Crafting Blockbusters

John Stuart
The movie "Pirates" had a budget rumored to be in the million-dollar range. That a company like Digital Playground would risk that kind of money on a single title was news. That "Pirates" scored such a major sales success was an industry earthquake.

The profit turned by "Pirates" is merely the extreme example of a trend in adult moviemaking, away from the safe, quick-and-dirty gonzo features and toward fully scripted titles with exotic locations, special effects and expensive pyrotechnics.

Is it working? The number of studios currently producing "blockbuster" or "epic" movies answers that question with a resounding "yes."

Digital Playground currently is in production on "Pirates II," the sequel to their mega-hit.

"The budget is bigger than the first one," said Joone, who is directing and producing the feature once again. "We're looking at a release date of fall 2008."

Other companies have jumped on the bandwagon, and while the budgets for those movies are well under the million-dollar mark set by "Pirates," they qualify as blockbusters just the same.

Making a blockbuster adult movie requires special steps that resemble mainstream moviemaking, and all directors agree that it always starts on paper.

"The script comes first," Joone said. "That gives you what the movie is going to be. I look for subject matter that I like and want to explore. Year to year that will change. I write my own scripts because as a director you know what you're trying to do. You have the vision, and you're just trying to create that story. It's much more of a personal movie if you write it."

Like Joone, virtually all the directors of epic adult films write their own scripts, because that gives them better control of the project. Brad Armstrong, who directed "Conquest," claims he writes the scripts for about 90 percent of the movies he makes.

"I'm not one to waste time writing, because I hate writing," Armstrong said. "There's no point for me to write a 60-page script if we're not going to do the movie, so I like to at least get the green light from the studio first before I start writing. There's nothing worse than writing a 60-page script and having the studio production chief say, 'It's a nice script, but I don't want to spend $150,000 on it.'"

James Avalon, a seasoned director of epic adult movies – his "Les Vampyres" debuted for Metro in 2001 – believes the subject matter is the key first ingredient in writing a script.

"If it's subject matter that interests no one, it's not going to do anything," he said. "I tend to look for something very different from what other people are doing. I tend to shy away from spoofs, because as soon as you start a spoof it becomes very predictable. Unless you're really clever, spoofs don't tend to do very well."

Avalon said that he came up with the concept for "Les Vampyres" when an actress suggested he do "something gothic." He began viewing vampire movies, and rather than going for lots of blood, he chose the erotic route, writing about women who seduced men and killed them.

He maintained his tendency toward "different" subject matter with "Dark Side," the $150,000 blockbuster released by Red Light District. The female lead, played by Penny Flame, played a woman who became stuck in an alternate reality.

"I don't have time to sift through hundreds of scripts," Avalon said. "That's the reason I write most of my own scripts for the movies I direct. I aim to combine something that interests me with something no one else has done."

Virtually all the other directors have a similar approach, writing with a specific purpose in mind and a set of rules to follow.

"I try to make sure there are good story arcs, character arcs, and good first, second and third acts," Joone said. "For dialogue, I tend to write for the people who are going to be playing the characters."

"In writing the script," adds Armstrong, "I try to make the movie as real as I possibly can. Then you have to have something on top of the story – eye candy – that makes it a blockbuster. You have to show the budget money on the screen in one way or another, whether it's special effects, costumes, loads of extras, pyrotechnics or whatever. You've got to show the money on screen, to justify why you're spending $100,000-plus.

"My biggest budget movie to date was $200,000, and the average blockbuster is in the $150,000 range. The budget doesn't always mean everything. 'Coming Home' was well received, and it cost only about $110,000. Money helps, but it's not as important as story and art direction. If you don't see the money on screen, chances are you had to spend it on time, which isn't good.

"In general, like 'Pirates,' you need to have that really big bang for your buck in terms of eye candy. That's what makes a movie epic. Other than that, you need an interesting story that is as much like a mainstream movie as you can shoot it."

Once a script is in place, the next important step is casting. Directors tend to work with actors who've worked with them before and proven their reliability.

"I actually cast my movies while I write them," Armstrong said. "I know at that point who are going to be my top six people. The secondary characters can be added as you go, but I know who the contract girl is going to be, and who my four major players who'll be talking the most will be.

"Very rarely, I'll have a performer audition. Maybe I'll do it if it's someone new, but I know most of the talent and their abilities. I'll also audition a performer when I'm casting against type, where I know they're this type of player, and I intend to make them do something totally different.

"One of the bonuses of being a contract player myself, is knowing the other contract people backwards and forwards. Among the males, Randy Spears has worked out the best for me. He's the man. He's been a mainstay in the acting part of the business for 10 to 15 years. He's my go-to guy. I definitely write for him.

"For the contract girls, we're lucky to be with Wicked Pictures, because almost every one of our girls can act. They all have their own character specialties. Jessica Drake, Stormy Daniels and Kirsten Price are all fine actresses. Carmen Hart is new, but I think she's one of the best actresses in the business."

For James Avalon, casting is not always an appendage of the writing process.

"I sit down and really think about who can pull this story off," he said. "When I got 'Dark Side,' I'd already shot some gonzo with Penny Flame, and she was a riot to work with. She was fun, smart, and when guys came up with little one-liners, she could top them. She was really witty on the set. She had never done a feature, but I told Red Light that she was perfect to pull off this quirky character I'd written. Red Light had no problem with her, but a couple of other backers complained that she'd never been a lead in a feature. I solved that by having her read lines with some of the cast members."

