Flavorwire Interview: Gay Adult Cinema Pioneer Jerry Douglas on Working with Radley Metzger, Making Porn in the Seedy ’70s, and the Musical Quality of Sex Scenes

"You shoot your musical numbers the same way you shoot your sex scenes. So, it was duets and group scenes. You write a libretto to sew them together."

Adult cinema is frequently left out of the discussions about independent movies, but the experimental and avant-garde works of directors like Radley Metzger, Roberta Findlay, and Joe Sarno demand a place in the canon. These filmmakers are being honored in a new series at New York’s Quad Cinema. Erotic City, which runs today through August 31, surveys sex on the big screen in NYC. From the series’ press announcement:

In the early 1960s, New York City became the national hub for independent filmmaking of all types. With the gradual relaxing of local and national censorship and obscenity laws, many directors turned their lenses towards the growing demand for sexuality-themed films. For the next 20-some years, a diverse group of filmmakers seized the opportunity to explore taboo subjects, and collectively produced thousands of shorts and features in a wide range of styles.

Iowa-born Jerry Douglas arrived in New York to start a career in theater. He developed a reputation for directing and producing nude off-Broadway plays, and was approached about developing his first hardcore porn film not long after the release of Wakefield Poole’s landmark 1971 movie Boys in the Sand.

Douglas’ films stood out for their attention to story, complex themes, and fearlessness in tackling gay sexual subculture in movies like The Back Row. His Both Ways looks at deeper, intimate relationships, exploring the (explicit) bond between a married man in the suburbs and his young male lover, and all the complicated emotions that ensue — something often whispered about closeted men during the time, but never openly. Douglas will present the film in person at the Quad on Sunday, August 27.

Ahead of the Both Ways screening, Flavorwire spoke to Douglas about his experience in the industry working with other luminaries like Metzger (Douglas wrote the screenplay for Metzger’s 1974 film Score, based on Douglas’ off-Broadway play), editing the essential gay magazine Manshots, and the state of gay porn today.

Flavorwire: Your background is in theater and screenwriting. Were you a young cinephile, too?

Jerry Douglas: Very much so. My earliest memory of life is my mother carrying me into a movie theater. I can remember this vividly — that I was being held in her arms and looking up at the ceiling, and it was mirrored. I remember how impressed I was by the mirrored ceiling. It was not the last one I ever saw, but it was the first.

Do you have any idea what movie?

It might have been The Forest Rangers, with Fred MacMurray and Paulette Goddard, but I’m not sure about that.

What did you initially set out to accomplish with your career — theater, writing, or film?

I was a drama major during college. I knew I couldn’t act.

How long did you work in theater?

After college, I went to Yale Drama School. I came to New York and did a variety of jobs connected to the theater. I worked for a theatrical agent. I staged managed an off-Broadway show. Lots of things like that. Eventually, I began directing.

Was “Score” your first experience working on a film set?

Radley [Metzger] bought the rights to one of my plays, Score. I had it in my contract that I got to be on the set, because I was very anxious to learn something about film directing. All my experience had been with theatrical directing. Radley was just wonderful to me — in many, many ways. I just loved Radley. We remained friends ever since then. He was terribly generous to me, I think not totally for altruistic reasons, but because he was always so terribly interested in the camera and the technical aspects of filmmaking. His strongest suit was not actors. About the third day of the shoot he said, ‘You take care of the actors, I’ll take care of everything else.’ Because I directed the play, and two of the people in the cast had been in the play at one time or another, I knew what I was looking for. It worked out very well.

What did you learn about filmmaking from Radley?

My favorite anecdote is from the very first day of the shoot. He came up to me and said, ‘You wanna learn something, huh? Alright, here’s your first lesson. Always put something in the foreground of the shot. It gives it depth. Got it?’ And he walked away.

That’s great.

Radley was a great man. I adored him.

I always wondered if you directed the sex scenes in “Score” with Casey Donovan and Gerald Grant.

