I’m A Person Who Shoots Porn

A Conversation with Adult Film Director, Dana Vespoli

I first became aware of Dana Vespoli several years ago, when I stumbled upon some videos in which she’d performed. I immediately took notice: who was this girl? She had a quiet, powerful presence that jumped off the screen, and a strange, impenetrable dignity. Not only that, she was fucking beautiful. Intrigued, I researched further and learned she had become a director for a short time before abruptly leaving the industry. I kept an eye out for her in the years ahead, hoping that eventually she’d return as so many “retired” performers do. My reasons were selfish: I wanted to work with her. In 2011, my waiting paid off when Vespoli quietly returned to both performing in and directing adult films. During her six-year hiatus she had married a fellow performer (they have since divorced), and started a family.  She had also been quietly, diligently honing her art to prepare for a return to adult films – on her own terms. Now, as the director of her own line of feature films (for Evil Angel), Dana Vespoli is steadily redefining what it means to be a 21st century pornographer. Here, we discuss why she chose porn as an artistic medium, how she reconciles her feminist beliefs with the often-violent sex depicted in her films, and how she hopes to challenge her audience to evolve along with her. 

Dana Vespoli by Joshua Darling

Nica Noelle: In the last few years you’ve directed some of adult film’s most psychologically compelling features, but when you first came to porn you were known for shooting ‘gonzo,’ (up close, often self-shot style filming) which tends to have little or no storyline. Was this because feature films weren’t in fashion at that time, or were you not as interested in shooting them back then? 

Dana Vespoli: I didn’t have the opportunity to shoot features until I owned my own product. Honestly, it didn’t occur to me shoot a feature until John Stagliano watched my “Love Hurts” movies out of “Combat Zone” and suggested I take one of the vignettes and make it into a full-length movie. After I shot “Forsaken,” I realized that features are where my heart truly lies. I can’t always afford to do them, so I do maybe 3 a year. In the past I had always been a shooter-for-hire, and what the studios wanted me to do was mostly 4-5 scene vignette movies.

NN: In light of the fact that you couldnt follow your own muse, why did you choose adult films as a medium? Why stay in an industry that afforded you so little artistic expression?

DV: Within the framework I was given, I still found things to love. I’m a voyeur—I love to watch and capture intimacy. I quickly found certain elements, and I hoped to find them more often: the real shared intimacy where I feel like I’m shooting something I’m not supposed to. Early on I shot a scene with Michael Stefano and Gianna Michaels. We were in a loft, and I followed them through the space, shooting them as they stopped to make out, then walk and trip over each other, struggling for control and laughing. I could hear pigeons outside, and I felt transported to somewhere in Europe. To this day I call that my Bertolucci scene. I felt carried away in their passion. Even within my restrictions as a shooter-for-hire, I sometimes found these moments—real intimacy. It was such a turn on. I also just love the act of shooting, and of observing people together. Even shitty scenes are fascinating—I always feel like a behavioral anthropologist.

NN: In watching your first lesbian feature, “She’s Come Undone,” I noticed that you pretty much threw the standard “4-5 sex scene porn format out the window. A few sex scenes play all the way through, while others – like your character’s sexual interludes with escort, Romany, in the hotel – are interrupted by your unsettling behavior and Romany’s discomfort with it. Why this departure from what porn viewers have come to expect from sex scenes?

DV: I’m kind of an asshole. I don’t think about what the viewer wants. I’m devoted to the story and follow the story through, in effect letting the characters tell me where they want to have sex. Perhaps it will be my undoing in the industry, but I’m terrible at doing what others expect, or demand, that I do.

I had had a very passionate involvement with a mainstream director who told me a story about hiring a prostitute to live with him for three months while he was on location. His marriage was falling apart, and he was lonely. It inspired the story, and I sat down and wrote the screenplay, and let the sex happen where it made sense to me. When I do features, the story is the most important thing.

NN: So essentially, you were telling a story that happened to contain a sex scene, but your goal was not to get the viewer to jerk off – is that right? Because that was the feeling I had while watching “She’s Come Undone.” I didnt feel turned on by the sex between your character and Romany, because my mind was too engaged on another level. What surprised me is that I was still riveted by the sex and paying close attention to it – I just didnt switch registers; I didnt feel sexually aroused. I think your films introduce the notion that people may, after all, be able to view sex as part of the films overall narrative, and not have to keep excusing themselves to jerk off in the bathroom. As a pornographer, though, does that bother you?

