GAMECHANGER: A conversation with Dana Vespoli
Dana Vespoli is the definition of the All-American girl.
Born in the Pacific Northwest to an American mother and Thai father, she attended Mills College where she was captain of the rowing team (she named herself after a brand of racing shell) and became fluent in French. She graduated with a degree in comparative literature and got work in the corporate world, but found it degrading and, well boring. She spent time as a stripper at the legendary Mitchel Brothers Gentlemen’s Club in San Francisco and eventually moved out to LA to pursue commercial modeling and acting work before eventually taking the plunge into porn.
She had a lot of amazing wild sex on camera, developed a coke habit that involved long stretches of living out of hotels on the Sunset Strip, sobered up, settled down, got married, got a lot of tattoos, and had some children.
She’s loves anal sex, Ryan Gosling, and steak. She shops at Whole Foods. And she drives an SUV.
You really just can’t get any more All-American than that.
Dana entered porn in 2004 and became known for her love of anal, her exotic good looks and her amazing ass. Even now, after having just turned forty she looks remarkably young. It’s not just her symmetrical features and lineless complexion; it’s her attitude to life. When you are around her she is vivacious, witty, fun and lacks a trace of vanity, which makes her a fucking unicorn in Porn Valley.
Dana is also ambitious. She grew up watching Caballero and John Leslie movies. In college she became fascinated with John Stagliano, so when she entered the industry, it was always with an eye on the director’s chair. She picked up a camera and taught herself to use it on her off time, and a little over a year into her career when she found out there was an opening at New Sensations she sought out the job.
Vespoli went on to work as a shooter for hire for different companies, performing off and on, but failing to make a big splash, but not for lack of talent or ability.
“The first time I saw her, I was blown away,” Brazzers director Brett Brando told me once.
“I wasn’t ready,” she told me, “I had to live some life. I had to get some perspective.”
And she did.
Her and fellow performer Manuel Ferrara had a whirlwind romance, got married, had three children, and recently divorced. The two are still on good terms, even shooting scenes for each other from time to time.
The experiences of addiction, sobriety, marriage, motherhood, and divorce served as a crucible for her creative drives and she emerged with a much stronger vision for her work. Dana came back into the industry shooting for Combat Zone and Filly Films, then Sweetheart Video. This time people took notice, and one of those people was John Stagliano.
Stagliano asked to see some of Dana’s work. She sent him a few volumes of a series called Love Hurts, psychosexual, fetish tinged scenes of intense sexuality usually framed in suspense and erotic tension. A week later Stagliano invited her to become part of the Evil Angel stable.
This time, things went a little differently for Dana. It is the first time she has had complete creative control over her product along with the powerful promotional machine that comes along with a brand like Evil Angel. She has completed three features out of Evil so far, and all of them had been designated as Editor’s Choice picks by AVN magazine. In just six short months, she has emerged as a dark horse, a new force to be reckoned with, a director who is proving as Stagliano put it, “that women have something interesting to say about sex.”
Dana cast me as the co-star in her third feature film for Evil Angel, She’s Come Undone. The movie is the first lesbian feature out of Evil Angel and for that reason, something of a risk for Vespoli. Most lesbian features cater to a softer aesthetic than what Dana or Evil Angel is known for. The movie is essentially one long sex scene between our characters and takes place in a hotel room. Dana’s character is a deeply wounded director who’s been kicked out of her marital home by betrayed spouse Julia Ann. She is holed up in a hotel room trying to makes sense of her life when she orders an escort, played by myself, in hopes of experiencing some kind of connection.
We arrived at the hotel the day before principal shooting to get some pick up shots and just generally rehearse and get a feel for the set.
“It’s kind of fitting that we’ll be filming here,” she told me, “I used to come here to do all my drugs. I think last time I was here they took me out in an ambulance.”
Although Dana’s beauty is what I would define as delicate, her demeanor is salty, intense, cerebral and funny. This contradiction is compelling and a big part of her charm.
After we’d settled into our room and filmed some establishing shots, we took a seat on the art-deco sofa and talked about the turn her career has taken.
