Written by: George Pacheco on November 11th, 2013
The Rialto Report podcast has, in a relatively short time, achieved a degree of notoriety amongst fans and veterans of the adult film golden age for their intelligent and respectful analysis of the period, as well as their in-depth interviews with some of the era’s biggest and most memorable names. The podcast is spearheaded by film fan and historian Ashley West who, along with a small staff of equally bright and talented writers consistently provide fans of classic adult cinema and sleaze their proverbial chicken soup for the soul; a look back at a remarkable era of rebellious mavericks, renegade artists…and fascinating personalities.
The Rialto Report takes fans from sunny California to “old New York” and everywhere in between; a podcast which balances sepia-toned nostalgia with a realistic, determined search for the stories and truth from those who lived through a cinematic and societal period the likes of which we as a society will not likely again see. 10kBullets is happy to feature this phone chat with Mr. West as we discuss the ins and outs of running what is quickly becoming a must-see hub for all those who harbor a love and interest in the Golden Age of adult cinema. Read on and please enjoy. -G.
You’ve mentioned in our correspondence that you were raised in Italy. Did you develop an interest in film early on, and if so, what were the kinds of films towards which you gravitated?
My interest in film started with all the Italian exploitation genres, so I guess that would be the westerns, horror and Italian police melodramas which were released in the 70s. I would see these in the cinema when they came out, and they were big news, with many of their stars being interviewed on T.V. I lived through that first generation of films. My interest in adult films started in Italy, as well, but it wasn’t through watching any Italian films. I went to the cinema one day and saw an American film, directed by Radley Metzger, by the name of Barbara Broadcast.
It was quite by accident, because it happened to be playing in a cinema where I had been expecting to see something else, but I went in and saw this big screen sex film for the first time…and life was changed forever! (laughs)
What was the original impetus behind The Rialto Report? How was the idea for doing the podcast birthed?
I arrived in New York about twelve years ago after moving over from England, and a big attraction to me was coming to a place which I felt I had grown up with, cinematically, watching all of these great, gritty 70s movies like Taxi Driver and The French Connection. I was eager to come over in the early 2000s, and of course, when I arrived I found that New York had become a completely different city, cleaned up and with no hints of the sleaze and creativity which was here thirty years ago.
My first instinct was to re-create that, so my first instinct was to make a documentary movie about Times Square, and about the cinemas, films and book stores. I set about that and filmed interviews with about four hundred or so people, all relating to adult film industry in New York. That’s still going on–I hope to have that film ready in the not so distant future–but documentary film is limited by its very nature, because you can only give each person three or four minutes of air time, in the hopes of telling a bigger story.
What I found was that all of the people I was meeting were absolutely different from my expectation, or even the public’s perception. These were talented, three dimensional figures; people who had led fascinating lives. Their stores were completely unique, but each one had a very different reality about what had happened at the birth of the adult film industry. I felt that the best way to present these was to look at a long form interview with each person, and trying to present their story as a sort of mini-biography over the course of that program, because that would really help build up an oral history of the time, which would be much richer in the long run over a single documentary.
Was it difficult garnering interest in interview subjects at first? Did you find that some people were initially resilient to talking about their careers [in the adult film industry]?
Oh yeah. That’s the big deal. If you started making adult films in the early 1970s, the chances are good that you’re in your sixties or seventies now, and however you felt about it at the time, there’s going to be restrictions on a lot of people–whether it’s from family, places of work or just society–which would make it difficult for them to speak out. The strange thing is that, for me, the most important and interesting people are those who did NOT stay in the industry. For example, it’s fairly easy to go out and get an interview with someone like Ron Jeremy or Annie Sprinkle, because they’ve been in the industry for the last thirty, forty years or so in some capacity or another.
What I really wanted to hear about is people who did something for a short period of time forty years ago, and then have gone on to lead a completely different life. I want to try and find out from them what that brief moment in time was like, and what their thinking was at the time, and–equally important–what their perception of it is nowadays. Those are the people who are difficult to get speaking in front of a microphone, but they’re the most interesting, I think.
The best thing about the podcast format is that it’s not a filmed interview, so typically we can use someone’s original, assumed name, or “porn name,” and, to a certain extent, it can help preserve their identity. I speak to a lot of people, and it’s a challenge, even when you get people to open up. You’re looking for a very honest appraisal, so even when you get someone to talk, you’re not always getting an honest view, because sometimes the person has tried to repress it or push it down. It’s difficult, but that’s the fun and the challenge.
