This past year, a friend turned me onto Comstock Films, a unique erotic movie company who make in-depth erotic documentaries that center on the story of one couple and their relationship.
Each couple are very different: age, race, gender-matchups, personal style. It's like the reinvention of the Melting Pot, with sexual chemistry as the starting point.
I say they're "documentaries," because even though you would easily call these movies "porn," or "erotica," they're also the kind of thing you might see at a film festival— or some PBS series, if Public Broadcasting suddenly woke up tomorrow and went X-rated. It's MasterFuck Theater!
I was so intrigued with their work, I had to find out who "Comstock" was. I knew it had to be someone witty enough to give their company the name of the most famous Puritan of the 20th Century, the man who founded the original "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice."
The auteur I was looking for turned out to be the pseudonymous Tony Comstock, a prolific blogger as well as filmmaker, who was kind enough to give me an interview:
SB: You're... a straight guy? After watching Ashley and Kisha, I'm ready to give you the Black Lesbian Awareness award. Who interviews the lovers in your movies?
TC: Yeah, you're just getting to know us. Our first gay men's feature, "Damon and Hunter" has been trading places with "The Celluloid Closet" at the top of Amazon's Gay & Lesbian documentary listings.
Ashley and Kisha is working its way up too. Glad you're enjoying it! It's the fifth of these films we've released, all directed and interviewed by yours truly.
There's a subtext to how Ashley and Kisha describe their relationship: the world of being accepted as lesbian when you're a young black woman, in a "black" college, with your sorority pals and their expectations.
For a lot of black dykes coming out when I was young, it was as if they had to leave "the South Side" and live on "the North Side" with white folks, just to be gay at all— I'm using Chicago as an example. It kills you to have to leave one family to try and find your way in another.
Of course the black queer scene is MUCH more visible today than when I was in college, but still... these two women are so brave!
I cried when Ashley talks about Kisha finally accepting her "all the way" once she made up her mind— being SEEN with her lover in public, refusing to keep it a secret any longer.
Thanks for the compliment. That familiar, conversational feeling these films have is something I'm proud of, so it's nice to have it called out, and it's especially gratifying to hear that the being seen in public passage is the hanky moment for you. It's the hanky moment for me too!
As to my manner, with only my films to go by, you might be surprised to learn that a lot of people find me to be a mildly pompous (or major-ly, if you ask my wife) buffoon.
But somehow I manage to lay that aside when I'm making my films and conducting my interviews, and when it comes to setting the right tone on the set, there are a few things I'm quite deliberate about.
We don't make a lot of films, five short, simply constructed documentary features in five years. This allows me the time I need, especially in pre-production and post-production to create the atmosphere I want these films to have.
I had an ongoing e-mail exchange and extended conversations with Ashley and Kisha a half-dozen or more times over the course of four or five months before the actual day of shooting. Subsequent editing of the film took place over the course of two years, with probably 100 days of actual time in the edit-bay devoted to editing, sound work, color work, etc.
Because I make so few films, and because I invest so much time in a couple before sitting with them, each couple I sit down with feels like an absolutely unique opportunity. After months of preparation, stock is purchased, crew is hired, cameras are loaded, and then we have just a few short hours to capture the fruits of all that preparation.
As far as myself and my crew is concerned, at that moment the accurate, compassionate documentation of what is about to take place is the most important thing in the world, and the couple who is sharing themselves with us are most important people in the world.
Our crew is small: myself, my wife Peggy, my long-time DP Kiko, and our make-up artist Rene.
My wife and I have been working together since before we were married, and Kiko and Rene have worked with me on many projects, both erotic and non-erotic. I have the utmost confidence in them, their understanding of what we're doing, and their commitment to it. I'm sure if I dropped dead on the set, they could and would finish the shoot without me, and the audience would never miss me.
We run a closed set. HBO, the BBC, and the CBC have all approached us about doing "profiles" of our work, but in each case their interest was on the condition that they be able be on our set while we work.
It simply isn't possible for us to do what we do with the additional bodies and distractions that would necessarily accompany a second crew. Moreover, without the clout to demand approval of the final cut, I simply didn't have the confidence that these shows would present me, my work and most importantly, the couples I work with, in a way that was in keeping with our vision, so I each case we declined. (Frankly I find the journalistic pretenses of these sexploitation shows, with their urge for the "gotcha" moment quite off-putting.)