I was there, but, no, Radley directed the whole film. I just coached actors instead of him having to rehearse them. Radley was straight, I am gay. I was definitely on the set. Now and then I would make a suggestion about the male-male scenes in the film. The compositions were all Radley. That was his forte, his specialty.

What do you remember about working on your first film, “The Back Row?”

I directed a number of plays that involved nudity. My partner on Back Row, and subsequently on Both Ways, was straight. He was the husband of a woman whom I worked with many times when I was at Yale. I partially put myself put myself through school directing community theater productions. Sam came to me one day and said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ I said, ‘Fine — but it’ll have to be a gay movie.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’ It was a baptism by fire. I didn’t know a damn thing about making a film, but boy did I seem to have a knack for it. I had a great enthusiasm. It went together very nicely.

Back Row followed Boys in the Sand [Wakefield Poole’s 1971 film] into the 55th Street Playhouse. It had a longer run there than Boys in the Sand did, but because it wasn’t the first, as Wakefield’s was, it never had the publicity of being a landmark film that Boys in the Sand was. I had worked with Cal [Casey Donovan] on stage many times, and he was just wonderful.

When I was the editor of Manshots magazine, he did a column for me every month for two years before he died. Again, I was very much a neophyte and learning. Cal had done several films by then. I still have all my outtakes. I have a wonderful outtake where he’s giving head to another actor who is standing, and he’s kneeling. Right in the middle of it, he stops, and the guy puts his hand on Cal’s face — an automatic gesture. Cal lifts the hand off and goes right back to sucking. It’s one of my treasured outtakes.

What first drew you to Cal, apart from his obvious beauty?

He was a beautiful man. He had a great gift for making every person he spoke to think that he was the most important person Cal ever knew. I fell for that, I bought it; fair enough, because we became good friends and remained good friends until he died. I saw him a week before he died. He was getting ready to go home and die in Florida. He brought over his last column for the magazine and said, ‘This is it, baby. I’m going home to die.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it or read it, but there’s a lovely biography of Cal out [Boy in the Sand: Casey Donovan, All-American Sex Star]. I wrote the introduction to it. In it, I say that I worked with him more than anyone else. I was a good social friend with him. We went a lot of places together. My husband is a very good cook. Cal would often come over for dinner. We were really, really close friends, I like to think. But — and this is what I said in the introduction — I never knew him. Nobody knew him. He was a chameleon.

You worked during both the pre-condom era and the ‘80s and ‘90s AIDS crisis. What was the tone like on set when making those movies, knowing all this horrible stuff was going on?

It was the safest place most of these guys ever had sex. At the beginning, nobody believed condoms were any good. We had to use them on the set for PR reasons.

I couldn’t remember if your films used condoms

Absolutely, every single one of my films, except the first three back in the ‘70s. I said I would never do a film without condoms until somebody produced a vaccine that was foolproof. Of course, I left the industry before that happened. It was very hard to get used to, because I had been in a monogamous relationship — we’re about to celebrate our 38th anniversary next week — I didn’t have a great deal of experience with condoms. Most of [the actors] did, and it was no big deal. I think I either worked condoms into the plot or the characterizations. It was a running joke at the time about the ‘condom fairy.’ One minute they wouldn’t have on a condom, but the next minute they would. I very much got around that. At the beginning I tried very hard to use condoms that didn’t have rims around the top of them so they were almost invisible. When I couldn’t get them anymore, I said fuck it and went ahead and used them. By then, everyone was accustomed to them.

Your adult films are known for their compelling stories. Did gay audiences want more of that or were they only interested in the sex?

You tell me. I made 16 films, and half of them won Best Picture.

My dear friend Stan Ward, who wrote for the Philadelphia Gay News, said: ‘Sex in context is better than sex not in context.’ I had a background in it. I knew how to direct a play. Very early on I realized something that was like a light bolt from the blue. I realized that a porn film was like a musical comedy. You shoot your musical numbers the same way you shoot your sex scenes. So, it was duets and group scenes. You write a libretto to sew them together. That’s exactly the way all my films are structured. I like to think each one was different, and you don’t see the structure. That’s the secret of a good playwright.