DV:  It doesn’t bother me at all. I have my titles that are easier to fap to: Lesbian, Anal POV, Girl/Boy, and even my Femdom stuff. I know my work is more niche, and I can’t get around that. With my features, I’m just set on telling a story, and perhaps porn isn’t the right place for them. Maybe they are meant to be “X-rated movies” because I’m not trying to turn the viewer on in the classic dirty movie sense, but instead trying to engage them and turn them on in a different way, or in many ways—some of which are challenging, or even upsetting. I come from a place where porn, to me, growing up, represented so much more than just an orgasm. It represented a kind of freedom.

NN: Does the sex itself have narrative value, or do you just let the performers go at it and capture whatever you see? How much directing do you do in terms of the sex, and how much thinking do you do about the sex scenes before you shoot them?

DV:  In my features, the sex illustrates the relationship between the people having sex. Rarely is the sex ever about simply getting off. Or the getting off comes from something deeper than a nice ass or a big dick. In “She’s Come Undone,” it’s all about power with the exception of my scene with Julia Ann, which was sex between our characters during happier times. I minimize the amount of actual sex directing I have to do by finding performers that I believe can play the parts really well, and then I will give them notes prior to shooting. The sex needs to make sense within the story and needs to drive the story forward. In “Forsaken” the sex is about the desire to live, and the arousal comes from our pulses, our body heat, our sweat. Ash is a girl who is trapped in a Jean Paul Sartre type of hell, where she remembers all the simple things that once brought her pleasure: the smell of flowers, the feel of her dog’s fur, the way her hands felt as she dipped them into a huge barrel of coffee beans. I told Michael Vegas that I wanted him to smell Ash a lot during their sex scene, and to imagine that he wishes he were alive again, and that he wants to suck the life out of her. Michael really understood what that meant, and did it perfectly. I have been fortunate to shoot people who have a great deal of empathy, and who view what they do as a craft, and respect it.

Bill Hayward (Gallery 4)

NN: I think one of the biggest obstacles to creating art in porn is that too many performers and producers still refuse to take the work seriously. When you have a dedicated performer who wants to bring texture and meaning to their role, even a so-so script can suddenly come to life. Performers dont realize how important they are to the artistic value of the film, maybe because theres still such a stigma to the work. Part of our defense, as a group, has always been to make fun of ourselves before anyone else can, but theres also price for that. You took a long break from the adult industry, during which you got married and had children, but when you returned you instantly hit the ground running as a director for some of the biggest studios in the industry. Did you grow as a director and an artist during the time that you were away? Was it beneficial to be out of the spotlight for a while?

DV: I absolutely feel that I developed more as an artist during my time off. I had a lot of time to struggle, to reflect, and to become more honest with who I am versus what I imagine I’m supposed to be. When I was given a budget for my very first film back in 2006, it was an enormous budget (by today’s standards) for a rookie director, and I also had a photographer and a P.A. I immediately went out and shot the kinds of scenes I was accustomed to performing myself, and I kept with the standard gonzo framing and angles. I didn’t have much of a voice then, though I knew early on I liked telling stories. Fast forward to 2011 when I came back, and it was very different. I was given a shoestring budget and had to learn to shoot my own stills and set up my own lights. It was humbling, and as it turned out, incredibly liberating. When you don’t have all the money in the world to shoot, you become very resourceful and a lot more creative. My own life and experiences began to inform my work.

NN: I think youre right that theres great artistic freedom in trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, as they say, because you really have to get creative and dig deep. Whereas on big budget projects, were so afraid of making a mistake and of the film not making money, that we tend to play it safe and tell our muse to shut the fuck up. I do think in many ways success spells death for artists, because suddenly we have something to lose. Were trying to please the masses. You’re known as being an easy-going, consummate professional off camera, but you seem to have a penchant for playing sadistic, complex, troubled women in your films. Are these just roles, or is some hidden aspect of you secretly informing these characters?

DV: Oh, it’s me. Movies are a safe place for me to embody those aspects of myself. I’m quite dark, hence the nature of most of my material.

I’m also fascinated by human behavior, and playing these characters feels cathartic. There’s still goodness beneath the sadistic, complex layer, and in the end there is compassion and redemption.

NN: I remember being moved to tears when I filmed your scene with [French adult star] Katsuni, because it was such an emotionally rich scene. I watched you go from anger to passion to compassion to an almost serene-like state, a kind of transcendence. I know you had wanted to work with her for a long time and shed had some hesitation about it, but what struck me was how cathartic that scene seemed to be for both of you. I had never witnessed such aggressiveeven violent–sex executed with so much love, and it challenged my beliefs about womens relationships with each other.

DV: That scene with Katsuni is without question one of the top three scenes I’ve ever done. It meant a lot to me and I’m glad you shot it.

NN: Speaking of violence, the sex in your films tends to be very extreme, and there’s a lot of rough, anal sex. There seems to be a fascination with fear dynamics, pushing limits, and what some might call disturbing, even anti-feminist themes. Why do you feel its important to present these images, and how does the physical pain inflicted on the women in your films correspond with your feminist beliefs?

