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Filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami

Filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami is a scholar of Iranian film. His two documentaries are Dreams Betrayed and Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution. Together, they explore Iranian filmmaking before and after the 1979 revolution. In Iranian films, male and female characters are not allowed to touch, ever, and women must be veiled at all times. Despite these and other limitations, Iranian cinema has garnered international critical acclaim. Akrimi is an associate professor at William Paterson University.

21:01

Other segments from the episode on March 7, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 7, 2002: Interview with Jamsheed Akrami; Interview with Wash West; Commentary on Harlan Howard.

Transcript

DATE March 7, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jamsheed Akrami discusses the Iranian cinema before and
after the revolution
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today, we're talking about two opposite answers to the question: What level
of physical intimacy is acceptable in the cinema? Later, we'll hear from Wash
West, whose art house film "The Fluffer" is set in the gay porn world.

In Iran, no physical contact is allowed on screen between a man and a woman.
Not even a husband and wife can touch. Censorship in Iran is pretty rigid.
Screenplays must be approved for content before production. The cast and crew
members must be approved before they're hired. The finished film must be
approved before it is shown. In spite of this, a new wave of Iranian films
has been met with critical acclaim around the world. The film "A Taste of
Cherry," by Abbas Kiarostami, was a joint winner of the top prize at the
Cannes Film Festival in 1997. The Iranian film "Kandahar" has been playing
American art houses. And another claimed Iranian film, "Boran," will soon
open.

My guest, Jamsheed Akrami, has made two documentaries about the Iranian
cinema. The latest is "Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the
Revolution." He is Iranian, and has lived in the US for more than 20 years.
He teaches at William Paterson University. He says that Iranian directors
have figured out some creative ways of implying physical intimacy without
showing it.

Professor JAMSHEED AKRAMI ("Friendly Persuasion"): You know, the art of the
implication--I think that's what a lot of Iranian filmmakers have been using
in their movies. And that's not very unusual in our culture. We have a long
tradition of poetry, and poetry's all about indirect communication. And both
Iranian audiences and Iranian filmmakers are familiar with those poetic
traditions, and so its applying them to filmmaking is not something that is
difficult for people or for the filmmakers to do.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of a scene that you really think succeeds
in showing that there is a physical link between a man and a woman even though
it doesn't show it?

Prof. AKRAMI: For example, in Behram Beizai movie called "Travelers," you
have a scene in which a couple that are about to get married meet in talking
terms of preparations for their wedding. And again, since you can't show this
couple in the same room because if you did then you have to show a little more
signs of intimacy, like maybe hugging or kissing, you know, things that are
very normal in relationship like that and for an enthusiastic couple. The
filmmaker in that situation has decided to come up with a mise-en-scene in
which the woman is by a window and the man, the young man, is one story below
in the street talking to the woman who's up there by the window.

And, you know, when I saw that film, I was immediately reminded of some scenes
in "Romeo and Juliet," especially the way that they're using the wars to
express their affection for one another. And, you know, the notion of these
people being madly in love with one another is efficiently communicated, but
at the same time, you have shown respect for the culture, as well.

GROSS: Another restriction that filmmakers have to deal with in Iran is that
women have to be wearing a head scarf at all times. In real life in Iran,
women wear a head scarf when they're in public, but they don't have to wear
one when they're in the privacy of their home. But if you're making a movie,
the woman has to be wearing the head scarf if she's at home even if she's in
bed, which is very unrealistic. So how do filmmakers deal with that when
they're showing a scene at home?

Prof. AKRAMI: Most of our more prominent filmmakers have decided not to stage
scenes like that at all. If you follow the Iranian films, you may be
surprised to see how the number of exterior scenes are much larger than other
interior scenes. And that's partly because, you know, when you go inside a
house, dealing with the restrictions become much more difficult. How do you
show the woman having a dinner with her family and at the same time covering
her hair? So a lot of filmmakers have decided to just not bother with doing
scenes like that in their movies. Therefore, they're doing a lot of outdoor
scenes. And, you know, you think of the movie like "The Circle," for example,
which is about the oppression of woman, and that film is entirely staged in
outdoor scenes.

GROSS: There is one scene in a film that you excerpt in your documentary
where a woman is wearing her head scarf, and before she goes outside, she
sprays a bit of perfume into the head scarf as if she's sexualizing an object
that's mean to desexualize a woman.

