Public Sex, Private Lives, which I screened at home under the sheets on my laptop, is a moving depiction of three women who work in the adult film industry. In examining stereotypes about women who work in that industry, and how those stereotypes affect their personal lives, the movie also paints a portrait of women who have chosen to lead lives that suit them, despite the challenges. There’s a wide chasm between the simplified public narratives we ascribe to people’s lives and the depth, nuance, and complexity of the actual lives they lead. Director Simone Jude walks us the distance, without ever holding our hand, hoping that we can bridge the gap.
The film, debuting this week, is full of surprising moments. Princess Donna, whose professional persona is one that would make anyone weak in the knees (both literally and metaphorically), is actually a kind of quirky, sweetly lovable, and vulnerable character. Settings in which Lorelei Lee appears range from a milkmaid porn to testifying in court to finishing a master’s degree at NYU. Isis Love tries to raise her son as a single mother, while battling judgments from outsiders about her career. But perhaps none of these moments should be surprising, and that is what the film is ultimately about. It asks important questions of its audience: How do we as a culture view those in the production of pornography, and how can we learn to see them with the same compassion and breadth as we would want to be seen? Why is it that the people who produce one of our culture’s most consumed products are often stigmatized and vilified? Public Sex, Private Lives is an important step in increasing our empathy and understanding of an often mischaracterized and misunderstood sphere of work. I caught up with San Francisco-based filmmaker Simone Jude about the conception and process of making the film.
The Rumpus: What first drew you to making a documentary about porn performers, or adult film workers, or what’s even the in-vogue term these days?
Simone Jude: I have always admired strong women with a sense of self-determination. I was driven to make a documentary about Lorelei, Donna, and Isis’s stories as women first and porn performers second. All three have performed in porn for over a decade, which takes staying power and courage in the face of judgement by mainstream society. As I came to know Lorelei Lee and Princess Donna years ago, I realized how much their work in porn directly affected their lives. Porn performers are individuals with unique backgrounds, motivations, and experiences, but the common mainstream narrative is that the women who perform in porn are not in control of their lives and their decisions. I wanted to present three complicated portraits that raise important questions, not just about what it means to be a porn performer, but what it means to be a sexually open woman in American society today.
Rumpus: Why do you think people are so disparaging of sex work when most people are consumers of it?
Jude: Society often feels threatened by women who are in control of their sexuality. It’s perhaps as simple as that!
Rumpus: What was the biggest surprise or learning experience you had making the film?
Jude: There were several surprises! The first is that Princess Donna, who has a distinctly intense and stern public persona, is also one of the silliest people I have ever met. There were many sidesplittingly hilarious moments with Donna that were totally unexpected. I am very excited to share that side of her with the world. I was also surprised at how hard it was to shoot Lorelei in DC while she waited to testify for the obscenity trial. As a documentary filmmaker, I have to balance creating boundaries between myself and my subject with bringing myself, and my human empathy, into my work. It can be really challenging to be a witness to people’s most difficult moments. Part of me wanted to just be there for her to support her during that time, but I also knew that this was a critical part of her story and an important moment to capture in American history, which is why I kept filming, even when it was hard.
Jude: I love Errol Morris. The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War are two of my favorite documentaries ever made. I recreated his style of interview with an “Interrotron,” a setup invented by Morris, which creates the illusion that the character is staring straight at the viewer through the camera. I did this by designing and building our own Interrotron-like setup with my colleague Orlando Rivera that involves teleprompter glass mounted in front of the camera. I wanted to simulate the effect of feeling like the characters are speaking conversationally and directly to you as a viewer to make the interviews feel more like an intimate conversation.
Rumpus: I absolutely loved the music in the film, and how it added an additional layer of empathy to the storytelling. What informed your choices about the score?
Jude: Scoring and curating the soundtrack was by far one of the most challenging parts of making this film. I am also a composer myself, so placing the right music was critical. I am very emotional when I listen to music. My guiding principle in scoring the film was my gut. When I wasn’t sure about a piece, I stopped thinking and noticed how the piece made me feel in that scene. It’s a process that can go on for a long, long time, and it did! A premiere is a beautiful thing because it demands that you make decisions and stick to them. The soundtrack also includes four of my own pieces. All in all, I am incredibly happy with the soundtrack and was very lucky to include so many amazing artists. Danny Paul Grody, Music You Can Swim To, Bonfire Madigan, Shenandoah Davis, and Nick Jaina are just a few of the artists whose music added the sense of magic to the film that I was seeking.
Rumpus: The film become especially interesting to me when auxiliary characters like Princess Donna’s mom or Isis Love’s son add their perspectives about how they view the work. In a way the film seems to be about bridging understanding and examining stereotype.
Jude: That’s exactly what I wanted to achieve! I wanted to capture intimate interactions between our main characters and their families. My hope is that those who watch the film find at least one moment that is relatable and real to them. Family and love is something we all have in common, and it’s an easy access point to the compelling stories of these unique women. I feel very honored to have been able to capture their stories over the past several years.
Rumpus: How do you feel now that the film’s about to have its debut?
Jude: It feels very surreal to be premiering the film after shooting these women and their stories for the past several years. It has been quite the wild ride. I’m thrilled to share the film with San Francisco this Saturday night! I’m also looking ahead to our online release later this year in hopes that the film reaches as wide an audience as possible. These women have important stories that need to be shared with the world. It can also be hard, though, as an artist, to let go of such a long term project. Mostly, I feel honored to have been able to capture these women’s stories. I’m also very grateful to have worked with Jesse Kerman, the film’s editor, and Haley K. Jude, both the film’s producer and my partner. This time Saturday night, we will all be celebrating with cocktail in hand.