Jochen Hick is a documentary filmmaker specialising in LGBT subject matter. He has profiled rural queers (Talk Straight), leather fetishism (Menmaniacs) and the 2007 Moscow Pride Event (East/West - Sex & Politics). The Skinny spoke to him about his superb diptych on the gay porn scene, Sex Life In L.A.
1) What was the genesis of the project?
Fascination with LA, and to get a deeper insight into the gay sex business, by very detailed and intimate observation. If any city on earth would show where the rest of the western gay world would develop, in terms of drugs, gay narcissism, porn and escorting, and its economics, at least back then it was LA.
2) How much footage did you actually shoot, and how did the film(s) evolve in the production and editing process?
I guess we shot almost 100 hours for each part of the sequel. We had many more protagonists than ended [up] in the final versions. All evolved in the editing process.
3) What were your own perceptions of gay porn and the LA sex industry before you started work on Sex Life In LA, and how did it change, if at all?
I did not have any illusions or real prejudice about it. I was mainly interested in its social workings and the personal consequences for the actors.
4) What were your main reasons for returning to the subject in 2003/4? Had you kept in touch with the guys?
I felt that – parallel to gay life in general – there was more professionalism and toughness: maybe less fun and more money-making. I found it worthwhile to show the economics and how they affect the guys working in that field. I found new protagonists and kept to the former ones; I have tried to keep in touch with them all over the years.
5) Neither David nor Tony Ward feature in the second film. Are there any particular reasons for this?
All I could research is that David was not around in LA any more, and Tony Ward – who always was very friendly about the project - maybe got the recommendation not to take part in the second part. He was already married, [was] often in Japan - different lifestyle.
6) I'd like to know about the production process. At one point you claim to have been searched by the police, and I was wondering how you resolved such issues. Did you ever consult vice squads, support groups or legal teams during the making of the films?
I have been in some very special situations, mainly when filming with David. Of course I needed the help of the police for the research about John Garwood’s death. But there were not really very dangerous situations, compared to what I have experienced filming for East/West during the Gay Pride attempts in Moscow.
7) What about creative decisions? You show a lot of sexual imagery, but avoid dwelling on detail and never show penetration or ejaculation. Was this your own decision, or simply a matter of international censorship regulations?
Actually there is ejaculation (Tony in the bathtub) and penetration (Will West after trying to get a hard-on by interacting with the cameraman), but both situations for me are far beyond porn and had a totally different genesis. This was one of the decisions - to never imitate the images and the storylines of porn, although the second film almost entirely deals with it. Interestingly enough, German censorship allowed Tony’s jerk-off in an age 16 DVD version. That’s quite extraordinary. Part 2 in Germany has an age 16 and an adult version.
8) Were there any performers, photographers or filmmakers you approached to be in the project who refused?
No one I have approached really refused, except Madonna and Herb Ritts, who did not really supportively reply to our requests for interviews or materials about Tony Ward.
9) At one point, it is suggested that performers can earn up to $20,000 per movie. What does it take to reach this level?
No one showed me his banking slip or a cheque, so I cannot prove it. It might have happened in some very rare cases.
10) Cole Tucker at one point says "sex work is not a normal life". What are your thoughts on this?
Of course sex work deals so much with intimacy and constant narcissism on a very technical level, that for some characters it is just too much. However, I would never say that it isn’t a very special experience for a gay man.
11) In the first film, John Garwood says that many men in gay porn are HIV-positive. By the second film, you highlight the use of condoms in the movies, but also profile the popularity of bareback videos. What is the allure of these (dangerous) films?
A lot can be said about bareback and bareback films. The film just documents that quite a few porn actors start in safe and switch over to bareback porn. The fascination at first was the forbidden; nowadays many gay men might think it is the ultimate experience in terms of crossing borders. In the end I would rather demystify it and say: it just means fucking without condoms, which might have you contract a terminal disease.
12) How much responsibility did you feel to your subjects and to the audience? Was it hard to remain objective when faced with things that are contentious (barebacking) or unjust (the exploitation of 'stars')?
If someone would have found himself into a dangerous situation [against his will] or without knowing while I was filming, I would have given advice or intervened. For the [remainder], of course, my profession is documentary film-maker, not activist or social worker. Maybe the effect of what can be seen in my films might show an activist, political or social point of view. In a way I do hope so.
13) What did you ultimately hope to achieve with the films? They certainly don't show porn in a glamorous light, but they also don't pass judgement.
They show a whole world, but they mainly show where gay male narcissism and all its triggers might lead, and also how extremely exploitive gays can be with/towards gays. Maybe it could also be considered as 'gay lib'.
14) Have you kept in touch with any of the guys since you finished both films? Also, are you aware of any developments that have been made to improve conditions for performers (for example, Damian claims that models never gain royalties)?
I still have contact with some of the guys. Since my latest film The Good American also deals with performers and porn actors, I kept observing what’s going on. However, you can always work as a cashier at a supermarket instead of porn or hustling: safe money and less dangerous.
15) How were audience reactions at the time of both film's releases, and have they changed at all since then?
The sequel has become kind of a classic and many people who I meet have heard or seen at least the first part. Part 1 got great reviews even in very conservative outlets and had long theatrical runs, mainly in Europe. The second part even made it onto ABC News. Some – even gay - people were pretty shocked seeing the stories. I was surprised by that, since the same mechanics of this part of gay life it can be clearly observed all around us, not only in LA.
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