Does John Leslie really need an introduction here? He's at once an icon and an iconoclast and one of the most recognizable names in the history of porn. At the IAFD (Internet Adult Film Database) you'll scroll for-freakin'-ever to read all 500-plus performing credits. If you're pressed for time, just scan the list of director credits. There are more than a hundred of those.
This column exists specifically to provide a forum for the voices of our industry's creative vanguard, the directors, and since this month's subject needs no introduction, we'll be able to hear him hold forth a bit longer than usual.
XBIZ spoke with the legendary Leslie in December.
XBIZ: I know you're a musician, and I'm wondering, is it just me or are there just a whole lot of lousy soundtracks in porn flicks nowadays?
JOHN LESLIE: It's pretty bad, pretty bad. I'm an old blues guy, and I know music, but I don't know why it doesn't seem to matter to people anymore. It's hard to explain, but it just seems that in the old days, in some ways, movies lent themselves better to music.
XBIZ: You have done it all — writing, acting, directing, producing — and you've done each of those things in a variety of ways. But today, right now, are you handling your own camera again? And what kind of camera, exactly, are you handling?
LESLIE: I shoot all my own stuff, except the stuff where I am on camera, of course, and I've used an HDV widescreen-format camera since the Brianna movie ("Brianna Love: Her Fine Sexy Self"), but a couple of flicks came out after that — "Fresh Meat 24" and one other one — that were 4:3 because I had some existing material I needed to use and had to keep consistent with the format. But now, with HD and widescreen, I think there is so much technology that it's just hard to stay up on it all.
XBIZ: About the camera, our readers want to know the make and model and the reason you like it, too.
LESLIE: I like the Sony Z1. It's not only a good camera, but it has an audio limiter on it, so it stops that digital clipping that sounds horrible, you know, the distortion. Audio is overlooked most the time now.
XBIZ: You're up on your tech, clearly. With everyone you know, in every nook and cranny of the industry, and your historical perspective, what do have to say on the shape of things in the adult industry?
LESLIE: It's neither original nor profound to say it, but there is just so much product and things are so jaded now. The main thing about making comments, obviously, is that there are a lot of people viewing this stuff and the perspective that I have is not the same as a consumer. But I know what works and I just find that a lot of things are not sexually motivated in movies today, there's sexual activity but no depth, nothing behind the moves. And I just don't believe it.
XBIZ: That would seem to be the job of a director, to make the expectations clear and prepare a way for the actors to use what you have for them in the way of set, setting, script and motivation. I'm sure you don't talk about it with them in quite those words.
LESLIE: I just tell the truth. Like, I'd have talent telling me, "Well, wait a minute, I don't feel like doing anal today," and I'd just tell 'em, "I don't care what you want to do, but do something, and whatever you do, if it's sexually motivated and believable, then I'll believe it, too, and that's what we want on film."
XBIZ: There's plenty of room in that definition of quality porn to get examples of good moviemaking in all the adult genres, from gonzo to features to avant-garde. But porn has always had an inferiority complex, and is a little schizo over the "Is it art?" controversy. What say you?
LESLIE: The whole point of these movies is that people want to believe want they want, enjoy what they like. They leave their minds open for things to work, because their minds want them to believe that they are viewing things that are private, but as more than voyeurs, as if they're involved. People are always looking to connect and relate.
XBIZ: But how can you know if you're ever really filming something that's going to work like that? What makes it possible, in the creation phase?
LESLIE: There's a sense you get when [you're making a movie and] things are working, just like a scene can be so right and natural that it can take your breath away. It's not happening 100 percent of the time, of course, or even half that, because you're working with people who are working a lot — and they get tired and bored, and jaded, too. So you have to get them into the mindset, take them as far away from the mechanical movements, back in their heads to the first time, that first magical and incredibly sexy "first time" feeling. You've got to get as close to the "first time" as possible. That's what I want to look at, that fresh and eye-opening kind of excitement. I think that's what viewers want, too.