Prof. AKRAMI: Yes. You know, after the revolution--and this may come as a
surprise to you that representation of women in Iranian film was completely
the opposite of what you see these days. The nudity, for example, was allowed
under the shah, and the woman were mostly used at what some critics would call
a sex object in the Iranian films.

So having gone from that one extreme to this new extreme has been something
difficult for the filmmakers to deal with because some of the filmmakers who
are making movies now, they were also making movies under the shah. And for
them to have to go through the two ends of the spectrum, it's a very difficult
adjustment. But I can really--I have difficulty thinking of these Iranian
films, especially the films made by our more serious filmmakers, in which you
don't see a subversive undercurrent. And the example that you used, you know,
`Yes, I'm coloring my hair, but I'm still using the perfume,' is one example
of that subversive undercurrent which the filmmakers still injecting into her
film in this case. And you can see, as I mentioned, most of our better films
are really coated with those protest signals.

GROSS: There's a film that you excerpt in your documentary called
"Narjes."(ph) That's about a triangle between a man and two women. And in one
of the scenes, a woman who's being kind of shut out of their triangle is
running through the street. And it's unclear to me whether she throws herself
in front of the truck and commits suicide or whether a truck just runs her
down as she's running through the street. But anyways, we don't see the
moment of impact because the camera cuts away, but we do see her bloody body
lying in the street. Is that considered extreme by Iranian standards?

Prof. AKRAMI: No, I wouldn't call it extreme because the moment of impact is
not shown. It's happening outside of the frame, and mostly it's communicated
to the audience in terms of the sound effect.

And what's interesting about that moment when this older woman is hit--as you
know, the story itself is about a triangular relationship between a man, an
older woman and a younger woman. And although we've seen intimacy between the
young man and the older woman throughout the film, and the younger woman is
considered a rival, when they older woman is hit, it's the younger woman that
comes to her help. And this is due to another censorship code, because the
younger woman is allowed to touch the older woman, whereas the man who's been
her lover just sits down, doesn't even approach the body because, again, if he
does, then he would have to touch the body or try to get some help for her or,
you know, there may be some physical contact which will happen in a realistic
situation. But because of the censorship codes, it's him who stays and it's
the woman's rival who actually goes to see what has happened.

GROSS: Is the censorship code getting any more liberalized under President
Khatami?

Prof. AKRAMI: Yeah. Yeah. We've seen some changes in terms of relaxation of
the codes, especially in more recent years. There were some subjects that
were taboo and now they're being made--two movies made by Bahman
Farmanara--"The Smell of Camphor" and his more recent film, "The House Built
on Water"(ph)--are about recurrent political issues in Iran. There's been
more attention paid to depiction of women's problems as we've seen in movies
like "The Circle." There's a new movie called "Unfinished Song," which deals
with how the female singing voice is officially banned in the Iranian media
and it deals with that problem. It's about a musicologist that goes to look
for this woman who--with an unfinished song, and when he finds her, we realize
that she's been thrown in jail because she dared to sing in public.

There's a brand-new film called "My Name is Tehrani, I Am Fifteen,"(ph) and
it's about a 15-year girl who's impregnated and then abandoned by a young man.
And she decides to keep the baby and fight to sort of establish her situation
in a society that basically doesn't tolerate a teen-age girl who's pregnant.
That's--you know, a society that has no room for that kind of presence. So
it's a daring, bold movie. And these are the kind of films that you could not
have made a few years ago.

GROSS: Let mention something that I think is very paradoxical in your
documentary about Iranian films. On the one hand, many of the directors say
that they think one of the reasons why Iranian cinema has grown the way it has
and has become as important as it's become, is because Hollywood movies aren't
shown in Iran and, therefore, there's no competition. Because wherever
Hollywood movies play, it tends to, like, wipe out the country's film
industry.

On the other hand, these same directors say that the movies that influenced
them the most were, like, Hitchcock movies and John Ford movies. So, you
know, these directors love American movies, they've been influence by American
movies and yet they feel their own movies are popular because now American
movies aren't shown in their country.

Prof. AKRAMI: Yes. You know, in both cases, you're right that the Iranian
filmmakers, most of them are in love with American films, and most of them
admit that they have learned how to make movies from following the work of the
American masters. But at the same time, it was a fact that before the
revolution, cinema in Iran was dominated by Hollywood films, you know, as is
the case in, I would say, every other place. And because of the dominance of
American cinema in Iran, the domestic films had difficulty attracting viewers,
even the ones that were purely commercial films. The situation was even more
difficult for artistic films. But after the revolution, the Iranian cinema
has turned into the only game in town, basically.