I worked on a great variety of different stories. They came from the strangest places. A dear friend of mine lived in San Francisco with his wife and three children — and across the bridge in Oakland, his lover. He took his lover to his 10th or 20th anniversary reunion at Princeton, and he told me that he had the guts to dance with Ron at the reunion. That became [the 1999 film] Dream Team.

I made three films in the early ‘70s. I just had so much trouble with theater owners and with the mafia, that I said, ‘Fuck it.’ I walked away for 10, 12 years. In the meantime I had spent a great deal of time in journalism. As the editor of Manshots magazine, I was in constant contact with people in the adult industry, one of whom was Dirk Yates, who ran All Worlds Video. For months, every time I talked to him long-distance, he’d say, ‘Jerry, when are you going to make a movie for me?’ I said, ‘I haven’t made a movie in 10 years. I’m not going to ever do it again. I’ve been there, done that.’ This went on for about a year.

One day — I don’t know why the hell I was in such a piss-elegant mood — I said, ‘Alright, I’ll make a movie for you — but you have to give me a piece of the action. You have to give me royalties.’ This was unheard of in the porn industry. I thought this would kill it. I said, ‘You must give me final cut. You don’t get it, I do.’ Again, never before done in the porn industry. And third, I said, ‘I want Tim Lowe for the lead.’ Tim Lowe was the biggest porn star around at that time. I was sure that would kill it. He hung up. After a few days he called back and said, ‘Hi! Time Lowe’s here and wants to talk to you.’ That’s how Fratrimony was made.

When you were the editor of “Manshots” magazine, you essentially preserved this in-depth history of gay porn and gay actors.

A lot of people tell me I did, yes. That’s the most significant thing I’ve ever done. At the time, it was simply a job that I loved and was good at it.

What was your favorite part about it?

That’s a hard one, because there are so many things that make me happy and so many things that make me pissed-off. I loved the whole world of journalism — tracking down and setting up the story, the negotiations that went on to get people to be interviewed, and making connections to get the review copies of the videos.

Tell me about the atmosphere of New York City at the time you were working.

You could look out your window, waggle your finger at somebody on the sidewalk, and you’d have a trick and never have to leave the house. It was the best time in the history of the planet to be trashy, and I took full advantage of it.

Gay men picking each other up in a porn theater is a cliché now, but that was a reality, right?

Oh, that was absolutely a reality. When Back Row was playing at the 55th Street Playhouse, I had some problems with the producer, because they were trying to fuck me over on money. I just made it my responsibility to sit in the box office all day with the box office men so that I knew exactly how much money was coming in. When I got bored, I would walk down to the front of the theater. You know where the exits are? With a draped doorway? I would stand behind the drapes and watch the audience — and it was just fascinating. You would be amazed at the number of people who were not jerking off that had come there to see a film that had aroused them, but had not pushed them into action. And then, of course, sure, there were people sucking each other off in the audience. But, I was just amazed at the number of people who behaved themselves.

Were straight audiences like that?

I did a lot of reviews of straight films with a couple of the magazines I worked with before Manshots. I almost always saw a straight film at a screening for reviewers. Obviously, I was in a straight porn house at one time or another in my life, but it was nothing I remember.

You know what my favorite line in all filmdom is? From All About Eve? Celeste Holm at the beginning when she’s going in to see Margot, and she gets out of a cab in the rainstorm, and there’s Eve standing in the doorway, and she says: ‘Where were we going that night. . . . the things you remember and the things you don’t.’ I think that’s one of the greatest lines ever written. I think it’s true. The things we remember and the things we don’t.

Do your movies turn you on?

Are you asking me if I jack off to my own movies? [laughs] No — and not because I don’t think that they’re arousing, but simply because I know what went into making the arousing happen. I’ve always said that after the first movie, it’s just yard goods. You’re too busy making a movie to get turned on. I tell all my actors on the first day that I’m a very touchy-feely person. I’ve been in a very happy monogamous relationship for years. I am not hitting on you, but I will be touching you a lot. Sometimes during a scene, I would just pick up a guy’s cock, move it, and say, ‘It needs to be over here.’ Nobody thought anything about it. I didn’t.

