Writing for the Blue Screen
The first rule of writing is to write what you know. This either means that fast-food delivery personnel across Los Angeles are the luckiest men in the world or that porn screenwriters are breaking the first rule of writing. It is probably the latter, and that is because screenwriting for porn follows a different set of rules.
It's cliché to deride porn's scripts in the same way it's fashionable to dismiss awards for acting in adult movies. But while it is a disservice to porn to make it play by the rules of mainstream fare — for budget reasons, if for no others — we will see that porn scripts face their biggest challenges when attempting the quality of the least Hollywood script.
This makes it difficult for screenwriters who know the expectations but who stalk the elusive quality porn script regardless; the script that seamlessly blends the required sex with a compelling reason to have it.
"I know that I can write the best porn script in the world and it will still be judged below the lowest piece of Hollywood crap," said director Eli Cross, whose "Corruption" (written with Alvin Edwards) won the Best Screenplay prize at this year's AVN awards. The grim tale of the moral unraveling of a U.S. Senator also picked up numerous acting awards from adult outlets, with Cross routinely recognized as Best Director.
Writing often seems at odds with the goals of porn producers, who strive to deliver as much sex as possible. Managers of several Los Angeles-area video stores interviewed for this story reported that their Top 10 rentals were all all-sex titles, with couple's movies like Digital Playground's "Pirates" down on the list.
Sales of scripted porn movies are far brisker on the Internet, said Ron Austin, buyer for Inglewood's Wildcat Distributors. "The stores are still the home of the raincoat boys," he said, "and they look for theme or girl or sex act, not script.
"People who come to the stores are obviously the ones who are not too embarrassed by it," he said. "But even people who want the tamer Wicked Pictures products tend to go online, as do the people who want the really nasty stuff we can't sell in stores due to local ordinances."
Purveyors of scripted materials also have to contend with the emerging pay-per-scene or, even more threatening, pay-per-minute video-on-demand markets. But that doesn't mean porn's screenwriters will be out of a job.
"The feature isn't dead," said Vivid Entertainment veteran Paul Thomas, whose feature "Debbie Does Dallas ... Again" recently won top honors at Berlin's Venus Fair, "but it doesn't have the market share it once did."
Further, fetish style-maker Ernest Greene, who directed last year's "O: The Power of Submission" for Adam & Eve Pictures, points out that "every new technology and format convinces people of the death of the old ones, but that isn't always true."
So if the feature isn't dead and most studios, for reasons of prestige, boredom or genuine interest, aren't planning to give them up, what are the secrets of a successful porn script? The most important is that a porn script is a different animal than a mainstream script, a play, an infomercial or a Power Point presentation; it is a genre unto itself.
"We ask, 'How does the sex find its way into this movie?'" "Upload" co-writer Edwards said. The science-fiction script called for a cast of more than 40, and the film was almost a month in production. "'What does the sex reveal about the characters?' 'How do we make sex and the story one and the same, where a deficit of one will mean the deficit of another and vice versa?'"
Edwards said that the reported $375,000 "Upload" budget helped preserve the creative elements that would otherwise get stripped away from a standard porno with a budget of $30,000.
"The money made it happen," Edwards said.
Indeed, Paul Thomas' AVN acceptance speech for 1996' "Bobby Sox" thanked the money as much as the actors.
"If the right people had the right budgets, as I did here, there would be more great movies," he said.
As a large percentage of today's porns are gonzos with setups as limited in length and character development as the snippet that opened this story, many performers would rather not be bothered with dialogue.
"I show up on set and of course my agent hasn't told me that there's dialogue," said one female performer known mostly for gonzo roles but who lately has been showing up in features. "So I'm not motivated to learn lines; it's not like I'm being paid any more for it."
The actress, who chose to remain anonymous, makes a good point. She can earn just as much money in a gonzo with no dialogue, where she will be in and out, as it were, in a few hours, and possibly even make it to another shoot the same day, as compared to doing a feature that would require her to turn down other work.
Performers are paid by the blowjob, or the double penetration, or the race of their partner. These are notated as BJ, DP and interracial on the various adult talent-booking sites. Not one mentions dialogue. Since performers are not paid to act in this most capitalist of businesses, it is not incredible that they don't.
"So sometimes, when I know it's a feature, I conveniently get sick," the actress said (and this is why she chose to remain anonymous), "and shoot web content instead."
"You have to think of the performers as dollie heads," said award-winning director Gazzman, production manager of London's Harmony Films. "You're never sure if someone isn't going to be there on the day of filming, so you need to make the parts as interchangeable as possible."
Cross echoes this sentiment almost to the exact wording (except the American says "doll" rather than "dollie"). "One consideration when writing the script is being conscious of the real possibility someone won't show up."
Despite comparatively huge (for porn) budgets for "Corruption" and this year's "Upload," Cross still contended with the no-shows and flakes ubiquitous in the porn industry. "You can have someone locked and then suddenly she'll get a boyfriend who only wants her to do girls," Cross said. "So there goes your anal scene."
This does not happen in Hollywood, where actors would do double or even triple anal scenes if the money was right.
Porn scripts, once written on doomed napkins the day of filming, are now computerized. Some even make it to the cast before the shoot.
"But it's not like they courier it over," said the actress.