Avalon believes that personality and on-screen presence are the two most important attributes he seeks while casting a blockbuster.

"They don't need to memorize lines all that well," he said, "but they need to be convincing in what they say and do on screen. Stacy Valentine comes to mind.

She was the lead in 'Red Vibe Diaries.' Sunny Lane is another one with on-screen presence."

Avalon admits that he's used dialogue coaches to help his performers prepare. He claims it allows him to work with the crew setting up lights and such, while the talent sharpens up their performances. He also admits to having used cue cards on set and feeding lines to the actors, "but it always looks like it. We try to cover it up in editing, but it's brutal the way it comes off."

Joone avoids those pitfalls by stressing script readings and rehearsals.

"Sometimes we get it in a couple of takes, and sometimes we go to 20 or 30 takes. I try to make the performers stay in the moment. Sometimes, they need a lot of takes, because they're nervous during the first few takes. They're thinking about the dialogue too much but after a while they forget about the dialogue. Besides, we aren't dealing with pages and pages of dialogue. We shoot dialogue in little chunks and most people can handle little chunks."

Forgetting lines is common on all movie sets, and Brad Armstrong admits that the worst case of mental blank-out that ever occurred in one of his movies, happened with himself.

"I had a scene in 'Coming Home' that we shot late at night, and it was really cold," he said. "I had a lot of lines, more like a monologue, where I had to yell at a guy while I smashed his truck with a baseball bat. I couldn't remember my lines to save my life. It was so frustrating because I was trying to time the smashes between lines I couldn't remember. It was one of those times where the acting was a lot tougher than the sex. But with a little editing, it came out OK."

Armstrong admits to being called "a taskmaster" on his sets, but he's not prone to yelling, as some directors are.

"My crew knows what I expect from them," he said, "and they expect a certain amount of respect from me. There definitely have been a number of directors in the business who were big screamers, but I find that it just annoys everybody and puts everybody on edge."

"If you have to yell and scream," Joone said, "then you're dealing with people who probably shouldn't be working for you."

With the script and cast in place, the next ingredient for making a blockbuster involves finding locations. As it was with casting, many directors choose their locations while writing the script. Brad Armstrong, for instance, writes to specific locations.

"It's a distinct advantage," he said. "The only downside is when you write to a specific location and learn later that location is booked. Then you get your ass handed to you, and you have to either scramble for some place that's similar or you have to rewrite the script."

James Avalon stresses his location choices because they're so important to the overall look of his movies.

"I put together the art department and location scouting," he said. "The vampire movie called for a castle. We knew that even if we found a castle it would be too expensive, so we built a lot of sets.

"The only thing that has prevented me from getting a location I wanted was money. Depending on the show budget, sometimes we can pay more than usual. I've paid $3,500 a day for one location."

Even when working with a huge budget, directors like Joone still have to tighten the belts on location spending. For "Pirates," he had to rent a private yacht in Florida that resembled a pirate ship, which, along with the costs of supporting a cast and crew across the country from his company's L.A. base, became very pricey.

"Even though we're doing a big movie," he said, "we're always trying to keep things on a smaller budget. To get the most bang for your buck, you've got to plan everything out in terms of locations and everything you're going to be using. You write things you know you're going to have access to. If you start blue-skying it, it becomes much more difficult."

Keeping under budget is the sword of Damocles that hangs over all directors. Joone, as both producer and director, is in an especially difficult position, trying on one hand to be as creative as possible while on the other hand trying to save money. And for the directors who do not have a producer title, it's even more difficult.

"I have to keep an eye on staying under budget, because you get chewed out if you're over," Avalon said. "The biggest stumbling block to staying under budget is talent showing up on time, or actually showing up at all."

Brad Armstrong agrees that more is expected of directors on the high-budget pictures.

"When you've got that dollar, you definitely need to make shit happen," he said. "My most painful directing experience was probably my most successful movie, 'Euphoria.' Everything that could go wrong in that movie did go wrong, from people getting hurt to lighting grids falling down and almost killing people. We even lost wheels on our makeup trailers. It was the disaster of the decade and it almost killed me. But it went on to win 13 awards that year."

The next important step on the blockbuster recipe is hiring a crew. Nearly all directors work with the same lighting technicians, cinematographers and assistant directors from picture to picture. Avalon, for instance, uses Ernesto as his director of photography whenever he can get him, "because he has an incredible eye for lighting." Armstrong uses the same crew, whether he's making a big-budget or small-budget movie.

Music is another important ingredient in the blockbuster mix, and some directors stress it, while others leave it up to the editors.

"Music to me is like the soul of the movie," Joone said. "I work really closely with the composer. For every scene, we talk about what I'm trying to do there and what the music should be like. I just want the music to marry well with the picture."

For Armstrong, spending a lot of money on music doesn't make as much sense. He said he uses tunes from a music library, and for the most part leaves the choices to his editors.

It's the editors who make up the last piece of the blockbuster puzzle. Again, the approach that directors take to editing varies widely. Some, like Avalon, give their editors tremendous leeway because having been an editor himself, he knows "he doesn't want me looking over his shoulder."

But to directors like Joone, the editing process is vital.

"I think there are two places you can write a movie," he said. "One is when you write the script and the second is when you're in the editing room. I'm tough in the editing bay. I go through the movie frame by frame to make sure that it's perfect."

And once you make that final cut, you have your blockbuster, ready to be served.