What initially drew me to the podcast, and what I appreciate and respect so much about how your approach is the fact that you do approach it from such a studious, serious appreciating point of view. Even when you’re discussing what could be totally sleazy, you never talk down your subjects and you always approach it from a cinematic point of view. Did the fact that you grew up watching adult films alongside exploitation and other forms of cinema shape that approach to covering this material?
That’s good point. I never thought about it that way, but I agree. The nature of the cinema I grew up with in Italy was such that all of these films were almost presented side by side. I could go see a Fellini film or a Deodato film side by side. There’s wasn’t much cultural snobbery; it was all a big melting pot. I think you’re right, though: I don’t tend to view any one type of film as being superior to any other, so long as they deliver on the entertainment front.
Do you think that the podcast is also exposing such works as the Radley Metzger/Henry Paris films-which you can watch as “straight films” which just “happen” to have sex in them-to people who might think of adult films as what they kind of are now, short on plot and cinematic relevance?
Yeah, exactly. I’ll confess that I don’t possess much of an interest in the “porn industry,” especially nowadays, because I’m really a film fan. By film, I mean some sort of narrative feature which does tell a story and which makes you feel emotionally feelings over the course of it, so I definitely agree that within that genre there are some really excellent films which just happen to contain explicit sex. I really believe in some of the product released in the seventies and eighties as being genuinely good films. I’m not one of the fans who believes that MOST of the films were good, however. I actually believe that most of them were pretty bad, but that doesn’t bother me. I can enjoy pretty bad films as much as I enjoy good films, but the good ones are GENUINELY good, and I think they’re definitely worthy of study or just sharing with as many people as possible. I would love for this field to become more popular, because I feel that people are missing out if they don’t see these films.
I’m always picking out certain things, whether it be cinematography or whatever, and I think to myself, “they didn’t HAVE to shoot that scene that way, but they did, and that shows they must care at least a little bit about how a film looks.”
That’s one of the most interesting aspects about the early adult film industry is that a lot of these guys were not pornographers, meaning someone who sets out to have a career making explicit films. There weren’t any film schools on the east coast to compare with those on the west coast schools at the time, so the way you learned to make films was to make the most commercially attractive product possible, and those were largely explicit films, at least for most of the seventies. So you have a lot of crew members learning their craft, and then going on to work on mainstream Hollywood movies. One really good example is Barry Sonnenfeld who went on to make Men in Black; he was a regular on porn sets in the mid seventies. Woody Allen’s crew who made films with him would often break up when they weren’t working with him, and appear on adult film sets.
So you have these really talented and ambitious people in the film world making adult films, and this would also apply to the actors, to a certain extent. People like Harry Reems or Jamie Gillis were very seriously intentioned actors, or Paul Thomas on the west coast, who appeared on Broadway in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. John Leslie springs to mind, as well. These were people for whom porn, at least in the beginning, was a means to an end, the “end” being a successful artist in the world of film or theatre.
I really gravitated towards the specific podcasts which dealt with this theme, such as the Robert Kerman and Eric Edwards episodes. I’m a big fan of Kerman’s work on the Italian cannibal movies, and it was heartbreaking to hear how desperately he wants to act.
That’s the problem, especially for the people in front of the camera, because whilst this was a great learning ground for their craft, it wasn’t necessarily a passport to mainstream success because of the stigma which was attached. If you were a woman in front of a camera, that stigma was even worse, as opposed to whether you were a grip or a camera man.
Have you heard back from guests after appearing on the podcast, whether it’s just feedback or something positive which had happened to them as a result of being on the podcast?
The people I interview I consider friends, so I try to keep a dialog going after I’ve interviewed them, and try to see them as often as I can, and I know that they’re very happy with the personal feedback they’ve received from fans as a result of the podcast. What I’d really like to see is perhaps some of these people can monetize their legacy to a greater extent, either by contributing to newer releases of films via commentaries and interviews, or doing public appearances at conventions, or, most importantly, pursuing creative avenues writing, acting or directing.
I had lunch with Radley Metzger last week, and he’s still talking about making films, and Kerman is the same. He’d love nothing more than to appear in a stage production. Someone like Herschel Savage, views now to be the end of a first chapter, and the beginning of the most successfully creative part of his life, and I happen to think that can happen for him, because he’s still intelligent, talented and good looking, so hopefully something like that can happen for him. That’s my real hope.