But at the same time, there's a flourishing bootleg video market in Iran,
through people who bring them to your house, basically, you know. You have
your own video delivery person, and he knows you, he knows your family and you
just order the films and he delivers.

But even on a more open market, there are sort of token number of American
films that are shown from time to time in Iran, especially in the Fajr Film
Festival, which is the most prominent showcase of Iranian films, but they also
have an international component in which they do show American films. You'd
be happy to know that they have a competition section, and this year, Jack
Nicholson won the best actor award for his performance in Sean Penn's movie,
"The Pledge."

CONAN: Can you satirize religion in Iranian films?

Prof. AKRAMI: No. Up until two years ago, you couldn't even have a mullah,
who's an Islamic priest, a religious priest in Islam--you couldn't even show a
mullah in your film. There's been instances where there is a mullah, for
example, in the film, or there are religious references that people in the
safety of dark theaters show a little bit of resentment by hissing or jeering.
And I think that's the situation that the clergy, who's basically running the
country right now, are trying to avoid.

For example, there was a controversial film last year called "Under the
Moonlight," and the central character in that film is a seminarian who right
before he's about to put on the garb and become a clergy, goes through some
doubts and a period of soul-searching. And during that course of
soul-searching, he also encounters situations in which they make fun of
mullahs. And it was a big surprise as I was watching that movie for the first
time that they allowed scenes like that. But at the end, he becomes a mullah,
he puts on the clerical garb and he becomes a mullah. And the message of the
film is, like any other profession: You can be a good mullah or a bad mullah.
And so he decides to become a good mullah.

GROSS: My guest is Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamsheed Akrami, and he is a
film professor and the director of two documentaries about the Iranian cinema.

How old were you when you left Iran?

Prof. AKRAMI: I was 26.

GROSS: And why did you leave and when did you leave?

Prof. AKRAMI: Well, I left a year before the Iranian revolution. And at the
time I left, there was no sign of the coming revolution, basically. The shah
had a pretty strong grip on the country, and it was difficult to predict the
kind of revolution that was in the making.

GROSS: Were you already making movies when you left or writing about movies?

Prof. AKRAMI: Yeah, I was a film critic. I had been a film critic for close
to 10 years already.

GROSS: And what was it like to be a film critic in Iran? Were you writing
for a newspaper?

Prof. AKRAMI: I had the time of my life. I was writing for a newspaper, and
I was the editor of a weekly film magazine and I had my own television show.

GROSS: Oh.

Prof. AKRAMI: Iran, before the revolution, was a thriving film capital. You
know, some of the American films used to open in Iran the same time they would
open in New York or in London, in Paris. And there was a film festival called
Tehran International Film Festival that was really huge, one of the top film
festivals in the world and--both in terms of how lavish it was and how it
would invite people like Elizabeth Taylor, and also in terms of showing the
top international movies every year. And I think I got most of my film
education from attending those festivals every year.

GROSS: So when you left and you came to the United States, did you expect to
see the same America that you'd seen in Hollywood movies?

Prof. AKRAMI: You know, I had a strange feeling when I first came to this
country. I still remember crossing over the Triborough Bridge and that's when
I first saw the New York skyline. And I was really impressed by it, but it
wasn't because I felt I was seeing something for the first time. In a sort of
strange way, I thought I was--I wouldn't calling, like, going home, but I
thought I was coming to a place where I had been before. It was that kind of
a feeling.

So in terms of--I think I was strongly influenced by American films to the
point that I felt American culture was part of my own cultural heritage. Some
people wouldn't forgive me for saying that, but, you know, that's how I
honestly felt. And again, in Iran, I was pretty selective in terms of the
films that I was seeing. I didn't limit myself to only seeing gangster movies
or Western movies or, you know, the sort of Hollywood blockbusters. I would
go to see the American independent films, you know, although there weren't
many of them. But my first exposure to John Cassavete's films was in Iran.
And even we could see some of the underground films that were being made here
in the '60s. So I think I had a pretty realistic expectation of the American
cinema.

GROSS: Would you like to pick an Iranian movie that will be reaching American
theaters sometime soon, or is already in American theaters, that you would
particularly like to recommend to our listeners?

