what the fuck is wrong with you guys? But no matter what, happiness is not something you can plan, or you can find. It just needs to happen. And so, I met the woman who became my wife and then I had children. I had no idea I was ever going to accomplish this, that I was going to find a woman and settle down, but your perspective shifts so much. And you know, right now, I’ll tell you legacy-wise, I want to leave a legacy that my kids are not embarrassed by. Already at some point, I have to confront myself with the reality that “Dad did porn.” It’s something that I just want to make sure they’re not embarrassed by it. And that means I’m going to keep trying to do projects that hopefully transcend what pornography is typically associated with.
So, that’s the legacy I hope to leave behind. And you know I’ve always said I was going to retire at 50, my whole life, and after 50 I was like “fuck, there’s these movies I want to make!” It’s not a financial decision. I really want just to make them. And this is something I haven’t announced yet, but I’m planning “Daredevil.” I haven’t watched the Netflix one yet, even though I know it’s great. I don’t want it to influence me. I really want to go after the comics version. This is a story I say many times… my dad was best friends with a guy who was the Italian distributor of Marvel and DC comics, so as a kid I had full collections of all these old series, two each: one to keep and one to read. So, I’m obsessed with comics. And of course, I eventually stopped reading comics, but what it did for me is I’m very attached to the Silver Age. And there’s some characters I want to bring to life, that are really funny. The mainstream watches our stuff and is interested in what we do to a degree you wouldn’t believe. I mean, when I did “Spiderman XXX,” I used Electro as the villain and they already had three Spiderman movies and it’s just god, Electro is awesome… and sure enough, three years later, here’s Electro. And no way it’s because “Axel Braun did this” but the fact that there’s an Electro somewhere gets people thinking, gets people paying attention.
And you know, I’ve been contacted by directors, producers, screenwriters of movies that I parodied, with nothing but “oh my god this is so great, but before you read this email, read the disclaimer at the end, which says you cannot repeat what I said to anyone.” And then they go on to say “this is so cool!” Because you know what? I am extremely respectful to the source material. Look, there’s many different ways to parody a movie. Like I said, I don’t discriminate. Everybody does their own thing. I watch some of the parodies and go “oh my god.” And I’m sure there’s stuff that’s plenty successful I would never do. The different approach to parodies, look at me and Will Ryder, we are at two completely different ways of approaching this. If I tried to make one of my parodies the way he does, my fans would crucify me. But at the same time, if he did one of his the way I do, it’d be the same thing. We have a different fan base. There’s something to be said for people who just want to be like “oh hahaha, look how funny that looks.” At the karaoke bar you can be the guy who’s a train wreck, who’s so entertaining because it’s completely out of tune and he’s falling off the stage, he’s having a great time, or you can be the guy who’s like “oh my fucking god this guy should be a recording artist.” So these two things just appeal to different targets of people. But it’s really funny and I’m friends with Will, so it’s not like he tries to do “Star Wars XXX.” He tries to do exactly what he’s doing. He works in this way, and there’s an audience for that, that’s different from mine. So, there you have it.