by Robin Perez
SexHerald: Professionally speaking, how would you describe the past two and a half years, what with both movies you’ve directed, Corruption and Upload, winning AVN’s Best Video in 2007 and 2008, respectively, and directing for SexZ Pictures, a relatively new adult company?
Eli Cross: It’s been really nice just because the deal that I stumbled into with Bo Kenney and with SexZ has been the sort of thing that I don’t think anyone else in the adult industry has anything else quite like it. The reason for that is I can’t imagine another situation, having been in the industry for almost 20 years now, where somebody has had basically this kind of carte blanche on big budget movies. Once Bo decided he was going to let me make these movies, all he really did at that point then was sign checks and back off and said, “Do what you want to do.” Even when I would make steps to include him in the process—I’d send him the script and he would say, “Well what do you think about this?” I said: “Well, obviously I like it.” And he said, “OK, great!” I had a completely free hand in casting, a completely free hand in content. I had a completely free hand in story, and I just can’t imagine another company that would give a director that kind of control. I’ve certainly never encountered it.
SH: In other words, they’re completely hands off?
Cross: Just in the sense that he doesn’t want to interfere because he decided that, for whatever reason, he decided that he trusted me to deliver the product, and he trusted me to do what I thought was best. He owns stores and he races cars, and he does a lot of things, but he has no illusions that he is anything other than a film consumer. He’ll say it over and over again: “I’m not a director, I’m not a producer. If you think you need to do this, then do it.” An example is on Upload. He actually didn’t even come to set. For a movie like that, it’s unbelievable. We spent $350,000, and the guy who was spending the money never came. He trusted me enough that he didn’t even come to check up on us to see how we were spending it. There were things going on that were more urgent, and he knew that he’d just be coming to hang around. At one point, we thought he was going to come out and he just decided that he had other things that he needed to do.
SH: Was your experience directing for other companies, such as Vivid, Wicked, Video Team, Elegant Angel, a mostly positive or negative experience?
Cross: Shooting for most adult companies is very much like making commercials or like making music videos. Unless it’s somewhere you’re under contract, it is very much a client/vendor relationship. They tell you exactly what they want, and then you do your best to provide it with the amount of money that they are willing to spend. It is not about your vision, it is not about your creativity, it’s not about anything other than they say, like Video Team. They need a black foot fetish line, and I say, “OK. How much do you have to spend?” They say, “I can do this much.” And I said, “Ahh, OK.” [Laughs] So I made four of them. I was trying to give him the best black foot fetish line that I could give him. It wasn’t about what I wanted to do. I was giving them what they needed.
SH: I think you really need to be into the fetish or the theme of what you’re directing in order to do a good job on the project.
Cross: It’s that to an extent. A lot of the companies, they’ll never admit this in public but it’s an absolute fact; a lot of the companies really couldn’t care less if most of their product is any good. They really don’t care. They just need it done. Job one is finishing it. That’s really all they care about. There have been companies that I shot for that told me beforehand, “Nobody expects this to be any good.” And I thought, “Great. That’s a great vote of confidence.” But when you’re making three complete movies in three days for a grand total of $22,000 a piece, how good are they going to be? So you do the best you can and what you’re delivering, first and foremost, is product. It’s very much assembly line work. You have a whole list of rules of things you can and can’t do.
For most companies shooting features, the first and foremost thing is that the story is going to be very friendly to Playboy. Why? There’s never been a worse enemy to the feature porn movie than Playboy. Playboy wants no conflict of any kind in anything they buy. As a result, you cannot have drama without conflict. It’s really hard to do. It’s not Paul Thomas’ fault that in a big budget Vivid movie, somebody pulls out a gun, and then they cut away, and you hear a bang, and you see somebody has fallen to the ground, possibly by a gunshot that you never saw. That’s not PT's choice. That's Playboy saying, “Well, you can’t have any violence on screen.” It’s absurd. The vast amount of rules that you have to follow for most of these places mean that you end up with the same kind of features, over and over again, because there are very few stories that you could tell within that very narrow framework of what is acceptable.