Prof. AKRAMI: Oh, I would really like to recommend a Mr. Majidi movie by the
name of "Baran." Baran means rain, but it's the name of an Afghani refugee
character in Iran. It's a film that was picked by Iran to present Iranian
cinema for the Oscar race and, unfortunately, it wasn't nominated. And this
may sound a bit chauvinistic, but I really like "Baran" better than the
others, the ones that have been nominated.

This is by a master filmmaker and it's about one of the strongest humanistic
messages that I've ever seen in a movie. And, you know, as in his earlier
movies, Mr. Majidi in this one also shows us how we all have a beauty and a
beast within us, and then how he encourages us to get rid of our beast and let
our beauty reign. And I can't think of any message that we need in this kind
of time and this kind of world that we live than a message like that. It's
really--when you leave the theater, you feel like a changed person after
seeing "Baran."

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. AKRAMI: No problem. My pleasure.

GROSS: Jamsheed Akrami's latest documentary is called "Friendly Persuasion:
Iranian Cinema After the Revolution." He teaches at William Paterson
University.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: Coming up, from one extreme in filmmaking to another, we talk with
Wash West. He wrote and co-directed "The Fluffer," an art house film which is
set in the world of the gay pornographic film industry. He's also directed
several gay porn films.

And Ken Tucker remembers Harlan Howard. The country music songwriter died
this week at the age of 74.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Wash West discusses his new film "The Fluffer" and his
work in the porno industry
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We just heard about filmmaking under the strict censorship in Iran, where no
physical contact is allowed between a man and woman on screen. Now we move to
the opposite extreme where anything goes. My guest, Wash West, is the writer
and co-director of the film "The Fluffer," which is about a young, aspiring
filmmaker who starts his career working in a gay porn production company. LA
Times film critic Kevin Thomas wrote, `"The Fluffer" is a coming-of-age
odyssey of notable substance and honesty. It's a fine example of modest
budget filmmaking, boasting first-rate acting, writing and directing.' "The
Fluffer" is playing art houses. It's about porn, but it isn't pornographic.
Wash West has also made several gay pornographic films. One of them was
included in the LA Weekly's top 10 videos of 2000, the first adult title ever
included on that list. We're not going to talk explicitly, but be advised we
are talking about the subject of pornography.

"The Fluffer" begins as the would-be filmmaker rents a video of "Citizen
Kane," which mistakenly has a gay porn video inside the box. He watches it
and finds he's very attracted to the film's star. So he goes to the
production house in the hopes of getting some entry-level film work and
meeting the actor he has a crush on.

(Soundbite of "The Fluffer")

Unidentified Actor: Well, this is it, Sean, Men of Janus Video. Janus was
the Roman god of entrances and exits.

Mr. MICHAEL CUNIO: (As Sean): Yeah.

Unidentified Actor: We have the place to ourselves now. The boss, Alan, he
likes to keep a low profile, so I do most of the personnel-related stuff. Go
ahead.

Mr. CUNIO: Here's my resume.

Unidentified Actor: Ah-ha, very good. So, Sean, tell me about yourself.

Mr. CUNIO: Well, let's see, I moved to LA about three weeks ago, and I came
out here more with the idea of doing more, like, Hollywood, mainstream type
stuff, but, you know, it's not what you know, it's who you know, so I don't
know anybody.

Unidentified Actor: How old are you?

Mr. CUNIO: Twenty-two.

Unidentified Actor: Straight or gay?

Mr. CUNIO: I'm bisexual, I guess.

Unidentified Actor: You sure you don't want to try out in front of the
camera?

Mr. CUNIO: Oh, no. No. I--no.

Unidentified Actor: You sure you're sure?

Mr. CUNIO: Yeah. Yeah. I'm not really an in-front-of-the-camera kind of
person, so...

GROSS: Wash West, what is the polite way of describing what a fluffer does?

Mr. WASH WEST (Director): The polite way would be to say it is the person who
is employed on an adult video to ensure that the male porno star has
sufficient stimulation to perform.

GROSS: And why did you want to make a movie about a fluffer?

Mr. WEST: Well, to me it's a form of an extreme power relationship, and it's
one in which there's clearly one who is worshiped, one who is doing all the
receiving and one who is worshiping and doing all the giving, usually down on
their knees. And I thought it was a ludicrous job, and the fact that that
kind of job exists was immediately interesting to me. But also, once I
started thinking about it, I saw elements of fluffing going on all over the
place, both in the workplace, in social life and in personal relationships.
So I found that it was a great starting point to, you know, explore this
phenomena.

GROSS: Describe the porn star that the fluffer is infatuated with.