I don't claim to be a master of any of the various crafts required to make these films. I'm a self-taught director and a self-taught editor. But I hire the best people I can, give them the best tools I can, and spend as much time as I can possibly afford in the creation of these films. We are always looking for ways to elevate our technique, and I am always looking for ways to take what I learn in the productions we've completed into our new work.
Sorry for the rambling answer, but your question goes right to the heart of why I make these films, so it all sort of just tumbled out!
Are you and Peggy my age, or are you in your twenties? Tell me more about yourself!
I'm recently turned 41. My wife is 39. We have two children, daughters, a toddler and a grade-schooler. I've been a commercial artist my entire adult life, Peggy for more than a decade. Both of us have a keen understanding of how much time, money and expertise it takes to make even the very simplest of professional efforts.
In my own mind, these sex documentaries test the very limits of how sparse and simply produced a production can be, while still resulting in a professionally credible film. Our budget for each iteration of this work is on par, or even in excess, of what Vivid or Wicked spends on a typical production— but we have very different priorities on how we spend that money.
There's a lot of personal information peppered though out my blog, but two entries in particular might be of interest:
10 Years of Love, Marriage and Filming People Having Sex, Part 1
10 Years of Love, Marriage, and Filming People Having Sex, Part II
Lastly, I consider this Glamour magazine article by Caitlin Corrigan the most thoughtful piece that's every been written about our work. My affection for this story probably provides as much or more insight into my conceits and vanities as anything you'll find on my blog!
When you describe your pre-production process, I'm sure you could imagine the shocked silence among your "peers" in the porn business.
They make movies like cans of soup, as quickly as possible, and it's the only way they know how to stay in business. The lower the price falls on the "product," the more insane this becomes.
Certainly no one is getting to "know" anyone, or consider their movie at length, in the editing room!
Your insight into the financial dilemma that the (so-called) adult industry has gotten itself into, is astute. You might enjoy this satirical piece I wrote two years ago, " What Will
Follow the Gonzo Gold Rush?"
So how do you stay afloat? Are you secretly a plumbing contractor or an architect or hedge fund manager?
I'm sure you know from your own experiences with film production, that it is a far too expansive and expensive medium to undertake as a "hobby. "Production expense aside, the promotional overhead alone demands that even an "art film" be approached as a business.
I was lucky enough that as young apprentice, my mentor was very open about the financial workings of his business. The most important advice he gave me was that I should start with the amount of money I wanted to make, and then work my way back to my day-rate.
When my wife and I decided to take the chance of seeing if there was a place in the world for these films, we employed the same approach to figuring out what the financial realities had to be to support the kind of work we wanted to make.
Being able to give that level of commitment to the work has created a bit of a positive feed-back loop of effort and reward which has allowed us a comfortable middle-class life style (with the possible exception of our 18-year-old car.)
I wouldn't say that we broke any rules. We simply created a set of rules that applied to our creative ambitions, and to the financial obligations we have to ourselves and our children. We resolved that either the work would succeed in that financial paradigm, or it wouldn't. If it wouldn't, the answer certainly wasn't going to be to make more more, shabby, lower priced, lower circulation titles.
I'd rather wait tables, or produce industrials, or be a commercial fisherman, than produce depictions of sex that are not to my taste, sufficiently well produced, or in keeping with my values.
Finally, I have to quote from "Mrs. Comstock," Tony's wife and partner Peggy, who has her own blog. She writes:
"What do women want, in terms of porn, or, cough, cough, erotica?" (Don’t let Tony hear you use that word!)
"It’s always struck me as kind of an odd question, but it’s one I come across so often. I bristle at the notion that half of the human population's opinion can be swept into one monolithic category: women.
"Don’t get me wrong— I get that people want a hook for their story, or thesis. Or they’re trying to understand a heretofore underserved market… but… No. Just no.
“Women want everything, and nothing. They want romance, and hardcore, and kink. They want to see parts, they don’t want to see parts. They want soft focus, they want gritty verité. They want beautiful idealized models; they want “normal” looking bodies. They want fantasy; they want reality. They want violins and true love; they want anonymous zipless fucks with strangers. They want… yeah– that too, whatever it is.
"And that’s just me! I mean, what about the other 2 1/2 billiion women out there? God only knows what they want."
To read the all of Susie's stories about what's worthwhile in porn, check out: