An interview with Shine Louise Houston
by Paul Brocart.
Filmmaker in focus during the last Berlin Porn Film Festival, Shine Louise Houston is now one of the most brilliant and representative directors of her generation. Known for the CrashPad series and its several volumes, but also for feature films such as Superfreak or Champion : Love Hurts, she talks about her vision of sex, bodies and politics in porno.
Could you tell me about yourself, your path, and the way you came to pornography?
Let’s see… For the short story. : I started as an art major. I suffered my art depth, I stopped painting and discovered film. From there I transferred to Film department. I was always in music, I was in bands, my dad is a musician. Putting images and sounds together made sense for me. I eventually transferred to San Francisco Art Institute and graduated with a degree in filming video. But I’ve also done a lot of interactive work with film : film and performance, sound… The Art Institute has its own culture, so they produce a lot of experimental works. I always think it’s kind of funny because I realized I‘ve always been a closeted narrative filmmaker, but I do have a lot of influences from experimental film. Once I realized I wanted to straight up to tell stories, I spent another year at Community college just learning basic production principles : film management, film production, script writing and storyboarding. That’s just not what you learn at the Art Institute, it is very conceptual, and I was more experimental. So there was a lot of directions as far as technical I learned being in studio, not in classrooms so I left there with a lot of odd skills that later I wanted to put together.
At the time, it was really hard even to get an internship. Nothing paid, it was already competitive. So I wounded up getting a job at Good Vibrations1, which was then the woman owned sex shop. I spent about five and a half years there while I was still trying to do some artwork on the side. After five and a half years of what I would consider like market research and a midlife crisis like « man I’m thirty and I’m still being in retail », I decided to quit the job and start a business, producing work based on what people where asking for. Queer women were asking productions that had like real lesbians, not gay for pay, people who were really in their own life. I also get guys coming in and being like « what can I watch that’s not gonna piss up my girlfriend ». There weren’t many titles that I could direct them to. With that information, I started doing my own stuff. That’s basically how I got into it. I started out finding our first executive producer and we made our first film. Things kept rolling from there.
Where did the name of the studio came from ? When was it created ?
Pink & White was created in 2005. The name actually comes from painting. I started painting again for a while and I was doing portraits. There was a particular portrait that I was doing from a friend of mine, and her bathroom was pink and white. I was really enjoying the glazes, working with oil and doing all these glazes. I was really enjoying what was happening with the white and the crimson and all the pinks. I was joking to a friend that all I wanted to do was wearing pink and white; I wanted everything I had to be pink and white. At that time I was trying to figure out what to call the company. She said, « why don’t you choose pink & white ». People always think it’s kind of a sexual reference whereas it’s a reference to a painting.
Could you explain the concept of faire trade porn, and how PinkLabel.tv is functioning?
Basically it’s a revenue share. People will give me their consent, then we work for specific types of content, I like to look for either high production value or something serving a community that is underserved, in which the representation of sex and gender is positive. Those are qualities that I’m looking for and we give out the more pay we can without causing financial damage to ourselves. In general, especially for the United States, not so much for Europe, we give out substantial cut of the revenue compared to a lot of companies.
How do you choose your performers?
It depends on the project. In general, even for the features, the talent has a lot of autonomy: I’m usually asking them what they would like to do. My style is to follow them especially with CrashPad series, which is online2. That’s 100% on the talent. I come in, I have no idea of what’s going to happen and I’m like « what do you guys want to do? ». Sometimes they have an idea, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they tell me « where ‘s going to do this » and I tell them « we may do something else ». But the way we shoot is pretty prepared for it. We have a system that is moving around the talent that allows us to shoot continuously and make things easy on the edit.
There are some projects where things are expected: just like this last project that we shot a couple of days ago3. It was really directed, there was certain things that were really precise, just like the positions. The way I was shooting was mostly on people’s faces, so when the actual sex happened, I was like « you could do pretty much anything you want because I’m not really going to show this ».
About this last project, how do you relate the shooting of the faces, and not of the genitalia, and the pornographic dimension of it ?