Mr. WEST: His name is Johnny Rebel, and he's a narcissist. He's what's
known as a gay for pay porn star, which is someone who defines themselves as
heterosexual, but yet goes and does gay pornography for money. So at the
beginning of the movie, we find him riding high with, you know, a huge ego and
thinking he is God's gift. And certainly he is, you know, an extremely
handsome and charismatic individual. But as the movie goes on, we see that to
support that masculine ideal, it takes a lot of fluffing, a lot of ego
support, both from his girlfriend, who we see in the home environment, and
from his fluffer on the set who kind of give him so much attention to support,
you know, his self-image.

GROSS: Now your new movie "The Fluffer" is about the porn industry and the
people who work in it. You've also made several actual gay porn films. How
did you start making those films?

Mr. WEST: Well, the two were very connected. I always admire films where you
feel like the filmmaker really knows their turf like, you know, Martin
Scorsese obviously knew what "Mean Streets" was about, because that's the
environment he came from. And I didn't want to do a movie about pornography
that was based on a lot of stereotypes or secondhand information. I really
wanted to know firsthand what it was like. So with that in mind, I came to
Los Angeles in 1995, and I actually made contact with a porno star who gave me
the phone number of a company he'd worked for and I rang up. And that was on
a Wednesday. On the Friday, I had a job directing my first porno movie. So
it happened very quickly.

GROSS: Had you watched a lot of porn yourself before starting to make it?

Mr. WEST: No, I really was kind of a porno virgin. I'd never bought a porno
magazine or rented a porn video at the time when I got into the industry.

GROSS: So did you start watching it for research?

Mr. WEST: Yeah, but it was very much for research, because I've always found
that pornography, for me, is very unsexy. And I always find that the way sex
is represented to be very unsatisfactory. I think...

GROSS: Because?

Mr. WEST: Well, when you go into a porn set, it's interesting, it takes you,
you know, 10 minutes to realize that it's probably one of the least sexy
places you could possibly be, because the sex is reduced to something very
mechanical. The natural sexual energy that two people might have for each
other is, you know, usually absent. What you do find is that people kind of
go through the motions and go through certain positions and, you know, by
obeying these formulas it kind of represents sex without actually really being
sex. And I think that, you know, for me that comes across in most porn
videos. The reason I think why they sell is because what the viewer does is
take the information about the model and create their own fantasy in their own
mind. I don't think often they follow the boring fantasy within the movie. I
think they'll make their own using their, you know, three-dimensional
coordinates that they pick up off the videotape or the DVD.

GROSS: Are there certain fantasies in porn videos, in gay porn videos, that
have become such cliches that you either decided to stay away from them or to
parody them in your own work?

Mr. WEST: Well, yeah. I mean, what I started doing a lot in porn was doing
kind of ironic reruns of classic porn situations like, you know, the plumber
comes around to unblock the sink, the pizza boy comes around to deliver a
pizza, all these kind of things I found, you know, really open for parody, and
that can be found all over my films.

GROSS: Is there a certain problem when you parody something successfully in
pornography? Because if you're actually making people laugh, laughter kind of
can ruin arousal. It goes against arousal. So are you like defeating the
purpose of the film if you actually succeed in being funny?

Mr. WEST: No, because I think laughter and arousal can go quite happily hand
in hand. I think the plot part of a porno movie, which is usually open to
ridicule because, you know, the acting's usually not so great and the script
isn't usually that well written, is interesting, because even in the lowest
grade Z pornography, you still get a plot at the beginning, even if it's just
like, `My car's broken down, I'll do anything.' It's always still there. And
I think actors like a transition between people's normal lives when they're,
you know, driving the car, going to work, paying the bills, and this other
part of their life where they're going to fantasize about a porno movie. And
this little bit of plot tells you, you know, you're going to go somewhere
that's not necessarily reality, you're going to go in a fantasy now.

And what I found just, you know, looking at porno as a filmmaker is I really
want to develop this plot part so that someone could be entertained, amused
and kind of almost relaxed by, you know, something that, you know, would set
up the sex in a way that would energize it.

GROSS: Do you ever feel voyeuristic or exploitive when you're directing a
porn film and you're there behind a camera watching people have sex?

Mr. WEST: Well, I certainly feel voyeuristic, because, you know, I'm watching
sex. So I suppose that's the definition of voyeurism. And certainly I kind
of use the camera to explore the sex in a way that, you know, almost become as
a participant in the sexual act.