Once the podcast got going, did you find that the positive word of mouth spread, and you were able to get people you didn’t think you’d be able to track down, such as Jennifer Welles?
Yeah, absolutely. The podcast is good for two reasons, I think. One, I wanted to attract people to show how serious a lot of us are about film history, and I wanted to be able to point to something. Now, having a body of work has enabled us to do that. Now when we have guests who aren’t too sure they want to appear one the podcast, they have something to listen to, and they want to sign up really quickly, because they see it as a good opportunity. Also, we receive a lot of information from people who knows bits about the industry, and that’s been another really valuable thing; having a hub people can gravitate towards where information can be passed along. That’s how we’ve managed to track down people for the first time who we didn’t know were out there, or we can find out about some of the practices or commercial structures which were put in place. We were out searching before, but now people are coming to us, which is great.
Who have been some of the more difficult people to track down?
Jennifer Welles was very difficult to track down, because she had left New York back in the seventies, moved out of state and changed her name completely. There are a few people who fall into that category, one being the actress Desiree Cousteau, who was a fan favorite we’d love to interview. We’ve been successful with most people we’ve approached , so by and large we haven’t had too many people turn us down, and we haven’t had many people we haven’t found, either.
Looking at some of the visual ephemera on the site, it seems as if you’ve been able to go along to certain events, like the AVN Awards, with some of the people you’ve had on the podcast. Are you involved in the adult industry at all, or are you just attending as guests?
No, we’re not involved in the adult industry in the slightest. I have a very regular, 9-5 job. I’m not a very good documentarian in that, when I interview someone, I’m not one to walk away and move on to the next subject. I find myself personally invested in that person’s experience and life, so as a result of that, I tend to develop good relationships with the people, which means we’re often invited to such events as book launches or industry get-togethers and such; it’s just because of our friendships that it’s happened that way.
It must be a thrill, regardless.
It’s not something I take for granted. A lot of the people who I’m most interested in who made or appeared in the films are the ones who benefitted least from the huge money which was being made. Even the less successful films were pretty successful in the seventies. I was speaking to one distributor who told me that the payback period for the worst of his films was something like three or four weeks, which means that three or four weeks after putting his films into cinema, he would have all the money back, with the rest of the year being pure gravy. That’s a hugely successful business model, but that money didn’t go to the creative talent, meaning the actors, directors or crew.
You have to be very careful to remember that, because the last thing I want to do is show up thirty years later and exploit them all over again, because as it is, a lot of these people are finding it difficult to get work or be open about what they’ve done. The last thing they want is someone to come around and exploit them again, so these friendships are something I take very seriously, and do my best to create opportunities whenever possible, so they can benefit financially from the work they did so many years ago.
IIt’s really tragic thinking about how much money was being made on these movies, and how little of it went to the people who were making them. I’m sure it goes hand in hand with people behind the scenes, unsavory people behind the scenes as far as getting these films distributed.
A lot of the time it’s pure business. A lot of people point to the mob and say they were being ripped off because of the mob, but to be honest, a lot of the time it’s just commercial. If you’re putting up the money as a risk, then you deserve all of the financial reward, and people who were just turning up for two or three days shooting aren’t taking that financial risk, and thusly don’t deserve the reward. What wasn’t considered was all of the reputational risk, because that’s something which sticks with them forever, while all of the people making the money are those faceless people behind the scenes who own films. Yes, they put that money at risk, but they’re able to walk away. A lot of the people who made these films were NOT able to walk away from their involvement.
Deep Throat is a prime example. Didn’t Harry Reems get paid a hundred dollars for that? And that movie made millions!
Yeah. Harry’s case was a sad one, because he suffered hugely. I was lucky enough to become friends with him over the last few years of his life, and the harrowing stories he would tell me as a result of the alcoholism he got into as soon as the legal action against him started ratcheting up were really horrible. It really did ruin his life throughout much of the seventies and eighties and left him with poor health which he ultimately wasn’t able to get over. And all that was because of one week in Miami making an adult film in 1972. It’s a big price to pay.
Especially when you spend your whole life thinking about a decision you made thirty years ago.
