There is no shortage of films about sex work. Hollywood has always loved to toy with the forbidden allure of women and men who make money having sex in person or on video. But whether playing sex work as comedy or tragedy, few if any include any contribution from actual sex workers.
Stephen Elliott and Lorelei Lee want to change that with their film About Cherry, a downright heartwarming story about a girl who runs away from home to find happiness and love as a fetish porn star in San Francisco. Elliott, the local author of The Adderall Diaries and My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, as well as the founder of literary website The Rumpus, was a sex worker in his early 20s. He directed and co-wrote About Cherry with Lee, who may be most well-known as an adult actress and director at San Francisco's Kink.com, but is currently finishing an MFA at New York University.
The obvious comparison that About Cherry invites is with Boogie Nights, especially because of the presence of Heather Graham, who plays Margaret, the title character's director, mentor, and finally lover. But About Cherry is not only more modern, it's also much more a San Francisco film. Much of the film was shot on location at Kink.com's Armory Building, which is practically the kinky equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge for establishing location.
About Cherry will be shown at the Castro Theater twice on Friday, Sept. 21, with a Q&A conducted by Stephen Elliott after each show. Lorelei Lee will be joining him for the second show. SF Weekly took some time to ask both of them our own set of questions.
In making the film about a young woman who runs away from home to join the circus, or you know, make porn, what did you want to say differently from the way that your average Hollywood film treats porn?
LL: It's so interesting because when we were in Berlin at the film festival, the director of Panorama, which is the part of the film festival that we were in, was saying that in Hollywood films in the past, in order to show a character being sexual, you had to punish them, and that was a way that I had not thought about these Hollywood movies. But of course it's true, and I had noticed this for many years that all these stories about sex workers, they die or they get very sick. Or they're shunned, they're punished somehow. Or they reject everything about their experience with sex work and redeem themselves by being reborn. And so, of course, we wanted to tell the story in which neither of those outcomes is inevitable. And our story has a happy ending.
SE: Yeah, I mean, we want to tell a story. This is like, people who get into porn and particularly at the Armory, this is a place where people go to work. Then they go on home and get on with the rest of their lives. I don't really know anyone who regrets getting into porn. I know people who are like, "Oh, I should have done more in my 20s." But I hear that from bartenders, you know. I don't know anybody who's like "Oh, if I only hadn't posed naked." I'm sure that exists...
LL: That exists.
SE: That exists, but it's disproportionately represented in film.
LL: It is very much a cycle: if all the stories you hear are stories in which you only survive if you reject everything you've done. Then you have people who then say, "Oh, I completely reject my experience," or "I'm so horrified that I ever did that, because that is what they think they need to do in order to be accepted back into society.
SE: But the story that we're telling is as common as any other story. It's not a universal story but it's one potential story for a porn performer.
Most movies about porn from Hollywood focus on Southern California, the "porn valley" aspect. How would you compare and contrast porn culture in San Francisco versus the porn culture in Southern California and how does that affect the story?
LL: I worked for a few years in L.A., and certainly the two cultures are becoming much more intertwined. Probably 80 percent of the performers who work at Kink come from L.A. And I think there are a lot of really unfair stereotypes about Los Angeles, even among people in San Francisco. I think a lot of people who live in San Francisco tend to think of L.A. as being shallow, being somehow "cheaper," not considering the impact of the work that they do. And I think that is completely unfair. There are so many examples of female directors in L.A. who really are very passionate about the movies that they make. And male directors as well, who are really thoughtful not only about the aesthetic choices that they're making, but also how those movies impact the larger world. That being said, the Los Angeles porn industry is so much bigger than the San Francisco porn industry, so here we have the luck of having Kink.com be the leader of the San Francisco straight-ish porn industry, so they set the standard, and they happen to be a very progressive and ethically cautious company.
SE: It seems to me, especially hanging out a lot with sex workers in New York and L.A., that you have elements that are progressive in all of these places, and things are getting more progressive all around, but San Francisco is really ground zero, where it's like this is the most progressive place for sex work, and a lot of it emanates out of here, and there's a lot of great people in L.A. and other places, but a lot of the ideas start here and kind of filter out.
What do you think the differences and similarities are between Boogie Nights and About Cherry?
SE: I liked Boogie Nights a lot. That's a movie about porn, and this is a movie about a girl finding herself and her sexuality. The porn world is actually more central to the story in Boogie Nights than it is in Cherry. But also, in Boogie Nights, as much as I really enjoyed that movie -- it's a fun movie, it's really good -- it's not a realistic portrayal of the porn world. Those characters are cartoonish. It slips into slapstick.
LL: It's hyperbolized, for dramatic effect.
SE: Yeah. And it's a fun movie, but it's not-- We were doing something I think is much more realistic. We were much more concerned with presenting this world as a realistic place.
LL: And hopefully, having people recognize themselves in it.
About Cherry screens Sept. 21 at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro (at Market). Admission is $8.50-$11.