Even though many porn screenwriters type their scripts into Hollywood-standard screenwriting programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic (and Cross and Edwards used the Hollywood term "pink pages" to describe one part of the revision process, which is understandably ambiguous in their chosen industry), most feature porn scripts are 15-to-20 page affairs saved in Microsoft Word.
"I write it down and have my secretary type it up," said industry veteran Roy Karch, whose "Insertz" feature script ran to nine pages and was filmed in one day, along with most of another movie. "There were sex scenes going on all over the house."
But most feature directors bemoan the limited budgets and tight deadlines of a studio system afraid of breaking the formula of five to six sex scenes in a movie — in which one needs to be girl/girl and another needs to be anal.
"I know a lot of people who end up putting their own money into their movies [directed for other studios]," said "O"'s Greene, "Just so they can retain a semblance of honesty to the script."
Jim Powers makes movies for Sin City and JM Productions. Most are filmed in a day. "I know there are limitations," he said, "and I work within them."
Powers, who is a prolific moviemaker, is representative of porn's writer/directors who aren't aspiring to great art.
"Porn is what it is," he said on the set of a MILF movie. "Guys watch porn for five to seven minutes at a pop, then hide the DVD, then watch it the next day. I guess your dialogue needs to fit in there somewhere."
One way to handle dialogue that actors don't want to learn and that directors don't have time to direct is by layering on a blanket of voiceovers.
"It's a shortcut to at least approaching an effective narrative," said Rebecca Gray, who wrote the script for Vivid's "Seven Deadly Sins" with Ren Savant. "If you can't get actors where you want them to be, you can solve a lot of problems with a voiceover."
Gray recalls hiring out of work Hollywood voice talent for several films for this purpose. "They charge less than porn actors," she said, "and they're motivated to do a good job because a voiceover is the most anonymous thing you can do in porn and still get to brag about being in porn. It's all the glory with none of the consequences."
And as Hollywood has a fascination with porn, so does porn relentlessly attempt to go Hollywood. Wicked Pictures is the most earnest of the Hollywood wannabes, with director/writer/contract girl Stormy Daniels churning out high-gloss porn versions of Hollywood movies, most recently "Operation: Desert Stormy," a hybrid of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the "James Bond" and the "Austin Powers" series. The budget was reportedly $250,000, which Wicked used for screening parties, creative swag boxes for press, and both an airplane and a live camel in the movie.
Daniels, like Paul Thomas before her, maintained that the money was essential to the success of the movie. "This is an expensive movie because it needs to be expensive," she said on the first day of shooting.
Most of the writers and directors interviewed for this story highlighted workarounds like voiceovers and interchangeable characters, and each mentioned money as integral to the success of a feature. Working independently of studios, or working as autonomously as possible within studios, was also considered a plus.
"I appreciate the freedom Wicked gave me," Daniels said.
And it was only when constraints of time and budget were relaxed that some felt they could do their best work.
"We had money, so we could buy time," Edwards said. "And with the time, Eli [Cross] could direct, and the actors didn't have six other sets to go to that day."
"And we had people on set who weren't 'feature' types," Cross added, "who hadn't had the opportunity to do a lot of acting in porn before." Here Cross mentioned Eva Angelina, who he said not only auditioned (this is what a $375k budget buys) but also "did a brilliant job."
Another porn cliché is that of the failed artist who cannot get work anywhere else but who succeeds in porn as the smartest monkey in the zoo. This is the theme of Karch's "Insertz" and also serves as a cautionary tale to screenwriters writing for their employers and not their audience.
"Porn has become more acceptable to educated people," said Wayne Hentai of Hentai Public Relations, a marketing firm for porn companies and personalities. "The Internet has made porn safe for women and couples who don't want to go into the dirty bookstores. But they come to the picture with higher expectations."
Hentai mentioned misspelled box-covers and movies with boom shadows and offstage banter in them.
"You can put on airs and talk about Nabokov all you want in your porn movie," Hentai said. "But if you can't get your lead actress to pronounce 'Lolita' properly, the jig's up."
Karch said porn movies need to be simple. "You need the hot girl, and everything else is just you winking at the camera. But the viewer is looking at the hot girl."
Everyone agrees that the porn script is its own thing; it has a structure particular to it. Whether that structure is populated with five or six simple setups and sex scenes or if it is, like "Upload," a film Edwards calls "a porn movie for sci-fi geeks, complete with a lexicon on disc four," the structure has to compel viewers beyond those five to seven minutes.
And the script is as important an investment as a perfect under-the-muscle boob job (though porn scripts are far less expensive).
Justin Kane, the writer/director of this year's comedy "Spunk'd: The Movie," shopped around the treatment of his "Punk'd" parody to several studios but couldn't get the budget he wanted. So investors who also happened to be friends put up $90,000 for the project and Kane wouldn't have it any other way.
Kane said that writing the script presented challenges one would not encounter in Hollywood.
"You'd think that writing a group sex scene would just be about the choreography, right?" he asked. "But each performer is contracted for a certain thing, so I can't have somebody get anal who was only hired for a blowjob, or I'd get their agents mad. I had to be precise in writing who got what and where. A cock in the wrong place would have meant the difference of hundreds of dollars."
» This article originally appeared in the December, 2007 issue of XBIZ Video Magazine.