Yeah. I was speaking with an actress from the seventies recently, and she asked me if I remembered what my first summer job was, and I told her I worked at a library. She asked me how long I worked there, and I told her four weeks. She told me that was the length of her involvement in the adult history: four weeks over the course of two years. Then she asked how much I remembered of that library job, and I told her not very much at all. She said, “exactly, but I’m now stigmatized, and I have to be careful what I do now because of that very small period of my life.”She had no regrets over that period–in fact she was very positive–but she recognizes that not everyone has that perception.
Do you think people still might forget how glamorous, for a brief period, adult films were, inasmuch as you had “normal people” going to see Deep Throat or Behind the Green Door because it was “cool” to do so?
You’re absolutely right. When you speak to someone about the porn industry now, their perception is what comes out of L.A., which is very different from the porn industry in the 1970s and 80s. The stars had a very different existence compared to now, as well appearing in the mainstream a lot more often. There was a real hope and belief that, at some stage the two industries–mainstream and adult–would merge, and that there would be this more explicit portrayal of sex in mainstream movies, and it seemed to be going that way. Although it seems ludicrous now to think that this would ever happen, it seemed for a time that things really were converging, and a lot of the porn stars had a cultural relevance because of their appearances in mainstream films.
The media certainly helped, as well, with Playboy doing shoots and such.
Yeah, I was looking through Variety the other day searching for the top box office receipts for 1976, and several of the films in the top fifty were surprising to me, because they included titles like Through the Looking Glass, The Story of Joanna and Every Inch a Lady. I was shocked to see them battling against movies like Rocky or Taxi Driver. Sure, these films didn’t have the same sort of longevity as the Hollywood films, but they were being shown in cinemas just like mainstream ones, so the division wasn’t as great.
Do you feel that maybe, in the seventies at least, that Hollywood films which were looking to depict a gritty, sleazy New York City vibe a la Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy, decided to call on adult film actors for small roles, in order to give these films a greater feel of authenticity?
That’s a great question. I think that there’s definitely some of that, because when I speak to a lot of the adult film stars from the golden age, they reference these films as motivators, as well; films which they auditioned for and perhaps didn’t get for one reason or another. These films were the zeitgeist of the day, because New York was an almost bankrupt city. Crimes were rife, and the films reflected that. Even the adult films of the day reflected that, especially the New York films, rape ‘n revenge roughies and dramas which were definitely influenced by Taxi Driver. A film like Waterpower, for example, is very much of its era, almost in the same genre as Taxi Driver. It’s urban madness in New York.
I also love your attention to detail, both in getting back story on your subjects and in your choice of accompanying music. How much work goes into all of the research and proper framing of each subject’s story?
Quite a lot, actually. In terms of the music, more or less every piece is actually chosen by the person about whom the podcast covers. Seka, for example wanted to use Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” because she was coming of age at the time. The shows are in three parts, and the interview is the shortest and easiest part. There’s a lot of pre-work just to understand what the person’s story is, so there’s quite a bit of pre-interviewing which takes place. The interview itself typically goes for five or six hours, and the third and final piece is finding the story so we can edit down to about an hour and a half, so people stay involved in the story.
The challenge is two-fold: I’m hugely interested in the minute details, because I’m a fan of the times. Just like you, I’m interested in every small detail which probably will be interesting to no one else. On the other hand, I’m aware that we’re creating something which is supposed to be entertaining to people, so I don’t want to get involved in too much detail on the show. I try and combine a decent level of detail, so that it can appeal to someone who feels they’ve heard the story before, yet can also appeal to those with just a casual interest. The good news is that, over the course of a six hour interview, I can ask all of those fan questions, and just edit things out accordingly afterwards. What I’m starting to do, though, is a series of long form interviews which are more detail oriented as opposed to entertainment oriented, and we’ll be posting those on the website for fans.
You have a small but dedicated staff assisting you on The Rialto Report. How much time are you all able to devout to this, given that you all have jobs, families and careers?
My vision for it was just to create something which is open source. I want to get as many people involved as possible, and share information as much as possible, so that’s why you’ll see many shows with co-presenters, and I’m always looking to open up to anybody who has an interest in a specific subject, so we can open up the level of participation. Part of that is that I believe that the smartest person in the room is the collective, rather than one person. I’m perfectly aware of my own limitations, so I want to get people involved who can bring a totally fresh perspective.
All images originally appeared on The Rialto Report and are being reposted here with permission.