Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Spotlight on Julia St. Vincent
Julia St. Vincent: From Exhausted to Boogie Nights
When filmmaker Julia St. Vincent decided to direct the first erotic documentary about legendary porn star John Holmes in 1980, she never imagined her movie would become the inspiration for Boogie Nights, the critically acclaimed motion picture that enlightened mainstream audiences about the hardcore film industry during its glorified golden era.
In the early 1970's during summer breaks from secondary school while living just outside of San Diego, the teenage St. Vincent left her family home to work part time as a filing clerk, and eventually, became the bookkeeper for Freeway Films, an independent Los Angeles adult company owned by her uncle Armand Atamian. Atamian, known primarily for the success of the Johnny Wadd dynasty was an enterprising and ingratiating figure in the 1970's adult entertainment scene. Atamian passed away suddenly in 1980 leaving his niece to assume full control of business operations. Faced with the task of ensuring Freeway’s survival, St. Vincent shrewdly took stock of the company’s greatest resource and prepared to produce and direct an original documentary featuring John Holmes in Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story (1981).
In the winter of 2010, I convinced St. Vincent to relive her experiences with Freeway, and as a twenty-five year old female entrepreneur in the adult business.
My Uncle Armand was an engineer at Litton Industries [specializing in electronics and early computers] which was a big company back then, and my other Uncle Gil—I’m not sure how but he got involved in pornography and ran sixteen millimeter films, eight and sixteen millimeters through New York. He had theaters there where he would run these films and he’d go through the alleys or whatever and deliver them. He earned a ton of money from doing this illicit activity and he was a millionaire. Gil owned a huge home that had eleven rooms with a pool and a sauna room, and it was out in the country outside of Boston. My other uncle was an engineer too, but Armand ended up getting involved here in L.A. making the films. He had a friend out here that he probably met through his brother Gil. So it was kind of family helping other family members to get involved in this business.
Armand was involved in film production with his associates before he had his own company. He was involved with sexploitation producer Bob Cresse. That’s where Armand got started, with Bob and director Lee Frost. They were all buddies. Gil had been involved first and he knew people ―it’s likely that he came out and they went to the racetrack or whatever. Armand met these guys, quit his job, and started doing those kinds of films.
We’d go up there for a week or so in the summers to work in the office. My sisters would go and then I’d go. It seemed that we all took turns. Anyway, we’d go up there and do filing and box stuff up and all kinds of miscellaneous things. Armand had the office on Cordova Street, and next door to him was Dave Friedman. Originally, I worked as a file clerk at the back and then I’d leave because I had boyfriends or I’d go back home. I would end up working there for a summer doing theater records where they’d order something and they’d put it on a card, and you’d put it into a machine. It was the first of its type, a computerized system using cards because back then they didn't have computers. We happened to have one of the first derivatives of a computer for the business.
Armand was like my refuge. He was the one I went to when I didn't want to go home to my mother; I’d go to Armand. I worked for him at Freeway Films when he was making Liquid Lips (1976) and Tell Them Johnny Wadd is Here (1976) ―that was a summer job for me. It just so happened that they were making those films when I was there. I was working at Freeway that summer when those two Johnny Wadd films were shot, and then I came back and they were making China Cat and The Jade Pussycat in 1977. I think Armand would be in production and he’d call me and say, “Come up here.” I’m not sure how I happened to end up there every time they were doing a film, but I believe it’s because he called me.
Originally, the reason I made Exhausted is because my uncle had died and I was really floundering around trying to figure out what to do. I was going to the producer meetings and hanging out with some very ambitious people. One day it hit me, “You can’t call yourself a producer if you don’t ever produce anything.” I hired a management consultant to help us to figure out what to do with the company, and we all kind of brainstormed the idea and tried to determine what we had for assets in the company. It turned out that what we had the most of was Johnny Wadd [footage]. That turned into, “Well, we should make a film.” That really incubated for a long time. We didn't immediately make a film. I started shooting these interviews with John mainly because I realized he was going to die one day soon. As far as the process goes, originally, it was shot on sixteen-millimeter film with this camera guy, Kenny Gibb. I paid him to shoot interviews with me and with John in the back of this studio.
The film was really a way to give John a thousand dollars and to give me something to do. In the back of my mind, I realized that a bunch of situations would be involved: John would realize he’s not a bad guy and he would get out of the dumps. In the case he died I would have that footage of him and I’d become rich, but there were lot of little things going on and that was how it was shot. Then it was put in the can until the next year, at least four or five months. We started editing in some of these other movies [Johnny Wadd clips] to it but we really didn't have enough to do anything with it. I had hired a few people to help me and one of these guys said, “Let’s go and shoot some more footage.” We ended up going to Chicago and we did “man on the street” interviews there because we had already done them in Hollywood. We got more out in the open with regular people footage. We also interviewed Seka in Chicago. Then we came back and edited all of that together.
It was an unlikely scenario. When I made Exhausted, people said it was just a fluke, and in a way, it was just a fluke. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time to make a film. I had to figure out how to survive the world I lived in. It was kind of incredible that it went as far as it did, and I was able to accomplish that with literally nothing. That film grossed over a million dollars in 1982.
At the time, it had the biggest video contract ever done. It played outside of the pornographic film world. It went into Georgetown University and other regular theaters. It was a hardcore movie! When Boogie Nights came out [in 1997], that was the second fluke of the whole thing. Why would you think after sixteen years something as obscure as that film would come back into anyone’s consciousness? Most people would put it away as I did and think, “Okay, that was fun and maybe someday you’ll do something else with it.” That was just something in my closet. How do I view it in the bigger perspective? I don’t really think this was up to me at all. It was just a weird set of circumstances.