Make no mistake — Thomas, in his own words, has "got it made" in this industry. He has nothing left to prove, no one left to impress and no taboo left to challenge, yet as an artist there are still any number of original scenes to shoot, complex relationships to examine and scintillating stories to be told. As you can imagine, retirement isn't even on the radar.
But Thomas' radar works well, and the veteran director continues to track the latest industry trends in marketing communications as well as production technology. As he speaks he is at first distracted, then talkative, initial sighs and lapses being gradually replaced by anecdotes about sexual archetypes and old-time porn directors.
XBIZ spoke with Thomas in October.
XBIZ: Any serious porn fan, and everyone in this business, knows you and your work. And I know that you're a Hollywood-style, not a Valley-style, director, so I will skip the camera questions and…
PAUL THOMAS: Good. I don't like looking through a lens. I like being out there with the actors, directing. I compare myself to Anthony Spinelli, the old-time director, but there are so many people I've learned from. Handling a camera is a valuable skill, and sure I can pick one up and get shots but it's just not the way I work.
XBIZ: I would wager that no contemporary director's body of work has a larger proportion of film than yours. But now you're shooting mostly digital video, like everyone else. Why?
THOMAS: The marketplace dictates the need, and it doesn't reward the added cost for using film. I just finished the latest in the "Devil in Miss Jones" series and did it on video. That exercise pretty much dictates that film is dead in porn. Pretty soon the only time film will be used anymore will be if there are contractual obligations to use it for some reason.
XBIZ: Does video look good enough to make us forget the rich, saturated look of color film?
THOMAS: It all looks clear and crisp and great, and you can use filters in post. You know, I love the magic of film but what I gain from video is spontaneity, lower cost of production and real immediacy.
XBIZ: Throw some "cine-look" filters at it and you've got a "film" then, right?
THOMAS: When I shoot video, I don't want to make it look like a film. I am just not worried about shooting 32p or whatever it is. For most people I am damn positive that it doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference if you use a little $50 video camera or a big pricey thing, because they just want to see what they want to see.
XBIZ: Let's follow up on that a little, on what people are seeing today from porn producers. As a storyteller, how do you get any point across in porn, when its entire raison d'être is to show sex — period.
THOMAS: I think the same rules apply to porno as to any art form. If an art form — a gonzo flick or, God forbid, a Picasso painting — has that feeling of heart and originality, and the person who did it was in the moment, you notice it. It's all about whether or not you can feel authenticity in the work. What has happened in porn is that amateurs, on any given day, can capture magic, most often without even knowing it. That's what the technology gives to every cholo hanging out on the corner in East L.A. So his video has some real magic to it, most often unintentional, and then he gets a call from Vivid or Larry Flynt asking him to do five of those a month. All of a sudden this cholo needs to recreate that magic. And he can't.
XBIZ: And no one can really tell him how, right?
THOMAS: Whatever works, works. Look, you capture a moment by approaching the actors a certain way, setting things up just so, and getting some truth out of that — with spontaneity and honesty. A lot of times the viewers want to see the same thing, the same routine, but you have to have more ways than one to do it to stay even remotely original.
XBIZ: Of course, a porn flick can be a great porn flick and a lousy "movie," meaning the story and sets and production values are not quite up to par. Of course, neither are the budgets. But regardless of budget, aren't there some examples of good porn movies with hot sex that are good films, too?
THOMAS: Of course there are. Still, there's art and there's craft. On the craft side, I can continue producing my brand of McDonald's for years, but the inspired and inspirational pieces — the art — will come just a couple of times a year. I know I can't do those every month, so I don't over-think things, I just do what I need to do until I get going on another inspirational thing.
XBIZ: Every year or two now, we are told by some cabal of producers that their new film is the first successful marriage of porn and Hollywood. We've heard that since 1973's "Last Tango in Paris," in fact. What about the recent X-rated movie "Shortbus?"
THOMAS: Well, "Shortbus" was just not particularly well done. This Hollywood-merges-with-porn thing, it's just not going to happen and it's mainly because of the talent, not the studios. If you had dream talent doing a porno film, even if there were no professional or commercial repercussions, the audience expectations would be deadly. Here's why: Once Meryl Streep is sucking Jack Nicholson's cock the whole mind thing and the whole vibe changes, and that becomes the point of the film. I mean, you can't have a karate fight in the middle of "As Good as It Gets" and ever hope to get back to the original story. And hardcore sex changes the vibe of a piece more than anything, and after it appears the story needs to be about the sex, the fallout from it or whatever. Sex changes everything.
XBIZ: It sounds like you're staying busy, making the movies, doing interviews, promoting the product. It doesn't leave much time to be bored, does it?
THOMAS: At any given moment I can be bored of anything. When I get bored or pissy, that's when I can get a little standoffish in interviews. It goes in cycles and I try to be available as much as possible. Interviewers are really better off when I have lots of time and everyone's prepared, because when I am not into it, it doesn't work. I gave a terrible, pissy interview to a guy from Israel recently because he wasn't prepared and didn't know what he wanted to ask.
XBIZ: Hey, at XBIZ we always know what to ask, because it all springs from one simple thing: What do our readers — the adult entrepreneurs, financiers, executives, actors, directors, producers, fans and even wannabes — need to know? For instance, what's the story on your latest projects?
THOMAS: As far as projects go, I always have a big one coming up or two smaller ones. When I'm not producing one of the four big projects of the year, we try to construct videos to fit into niches better. Like, someone looking for other men's wives, they'll see my films more readily because we design them to get in those niches, those popular little categories, and they don't change. There are only so many archetypes, from the Jungian viewpoint, only so many angles to take. Steve Hirsch really helps me keep it simple and keep my films geared toward specific sexual archetypes.
XBIZ: Well, of course. Jungian archetypes. On another subject, I was noticing on your IAFD page your steady run of awards for over 25 years. That must be satisfying, right?
THOMAS: Awards are cool and I've won a lot of them, but I don't think about them anymore. I've got it locked now so I don't need any more awards to get me established, but they can be very important to newcomers and can really change your career.
XBIZ: Career pressures, personal goals, balancing the art and the craft — how do you keep it all straight? And after a long and successful career, what's ahead for you?
THOMAS: I don't want to invest the best energy of the final years of my life into just anything. I want to do my film work as a top professional, of course, but the greatest things in my life I want to give to family and friends. I am good enough now that I can do what I do professionally without giving every single project my life and my heart. It helps keep the priorities straight.