I can talk about the style of shooting that I do. I have to credit Tony Comstock4 for the epiphany. We were talking and he was showing me his style of shooting, and I just realized that he was basically saying « shoot the sex like you would shoot a dialogue ». The way he had his camera set was a lot like shooting a narrative, with two persons talking. The way I have been doing it before, there was camera on the faces, and there was camera on the action. I was having a lot of trouble in cutting it together, the angles where not looking good. He told me « shoot it like a dialogue », and everything made sense. From then, I consider shooting sex like shooting a dialogue scene. You have to have someone say something, their reaction, and the other person’s reaction to what they just said and you have to see they both reacting to. It’s the same pattern.
How do you think pornography is able to draw bodies and sexualities that are underrepresented, or invisible?
As far as speaking of showing underrepresented body types, I think that was a mission from the beginning, because they weren’t queers the way I knew queers in porn at the time. Or there was very little of it : I can probably point like four or five VHS at the time. I think there should be more focus on the masculine types spectrum: so that’s why there was a lot of butches and andros in the original CrashPad. And since then, with the series, I’ve taken myself out of the equation of casting. One, because I’ve been doing it a long time, and two, I added benefit of getting my biosis out of the way. As I’ve said, when I come to shoot, often I’ve never worked with people, I don’t really know them, sometimes I haven’t kept up with the email so I have absolutely no idea who’s coming to the set, so it’s kind of an adventure in that way : figuring it out on set.
How did you decide to make a series from the original CrashPad ? Does it imply a different type of narration for you ?
Not really. CrashPad is a premise, a container. Then we put all those vignettes in the container. CrashPad series is basically the exact same thing, there’s less visually connected than the movie, because in the movie, visual transitions take you from one couple to the other, so there is smooth transitions between the scenes, and not just « end ». It’s just one continuous piece, but that’s the only difference, and the container is exactly the same for the series: it’s this place you can go and have great sex, the only thing you don’t know is that there is video cameras. So in that sense, it’s like making the same movie for ten years.
About your own aesthetics, you often unfold a parodic register in your movies (thinking about the example of Superfreak5). How do you relate pornography as explicit depiction of sexual acts and laughter?
Superfreak itself was super campy, so there was a lot of humor. Specifically, in Wild Search6 there’s a lot of parody of the making of documentary films, around the question of what do lesbians do. Form watching so much sex, I think sex I one of the funniest things that humans do, it’s not logical. That’s really fascinating about sex and sexuality, it doesn’t quite make sense but we can all relate to it. You can’t take it to seriously because it’s just ridiculous.
Could you tell me more about the registers of these two movies, CrashPad and Superfreak, as fare as these two projects have evolved with the set ?
There wasn’t as much humor in CrashPad, but I was really focusing on getting it done. In filmmaking things take you twice as long as you think they’re going to take, so I made sure that this was really simple, just to see how it was going to work. From there, the experience of knowing how things run and what the pitfalls are, specifically the pitfalls with making a purely narrative film more than making a film with sex in it. I guess it’s about understanding what to expect on set, from there things get more complicated. CrashPad hadn’t even a full script, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect, so I gave myself a lot of room. Once I understood what I could do, I started branching out more complicated scripts. Superfreak was definitely a 70’s porn, like campy, raunchy porno. I had few ideas : if I could do that with sex, I would be able then to go a little further. CrashPad is not campy but it’s making fun of film, it’s making fun of queers, of myself. Champion7 was very different, once I understood what I could do, I thought it was time to make a narrative: I think there’s some subtle humor in Champion, but it’s not like the super campy humor. I don’t think I’m a great comedian, I don’t think I’m super funny, so I don’t try to be funny, but there are some things that I think are funny. Since then, we haven’t done another feature, but I’ve been writing shorts. Especially one that I’ve been putting a lot a value in we just shot a couple of days ago, and that’s the one where I’m shooting mostly faces. My favorite shot is like, you can only see this woman’s ear and her shoulder, shaking a little bit, and that’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever shot. Quite honestly, the thing that I think are the most interesting are the things that actually don’t make it into the final cut, especially with the CrashPad series because it has a system using the thing people are expecting and this is own the scene is ran. There are really odd moments when the camera sets a messed up angle because we’re moving, and those to me are the best parts. I think that’s the influence of experimental film, and I wish I could take all those odd vids, in which sometimes you don’t even see the sex : it’s a film that doesn’t make any sense.