SH: And SexZ will let you do whatever comes to mind?
Cross: My only rule is that everybody has to be over 18 and walk primarily on two legs. That’s it. They don’t have a contract with Playboy. They’re not interested in selling these movies for the pittance that Playboy wants to pay. And they want to make the movies that they want to make. They know that my stuff . . . if I have a say in what the story is going to be—and with them I always do—that in general, it’s going to be a hell of a lot darker, and a hell of a lot more edgy than most of what people are doing because I’m bored by anything else. These big shows are way too much work to be . . . to hate what you’re doing. The direction that we try to do, we try to make a $300,000 movie for $150,000. Now that’s hard but it’s not excruciating. When you don’t have money, the way you make up for it is just a lot of extra elbow grease by everybody that’s involved. Corruption was hard but we didn’t come out of it saying, “OK, I never want to do that again.” Upload we tried making a $2,000,000 for $350,000. I think to a large extent we succeeded. That was a hell of a lot harder. It was an order of magnitude, more work. Our motto on Upload was, “Nobody gets off this movie alive.”
SH: And no one did?
Cross: And no one did. Upload, we came out of it immediately saying, “OK, never again. We’re never doing that again . . . of that scope, for that amount of money.” It was ridiculous. For eight months of our lives . . .
SH: Eight months?
Cross: Yeah. For me personally, between the time when I started my rewrite of the script, to the time that I was done proofing and putting together the PR materials for Upload while being authored, it was eight months of my life. And it was eight months of nine days a week, 36 hours a day, it was nothing but Upload. It was ridiculous how much work that movie was.
SH: How long was the actual filming of Upload?
Cross: Twenty days.
SH: Was that the easiest part of the whole eight months?
Cross: The easiest part was finishing the script because I had a good idea of what I wanted it to be, and the first draft that I got from my writing partner was really close. I had given him really detailed notes on what I wanted to get, and then his first draft was 80 percent there. And all I did was I went in, and I added some other things that I thought of, and I cleaned up some dialogue. By then, I had an idea of who my actors actually were. With adult people, one of the ways which you get the best performances out of them is, you rewrite the dialogue for them rather than trying to make them work around your dialogue.
SH: In the Upload BTS, you said you had broken your own rules in making a porn movie. What rules did you break?
Cross: My rules were, "I never wanted to make a porn movie with a gunfight. I never wanted to make a porn movie that involved serious special effects. And I never wanted to make a porn movie that had a script that was longer than 30 pages.” I broke the 30 pages rules on Corruption. That script was 44 pages. Upload was 69 pages. I broke the hell out of all of them on Upload. Upload, with no sex in it whatsoever—if you literally cut every sex scene out—it’s an hour and 35 minutes long. With the sex, it’s almost five hours. It’s stupid long. I thought it was going to be three.
SH: In your head right now, how many movie ideas do you have running around?
Cross: Right now, I probably got three for big porn movies, and then I got a couple of mainstream ideas dancing around.
SH: For the mainstream stuff, will you be casting porn performers for those roles?
Cross: It’s possible. I certainly don’t have any stigma against them. It’s just going to depend on who is actually the best read. In Blood of Virgins, there’s some pretty significant nudity. There’s a couple of sex scenes in the movie. I mean, they’re not “sex scenes.” If I don’t find a mainstream actress who’s comfortable with all that, or who’s going to be a pain in the ass about it, or who wants a body double or whatever, then I know I’ve got a couple of adult people in my back pocket that I could plug in there. And being a horror movie, nobody is going to care that I put porn people in this movie. So, it’s entirely possibly.
SH: Did you fall into the adult industry?
