"I couldn't begin a career today the way I did in the mid-1990s," she said, "because the studios, like they did in Hollywood, have gobbled everything up."
Her latest production, "The Phantom of the Porn Stage," begins shooting this month, and she'll be collaborating with actors, a production team and investors she's known for years. The high-budget couples film is representative of her work, which she describes as "solid journeyman filmmaking with an actual beginning, middle and end."
She also will burn down most of the soundstage for the film's climax.
"I'm a feature director," James told XBiz. "And I can't imagine doing anything else in this industry. What are gonzos but more expensive compilation tapes?"
James rarely gives interviews and is head-scratchingly free of the bombast characteristic of many porn directors. "My career has mostly involved flying under the radar," she says from the beach near her Marina del Rey, Calif., home.
Flying is how James entered the entertainment industry. Her father, Frank Tallman, was a stunt pilot who took the family to California from Chicago for the filming of the early Clint Eastwood movie "Lafayette Escadrille" in 1957. When her parents split up, James divided her time between her mother's home in New Jersey and her father's in Palos Verdes, Calif.
On The Set Early
Spending time on movie sets with her father cemented her desire to make movies herself. In 1966, while visiting the set of George Roy Hill's "Thoroughly Modern Millie," James remembers thinking: "This is the coolest fucking thing I've ever seen. I need to be here."
"My father was intimidating," James said. "He was the best there was." Her father died in a plane crash on a low-visibility flight in 1978. With a little money from her father and what she could raise on her own, James began shooting her own "student" films.
George Roy Hill, who had been a Marine pilot, used James' father in several movies, including the aerial scenes of 1975's "The Great Waldo Pepper." James was an assistant to Hill on this film and even shot second unit photography for some of the stunt sequences.
James would work with Hill for three years, eventually leaving to shoot documentaries and commercials, she said. She also excelled at "packaging," locating funding for independent films — often with foreign investors — outside of the studio system.
"I would shop movies around with B-grade actors and pick up a few hundred thousand here or there," she said, finding success pitching Sean Young movies to German and Japanese venture capitalists, "and when I wasn't selling movies, I was selling electronics or working as a grip or gaffer, makeup artist, sound technician or a caterer."
James' entrance to the porn world came in the mid-1990s, when she said the packaging business dried up for her. "I figured if I could get one million dollars from overseas investors, how difficult would it be to get two million? Well, it was impossible to get that extra million, and my production manager at the time suggested we get into porn with the money we had left."
So James, who had spent her early years (she gives her age as "too old") in the mainstream movie industry with her father and the likes of Hill, took what she knew of the business and hoped to apply it to pornography.
This is when she learned that Hollywood is often mistaken when it thinks it can go slumming in Porn Valley. Now, after nine years of making features, she said: "So many people from Hollywood come into the porn business and go down in flames — well guess what, motherfucker? It ain't that easy."
For example, while the average American might not know the difference between a grip and a gaffer, James was ignorant of one of the porn world's standard positions.
"It was my first movie with [performer] Tyce Bune," James said, "and he's a veteran. He's got big ideas for the shot. He said, 'OK, what do you think about lighting it here and here, then she gets on top of me and we do a reverse cowgirl?' I said, 'That's a great idea, Tyce.'
"I went to my cameraman and said, 'I don't know what a reverse cowgirl is, but you better go wide.'"
James, who was born a male, underwent sex change surgery in the early 1980s. She is reluctant to mention her original name or the series of decisions gender reassignment required. Her films do not address or feature transsexuality, ("and even that term has different meanings to different people," James said) and she considers her gender a "non-issue."
"I've been a woman longer than most of the women in my movies" is her stock answer.
Because of her early desire to "tell stories," James never veered away from the feature format. She is unapologetic about her films having a similar structure.
"Women are always the leaders in my little corner of the universe," she said. "My films have happy endings, and the conflicts get resolved."
James does not describe her own work in glowing terms, which is not to say she is not proud of it. "I just haven't seen anything original in the porn world in the last 10 years, unless it's the guy who did 'Scuba Sex,'" she said. "But if my work is workmanlike, it also makes money."
A childhood spent partially in suburban New Jersey reveals itself. "I shoot pretty, hopeful shit," she said. "Not (Extreme Associates) Rob Black shit."
But money is where James really sets herself apart. "Most directors don't have a pot to piss in," she said. "They make their movies, collect their few thousand dollars and then sell the movie outright."
James said that she doesn't know if it was her Hollywood-honed business acumen that made owning her films a priority. "My first movie (1997's "Business as Usual") is still making money," James said. "Not a lot but some."
James was among the first crop of porn directors to define the style of Playboy's feature programming, and is proud that "every title I make gets sold and is broadcast." She said that having one company buy limited rights, such as Playboy purchasing worldwide broadcast, leaves room to capitalize on her title in other media, such as VOD.
So James, who for reasons of her own is a reluctant talker, is getting ready to shoot her "umpteenth" movie (not all her films are listed on the Internet Adult Film Database, but she has helmed at least eight features) in locations in downtown Los Angeles.
Her friends are loyal, such as her investment and production partners as well as several actors like Kyle Stone — "I'm having Don Hollywood play an old, sleazy porn producer in 'Phantom of the Porn Stage,'" she joked, "because he's, well, an old, sleazy porn producer."
In reference to Skeeter Kerkove, whom James directed in 2002's "For Your Private Protection" (with Kerkove's estranged wife, Bridgette), James said, "Perfect example; now that guy's an empire."
"But I'm happy making my little movies and getting steady, if small, residuals," she said.
She reflected on the publicity blitz heralding her new movie. "It's like a comeback campaign, but I never left."