Finally an entertaining romantic comedy about the adult film industry told from a woman’s point of view. Move over Kevin Smith. Julie Davis’s new movie, Finding Bliss, has an intriguing storyline and more heart and soul than Smith’s big studio Zack & Miri Make a Porno and it was made on one tenth of the budget. The irony is amusing because back in 1998, Davis was one of several up-and-coming film directors including Smith that sat down together for a famous portrait by photographer Annie Leibowitz for Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue on promising New Wave directors.
Written and directed by Davis, Finding Bliss is a hilarious exploration of the adult film industry through the eyes of an idealistic 25-year-old award-winning film school grad, Jody Balaban (Leelee Sobieski), who’s faced with the hard decision of taking the only well-paying industry job she has yet been offered – editing porn at Grind Productions. The film also stars Kristen Johnston, Matt Davis, Denise Richards and Jamie Kennedy and features fun cameos by Ron Jeremy and Garry Marshall. More after the jump:
Davis, who rarely does interviews, told us why this was a very personal film, how she succeeded in putting together such a fantastic cast, and what makes her imagination so dark. She also updated us on what she’s working on next and how she wishes Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Oscar win had been for a story told from a female point of view.
JD: Well it’s semi-autobiographical story. I worked at the Playboy Channel in 1995. It was my first job that I got when I moved out to L.A. When I moved out here, I didn’t know anybody. I wanted to be a filmmaker and I just couldn’t get anywhere and then it was the first job I got. I was an editor as well. I worked there for a year. I edited all of the promos for their content on the Channel. They ran a separate channel under another name that was soft core cutdowns of hardcore films. People don’t really know that Playboy had that channel because Playboy is classy. So that was kind of a surprise to me and that’s how I got introduced to the porn industry. I never watched porn. I was a nice Jewish girl, single and looking for love. I remember the first one I had to watch. They put me in an office with the TV set up and said “Here’s the tape. When you’re finished writing your copy for the little trailer you’re going to do, you’ll come out and show it to us and we set you up to go edit it.” I turned it on and it was just this hardcore film and I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.” At that moment, I thought I’m going to make a movie about this. I have to make a movie about this experience. It’s the ultimate fish out of water story.
How much of you is in the character?
JD: Leelee really made it her own because on the page it was me. 100%. Leelee and I have a very different energy and she’s very tall and statuesque and sophisticated and almost regal. The only way it was going to work was for her to make it her own, to not be shackled by playing me. I also wanted her to work very closely from herself, because in person she’s a lot more ebullient and energetic than she is on screen with a lot of the parts she’s been given which are a little more serious. So it was trying to get her to just work from herself. It’s the type of part that the only way it’s going to work is to make it your own. I did give her the curly hair. That was the one thing because she has this very straight hair which makes her look like a model and this character cannot look like that. She can’t look like a model. It’s not going to make it. It’s not funny. There’s nothing funny about a girl who looks like that. So I had to make her look a little bit more accessible and realistic and I thought the curls would [do that].
How did you go about assembling such a great cast?
JD: I want there to be nice things said about the cast. They worked so hard and they did it for no money and they really believed me. This is the time when I want them to say “See, it was worth it.” They were wonderful. They all came from different sources. Leelee was the first one because she had originally auditioned for the movie a year prior when it was financed on a bigger budget and she came in and auditioned. I knew that she had really wanted to do it. But, at the time, they were looking for someone with a much bigger name. And then, that movie didn’t go forward. So then when I went out to raise money on my own, I said Leelee Sobieski really wants to do this part and I basically put it together from her name and then everybody else was after that. Kirsten Johnston was the last one on board. I’ve always been a fan of hers. I actually got her through a friend, Deandra Kotinski, who is an actor and a writer. He wrote a movie that I directed a couple of years ago called All Over the Guy. I had called him because he’s best friends with Lisa Kudrow and I said, “Can you get Lisa? I would love to have Lisa play this part. Can you get her the script?” And he said, “Julie, Lisa is so sexually uptight. She’s never gonna do this. What about Kristen Johnston? Do you know who she is?” I said, “Of course I know who she is. My God, she’s fantastic.” “Well I think she’d like this and here’s her phone number.” That never happens normally if it went through real channels. It just never happens in my world. I called her up and she’s the nicest person in the world. She’s hilarious. I’m in love with her. And she did it. That’s how that happened.
How did you get Garry Marshall and Ron Jeremy to do the wonderful cameos?
JD: Well Ron and I have known each other for years. I directed Ron in a soft core series that I directed for Cinemax a couple years ago which, by the way, I did under a pseudonym. He was in an episode of that. We’ve always kept in touch. So, I knew him and I’ve known him for years and he’s such a great guy. I keep saying you’ve got to get him on Bill O’Reilly’s Culture Warrior. He’s fantastic. He has a small part in this film. I wish it was bigger but that’s just the script. But just to have him in the film, he represents this business. He represents the whole entire … all the issues surrounding this business. Is it moral? Is it immoral? Everything. He’s been on 20/20. He’s done all the debates. He’s been on Nightline. People don’t realize. I mean, he’s bright. He’s really the voice of this. So, just having him even though he’s only in that one scene, it gives reality to the world in that final scene. And then, having him do press is the greatest thing because he represents the business. He’s very smart and he’ll talk. You think oh, he’s a porn star. We’re not going to pitch him to Bill O’Reilly or Bill Moyer or any of these… This is a bright guy.
Garry Marshall is interesting. That was a really tough one because that was a very important scene. That’s a real person you know. He’s a real director. How am I going to do this? We had a very low budget film and we didn’t shoot it in L.A. So how the heck am I ever going to get someone to do it. At the eleventh hour, my friend Scott Marshall, Garry’s son – I edited Scott’s first student film in film school – and I said, “Scott, can you see if your dad would do this?” and he pulled through. Good people.
Can you talk about how you use comedy to portray the absurdity in human relationships?
JD: That’s a good question. For me, no matter how serious the subject is, when I try to write about it, I have to write about it from a comic point of view. It’s just the way it comes out. I think it’s what makes it palatable. It just naturally comes out like that. I think in a way though they say that comedy is a much more pointed way of actually getting across something serious, especially if it’s done in a realistic way. I mean, I don’t think this is heightened farcical. It’s always hard to analyze what your own style is. I think it was the only way to approach it when I wrote the script was just from my point of view of absurdity. I couldn’t believe the irony. I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t have broad comedy which it what would have made this script work better if I’d wanted to make it as a bigger movie. It would have had to be broad. It’s not broad. I mean, there are parts of it that are broad but it’s more that kind of ironic, the way this person is seeing it from their point of view. I also think when you take a subject like this, it’s a little easier to swallow so to speak if it’s done with a comedic point of view. Otherwise it’s going to be dark and sad and depressing, this world.
Do you think your imagination is dark or do you try to balance it with lighter moments?
JD: I think it is dark. I think there’s a lot of darkness there. I think the script was darker. The movie is very different from the script because I do not have the money and the time that this script called for. So it was kind of a compromised version of what I wrote. But I still feel it’s intact as far as what the story is about and what it is. The heart of it is still there but some more of the psychological complexity of it is lost, especially things between Jody and Bliss. It was supposed to be a little more visually complex. All those scenes where you saw in Jody’s eyes the reflection of Bliss, there were supposed to be shots like that where she’s like in her. It’s her alter ego to such an extent that she’s in her. You know, more visual things to show her that it’s her alter ego. It’s her darker self. It’s her id. But, you needed to show that visually and I couldn’t do that.
Do you think Kathryn Bigelow’s recent Oscar win will make it easier for other women who are interested in getting into the industry to direct?
JD: No. I mean, it’s interesting. She won, but she won telling a very male story. Why hasn’t anyone written about that? The first woman to win an Oscar directed a story where there’s no women. When a woman wins an Oscar for telling a story from a woman’s point of view, that’s going to be the win. That’s the moment.
How difficult is it to raise the money to make the films you want and would you like to work for a studio at this stage in your career?