Sovereign Syre: Do you consider yourself a feminist filmmaker?
Dana Vespoli: I consider myself a feminist…and I consider myself a filmmaker-storyteller.
SS: Do you think that because you are a female making porn that there are different expectations on you in terms of that, like having a certain political alignment?
DV: Yeah I do think so. Even with the first feature that I made for Evil Angel, what I kept hearing a lot was “bringing a female perspective” or “bringing a female voice”…somehow that I had an agenda or that I had a goal, that I was consciously bringing my femaleness into this. I don’t think that way. I didn’t come into porn to reinvent the wheel. I’m not trying to do something “different.” I’m not trying to send a message. I’m just trying to be authentic and honest about what arouses me and what interests me. Those things happen to be more psychosexual, they happen to be a little dark and rough around the edges, and then I create a story that I think is compelling for me, and then I put it out there. So I don’t come into it necessarily with feminism as a goal, but I think just being a woman and having been up against quite a bit in life just by virtue of living in a man’s world, and it is a man’s world, there’s going to be stuff that bleeds into the stories.
SS: What does feminist mean to you?
DV: I just remember the bumper stickers when I was at Mills College; Feminism: the radical notion that women are people. I mean, I don’t know, what does feminism mean to me?
[She pauses for a long time, searching for an answer. I prompt her a bit]
SS: I guess what I mean is: Do you think that any of your work is reactionary at all? Do you think that any of your plot-points are a reaction to certain conventions that you see in porn?
DV: Yes, sure! Coming in as a shooter for hire, I had to follow certain rules with the companies. Some of that meant like, not having men appear in any of the lesbian porn I was shooting. No men can appear. You can’t hear a man’s voice. It was like this bizarre world where no men existed. I think that’s really strange, but of course I had to go along with this. So like, for example in making She’s Come Undone, as I’m working on the story, I’m thinking to myself, that’s ridiculous, and I thought it was ridiculous at the time, I’m just going to say it, I want to be honest. I think that’s foolish. We co-exist with men. I don’t have a problem with men. There are no men and women necessarily having sex in the movie because it’s a lesbian movie, but men exist. So I made a conscious decision, there’s going to be a mock rape scene with a man because that’s part of the story. Even in my Lesbian Anal POV series, Chad Diamond, who PAs for me, I acknowledge him on set. I have a relationship with him, I talk to him, and he keeps a look out if it’s a public place, if I’m doing a public thing with a girl. So there are certain things that I make conscious decisions about, and that’s one of them.
SS: People consider porn a fantasy, but now everything you’re talking about is realism…So do you think realism is a necessary part of the turn-on?
DV: For me, yes. For me it is.
SS: A lot of times, especially in girl/girl, or romance, or couples friendly, or whatever you want to call it there’s an emphasis on the mundane. It’s very real in the sense that everyone is wearing normal clothes and makeup, and to me, it’s the anti-horny, it’s kind of the opposite of everything that’s a turn-on, but I don’t consider what you do to be the same kind of realism.
DV: It’s hard for me to sit down and actually think about what it is I’m doing. I know what you mean, because so much reality-based stuff is actually so unrealistic and stupid, but it’s what people think we want to see. I think that’s the problem with a lot of companies, and with even a lot of directors. They become so preoccupied with what they think people want to see, and what they stop paying attention to is what they want to see, what they get turned on by. I think that’s the problem, is that people get outside themselves.
It was the problem at Bang Bros when I was shooting the girl/girl stuff. They had this idea: let’s get girls that have never worked with guys, and they’ll look like this, because that’s what the numbers say, they need to be this size or have this color hair. I was like what do you want to see? What turns you on? You can’t have this idea. It gets away from the goal of why we shoot this stuff, why we’re making these movies. If you come in strictly for the money, you’re fucked.
SS: Well, there’s no money in it anymore. At least not the kind of money people think there is.
