Dan Cardone recently worked on two epic productions – Steven Spielberg‘s The Pacific, the most expensive television production ever shot in Australia, and To The Last Man, a gay porn video for Raging Stallions. Here he talks about his experiences on the latter…
There is a good reason most pornography is shot in controlled locations and features minimal plot.
It makes shooting quicker and less expensive,
porn models generally can’t act (or memorise lines, or hit their marks, or in any way be convincingly human…) and
it’s all about SEX.
So San Francisco-based Raging Stallion Studios is taking a huge risk, to say the least, in creating their two-part period Western porno, To The Last Man.
To The Last Man features a huge budget for the genre, a large cast, an actual plot (with dialogue and everything), all shot an hour and a half out of Young, Arizona. For two weeks in August, the Q Ranch served home to seven crew, and fourteen ADD-riddled models as we strived to make art – hard-core art. Raging Stallion hopes To The Last Man will be the Titanic of porn. But it might end up being its Waterworld.
I was along as a humble grip – which in porn shoot lingo means The Guy Who Does Everything.
My last film job was on a $200 million miniseries for HBO and DreamWorks, The Pacific. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks were amongst the producers. Now I was working 14-hour days under difficult (and often unhygienic) conditions on a porn shoot, for wages that would make a Union picket without question.
However, my first job in the film industry was on the low budget SBS telemovie, Call Me Mum. The studio where we shot was located in a seedy part of St Kilda, notorious for being a place where hookers took their tricks. They’d do their business in their cars, then throw the used condoms out of the window, which would accumulate in the driveway to the studio. My first assignment on the first day of production was to take a shovel and scrape away months and months of spent prophylactics. So, in a way, maybe my career had come full circle.
To shoot two 90-minute films with numerous action sequences, horses, special effects, and non-actors delivering ham-fisted, borderline camp dialogue in two weeks is a more than risky under-taking. The sex was the easy part. Everything else kept getting in the way.
In working on an insanely ambitious shoot like this, you develop a very keen sense of appreciation for what absolutely every person does on a fully crewed film. It gives the even the most lowly of production assistants a god-like stature. For example, normally being a PA means you don’t have to fetch the leading actor’s water bottle, so you can concentrate on getting other actors to wardrobe. But on this shoot, when you do finally make it to the wardrobe department, you discover there is no wardrobe department. YOU are the wardrobe department. Not only that, the wardrobe department is located in the back of a small van, which also contains every piece of other equipment for the shoot. People are dashing in and out barking, “Where’s my tripod?”, and all the models have dumped their dirty clothes in the middle of the cramped space. That key prop isn’t there for the next scene, the one you weren’t aware they were shooting, because they changed the schedule and nobody told you, and can you please move those cars, they’re in shot, and by the way, can you get into costume yourself, we need you as an extra.
This was the first set I had been on that featured three directors, and hopefully the last. One director was there to primarily film the sex scenes, which he did effectively and economically. The other two directors handled what is called in porn-lingo ‘B-Roll’, i.e. everything non sexual. Which on this film was substantial. The plot for To The Last Man involves two ranches populated entirely by horny men who have random sex and feud over water, as they are in the middle of a crippling drought. Which is why we filmed in Arizona during thunderstorm season.
After the first week, when we only had a handful of sex scenes shot, the attitude towards the B-Roll became even more derisive than it had been. Everyone felt the need to point out that we were making pornography, not something for the Sundance Channel.
I soon realised why, when you visit a set, most of the electrics and grips are standing around with a not entirely bored, but disinterested expression on their faces. It’s not that they don’t really care much about the director’s vision – they only want to know what they have to do to set up to make the next shot work. If that information is not being communicated, or if the crew feels the director doesn’t know what he is doing, they quickly lose all respect. It’s something I’d seen happen on my very first professional production, and was now happening on this shoot. I’m pretty sure the director had a vision, but he seemed absolutely incapable of communicating it to the crew or the performers. He seemed to maintain a defensive stance, which got everyone offside. He came across to everyone as a passive-aggressive Scorcese, without the credits.
It’s amazing no one got killed, or seriously injured. There was horse riding, there were fight scenes of rocky escarpments, there were drownings. When the real guns and live ammunition came out for a scene I thought, “That’s it, I’m going back to the truck”.
Fortunately, one of the models was also a fully qualified nurse, so that saved money, time and also lives. Plus, he was sexy, so it was win/win. I was the first to go down with dehydration and exhaustion. Others soon followed, no doubt inspired by my strong work ethic.
During a brief moment of both downtime and internet connectivity, I went online and googled the film’s title. It’s stolen from a series of classic Western novels by Zane Grey, so I imagine a lawsuit is pending as we speak. The buzz machine was already in full effect, with ‘leaked’ stills and rumours on the production slathered wall-to-wall on cyberspace, building anticipation for its release. The overall response from bloggers seemed to be bemusement at best and outright hostility at worst. “Who cares about plot?” And secondly, “Who wants to watch a porn movie where everyone gets killed?” Well, I do, but I’m hardly the target audience. It was illuminating to realise that there is a whole world out there that takes this very seriously.
At the end of it all, my impression was that narrative filmmaking should be left to the professionals, and filmmakers should leave real sex in the hands of the pornographers. Just as Jane Campion can’t portray convincing sex on film to save her life, you can bet that a porno studio would try and do The Piano with a handful of nylon wigs and a battery powered Casio keyboard.
While the differences in production methods were huge, the intent behind the production is the same (although you can be pretty sure that on a regular film set, you will not hear one of the directors talking an actor out of doing an auto-erotic asphyxiation masturbation scene – not even on Father of the Bride). Filmmaking is always a logistical nightmare and a largely masochistic endeavour. To think that such a gruelling process can produce anything of value is a true leap of faith. Even film shoots that go well are never anything less than really hard work. But working on To The Last Man allowed me to cut away all the bullshit and involve me again in the ‘play’ of creation, that suspension of disbelief that seems effortless the younger we are, but harder the older and more cynical we get. It was great to – literally – get down in the dirt, figure out how to hang someone by the neck from a twenty foot high rafter, how to light an ancient Indian ruin in the middle of a violent thunderstorm at night, how to fake a cum shot, and how to set someone convincingly on fire. I got accustomed to hearing the sentences, “Do fuck face”, and “Ok, now do cum face”.
I didn’t realise it at first, but I had been desperately seeking an attitude adjustment. I’d been stuck to long in air-conditioned production offices, pushing pieces of paper around. It had made me disillusioned and, worse, bored, by the filmmaking process. After a while, I realised I actually felt invigorated by the maverick nature of the porn production. Tired and pissed off, but still invigorated, spurred on to more insane feats. Filmmaking is driven by the desire to realise a dream. It’s why filmmakers are often borderline crazy, obsessive types. It’s why James Cameron blows up buildings; it’s why Werner Herzog drags boats over mountains. It’s why we all go to the movies in the first place, to see our dreams made tangible.
Not to watch guys ejaculate over each other. We can do that in the privacy of our own homes.
– Dan Cardone