I try not to be exploitative. I try and always make sure, you know, the
models are getting a good deal. To me, any kind of work is exploitative. You
know, it's like if you're, you know, working in Kmart for a month and you make
your monthly wage and it's, you know, not very much after everything's taken
out, to me you're being exploited. You're selling a certain amount of your
time. Same in pornography. You're selling a shorter amount of time, but I
think you're giving up something much more personal. So, you know, I will not
try and chisel models down on their price and make them do scenes for, you
know, ridiculously low sums of money, because I think that's humiliating and
exploitative. I will always try and respect, you know, the economic demands
that the model makes so that they feel comfortable performing.

GROSS: How do you audition actors for your porn films?

Mr. WEST: For the porn films, it's really a question of if someone's an
exhibitionist, they're going to find their way there. The first thing you
probably ask them to do is pose for a Polaroid photograph and do it, you know,
fully prepared, shall we say. So if they can do that, that's the first stage.
Second stage might be something where they do a solo scene, where they're just
on their own. So if they can do that, again, it gives them confidence. So it
kind of goes in stages too, actually, you know, until you actually get on the
porn set with other people.

GROSS: What kind of atmosphere do you like to have on your set?

Mr. WEST: Very chilled out. I mean, I have a very small crew when I work in
the porn so that, you know, everyone can sort of feel familiar. I think if
you can have sex with someone and there's 20 people running around and the sex
will have a very kind of clinical quality to it. On my sets, I have two or
three people and, you know, just a very kind of relaxed atmosphere. So
hopefully I'll get models who will be able to have real sex. I also try and
cast the movie so that the models are attracted to each other. And I know
that sounds kind of obvious, but in a lot of porn movies--and this is what we
deal with in "The Fluffer" as well--the models don't actually have an
attraction to each other, they're just two people who are thrown together and,
you know, have to make this sex scene happen, even though there could be
absolutely no attraction between them whatsoever. And that's when a fluffer
comes in handy.

GROSS: You've said you like your actors to have an actual chemistry between
them.

Mr. WEST: Yes.

GROSS: So how do you audition for that when you're casting a film?

Mr. WEST: Well, what I'll tend to do is find one person who I want to work
with who will work for a particular role and then consult with them about who
in the industry they would want to do a scene with. So it's like setting up a
date between two people, so there's already an anticipation of, you know, that
it's going to be enjoyable. I've actually worked on a number of porn sets as
a cameraman, and I've actually seen models who are having sex and actually
break out into fights, physical fights because, you know, they're really not
getting on so well.

GROSS: My guest is screen writer and director Wash West. His latest film,
"The Fluffer," is set in the gay porn film industry.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Wash West. His latest film,
"The Fluffer," is set in the gay porn film industry. He's also made several
gay porn films.

OK. This next question is a multiple choice question. And the question is:
making gay pornography had made real sex seem, A, more erotic; B, more
mechanical; C, more absurd; D, more boring; E, more tragic; F, all of the
above; G, none of the above?

Mr. WEST: This is an interesting multiple choice, because, yeah, how sex
industry workers treat sex in their personal lives is, I think, you know, an
interesting issue. In porn, you're used to thinking of this mechanical way of
having sex, and it's difficult to completely leave that behind when, you know,
you go and have sex personally with a partner of your choice. But I try and
not do too much porn. I try and just do one or two movies a year so that I
can have my own sex life and not have, you know, too many mental impositions
on it that are brought from the workplace. I think if you were doing porn,
you know, a lot, that it would become increasingly difficult to make that
separation.

GROSS: Why are you still making pornography? You started doing it basically
as research for your film "The Fluffer." That film is completed and released,
so why not just move on?

Mr. WEST: Well, I am actually feeling that my blue period is coming to an
end. But having said that, a lot of independent filmmakers have another
source of income because you don't usually make a lot of money when you're
making a low-budget independent film. A lot of filmmakers have rich parents
when it comes down to it. I don't. I'm from a working-class family, and to
make a film like "The Fluffer," it takes so much time. It takes like two
years of unpaid work. And to be able to do that, I need to be able to make a
lot of money in a short amount of time. Pornography allows me to go in and,
you know, in two or three weeks, I can make a movie and make enough money to
last, you know, in my starving artist lifestyle for the next six months. And
so it kind of becomes a way of bankrolling the projects, the other scripts
that I want to develop as mainstream movies.

GROSS: Do you think that gay pornography is more mainstream in the gay world
than straight pornography is in the straight world?