DV: Even back in the day. Even back in the day I just felt like, there might be a moment where something [done strictly by the numbers] works, but then it falls apart, it just implodes. I think that’s what happened with Anabolic, I think that’s what happened with Red Light District. People spent so much time just trying to make shock value stuff, and trying to be gross, and basically making fun of this sacred thing, which is sex, and I think we forget it’s this sacred meaningful thing.
I come at it with respect for what it is, I come at it trying to have a meaningful experience with another person, or documenting a meaningful experience, or creating a situation where people can come together when we get down to the actual sex. I know it sounds a little mystical or whatever, but I think when you lack respect for this thing, I think you lose it and it goes away, and that’s what I think happened with these companies. At a certain point no one wants to see a girl get made fun of. At a certain point people are watching this more for amusement than to be turned on.
SS: Do you consider yourself an artist?
DV: [Immediately] Yes. Yes. I definitely consider myself an artist
SS: I was just on a forum and they were talking about me, and they were praising me…they were saying “There’s this girl and I find her interesting, but she sounds like she might be one of those, artist types.” And it was meant in a derisive way…and I think that’s pretty common. What do you think that’s about?
DV: What is that about?
SS: A well-known erotic photographer, Chase Lisbon, once said that he felt like there was a difference between porn and erotica and the main difference is that, in porn there’s no room for art…that porn is sort of like a workhorse, there to get the job done, whereas erotica is meant to be a more transcendent experience.
DV: Right, but then when you look at conservatives, it’s all porn to them, so that’s tricky. I don’t know what that’s about. I can only speak for our culture because I haven’t spent enough time abroad, but I think it might just be something that’s sort of bleeding out into the rest of the world. There’s a real anti-intellectualism, which I think is just pervasive in our culture. People feel left out, or they don’t have enough self-respect, or they don’t want to think. You look at Michael Bay’s movies, you look at all this shit, and people just want to see a spectacle, and they don’t necessarily want to participate.
I think the irony there is when you’re masturbating and watching something you are participating. Sometimes people don’t want to feel uncomfortable and they’re lazy and I think that art is challenging and it’s something you come back to over and over again, you know, you sort of like revisit it, in your mind or you want to go see it again.
Its provocative, that’s what art is.
I think it comes from a place where people don’t have a lot of self-respect and they don’t want to take the time and they don’t want to feel anything. There’s that too. People don’t want to feel anything.
SS: My friend was in an acting workshop with Anthony Hopkins at RADA, and he was giving a lesson on acting, and he said the fundamental mistake most actors make is in trying to express too much feeling. He said the average person tries desperately to avoid feeling things. What people do in their real lives is they try to suppress their feeling; they try not to express their emotions because it makes them very vulnerable. So I think you’re right, I think feeling things makes people feel very exposed.
You were saying that things are very autobiographical in your movies, so in a movie like Descent or Forsaken, how is that so?
DV: When I went over to Evil Angel, John Stagliano had seen a couple of the movies that I’d done that were sort of like horror vignettes, and he asked “So, is that your thing? Are you going to make another horror movie?” I was thinking about it as I was driving back from his place, and as I was driving on this windy road, I thought what is deeply horrifying has to do with this idea of what happens when we go back and reexamine our own life, and that’s what happens to this character [in Forsaken], when things are taken away from you, really basic things like feeling alive that’s horrifying.
But there is something very erotic about wanting to live and fighting for your life and wanting connection. Then you’ve got these characters, like Michael Vegas’s character, just trying to cling and hold on to that bit of life that he sees inside of her, so I made these decisions, like I wanted him to smell her and kind of suck the life out of her, you know, when you want somebody so bad. So that movie had a lot more to do with just my own personal feelings about being faced with death and what you take away with you and regret and at the same time. There’s the infidelity in the movie with Samantha Ryan and a lover’s jealousy and all of those things.
SS: Well infidelity is in Descent too. It’s a major theme.