DV: Before I ever became a performer/director, I was a dancer and budding choreographer. I remember being so affected by Albert Camus’s, L’etranger, that I choreographed a piece with four dancers, and I set it to sound effects and Miles Davis, though I can’t recall which Miles Davis music I used. I showed it at a spring performance in my senior year and then hoped to eventually have a career like Twyla Tharp. I say all this because sometimes words can’t convey everything. I remember being in love once, and it wasn’t enough to just tell the person I loved them. I told them “the way I feel about you is the bridge in Derek and The Dominoes’ ‘Layla.’” Maybe that sounds corny, but for me, past a certain point I become inarticulate, and then the best way I have to communicate is through another medium. What drives me in everything is relationships between people. And for me, sex is one of the most powerful and provocative means of communication. I’ve always been hypersexual, and I’ve also experienced amazing things through sex—orgasms where I suddenly make peace with dying, and let go of all my silly attachments to things that don’t matter. It has been through making love, through BDSM where I’ve had to let myself trust another person, something that is hard for me to do, but reminds me that I can trust others. Fear is human– pushing limits is essential, and violence is everywhere: I shoot what I know.

I don’t shoot violence for the sake of violence. I can’t hurt anyone, male or female, unless I know that it elevates them in some way—that they want to push their limits, and that, like me, their arousal is linked to being a little bit afraid. As far as how any suffering that women endure in my films corresponds to my being a feminist, I guess I don’t really think about it. And I think that makes me a real feminist.

NN: Its funny, because in math, at a certain point you hit whats known as the math wall where you reach your personal limit of understanding. And its always a tragic thing, because theres only so much we can express, or even make sense of, without these very specific tools. You need to speak the language of equations to grasp certain concepts, and if you cant, you cant go any further. I think the same thing is true for love and other mysterious themes that exist just beyond our reach. At some point words are inadequate and you have no choice but to paint the “Mona Lisa.” Do you feel that female pornographers have a responsibility to portray women or sex in a certain way? Do you think porn can ever present harmful images or ideas? As a female director, where do you draw the line in terms of what youre comfortable with?

DV: I think that female pornographers should shoot porn. Their responsibility should be to themselves, and what drives them. I think it gets dangerous when people set out with a singular agenda to “make feminist porn” or try to define porn as either feminist or not—it erases everything. I can’t approach my work with a political agenda: I shoot what I know and I shoot what I like. If it becomes political for me, I can’t do it. I do identify as a feminist, and I do believe that we have a long way to go as long as women are being paid less and being beaten to death for trying to get an education. When Hillary Clinton has signs held up at her campaign rallies that say “Go Iron My Shirt!” then, fuck yes, we still have work to do. But I always remember a bumper sticker at Mills College that said: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” I’m a person who makes porn.

NN: I found an interview of yours where you expressed disdain for porn directors who shoot incest themes, and you said that at some point we have to ask ourselves, What are we doing here? What is it about incest fantasies that makes you feel a line is being crossed, while you find waterboarding, smothering and/or choking a woman is a valid means of artistic expression?

Dana Vespoli by Joshua Darling

DV: I understand and accept that a good portion of what I shoot and what fascinates me is upsetting or downright repugnant to many people. We all have lines, and hard limits. My lover is repulsed by spit play, but loves pee. That said, I also understand how themes of incest turn a lot of people on. I enjoy brother/sister stuff—I think it’s hot. I fantasize about having a dreamy, protective big brother, but understand that in real life it is very unlikely I would be turned on by one, just as my own sister doesn’t turn me on. I think the mother/child stuff freaks me out because I’m a mom, and because it makes me think of molestation. But again: I get it. And while it grosses me out, I understand that these are not real mother/son or mother/daughter or father/daughter encounters we are watching, just like my waterboarding is nothing like Guantanamo Bay, and my performers are not suffering from PTSD afterwards. I have a pee fetish and have friends that just don’t get it. And I completely understand. There’s that famous quote—a lot of people think it’s Voltaire who said it, but I guess it wasn’t. The quote is something to the effect of, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That’s how I feel about all of our work. May God bless us all with our wide and varied sexual peccadilloes.


photo-21(1)Joshua Darling is a photographer, film & theatre maker. Of his work Playboy says: “it is hard not to be captivated by his incredible artwork & life story.” His photography has appeared in the NYTimes, GQ, Playboy & Penthouse amongst others. He is the founder of DarlingHouse.net a collective of artists exploring art & frontier sexuality. He frequently collaborates with Nica Noelle, has played Richard the 3rd in Central Park, has five sisters, makes a mean mojito & finds peace in doing dishes.
twitter.com/jmdarling | instagram.com/joshua_darling

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