JD: My career is so difficult doing this. It’s absolutely exhausting. It was easier when I was younger, but now I have a child and I’m married and it’s really hard. Money solves a lot of problems and when you don’t have money, you’ve got to do all this other stuff to solve the problem. It’s very hard. I would love to have not necessarily a studio because then you lose so much control but I would love to have decent independent financing where I have the freedom and I have the money to do it right, to not be asking people to work for free or to work for half the rate and not ask those favors again and again because I now owe all these people back who’ve helped me. So there’s where I’d like to be and I’d like to do what I see in my head. I always feel like I’m directing with one hand tied behind my back.
How challenging was it to write and direct yourself in a film like Amy’s Orgasm? Does having a major acting role distract you from directing?
JD: That was difficult. It was difficult in certain ways, but actually in other ways it was easier because I didn’t have to worry about my attitude – that I was not going to show up on time. (Laughs) I knew that I’d come through. I had a great friend who’s a wonderful director and he was behind the monitor. He was there for me just to watch me since I couldn’t watch me.
You’re the ultimate hyphenate, you do it all. Is there one aspect you enjoy more than the rest? Is there one that you detest?
JD: I detest producing at this point. I mean, I feel like I do it to enable myself to do all the other stuff that I do love, but I find it’s in conflict with the other roles because the producer needs to be the one who says “No” and the director and the writer need to let their mind be free. So it’s very hard. It’s like having two warring people in your head. I love all of it. I love acting. I’d like to act in the next one. There’s definitely something about the acting that’s the most fun.
Can you talk about how your approach to writing and directing led to an ensemble cast that shines in every scene?
JD: Well even though it’s Leelee’s story, to me, every character is so important. I love them. I just feel that they’re all great parts. It’s really about the casting. The actors are either going to elevate the smaller parts or not. I think some of the supporting actors are so fantastic – the unknowns – the one who plays Gary, P J Byrne; the one who plays Sindi, Mircia Monroe, they’re phenomenal actors. So they brought those roles. They made those roles the best they could possibly be.
You had a lot of interesting music in this. How important is the selection of music to your films?
JD: Huge and it probably might be my favorite part of the whole process. It’s everything. I mean, the music completely changes the film. Donnamarie Recco, who plays Kathleen, was also the Music Supervisor. She’s a musician. She brought in all of these friends of hers who are unsigned artists and all the music was free. That’s huge. That was really nice. And then, the composer, John Swihart, is fantastic. He wrote the score for Napoleon Dynamite which is a very unique, quirky score that has a lot to do with that film working. He’s just brilliant. I think he did a really good job. He had no time but I think he gives a good feel to it. He gets the heartwarming stuff, the sexy stuff. That took about 3 or 4 months just the music.
Did Wicked Pictures or the AVN offer any assistance?
JD: Yes. All of them. AVN gave us their trophies to use. They have a special thanks. And then, Wicked Pictures was hugely helpful to us. We went to them, me and one of the producers, Dave O (David Orenstein), and we went to Wicked and they read the script and they saw that it was a really positive look at the business so we made Grind kind of look like Wicked. We used all their posters. They gave us all their footage. They were great.
How do you balance motherhood and filmmaking?
The only bad thing for me about this whole experience right now is just that now that the film is getting out, my 8-year-old son cannot see the film. It’s very hard. But I really want him to enjoy this. I want him to see…I took him to see the trailer the other day that’s playing over at the theater and he was so excited to be sitting in the dark and see that trailer up there and he said “That’s my mom.” And I realized that he’s the most important person to share it with. I’m trying to edit a version just for him where I take out all the bad stuff. It’s not an easy task.
What are you working on now?
JD: I’m writing my next script. It’s untitled. It’s about how to keep a marriage fresh after a certain amount of time and a female character who goes about doing that in a very misguided way. It’s a comedy. It has more serious elements than my other films but it’s still comedic.
Do you have an ideal cast in mind?
JD: (Laughs) I try not to do that because you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment because you never know who you’re going to get. It’s the character that comes first and then the actors will come to it.
Finding Bliss opens in New York on June 4 and Los Angeles on June 11 and is Rated: R.