To what extent do you think your work can be considered as political?
The first answer with this says that is political what other people want to make it. I came in with an art background, so my first focus is to create a successful piece. That’s my primary goal. I have other values that go along with creating the successful piece, but I can’t say that in these original moments I have a really intense political agenda. Then, with representing underrepresented sexualities, bodies, gender expressions, I think other people have contextualized what we do within a political framework: I you want to say activism, feminism, gender politics, (…) which I think is fine. If you’re an artist, you create a piece and the piece is out there on its own, then I think my business is one of the most successful pieces of artwork I’ve ever made. It has a life on its own, away from me. A lot of time, I don’t know what that life is, I have no idea of what it’s doing, how it’s influencing. Once in a while, I have letters from people who say « hey this is awesome », or « this is how it influenced me » or “this has done this, and this and this in the world ». I think because for so long educated ways of working, which are like artist-studio-piece-show, it’s hard to get beyond that last point. I’m taking as much responsibility as possible in creating the piece, because I do believe that the artist have responsibility but at that point it’s out of my hands. So in a lot of ways I feel that it is a political statement but it’s political in ways other people have made it political.
How do you feel about this Feminist Porn Award ? Did it change anything in the way you were looking at your work or others were looking at it ?
It was good being recognized. At that time, what was equally impressive to me is that film festivals were coming to us. Somehow people had heard about the movie and then Out Fest, Philly Fest, Vancouver Film Festival, all those film festivals after CrashPad was made were requesting. That was a shocker. I had never quite labeled myself as feminist because of my place on the spectrum : « queer » wasn’t really a big word on the radar then, but I realized that my concerns were more encompassing « queer » issues than just like female equality, and more « across the spectrum » equality. Because I feel like male sexuality needs just as much remapping as female sexuality and equality. I wasn’t particularly labeling myself as feminist, we had to use the word « queer » in our descriptions, a lot of us still called it « dyke porn ». I was all the same stuff in my head: I consider myself like a humanist. My analogy is the Strain theory: in the beginning, there were five theories, and then later on, in the last ten years, those five theories were unified. All other five theories appeared as branches of the strain theory unified. Feminism is one of the strings, and above all that is just this unifying idea of equality, whatever you want to call it.
What are your contacts with other queer porn medias, such as fanzines, or other filmmakers across the US and in Europe?
I went to the Berlin Porn Film Festival in 2010, and I was incredibly impressed by everything that was happening. It was hard to tell if there was other people doing the same thing at the time, because you don’t see it here in the United States. When I went to Berlin there were international people, from everywhere. I could tell this was a moment of shifting and changing, this was happening around the world, this explosion of people having similar values about how to represent sexuality in visual media. What was frustrating thou was that I knew I would never see any of those pieces again after the festival, and that pissed me off. They were not going to make money of it, and I would never be able to see those pieces again , and those pieces were amazing. I would still love to track down some of those ones that I saw at that 2010 film festival, because they left a mark on my brain, and I was really impressed
1 Good Vibrations is a woman owned sexshop (opened in 1977) well known in the Bay Area for its feminist statements. (http://www.goodvibes.com)
2 Started in 2007 (Volume 1), Crash Pad Series is a collection of porn shorts takeing place in the same narrative frame as the original movie. Is is available at http://crashpadseries.com/
3 Occupied, (2014) by Shine Louise Houston, with Kathryn Dupri and Maggie Mayhem
4 Filmmaker and founder of Comstock Films : http://www.comstockfilms.com/
6 The Wild Search (previously released as In Search of the Wild Kingdom; 2007)
7 Champion : Love hurts, released in 2008
Photo courtesy: Pink & White Productions