Dana Vespoli is less than 10 minutes into her interview with XBIZ when we are interrupted. Sal, her regular camera operator and photographer, appears in the doorway: “Power’s out on the second floor,” he announces. Vespoli excuses herself and scrambles to text the homeowner.
She returns a short time later, crisis averted; we are on the set of a shoot for Mile High Media’s TransSensual label. Newcomer Khloe Kay is back posing in front of the cameras — her shoot having been interrupted by the power outage — while fellow performers Natalie Mars, Michael Delray and Dante Colle wait nearby, chitchatting, munching on tortilla chips and taking photos of each other for their social media channels.
Life is always there; it’s always happening. When I’m at the boxing gym, when I’m at a function at the kids’ school, I’m watching human interaction happening all around me. That’s what fuels a lot of my stuff. I draw from everything.
Vespoli notes this interview arrives at an opportune moment for career reflection. “My stint at Sweetheart Video has ended,” she reveals. “I shot my last movie for them two weeks ago.” Vespoli had produced, written, directed and occasionally costarred in Mile High’s lauded all-girl line for six years. “It was a good run. Mostly highs, some lows,” she says. “Over the long haul, I was not going to be able to give them what they wanted, given the constraints of what they need. So that’s fair.”
In the meantime, “the trans stuff has been great,” she notes. “I shot some stuff for Red Light District, which is coming back. I’ve been asked to work for different companies. Richard.xxx is a gay site that I started shooting for, which has been really wonderful. The scenes are on the shorter end, but thus far it’s been a good outlet for some of the stuff that I find interesting.”
Vespoli teases a venture that is still in the early stages: a return to self-produced porn. “I’m very excited about it. Sometimes I think I’m too much of a rebel for corporate porn.”
In tracing her evolution as a preeminent adult performer and director — at press time, a press release came across the transom announcing that Vespoli won a 2018 NightMoves Fan’s Choice Award for Best Transsexual Director — a pivotal moment occurred when Vespoli spent a summer with her grandparents as a tween. “I was watching porn secretly when I was twelve,” she says. “There was a cable (service) called ONTV that no longer exists. And they had a channel called Rendezvous. So you’d think ‘Rendezvous’ would be softcore. No. It was old Caballero movies — super-hardcore. That’s where I saw anal sex for the first time. They had movies with Sharon Mitchell, Jamie Gillis, Ron Jeremy. Stuff like that,” she recalls.
“My grandparents went to bed super-early. And I put on cable, by accident one night, and there it was: Rendezvous, and the Caballero voice came on: ‘Caballero Control Corporation. The world’s leader in quality adult entertainment.’ And then it would start! I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. ‘This is amazing! I can’t believe I’m sitting here, watching this!’ My grandparents had no idea. That was the summer of ’84. I watched a shit-ton of porn. I was bummed when I had to go back home.”
However, there was an adult video arcade within walking distance of her family home. “I would just walk in there and ask to watch the loops that they had in the back. And the pervert that they had working the counter would pay for me to watch them,” she recalls. “He was probably getting off on it; at the time, I just thought he was nice. He was probably getting turned on by a 12 or 13-year-old girl watching porn who was not supposed to be in there.”
When she came of age, she eagerly sought out her own porn. An ex had a collection of his own, through which she discovered Seymore Butts and Evil Angel.
Towards the end of her college career, and for a number of years after, Vespoli worked as an exotic dancer at San Francisco’s notorious O’Farrell Theater, owned by Jim and Artie Mitchell of “Behind the Green Door” infamy.
Vespoli had graduated to live girl-girl sex shows in the club’s “Green Door Room,” where the movie had been filmed. She immediately recognized the erotic idols of her youth when they appeared at the club to feature dance. They urged Vespoli to seriously consider a move into adult films. “Marilyn Chambers, I met her and spoke to her,” Vespoli recalls. “Nina Hartley, Kylie Ireland, Teri Weigel, different people like that. I would just talk to them and they would say the same thing: ‘You should just do it. You like it and you do live girl-girl sex shows. You clearly don’t have many inhibitions.’”
Vespoli, however, was already thinking of herself as a director. “I didn’t think about (performing) much. At the time, I had discovered Radley Metzger and had seen really, truly artistic porn. John Leslie, too, with his natural light. It was beautiful to watch. And the idea of actually making interesting, erotic pornographic movies was something I was tossing about in my head.”