Cross: No. Nobody gets here because that’s where they head out for. We’ve all failed something else. My first experience in the adult industry was in the summer of 1989, and I had been working at a comic book warehouse in Phoenix where I’m from. I needed a job and what is now the Castle Megastore was at that time the Castle Boutique. They had one store and they needed a warehouse manager, and it paid more than my comic book store job had. So I went in and applied for that because I really couldn’t care less whether it was porn or what it was. That was my first adult job, and within three months I had gone from being the warehouse manager to the general manager and I opened their first three expansion stores in Phoenix. That was how I ended up in adult, and when I moved to California, I was running an electronics store out here, and was very frustrated with that and I was looking around for a job. One of the salesmen said, “You know porn, right?” I said yeah. A friend of his owned magazines and he was looking for writers. I called him up, and I knew his magazines because we stocked them at the Castle. This was back in the day when you still had $20 glossy, all hardcore magazines. Those days are long gone. [Laughs] I called him up and he said are you any good, and I told him “No, but I’m better than the guy you got.” So I ended up as the managing editor there, and from there I ended up running AVN for five years, and eventually I went back to directing.
SH: At AVN, this is what Kylie Ireland said. “Eli ran AVN for five years where everybody learned to hate him because of his honest reviews. He could be snarky and bitter.” Is that absolutely true?
Cross: That’s absolutely true.
SH: As the editor of AVN, did these directors and other porn big shots expect you to kiss their asses?
Cross: They definitely expected me to kiss their ass which I didn’t do and that pissed them off. But they also really hated the idea that I wouldn’t argue with them like a child. They weren’t prepared for someone like me because I wouldn’t argue with anybody. I wouldn’t get into it because you can’t have an argument by yourself. The editors who worked for me at the time, I think a lot of them sort of took this away in other stuff. But I tried to train them.
“You inform how people treat you. You have to understand that you are partially responsible for these interactions that you have with the directors or the performers, or whoever. If they’re screaming and yelling at you, if you don’t scream and yell back at them, they’re going to stop because you don’t scream and yell, and have an argument by yourself. You could only allow them to engage you in that way. I’m fine, if somebody is abusing you, hang up on them or transfer them to me. You don’t have to put up with it.”
And so, they weren’t prepared for that. And they weren’t prepared for the fact that I made sure that if something was going to get printed that I knew was going to piss somebody off, I did my best to make sure that it was right. So we’re giving somebody a horrible review on a huge movie, I was ready for it. We all watched it. We watched it all the way through and we knew, and I knew and I was ready. And I knew that the company owners hadn’t watched it. That’s one of the other things that drives me crazy about this industry. It baffles me. I knew that they hadn’t seen it, and that they were calling to complain about something with no basis whatsoever, other than “Well, we take this many ads.” “Well then, you should call advertising. If you’re complaining about a review then that’s my department and believe it or not, I have no idea how many ads you have.”
That was the thing at AVN. There’s no making anybody happy. There really isn’t. It’s just not possible at that company. I understand why. Paul Fishbein used to live in fear of a serious competitor, and now that he’s got one I know that things have changed. But I used to tell him that it would be the best thing in the world if AVN had a serious competitor. When I was there it was the only game in town. So of course, everything we did was under a microscope, and everything was scrutinized. I used to tell him that if these people had some other place to go where they could also be equally frustrated, which I know it’s happening with XBiz, they would get pissed off with AVN and then go to XBiz. Then they would get pissed off with Xbiz, quit and then go back to AVN. So at least they would have another place to vent their anger, and AVN wouldn’t feel trapped. So there would be no winning.
SH: Are there porn directors today whose work you’re a fan of?
Cross: I’m kind of out of touch and that’s unfortunate. The business has changed so much as far as that stuff goes. I have issues with the way John Stagliano tells a story, just as he has an issue with the way I tell a story. But I have great respect for his stuff. Even the movies that I don’t personally like I have a great amount of respect for, if that makes sense. I really didn’t think much of Fashionista 2 but I got to respect somebody who’s got the balls to make a porn movie, that the first hour of it there’s no porn. I don’t have the guts to do that, and I know that when I see something that John has done that I’m seeing pretty much exactly what he wanted me to see. I know it didn’t happen by accident. And I can’t always say that about a lot of porn directors. There’s a lot of slop.
