Commentary: 'Naked' look at Oscars of porn, AVN Awards


AVN Awards: You may think you know your way around the movie awards circuit, but chances are you've never been to the AVNs.

AVN is short for the Adult Video News Awards, a four-day event held in Las Vegas every January that's best described as "the Oscars of Porn." It's a reference the Academy's probably not thrilled about, but nonetheless that's basically what AVN is.

I know all this, I hasten to explain, not from having done any research on my own, but simply from having enjoyed an early look at Michael Grecco's fascinating documentary "Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look at an X-Rated Industry." The Lantern Lane Entertainment film in association with KHG Documentary Productions opens Friday in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica (Santa Monica) and Laemmle's Sunset 5 (West Hollywood).

Directed and executive produced by Grecco, it was written and produced by Charles Holland with Bryan Postlethwait as executive in charge of production. Among the best-known porn stars Grecco focuses on in the film are Jenna Jameson, Jesse Jane, Sunny Lane and JoAnna Angel, all of whom have built sizable fan bases. The AVNs and the accompanying weeklong Adult Entertainment Expo, by the way, attract more than 100,000 adult movie enthusiasts to Las Vegas from around the world. Those who can get into the awards pay between $125 and $250 for tickets.

For some insights into this movie about the adult film industry, which reportedly generates a staggering $97 billion a year in revenues, I spoke recently to Grecco. Although he makes his feature directing debut with "Naked," Grecco's a well-known still photographer whose many celebrity portraits include the filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. His work's been seen in such magazines as Esquire, Time and Entertainment Weekly. Besides the movie version of "Naked," he's also created a companion coffee table book of photographs with the same name that was published a year ago and is available from major bookstores and online sites such as amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

When I began by asking why he took an R-rated non-exploitation approach to reporting on an X-rated industry, he replied, "I have a reputation in town to uphold. I'm a celebrity shooter. I've done a lot of advertising work and magazine work in Hollywood over the years. That (X-rated approach) wasn't what I was interested in. I was interested in the culture itself, and exploring the culture as a serious document. Adding me to the film (as its narrator) was our (way of tying) it all together and giving it a dramatic bridge so it wasn't a talking heads HBO-style documentary about the industry that you might have seen before."

Grecco's approach to interviewing some of the leading actresses working in porn movies today reflects his own roots in still photography. He observes in the film that a good still photograph should leave the viewer wanting to know more. "I'm a portrait photographer and I approached the documentation of this sub-culture as doing portraits of the people," he explained. "I approached it as a sociologist would. I wanted a portrait where you're looking at people's eyes and you're wondering what they're thinking or there's a more subtle emotion or there's something going on that makes you stare into the portrait."

Reflecting on the porn stars he pointed out, "When we started most photo shoots the girls -- because of what they do for a living -- started taking off their clothes. They started having sex. They started sticking their tongue out. My approach was sort of the opposite. It was (that) we didn't want to shoot porn. I didn't want to do anything that was like that. I wanted to look at this culture."

The AVN convention and awards show, he noted, "is sort of the (porn) culture at its height. This is like covering the Mardi Gras parade. This is where people really express themselves with their full facade. Once we started talking about the facade, I had to make the film personal (and) get it into what that meant for me."

Asked about using the AVN Awards to drive the movie, Grecco told me, "It's interesting for me because this project has hit a certain amount of mainstream sort of censorship (with) people being freaked out about it. The MPAA was freaked out over the trailer, even though the trailer's rather vanilla, and gave it a red-band. To me the porn world is not that radical. My wife is a programmer in the television industry and we were (originally) invited to the awards as guests. I was invited in 2002 and immediately turned to someone and said, 'This is going to be my next project.' It actually took me two or three years of proposal writing to find a corporate sponsor (for) the first photo shoot. Once we had the corporate sponsor on board I had to approach AVN. It's their property. It's like trying to do a document of the Oscars and not going to the Academy."

AVN wound up giving Grecco access to shoot at the awards: "AVN became interested in the project because it spotlighted their awards show. It exposes the show to people who didn't know there was an Oscar-like event for the porn world. But the approach with the book was not that of being commercial and worrying about sponsors or what the talent thought. The approach to the book and the film was to expose these people not necessarily in a negative way but in a real way (by) not retouching the photos. We didn't retouch any of the pictures in the movie or the book."