DV: In all of the features I’ve done so far, infidelity is right there, and what that means, and what it means to love someone, and what it means to be faithful and deceit and all of these things. They sound awful, but at the same time for me personally, sex finds its way into everything. [Sex] heightens feelings, when the stakes are higher in any kind of intimacy. Forsaken is a horror thing. With Descent it’s a marriage, and I’ve been married, and living with somebody you realize that we’re all still kind of strangers. In the end, [the lead in Descent] is the one that is actually guilty of all these affairs, but is still jealous. It’s interesting how we address our own culpability or we don’t, and how she’s in her own personal Hell, in this sort of coma, watching these things play out in this really awful way and the same thing in Forsaken. Her Hell [in Forsaken] is this existential Jean-Paul Sartre play. And even in She’s Come Undone, the main character is this philanderer that wants something meaningful but is incapable of it.
SS: So I think what you’re saying is that the overall theme is that sex is powerful. The power of sex…sort of how in Lolita the story is really about how the power of memory can be so strong that it compels us to do these insane things. I think with sexuality it’s the same thing, and we always kind of want to deny this power, but it really is the motivating factor in just about everything we do.
DV: It absolutely is the motivating factor in everything we do. It is. And it’s something so little and something so huge at the same time.
SS: I have a friend that just started doing b/g scenes and she was texting me saying that she wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to handle when the experiences are good, she’s afraid of taking that home with her, because her body doesn’t know she’s doing a job. I think that’s the weird space we find ourselves in as performers, trying to negotiate that. So in that sense I can get people being angry with performers and thinking that we’re bad people because in some ways we kind of are defiling these things, you know, we’re treating sex like it’s not a big deal. I see the value in continuing to treat sexuality like it’s a secret dark thing because it keeps it powerful. Things are taboo because they’re valuable. There’s a suicide taboo because the underlying sentiment is that we all have to agree that life is valuable in order for it to maintain that value.
DV: But even in suicide there’s this weird kind of acknowledgment that life is almost too valuable, someone can’t continue anymore…I have to step away from this overwhelming thing. It’s another reason why I keep my sets so small. You try to create a space for two people to be intimate, and you try to give them that respect, and what you get more often, is something that’s more authentic…unless people are just completely shut down. I try to avoid booking people that have a tendency to shut down.
SS: So how do you deal with the disconnect, if say, we film a scene for Evil Angel and its authentic and meaningful and then it goes up on the site and the blurb about the scene is sort of the standard porn jargon. “So and so exposes her smooth asshole…” and its very graphic 1990s language? How do reconcile what you’re doing under the umbrella of these ideas about how to talk about performers? “See this sweet little slut get this this and that…” and that’s describing your scene…how do you reconcile that? How do you live in both places?
DV: I see that in reviews and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can control the language with Evil Angel. There’s just going to be people who do this. But some of it is just gross and stupid. How old are these people? These are our bodies. Do you have sex? Do you talk that way when you have sex? They’re creating a separation between the reader and what it is. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to become preoccupied with this ridiculous, juvenile language.
SS: It can be distracting.
DV: It’s incredibly distracting. I mean, who are you writing for? Are you writing for people? I make movies for people that have sex. I make movies for people that have dreams. I’m not making porn for 15 year old boys. I mean some of this stuff gets down to Farrelly Brothers type humor. So we’re poking fun at this thing. We’re all adults here. It’s ok to have a base sense of humor. I laugh, I joke, I have a sense of humor, but when it comes down to it, I’m like, what’s the goal here? Are we trying to turn people on or not? So that kind of stuff, I don’t know what to do about it. When I can have control over it, I like to exercise that control. I don’t want to look like an elitist, in confronting people about it…”Hey, you can’t talk that way about my movies!” I just hope the product stands out for itself.
SS: In dealing with genres where MILF and TEEN become buzzwords, I’ve been in meetings with producers trying to get my own directing work and they’ll tell me that my stuff has to have “an older/younger” element to sell. Do you worry that by not doing a product that is MILFS this, and TEENS that…since you’re not making a product that is keywording those phrases, are you concerned that it will affect the sales of your product?