There’s a lot of feature directors that I just think are sloppy. I think Michael Ninn’s stuff is visually outstanding and incredibly uninteresting. Michael Ninn used to be better.
I have not seen any of Robby D’s stuff that he’s done for Digital Playground. I know Robby. He shot camera for me when I first worked for Vivid. He’s a good guy. I assume his stuff is pretty solid, pretty workman-like. DCypher has done some good stuff.
Tristan Taormino, I like her stuff. It’s at least different. It’s fresh, it’s different. I hooked up Tristan and John Stagliano for her first movie, I think what she does with her stuff is really hard and there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, and I think she gets really good results. I know that she has to fight tooth and nail for every single dollar to make those movies. Overall, I like her stuff a lot. I think Kylie Ireland’s stuff is great. I think she’s a much a better gonzo director than I am. Belladonna, I like her stuff. I generally think it’s pretty high quality, it’s pretty good. It’s tough for me because a lot of these people I know, and it’s hard for me to separate my personal perceptions of them from their product. For example, Belladonna is an extremely sweet girl and crazy as a shit house rat. She is a lunatic. She is as crazy as they come. And it’s hard for me to separate that from her movies but I think her stuff is good. I’ve never seen anything of hers that I walked away and thought, “That was a piece of shit!” I think her stuff is actually, generally very good. I’ve never been on her set so I don’t know how personally involved she is in all of them.
SH: Would you cast her in a movie?
Cross: Would I cast her in a movie? I would cast her in a scene because she’s a great performer and she’s a sexy girl, and she does a hot scene and I think she’s terrific. But would I hang a movie on her, no. She’s way to chancy, way too risky.
SH: If Obama is elected president, do you think all these obscenity trials targeting the adult industry will go away?
Cross: I think it will go away no matter who’s in the White House because it won’t be an election year anymore. You got to understand, that’s what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with election year politics. Of course, there’s nothing more important going on in the world than prosecuting obscenity. Well, all right. That’s fine. I don’t think they have a prayer in hell with getting anywhere with the Evil Angel case. That’s just a shit case from top to bottom. Why they went after John? He’s a big name, he’s a publicity hound but I don’t think they were expecting that he’s really well spoken, he comes off great on camera, and John ain’t going to take a deal. John will fight this. John will fight this to his dying breath. John will fight it and not stop. And he’s not afraid of going to jail because if he goes to jail he spends his time in a hospital. He’s got HIV, they can’t put him in the regular population. So he’ll be in a federal prison jail getting his ADT for free. Not in the general population at all. He’s got every chance of winning.
What will happen with the Max Hardcore thing is they might let it die on appeal, despite the fact that it is Max Hardcore, and he is such an attractive target for obscenity prosecutions because, my god who could be worse? You put him on video and you let him speak, and he is the creepiest dirtiest old man on the planet. No woman on that jury is ever going to say, “Oh, he’s got a right to do that.” It’s not going to happen. It’s a good case for them but on the legal merits, it’s a terrible case. The fact alone that he didn’t ship that DVD should’ve gotten that count thrown out. So they’ll get their appeal and then probably have to take it to the circuit court because the state district court is just going to pass it on. They’re just going to let the conviction stand, and Max will have to go to jail while they appeal this in circuit court. There’s every chance [though] that several of those counts could get thrown out in the circuit.
SH: You think these are porn’s darkest days with all these investigations going on?