It was like a prop.

Exactly, I’ve said that for many years. The cock just becomes another prop.

What’s your favorite sex scene you’ve directed?

The scene with Jeanna Fine, Kurt Young, and Hawk McAllister in Flesh & Blood. It’s the scene where she thinks they’re going to have a three-way, and both men ignore her. It’s not just a fuck scene. It has a dramatic tension about it. I love the scene — it’s all shot through gauze curtains. Jeanna’s a wonderful actress, and Kurt is the best actor I’ve ever worked with.

For me, there were four things that an actor had to have before I hired them. The first had to be face. I’m a face queen. If they didn’t have a beautiful face, it didn’t matter how beautiful their body was or how big their cock was. Item two was that they had to have a good body. Item three was that they had to have an average size or better cock. Fourth, they had to get along with me, and I had to get along with them.

Kurt Young and I have remained friends ever since then. I just adore him. He’s one of my favorite people in the industry.

What’s he like on set?

He’s a consummate professional. He knows his lines. He knows what’s expected of him. He listens to direction. He offers suggestions. He never raises his voice or goes and pouts. A director can’t ask for more than that.

Your film “Both Ways” was unprecedented in many ways for its portrayal of bisexuality. The film openly discussed being closeted.

Absolutely. . . . I was very fortunate. I came to New York with a lover I had acquired in college. We got an apartment on West 87th Street. The landlord didn’t blink. I was working in the theater. My bosses didn’t blink. Nobody gave a shit. . . . I was blessed being in New York and being in the theater. My mother died about that time, so I never got around to telling her I was gay. I was just about to tell her when she called me my last year at Yale. She said, ‘Do you have your thesis done?’ I said yes. I had been directing my first musical at the time. She asked how’d the show go. I said I got nice reviews, everything’s fine. She said, ‘Oh good, then I have to tell you this. I have six months to live.’ She was 52 at the time.

What was it like working with Joey Stefano? Madonna kind of drew attention to him for mainstream audiences.

I was very fortunate, I was very blessed. Chi Chi [LaRue] and I are very good friends. Joey was her protégé. As a matter of a fact, Chi Chi and I made our first films within a week of each other. We both got into the industry at exactly the same time. Of course, as the editor of Manshots, and before that, as a writer for Eros, I had been in touch with her when she was working as William Higgins’ PR woman-man. We were very good friends. One day, Chi Chi and Joey had lunch at an Italian restaurant. I don’t remember the name of it, and I’ve never been able to find my way back to it. I watched the interplay between them, and it was just breathtaking. It was like mother and son. Also about that same time, I had seen Chi Chi perform for the first time at an AVN Awards show. After that awards show I said, ‘I’ve got to make a movie about Larry [Paciotti]/Chi Chi, but nobody’s going to come for a fat drag queen.’ Then I remembered her relationship with Joey — and I asked if I could use him and her in a movie. She said sure, which was one of the loveliest things she ever did in her whole life. She gave me Joey Stefano and didn’t give him to anyone else for a long, long time.

I was very blessed, partly because of her, and partly because I got Joey between his drug bouts. He was not a bit of a problem to me. Not a bit — except for two things. He had a jack-off scene in the film [More of a Man]. As sexual a creature as Joey was, he could not do a jack-off. He had to have someone else around. The only way I got the jack-off scene for the film was to let him have sex with someone until the camera’s rolled.

Joey had no concept of theater or characterization or plot. He was just there to fuck. In fact, he made it quite clear he would not do the movie unless I could get Michael Henson, because he wanted to fuck Michael Henson. I drove all the way to Sacramento. Michael had been retired. I tracked him down. He disappeared off the face of the Earth. I met Michael at a roadhouse outside the town, because he didn’t want anyone there to know who he was. I talked Michael into it. That was one of the great blessings of my life.