DV: Some things just aren’t worth the money. Again, when we’re dealing with porn, the only way that I can stay inspired, that I can shoot, is if I’m turned on, if I can be aroused in some way by something. Some of the stuff will move through. Julia Ann is like the “Über MIlf.” She’s in my stuff. It’s going to end up being put in the searches for my stuff on VOD or whatever, she’s going to be there and that scene will do fine. There will be times when I shoot Remy [Le Croix], and she’s very young, and she’ll be considered a teen and that will somehow go through. There will be a time when I shoot someone who is significantly older than someone else but I’m not going to make an entire movie around it. It has to mean something to me.
SS: That’s why I ended up not pursuing that one directing job, because at the end of the day I was just like, “I don’t want to write older/younger shit.”
DV: Well it’s not interesting to you! And I’ll be honest with you, it makes me want to throw up in my mouth when I see anything that alludes to any kind of incest, it’s just fucking gross. I’m sorry. I was asked because I’m a mother and have children, “Oh will you be in Mommy and Daughter or something,” or some bullshit movie. I was like no, that’s fucking disgusting. Anything that’s alluding to incest, anything that’s alluding to me wanting to abuse a child makes me sick. What are we doing now? Come on.
SS: Well, it’s creating taboos with people that are very uncreative. I just did a movie where I wrote a character that was a gay-to-straight Christian counselor. When the scene was reviewed on the forums, the fans were like “Oh my God that’s a hot taboo!” And I was like, “Yeah, you can create taboos that have nothing to do with age or incest if you’re just creative.”
DV: If you just think a little bit. I’m not saying there’s nothing sexy about an older woman and a younger man, or an older man and a younger woman, but I don’t know, it’s more than that. You can’t look at me and say: “Do you like older/younger?” I don’t know what that means. You have to give me a situation like Lolita, or something like…
SS: Like The Grifters…
DV: Even Blame it on Rio with Michael Caine and his daughter’s best-friend. There’s something more going on. There has to be. Again, I can only speak for myself, but there has to be something more happening. There’s got to be something there, they have to be complex people, there has to be something, but again that’s…I came out of a time, I mean I came to adult, being a fan of adult when there were old Caballero features, when there were actual films being made, Opening of Misti Beethoven and John Leslie’s stuff and it was a product of love and it’s reflected in the work.
It was a time when making porno movies was something that people were doing as a reaction to the times. People were wanting to be free and making these stories about sex and it wasn’t a machine, it wasn’t like now, where you’re doing scenes every day. I mean you can shoot every day and mass produce. This was a period when people had some artistic integrity.
And I was just a kid watching this stuff and feeling that come out of it, so when I came into the business, I was watching TT Boy on VHS and watching Seymour Butts and a lot of the gonzo stuff that was reality based. But even then, there’s a complex human being and his girlfriend and they’re bringing people over to fuck them, something’s happening. They’re getting into it. There’s pleasure happening.
When I started performing, I realized, oh, this is a different time, things have changed. Even John Leslie told me, “Man when I was doing this maybe you were working four times a month, you were having these intimate experiences with people, now these girls are, I don’t know, I don’t know what’s happening. These girls are working twice a day, they’re not there when they show up to do scenes for me. They’re not there anymore. And what’s being expected of them is just brutal.”
It kind of reflects the times also as we become more nihilistic as a society. You’ve got girls getting the shit beat out of them and challenging you to tell them to stop, and telling you they love it, and there’s nothing behind their eyes and it’s just violence for the sake of violence. I’m not interested in violence for the sake of violence. I’m interested in pushing limits and feeling excited about that, but you’re ultimately in control of what’s happening and it makes sense for you and it makes sense for the scene and it makes sense for everybody.
And maybe that’s what’s hard for people, is seeing something real, they don’t want to see that. It’s ironic because they see all this violence and they think they’re seeing something so real and crazy and it’s like, actually not really, actually the hardest thing in the world would be to sit this girl down look her in the eyes, stroke her hair, and tell her she’s pretty, and worth a lot. That’s probably something she couldn’t handle, and the talent, and everyone on set, and everyone watching, because it’s just too much. I think in a way the romance stuff is just as bad as the over the top ridiculous crazy shit, it’s kind of the same thing, it’s dishonest.