Mr. WEST: Definitely. I think gay people have spent enough of their lives
already being told, `No, you shouldn't do that; no, you should feel guilty
about that,' in terms of being gay, that once they come out of the closet,
they don't want to have a whole load of new rules about, you know, whether or
not they should watch or consume pornography. I think there's just much more
like, `I'm going to do what the hell I like now.' And I think, you know, porn
stars within the gay community are seen as, you know, very openly respected,
whereas I think in the straight community, it is different from, you know,
different sections of society. I think in some parts of heterosexual society,
that a porn star would be quite scandalous; whereas other parts of the
heterosexual society, it'd be openly welcomed. I think in gay, it's more like
universal welcome.

GROSS: Now in "The Fluffer," the gay porn star, you know, the real
Adonis-like porn star, doesn't always have a very strong libido when he's
home. And I'm wondering if you think that that's a fairly common thing?

Mr. WEST: Well, I think this is like--it almost brings to this this idea of
the bedroom of two sex industry workers as this minefield of issues, of what
you actually give over to the public for money and what you keep back for
yourself, for the person you're having a relationship with. And I think, you
know, it's a very complex issue for people who work in the sex industry to,
you know, have a space at home where they're able to just give freely. I
think for Johnny, the idea of sex and money have become so tied in at that
point that, you know, he really prioritizes the money over his girlfriend.

GROSS: Is Viagra ever used instead of a fluffer?

Mr. WEST: A lot of people in the industry do take Viagra, and I think in a
way it acts like Dumbo's magic feather. It's like, you know, Dumbo could fly
without the magic feather, but the magic feather helped him, you know, get
there in the first place. That's the function Viagra has right now, and it
has really cut the shooting time in half for a lot of sex scenes. So, you
know, the sex industry workers, you know, have welcomed it. But, you know, I
sometimes think that it's a little unnatural. Maybe people should be a little
cautious with that particular drug. It just seems--I don't know. I just look
at the results and I think it's a little unbelievable that it wouldn't have
some kind of side effect down the line.

GROSS: Well, now I need to ask you about your name. Your name is Wash West.
A lot of people in pornography have names for their movies, and a lot of those
names have double entendres. So what is Wash West?

Mr. WEST: Well, Wash West is actually--it's not really a porno name because
I've been called Wash ever since I was seven years old.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. WEST: Yeah. I was born at the height of Beatlemania, and...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WEST: I was. I was born on the day that Lennon said The Beatles were
bigger than Christ. So that was a good day to be born. And I was named after
Paul McCartney. My real name is Paul. And in England at the time there were,
like, millions of Pauls and millions of Johns. And there were four Pauls in
my class at school, so I think finding a nickname was a way of, you know,
establishing my individual identity. And I got Wash by, you know, a sort of
childish kind of game that, you know--where these nicknames come from, who
knows? And then my surname is Westmoreland, so I was Wash Westmoreland for a
long time. And then that seemed a little kind of long and a little grand for
a porno box. So Wash West I felt worked just fine.

GROSS: Have your parents seen any of your movies, and do they know about the
work you do?

Mr. WEST: My mom recently found out. For a while she knew I was successful
at something in America, but she just didn't know exactly what. And I always
kind of, you know, kept saying, `Oh, yeah. I work in videos,' and, you know,
just being very kind of non-specific about what I did. But when "The Fluffer"
played, it played in a London film festival and it was showing in Leicester
Square, it was, you know, time to tell Mom. So I said, `You know, Mom, to do
research for this movie I actually went into the sex industry and, you know,
for the last six years I've been making these pornos.'

And her jaw drops and she goes, `You didn't.'

And I was like, `Yeah.'

And there was this really tense moment and she goes, `Well, I hope you used a
condom.'

And I was like, `Mom, I wasn't in the movies. I just directed them.'

She goes, `Oh, that's all right then.'

And I thought it was wonderful that my mom, you know, for a moment was
imagining me as a porn star. But then, I mean, that's mother's pride. But
then also I glimpsed how difficult it is for a porn performer to tell their
parents what they do because, you know, I mean, taboos get broken all the time
and, you know, there's always the thing about kids wanting to shock their
parents. Well, kids, you know, don't get pierced. Don't get tattooed. Just
do a porno movie because there's no better way to freak your parents out.
It's still very, very taboo.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you for talking with us.

Mr. WEST: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Screenwriter and director Wash West. His latest film, "The Fluffer,"
is set in the world of the gay porn film industry. It's already played in
several cities and continues to open in other cities around the country.

Coming up, Ken Tucker remembers country music songwriter Harlan Howard. He
died Sunday at the age of 74. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Musical career of Harlan Howard, who died Sunday at 74
TERRY GROSS, host:

Country music songwriter Harlan Howard died on Sunday. He was 74. Howard's
best-known hit may have been Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces." But rock
critic Ken Tucker says Howard was a consummate craftsman who wrote hundreds of
first-rate country songs.

(Soundbite of "I Fall To Pieces")

Ms. PATSY CLINE: (Singing) I fall to pieces each time I see you again. I
fall to pieces. How can I be just your friend? You want me to...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Log on to Harlan Howard's official Web site and you can call up something
called Harlan's Songwriting Tips, in which with typical generosity and
straightforwardness, Howard said that the best way to write a hit country song
was to come up with a good title, use it as the first line of each verse and
repeat it until it becomes implanted in the circuitry of a listener's brain.
Certainly the way Pasty Cline repeated the phrase `I fall to pieces' only made
you want to hear her break her heart all over again, again and again.

Howard came to prominence in the 1960s, before, as they say in a song he
didn't write, country was cool.

(Soundbite of "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down")

Mr. CHARLIE WALKER: (Singing) You were mine for just a while. Now you're
puttin' on the style. And you've never once looked back at your home across
the tracks. You're the gossip of the town, but my heart can still be found
where you tossed it on the ground. Pick me up on your way down. Pick me up
on your way down, when you're blue and all alone, when their glamour starts to
bore you, come on back where you belong. You may be their pride and joy, but
they'll find another toy. Then they'll take away your crown. Pick me up on
your way down.

TUCKER: That was Charlie Walker singing Harlan Howard's first hit, "Pick Me
Up On Your Way Down," in 1958. At the time he wrote that tune, the
Detroit-born Howard was working in Los Angeles as a forklift operator and
writing songs during his breaks. He says he'd write as many as six tunes a
day, then worked up the nerve to move to Nashville, where he almost
immediately started placing songs with prominent stars of the day. Here's one
of the best of those early songs, "Heartaches by the Number," a hit for Ray
Price.

(Soundbite of "Heartaches by the Number")

Mr. RAY PRICE: (Singing) Heartache number one was when you left me.
I never knew that I could hurt this way. And heartache number two was when
you come back again. You came back and never meant to stay. Now I've got
heartaches by the numbers, troubles by the score. Every day you love me less.
Each day I love you more. Yes, I've got heartaches by...

TUCKER: "Heartaches by the Number" is a prime example of Howard's style.
First of all, it dealt with a broken heart. Howard once told an interviewer,
`The only song worth anything is about you and me and our love. That's the
first thing. There are six variations on that theme. Number two is what
happened with that love. Third, everything was bad with our love, but then I
found you. Fourth, our love was great, but I was wild. I couldn't stay home
nights. The toughest to write is the first because it's hard to find a new
way to say "I love you."'

With "Heartaches by the Number," which also crossed over to the pop charts
when Guy Mitchell recorded it in 1959, Harlan Howard found a new way to say `I
love you.'

One of his other biggest hits, however, ran against his usual formula.
"Busted" was more of a blues. A couple of country singers cut it, but it
wasn't until Ray Charles got hold of it in 1963 that the song became the
idiosyncratic success it deserved to be.

(Soundbite of "Busted")

Mr. RAY CHARLES: (Singing) My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes, and
I'm busted. Cotton is down to a quarter a pound, but I'm busted. I've got a
cow that went dry and a hen that won't lay, a big stack of bills that gets
bigger each day. The county's gonna haul my belongings away 'cause I'm
busted. I went to my...

TUCKER: In an industry of cutthroat competition and self-destructive
behavior, Harlan Howard was known as a good guy. He went through four
marriages, so he knew what he was writing about when it came to busted
romance. And I suppose that particular track record doesn't speak well of him
as a life partner. But the guy was unguarded enough and cagey enough to
befriend other younger songwriters and performers on their way up. He
encouraged people like Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Jim Lauderdale, all of
whom covered Howard's songs.

Harlan Howard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, and
told an interviewer, `I feel I've done just about everything in life but die.'
Man, it's a wonder he never wrote a song with that phrase as its title.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. Songwriter
Harlan Howard died on Sunday. He was 74.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) If she seems cold and bitter, then I beg of you
just stop...
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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