Cross: Oh no. The Meese Commission days were pretty dark. No, I don’t think it’s all over because the problem is there are too many people in this industry who know nothing about their industry. When we shot Corruption and Upload, we had so many people tell us, “You can’t shoot this thing, it’s illegal.” They had no fucking idea what they were talking about. They said we couldn’t shoot bondage because it’s illegal. They didn’t know what they were talking about. Then they asked, “Why doesn’t anybody else do it?” Because it’s legally safer not to, but the fact of the matter is that we have a pretty much undeniable strong defense. I know how the Miller laws work and I’ve been around for a while, and most of the people now, they don’t know. Most pornographers think that somewhere, there is a law written that has this list of things that you can and cannot shoot. And if you shoot something then you are immediately labeled for prosecution. That’s a problem.
Where I think it’s immediately going to become a problem, possibly even before this election cycle is over, is Florida. Florida really wants to push itself forward as the new porn capital. There’s a reason porn is here. And the reason porn is here is because this is the only place in this country where it has been legally determined, that shooting porn is not prostitution. Los Angeles County is it. Everywhere else in this country, a prosecutor could bust porn people for prostitution and solicitation. That’s why porn is here. And the people shooting down in Florida don’t know that. Los Angeles County, 1983, we fought and won. And everybody agreed that if you’re paying everybody, it’s not prostitution. It’s making a movie. I think that’s going to be a big issue because these places down South don’t want to be the new porn capital. Florida ain’t the most progressive thinking state. They don’t want porn shot there.
SH: I have a quote from you where you talked about how people in the industry don’t know about their industry. “Porn is an industry that is incredibly ignorant of its own history and it’s own rules. Businesses run by people who have taken these self-imposed rules, and twisted them, to mean, ‘Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. And that’s illegal.’ Nothing is illegal as long as you’re over 18. You can more or less do what you want to do.” Do you still stand by that quote?
Cross: Yeah, absolutely. You have to understand that it is all presentation and framework. Paul Cambria, who is one of the most conservative lawyers in the porn industry and is Vivid’s lawyer, signed off on both Corruption and Upload. He didn’t like it but he signed off on it. He said, “There’s no way they can prosecute either one of these.” And we’re talking the director’s cut here. The reason for that is, is because if it has artistic merit, if it has a story, it is protected by the First Amendment, and cannot be found to be obscene. This is the reason why, for all these years, it’s not that nobody ever thought of doing gonzo. It’s not that Jamie Gillis and Ed Powers invented gonzo. They had gonzo in the 50s. It was called loops. It was called Swedish Erotica. Ask anybody in the porn industry who hasn’t been around for more than 15 years, why they stopped doing loops. Why did the idea of gonzo go away? It’s such a good idea. It was popular during the 90s. Why did that go away? Those guys were tired of being busted for obscenity. And they learned the rules of the Miller Tests in 1973, which the third prong is it can have no redeeming social or artistic merit. So what everybody did was make movies with a story, and then if we have a sex scene in there and we have a story, it’s got artistic merit. They can’t bust us for obscenity. That’s why you had features for 25 years. And then somebody had the great idea of, “Well fuck, I don’t need all this story stuff. Why can’t I just put a bunch of sex scenes together?”
So people are ignorant. They don’t know. Now our big movie this year is Icon. It’s an all-sex, big budget movie. I don’t have fisting, I don’t have pissing, I don’t have hard bondage, you know why? Because it doesn’t have a story. I don’t have that defense. And I’m not trying to get SexZ busted. You gotta know the law. You gotta know the rules. We’re the only legal industry that has illegal ramifications for legally producing our product. There’s no other industry like it in this country. What you do is completely legal and you don’t even know you’ve broken the law until they come after you for it. There’s no other industry like it. But the way the law is written, if they can get 12 people to say that Good Housekeeping is obscene, then that issue of Good Housekeeping magazine is obscene.
That’s what I meant by that. The people working now don’t know. This industry leads by following. Nobody wants to learn the history, nobody wants to learn the job, nobody wants to believe that they have to know anything to do this. They are all instant experts. They know what you’re supposed to do because it’s what everybody else has done. Well, guess what? It doesn’t fucking work that way. So yes, I absolutely stand by that quote. BehindtheSceneswithEliCross