“I’m voyeuristic,” she states. “I like watching. But I knew the common thread among John Leslie, John Stagliano, Joey Silvera and Seymore Butts was that they performed. I was already interested in performing and I realized it was a way to acclimate and just to get in the business. So I started performing when I moved to Los Angeles.”
In her first month, Vespoli shot with Randy West, for Evil Angel, as well as Ed Powers and TT Boy. “ ‘Randy West! Remember when you did that scene with Tori Welles?’” Vespoli laughs, unapologetic about her fangirl status.
Vespoli recalls she performed consistently for about eight months and then felt compelled to take a break. “I didn’t have the constitution that some of these girls had. I came in at a time when the scenes were extremely aggressive. Today, we shoot 25-30 minutes of sex. At the time, it was 50-60 minutes of uninterrupted, very aggressive, borderline violent sex. That was the style at the time. Everything was anal-everything. It was an onslaught,” she recalls. “And I was booked daily. I approached it like an athlete. I’d walk in there and my adrenaline would be going. It was a different kind of energy than it is now. Now, it’s more sensual and more connected. But back then? Choking, slapping, smacking, aggressive, aggressive, aggressive. After about eight months, my body just needed a break. I was in the gynecologist’s office every month getting treated for something. I come from a sports background and I realized that if I kept this up, I could get hurt.”
She moved to France for a short time and wrote articles for a French magazine called Hot Video. She returned in August of 2005 and began performing again; in January 2006, she directed her first film.
As a performer, “I was known for anal,” she said. “Some of it was my butt; I was known for having a big butt and just being able to take a lot. It’s what became my – I don’t know if you’d call it a trademark, because everyone was doing anal – my butt was popular, I guess. God bless it. If that’s the thing, I’ll bring my butt to set with me, in case people need it. That was my attitude.”
One of the last “really crazy scenes” she filmed was with Adriana Chechik for a showcase directed by Jonni Darkko. “I showed up to set and Chechik said, ‘Did you know I can’t find your gape anywhere online? I was looking. I couldn’t find your gape.’”
Darkko, for whom Vespoli had filmed many scenes, commented that she was less known for having a trick, like gaping, than she was considered a performer who was revered for being able to simply take a lot. In any case, “I felt offended! ‘I gape, Adriana! I know I have! Just go watch a Mike Adriano scene, it’s there!’”
Vespoli sees the aggressiveness of the time as a reaction to the star-powered Vivid era. “Girls with big silicone implants and big hair and everything looked sterile. Very pretty, and very sterile. You didn’t see a lot of fluids, slobber coming out of the mouth,” she says. “The blowjobs would look very performed. Sometimes, through that, you would see stuff that looked real. Christy Canyon’s stuff, for example. She was very into it.”
When the next shift occurred, in the early 2000s, “You saw more natural bodies,” Vespoli says. “You’d see girls with flat chests, you’d see natural-looking girls doing sex that was very — we call it gonzo — but you saw everything. Things got rougher and more aggressive. And it sold. So they just made more of them. And more of them, and more of them. And what happens is — the tendency is to want to outdo, or out-fuck, the last scene.”
Vespoli recalls a conversation with John Leslie during this time. “‘I don’t know what more these girls can do,’” he said. “ ‘I don’t know what comes after this.’” What came next, she says, was “a renaissance of romance, but deeper than that: more seduction, less wall-to-wall and more story-based.”
Vespoli cites writer-director Nica Noelle as “an innovator” of this new style. “It’s a hard thing to do, and she mastered it,” Vespoli says. “She would do these things that felt uncomfortable (to the performer) — these long pauses and lingering looks — where the tension felt palpable for the person watching it. She would force these moments. It’s uncomfortable and it’s weird — and it’s hot. That’s where things had shifted.”
When she began filming for Sweetheart Video, Vespoli focused on building and maintaining that kind of tension and connection. “That’s what made Sweetheart what it was and differentiated it from everyone else,” she says. “We’ve gotten away from that from time-to-time, but it’s something important to try and get out of people where you can.”
She describes directing adult films as “recognizing the strengths and limitations of your performers. These are not trained actors out of the Strasberg studio — well, most of them,” she notes.
“Most of them bring something to the table that makes them unique and you have to keep that in mind. It’s a slippery slope. You can over-direct and then you’ve lost everything. You’ve got performers who are not responsive to it and they don’t like the way they feel — and we are all here for the sex. If you’ve mentally screwed them to the point that the sex is suffering, it’s not worth it.”