XBIZ: How do you script that kind of excitement, though? What isn't going to sound like dialogue?
LESLIE: When I am not in the scene I tell the talent not to "try" to say something during the sex, just let it come out. I am going to do those things that tell the story visually, as director, and I tell the actors, "Just do the sounds that are appropriate and be real, for crying out loud."
XBIZ: You've been known to be something less than real yourself, on the other hand — or perhaps the word is "surreal."
LESLIE: That would be "Drop Sex," back in 1997, where I was even taking the story into an abstract thing. See, if you think about it, the mind becomes very complex and abstract when you are involved sexually, and a lot of unexpected things can happen. "Drop Sex" is a good example of what you can do in an unconventional way, and it even looks like I did it on a non-linear system, which I didn't. But I did make up my own little film looks, and really sweated the production details on it. I think the approach gave the flick an overall sexuality, a total atmosphere of sexuality, even when sex isn't happening on screen.
XBIZ: Let's switch controversies. What about the VOD scare? Is it death for DVDs?
LESLIE: There will always be DVDs and other things for store shelves, and I guess some people like to handle what they buy, but in the future most of your stuff will come in over the net. That will be the way, no question about it. The way people receive information, whether it's news or entertainment, has always been constantly changing. Say you have DSL or cable, a broadband Internet connection, that's hooked up to your TV, and you just go to a menu and search for or type in "John Leslie" and up pops a list of films. I mean, this is already happening somewhat, but I mean when the floodgates open, when we can quickly access porn as easily as HBO. Subscriptions, pay-per-view, free stuff, all of it will be there for the taking. Now, how long will it take for people to acquire those capabilities? Who knows?
XBIZ: Shift gears again and give us the John Leslie viewpoint on the "moral minority," the "religious wrong" (not "right"), the "culture wars." Are we entering another cycle of censorship and persecution?
LESLIE: It's so damn simple, or it should be. I do my thing, and I don't really care what people like or dislike, because they have a choice of viewing or not viewing it — and that's really the bottom line on censorship, that no one is forced to watch anything. So if you don't like it, don't watch it. But these people who are against porn, the anti-porn crusaders, are the kind that will always be against free choice. It's all about blocking information to people, the same mindset as not letting you view certain things on the Internet. Some people just want to control what you read and see, period, and it has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with control. Look, there are always going to be people so insecure that they fear people getting educated.
XBIZ: It is about control, and it's about subjugating people too, which begins with denying those basic rights again — of speech, of property, of action.
LESLIE: No kidding. Marriage is a good example. The so-called sanctity of marriage is a nice metaphor of what is essentially a property settlement. I mean, historically, adultery wasn't a married guy with a single woman, they all did that, and a single woman had no standing to complain about what a man did. It's messing with a married woman that makes for adultery, because she's some other guy's property. So it's not the sex. Adultery was all about property.
XBIZ: You hadn't done a feature for a while, then the Brianna Love flick, and…
LESLIE: I like doing different things, like I did "Lecher 1" and "Lecher 2," and my character would talk to the camera, then I'd have a camera filming me and I would go around and film people on the street having sex and stuff. It's like a magic trick. If you picked a card and put it back in the deck, it'd be nothing special. But if I revealed it in a different manner, if it came out of your pocket or the glove compartment, if it gets revealed differently, then "a ha!" — it's magic. See, it's all in the "reveal."
XBIZ: Lecher movies, the history of adultery, original "reveals," directing gigs. Sounds like life is good for John Leslie.
LESLIE: It is. Of course, there's a problem with the amount of product out there, and we're in a transition to find new ways to sell and distribute it, with lots of different ways to crack that nut. Whatever happens, it's reality that will win out. It always does. That's kind of its definition. So that touchy-feely crap, the phony bullshit like that cliché soft-porn Victoria's Secret BS, forget about it. You have to use your ability and your senses and what you can instill in your performers with your bag of tricks. Anything good takes time and effort, but it can be done.