I was just so amazed by what an instinctual animal Joey was, and yet he was a perfect gentleman when he wanted to be. He was also a brat when he wanted to be. About a year after the film opened, he was in New York. I invited him to dinner. We were sitting in the restaurant talking about one thing or another. I don’t know how it came up in the conversation, but we were talking about how everybody falls in love with him. I said, ‘Joey, I don’t mean to break your heart, but I have never been the least bit attracted to you.’ You would have thought I had stabbed him in the heart, the look on his face. I’d like to think I was the first person who ever said that to him.

You probably were.

Joey was a good kid. He came in one day wearing one of these very trendy jeans at the time that were cut off at the calf. He said, ‘Aren’t these fabulous for the film [More of a Man]?’ I said, ‘No. Vito would never wear something like that. He was a hard-hat redneck.’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I said, ‘Tell you what. Let me give you a copy of Rocky. Go home and watch it. Steal everything from Sylvester Stallone that you can.’ The day we started filming, the first scene we ever shot, was a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. The film starts with all the votive candles. [Joey] walks out of the church, walks over to his truck and kicks the tire to see if it’s ok. After I got it in one take, he came running up to me and said, ‘Did you see my Sylvester Stallone walk?’ He was a lovely kid. He really was. He went far too soon. It just breaks my heart thinking about how many people were destroyed by drugs.

How were your films were perceived during the time that you made them?

I got wonderful reviews and eight porn Oscars. Out of those eight films, six of them I got Best Director, and six of them I got Best Screenplay. I was considered a very big fish in a very dirty, little pond.

How do you feel about being called an auteur?

I love it.

What do you think about gay porn today?

I don’t watch much of it. I have, on the internet. I don’t understand how anybody can sit in front of his computer and jack off. I just don’t get that. I think — and this is probably the most profound thing I can say in this interview — is we’ve come full circle. When I entered the industry for the first time, just about the time of Boys in the Sand, J. Brian, Wakefield, and people like that were just beginning to treat pornography as an art form. At the very beginning there were nothing but 15 to 20-minute loops. That’s where we are today — exactly the 15-minute loop.

Is there a director you admire?

Many. I love Wakefield’s movies. I think they were groundbreaking. I think Matt Sterling’s movies were wonderful. Many of Larry’s [Chi Chi LaRue’s] are, but, of course, Larry makes one every ten minutes, so not all of them work — but when he’s on, boy is he ever on.

Will you ever direct another film?

I would love to. For my 80th birthday my husband John invited people from all my various streams of life. There were people from my kindergarten class, people from my days in publishing, my days in the theater, my days in porn — every aspect of my life that I had worked. Amongst them was my assistant on many of my films. He had brought with him the person he was working for at the time. During the course of the evening he came over to me and said, ‘Would you ever consider coming out of retirement?’ I said, ‘Nah, never. When I called wrap on Brotherhood, I turned to the producer John Rutherford and said, ‘You heard me say that for the last time. I’m done.’ I could see what was happening. My kind of film was going the way of the dinosaurs. I walked away from the industry — and happily so. I walked away and went back to doing other things, particularly running the magazine. I just wasn’t interested.

That night I went home. I was lying in bed staring at the movie screen on the ceiling. [laughs] Guess what it was? It was the Ziegfeld Follies. Of course, it wasn’t. That was all in my imagination. Now I’m not talking about the great Ziegfeld that won the Academy Award. I’m talking about the sequel to it in 1946. It starts with William Powell, still playing Ziegfeld, on a cloud up in heaven. He says, ‘Oh, if I could do just one more.’

So I called him up and said, ‘Sure I’d be glad to.’ A week later I had the script. They were undergoing some financial problems, having to move, and a lot of things. It never came about. I love the script. I have a number of unproduced scripts — probably four or five. I really regret that I’ve never found anyone to produce the new one that I wrote a year or so ago. It’s called Brothers with Benefits. I would like to make one more film and see what I’ve learned.

Jerry Douglas will present “Both Ways” at New York City’s Quad Cinema on Sunday.