By Johnny Ray Huston
Porn is like adding "in bed" to the end of a fortune cookie
ON THE TV at Jack Shamama's Tendernob apartment, the Republican National Convention has attained the type of wholesome American optimism that can be mistaken for maximum terror, and Dick Cheney is less than halfheartedly trying to wipe that sour look off his face to celebrate. Luckily, all it takes is a click of the remote for our conversation to shift from one ugly uppercase Dick to dozens of pleasure-friendly lowercase ones. I'm at Shamama's to discuss gay porn specifically, Wet Palms, the hardcore soap opera he and co-conspirator Michael Stabile have dreamed into reality. "For whatever reason, we had this idea we wanted to be porn scriptwriters," Shamama says as he looks for a disc of outtakes. "We'd ask people, 'Where do you get screenplays from?' and they'd say, 'Duh, what's a screenplay?' "
Today, Shamama and Stabile can provide some hard evidence. After serious time spent studying the pilot scripts of Six Feet Under and other shows, as well as assorted music video treatments (at last, Avril Lavigne's "Sk8er Boi" is good for something) and screenplay handbooks (sorry Syd Field: Shamama likes Alex Epstein's Crafty Screenwriting, while Stabile prefers Robert McKee's methods), they wrote Wet Palms. Now the series is in production. In fact, it's ready to penetrate multiple markets thanks in part to sans-penetration softcore versions. The show is set for a Sept. 30 online premiere; three episodes have been written and filmed, and six more are in the pipeline. A trio of DVDs will be individually released over the next three months and packaged together as a box set before the end of the year.
Wet Palms is dirty, but does porn really need some soap? Shamama can name some precursors, such as Gays of Our Lives, and his favorite, '80s Dynasty send-up Dynastud. But those movies are relatively talk-free in comparison to his pet project, which, per episode, has as many pages of dialogue as it does minutes. He and Stabile are aware they're taking a risk in adding conversation and plot complication to a format known for shortchanging drama. "People say everyone fast-forwards through plot and dialogue in porn films," admits Shamama, a fan of the "flat acting" styles found in porn and infomercials. "But we're hoping people will get involved with the characters. If you're going to have plot, why be lazy about it?"
"Since the era of radio soaps, soap operas have been oriented towards romantic climax," Stabile observes. "I like the challenge of fusing those types of peak moments with the kind found in porn. It's like '40s Hollywood musicals, where people reach a point in the narrative where they literally have to burst into song. Most of our sex scenes are these end-of-act climaxes."
The genre-bending wordy ambitions of Wet Palms partly recall a bygone era of gay porn, when directors such as Wakefield Poole and Fred Halsted looked beyond basic function and formula. "I've interviewed [porn director] Joe Gage three times, and I think he's fascinating," Shamama says. "The production values in his movies were so much higher [because] he was shooting on film. Being in a gay porn in the '70s was a political statement; a lot of the actors saw themselves as activists. And stars like Casey Donovan were classically trained actors, or at least doing summer stock with Carol Channing. With the advent of video, it all just crumbled, though Matt Sterling's '80s video stuff is phenomenal his movies are my favorites."
Shamama's porn-reviewing duties for various Web sites and publications make him more than familiar with the porn codes he's breaking or remaking. He and Stabile are comfortable pondering the visceral similarities between the tear-jerking of soap melodrama and the saltier jerking inspired by porn as Stabile points out in a feat of academic doublespeak, both genres are "performative in terms of viewer response." Still, as Wet Palms has grown, some pragmatic lessons have been learned. For example, to avoid legal problems, a scene in which one resident is fucked out of a coma had to be changed so that the character is conscious when the fun begins.
"But I think we're going to have him slip back into a coma," Stabile jokes, referring to a different type of trouble spot in the series' production. He and Shamama note a few rough patches during shooting, such as one star's sudden attack of modesty (disguised as insight into his character's motivation, of course), and a sole sluggish actor remarkably perky in rehearsal who required 25 or 30 takes to get his lines right. Kinda like Marilyn Monroe? "Except her ass didn't bleed," Stabile replies.
Shooting on location at a West Hollywood bathhouse-hotel the San Vicente Inn made for occasional awkward moments, especially when certain crew members doffed their clothes and donned towels. And a few corner-cutting measures resulted in rude surprises. "They shot in our room for two days, and our bathroom somehow became the enema bathroom," Shamama says.