Grecco spent the first half of his career working as a photo journalist. "Probably one of the high points (in my career) was a couple years ago having the exclusive cover to Time Magazine of Spielberg when he did 'Munich,'" he said. "But I've shot for (just about) every magazine there is. I started as a photo journalist and I worked for the Associated Press and was a staff photographer for the Boston Herald. I moved to Los Angeles and was a regular contributor to People magazine. I left that in the early '90s to do portraiture. I've shot everyone over the past 15 years or so and have shot covers for Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine and Newsweek and People magazine. I love what I do.

"In Hollywood you would often retouch the photography and not only make sure the picture was engaging and had a good concept, but also make the talent look good because, of course, you have to work in this town again. That was not something that was of concern to me. I treated it more as a fine arts project where the pictures could be in a museum and you'd look at the images and go, 'Wow. That's really what that person looks like.' We approached it with that level of seriousness."

The movie actually started out, he recalled, just to be "B-roll for the book. As we started thinking about doing it, there was a partner who has become silent since then, but the three of us -- my partner Charles (Holland) and myself and this other partner -- started thinking, why don't we throw in a couple thousand dollars apiece and see what we get. The footage (with) the candidness and the openness and the frankness of the girls was (very surprising). I find the movie entertaining and comical (because of) the things they would say. And it became a movie. We got this movie idea. We figured out how to put it together. I had a friend turn me on to Mark Wexler's (2004 documentary) 'Tell Them Who You Are.' That film inspired me as to how personal we needed to make this.

"Seeing the footage (we shot) was the impetus. The first year we didn't shoot HD. We shot standard def. There would (otherwise) have been more planning in the visual aspects of the movie. I didn't do that because I gave loose direction to what we needed to cover, but I was shooting the book at that time."

Shooting was done over the course of two years. "We shot in 2006. We covered three days of the convention and the awards show," he said. "In 2007 we did four days of the convention and I shot some coverage of the awards show. The thing with a long-term project like this is that you're able to look at the footage and look at the pictures in the book and figure out what's missing. To try to do a movie in three days or try to do a book in three days isn't a lot (of time) so we decided to go back to fill in the gaps that we saw as we were putting both things together."

The porn star interviews, he said, were each shot in about 45 minutes: "The good thing about this other partner who was with us -- he's an experienced journalist -- is that his questions were good. What interests me about this, and it relates to the book, too, is that it's combining journalism with Hollywood. It's hopefully making it an entertaining documentary. Charles Holland, my partner who's written 250 episodes of dramatic television, wrote the over-arching script that holds it all together.

"But at the same time, journalistically, the girls said what they said. This isn't (carefully contrived) reality television. These were real questions. They were journalistic questions (like), 'How does it feel? Would you do porn or work in a coffee shop if you could make just as much money? Is it about the money?' Those were the questions that we felt were poignant and we got amazing answers."

Were the girls smarter than he thought they'd be? "Yes," Grecco replied. "These girls know what they're doing -- especially Sunny and JoAnna, who are the featured talent in the documentary. They are business people. They watch their careers carefully. They have lawyers and managers, people they consult. JoAnna has her own production company. Sunny is very much into positioning herself as a big star and getting some mainstream recognition, but also (positions) herself in the adult industry strategically to be in the top of her game. Most of these girls have a (career) plan and they're very frank so they'll tell you what the plan is."

Grecco thought the film's subject matter "would have much curiosity, but what it does instead is it polarizes people. JoAnna says it in the film -- 'People either love it or hate it.' People either react 'Oh, cool' or they're like 'Oh, my God!' You know, corporate America has brought (adult movies into our homes via cable). Companies like Comcast and Time Warner (have found that) their biggest moneymaker in their cable divisions is adult (movies). This stuff is available in everyone's home, yet many people are freaked (out) about it."

Looking back at production and its biggest challenges, Grecco recalled, "For me the toughest thing was wearing two hats -- directing crew and interviews while they're shooting me and I'm taking photographs that we know are going to be part of the story that's being told. A three- or four-day shoot of this magnitude was very, very intense."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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