“If it’s Romi Rain and Small Hands, I’m going to direct it differently than if it’s a brand-new girl and a brand-new guy — although, I would never put two brand-new people together! But you approach it differently,” she says, warming up to the topic. “You can look at Romi and Small Hands and give them all the key points and they get it right away. Some of that comes from being seasoned professionals. But they just understand; they have a knack for it. They’re very intuitive. It doesn’t happen very often. Kenna James was like that; she just came in and she understood (what to do). Celeste Star was brilliant. She was a brilliant actress and stunningly beautiful and just naturally funny; she could do everything. She was a girl-girl only performer. Pierce Paris is another one. Pierce understands everything. He knows where the light is; he pays attention.”
Vespoli has developed a theory: she feels the most natural and compelling performers in adult have run a few laps around the block. “A lot of this comes from people who have lived in the world,” she says. “They’ve had to work. They come in and they understand that they need to pay attention to things and that they need to evolve and improve and get better. There are some people that don’t and it’s because they don’t take porn seriously, even though it’s their primary career. They don’t take it seriously. But others, they’ve worked; they’ve lost jobs, gotten jobs based on whether they’re paying attention and taking their jobs seriously.”
She cites Casey Calvert as “a great example” of bringing life experience to her adult work. “She worked as a professional mermaid in Florida. All of that plays into something. That will inspire me. So I had her as a mermaid in ‘Fluid 2’ for Evil Angel. She brought her tail from Florida and she knew how to swim underwater.”
Vespoli emphasizes her goal is to capture an elusive spark of connection between performers.
“I want to find those spontaneous moments that make the sex real. Whether they laugh a little bit or they get tangled up, these little snafus that happen make the sex feel genuine. I’m never going to tell (performers) to raise their energy, I never tell them to talk more. Some people are quiet; some are talkers. You’re looking for that intensity. So when the sex starts, and it’s going well, unless someone’s just closed off so you can’t see anything — ‘Stay in character, but just angle yourself a bit more diagonally’ — you just let them be.”
“If it’s gay scene, once we’ve established penetration, I don’t need to see it constantly. I know it’s there, I believe it’s happening. So when the guys close up and they’re tight together, that tells me they want to be close to each other. And I’m more concerned with that.”
Vespoli is looking forward to upending current porn tropes with her forthcoming work. For example, she goes off on a tear about the current definition of a “MILF” in today’s adult landscape. “I love Cherie DeVille. I don’t think of her as a MILF. I think of her as a career woman. She looks like she could be in her 20s! I think of Cherie as a young professional, in the same way I think of ‘Sex and the City’ — I never thought of Carrie Bradshaw as a MILF. But she would be! They would all be MILFs! I still have a problem with it and what it means and casting for it. There’s not a lot of options for realistic-looking MILFs. They don’t look like mature women. Some of the characters these women play don’t even have kids, and they’re supposed to be MILFs. It’s tricky.”
She also has opinions about the explosion of so-called “fauxcest” porn.
“I wonder if people just need an outlet where they can be bad,” she muses. “It’s possible they want a person that can never really leave them. That’s one of the things that I think about. I would be interested to know if this blowup of ‘fauxcest’ porn coincides with this over-saturation of devices and people being disconnected.”
“Fauxcest has always been a thing,” she notes, “but it blew-the-fuck-up around the time people started tuning out and tuning in to these devices. I don’t think most of these people actually want to fuck their moms or dads. But maybe they want to fuck a mother figure or a father figure or a sibling that has their back. I think it might actually be sweeter than we think it is. We don’t work in literal terms in this industry; we work in figurative terms. I think that might be what it is.”
What fuels Vespoli is an abiding interest in human nature and in exploring how and why her fellow human beings — her Twitter bio reads “person and human” — chose to follow what drives them. It is what continues to motivate her despite the demands of being a working mother — she has three pre-tween children — and a self-employed writer, producer, director and performer.
“There is no balance,” she says. “Sometimes I pick my kids up from school and I get a (work) call. I put them in the car and I stand outside the car and I (return) the call.”
“Life is always there; it’s always happening. When I’m at the boxing gym, when I’m at a function at the kids’ school, I’m watching human interaction happening all around me. That’s what fuels a lot of my stuff. I draw from everything. I pay attention; I’m an observer. I always have been; I listen to people. I see people. I watch movies, listen to music. I read books. And I pay attention — there’s always something. I overhear a conversation and it find its way into something I’ve written. I see two people having an interaction and I guess what’s going on (between them) and it becomes a scenario. Friends tell me things. I experience things or explore things. I’m an eternal student, forever. I’m always learning.”