Shamama's initial porn soap idea was a hardcore satire of Queer as Folk. Stabile envisioned a Beverly Hills 90210 porn-biz spoof titled Chatsworth 91313. It's no accident the name Wet Palms, bestowed by executive producer Brett Drysdale, also sounds like an Aaron Spelling B-side; the title location is a bathhouse-hotel version of Melrose Place's condoplex, complete with a centrally located pool where scheming neighbors mingle. Whereas Melrose Place had exfoliated motorcycle rebel Grant Show as an early eye-candy lure, Wet Palms has Gabriel Knight. Straight off the bus from Minnesota, Knight was discovered Lana Turner-style at the tail end of an exhaustive casting call that doubled as what Stabile with typical drollness deems an "David O. Selznick" publicity blitz. Showbiz lore has it that Turner was sitting at a counter; Knight was dancing on one.
Knight aside, the Wet Palms cast is weighted toward performers with porn experience, such as Jason Ridge and Brad Benton (who played Kelly Kapowski's little brother on Saved by the Bell: The College Years). Still, the open casting process spawned one of the odder features on the Wet Palms Web site: a selection of audition clips, including one that features a neophyte with strange tastes in boudoir fashionwear. "He was wearing a scrunchie as a cock ring!" Shamama says.
If Knight's drifter, Lucky Hanson, is the protagonist of Wet Palms for now he isn't necessarily the show's most colorful character. That honor belongs to Simon Jett, a male Alexis Carrington type played by Raging Stallion porn vet Michael Soldier, who (perhaps because of his alter-alter-ego Precious Moments, a regular Trannyshack-er and lead singer of drag rockers Pepperspray) has thrived in the show's campier terrain. Editor and publisher of a tell-all tabloid, Soldier's character will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and the performer has carried over to his line readings the same intensity he brings to a sling. "When he read for us, he was perfect," Shamama says. "He's improvised a lot, and the stuff he's done is great. He gets the whole picture [of the show] as well as any of us."
Wet Palms' journey from script to screen required some sidetracking. "The director we really wanted was Peter Jackson," Shamama deadpans, before explaining that he and Stabile hoped to land Wash West, whose résumé includes a "legit" feature film (2001's The Fluffer) in addition to award-winning adult vids such as The Porno Picture of Dorian Gray and moneymakers such as Ring parody The Hole. Since West was filming a documentary about gay Republicans, the duty ultimately fell to Matthew Moore, who didn't crumble when faced with the type of large on-set crew usually associated with "legit" films. "We might be the first porn to have a union sound person," Stabile claims. "On the last day of shooting, we had a different sound guy, and when he realized it was a gay porn, he wouldn't shake anybody's hands even though we were only shooting dialogue that day."
This kind of stigma interests Stabile, who like Shamama isn't hiding his identity behind a pseudonym. "If someone asks me what I do and I tell them, I'm surprised at the reactions I get," he says. He describes dealing with the range of responses as a different kind of coming out, noting that "the open-secret phenomenon of the closet just replicates itself in porn's corporate model."
Likewise, gay porn might be the biggest open secret of San Francisco's business market; Stabile works for Naked Sword, one of the companies along with Jet Set Productions behind Wet Palms. "You don't hear about San Francisco as this porn gulch, but it is right now," Shamama says. "There's still tech here, but all these [gay porn] studios Falcon, Titan, Raging Stallion, Factory, Treasure Island have moved South of Market, and many of them occupy old dot-com spaces. When you think about industries based here, gay porn shouldn't be ignored. I mean, they named the [San Francisco] gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender center after [Falcon founder] Chuck Holmes."
Holmes was a trailblazer, and Wet Palms may blaze some trails as well. It arrives during a noteworthy cultural shift, as art-house film is incorporating porn explicitness with increased frequency and severity. In the wake of The Brown Bunny, a wave of unsimulated sex is hitting movie theaters and film festivals, and John Cameron Mitchell's upcoming sex film project should further blur the divide. Rooted in porn rather than raiding it, Wet Palms pinpoints similarly uncharted territory from perhaps a more unique (and less stuffy) angle. How will it fare? Viewers will have to see for themselves.
'Wet Palms' premieres Sept. 30. Go to www.wetpalms.com for more information.