Dana Vespoli’s Rubber Fist of Defiance

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Describing Dana Vespoli as just a pornographer is like labeling Andy Warhol as just a silkscreen printer. She defies definition. Vespoli is a shy subversive, a feminist shunned by feminists, a reclusive porn revolutionist.

Online piracy's decimation of the adult industry has created a bottleneck effect, leaving an ever shrinking population of devotees. While some of the surviving producers obsess over self preservation, pumping out formulaic products in hopes of reproducing previous profits, others trudge on, advancing into new terrain and reshaping the porno landscape in their own image. Vespoli is one such porno rebel. She is fist deep in the pornographic trenches, shooting guerilla scenes with skeleton crews in the back of moving cars, in drainage ditches, and on public streets. Her films often march into uncharted territory, into the blood pounding no-man’s land between fear and desire.  

Vespoli first became curious about porn in high school when she frequented adult arcades to watch loops of icons like TT Boy and Christy Canyon. After graduating from Mills College in Oakland with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature, Vespoli found her sexuality and creativity suffocating beneath student loans and two button-down jobs. As an escape she started performing at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco. There Vespoli performed girl-girl sex shows and met influential feature performers like Nina Hartley, Kylie Ireland, and Marilyn Chambers. Eventually she moved to LA to work on commercial shoots and behind the scenes on softcore films. In 2003, at 31, Vespoli began performing in sex scenes, motivated in part by the knowledge that many adult directors started as performers.

Vespoli is now a director and performer for Sweetheart Video and Evil Angel, shooting everything from psychosexual horror features to gonzo vignettes. Some of her better-known titles include, "Hollywood Babylon," "Fluid," "Lesbian Anal POV," "Borders of Desire," "Femdom Ass Massacre Extreme Humiliation," "TS, I Love You," "Twisted Lesbian Anal Spit Play," "Lesbian Public Sex Fetish," and "Dana Vespoli’s Real Sex Diary."

I caught up with the unassuming director at a coffee shop during the 2015 AVN Awards, where she racked up 21 nominations, including Director of the Year. 

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Alfie: A rubber, disembodied fist appears in many of your scenes.  

Dana Vespoli: We call him Handy.  

Alfie: Why not use a regular fist?  

Dana Vespoli: Fisting is not allowed in porn because apparently we need to police women’s desires. We don’t do that with men, but we definitely do it with women. Stoya made a really good point. Fisting is something that many women really enjoy doing in the lesbian community. Apparently it is obscene when a woman feels good, when a woman needs something larger than a penis to get her off. It’s a threat. I think it’s ridiculous. The editors at Evil Angel—and Evil thinks it’s dumb too—but they tell me to cut out the fisting because of these rules. Well if I can’t fist these girls, then this rubber, disembodied fist will.  

Alfie: It’s almost an existential question.  

Dana Vespoli: Right. Is it really a fist? It’s a fist, but it’s not attached to a human, though it is and extension of my own fist when I’m holding it. It’s my way of saying fuck you.  

Alfie: Do you own more speculums than most gynecologists?  

Dana Vespoli: Yes. I have a big bag of plastic, vaginal speculums. Mike Adriana might have me beat on that. And then I have anal speculums.  

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Alfie: You often search for honest, awkward moments when filming sex scenes. When you are shooting a scripted, feature film, how do you facilitate such candid moments, especially if the performers are supposed to stay in character?  

Dana Vespoli: Casting for me is the biggest thing. Especially for features. I tend to shoot people I know pretty well, whose work I’ve seen a lot, or people who have elements of the character in them because I don’t work with many trained actors. The way to get around that is to find performers who really fit the character and can improvise. In sex, the more comfortable the situation, the more opportunity there is for discovery, so those candid moments come up. Most of the time it is just me in a room with the performers. The PA usually waits outside the door. This helps put them at ease, which helps create more opportunity for them to find something of themselves, or each other, or even just the moment. Sex is awkward. It’s weird. There is always something. Someone struggles to get his shoes off or someone trips a little bit.  

Alfie: That’s true. Porn rarely shows guys taking off their shoes, let alone struggling to get them off. It’s porno magic.  

Dana Vespoli: I love struggles. I keep those moments in. A lot of times in porn they cheat out of it because they want it to be this seamless fantasy. I feel like nowadays we are looking for more things we have in common rather than just a fantasy. I think we like to see ourselves. That is why reality television is so popular. We are preoccupied with the human foibles of celebrities and politicians because it’s relatable. I like relatable sex.  

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Alfie: Porn is often viewed as an escape for many people. If you strip away that fantasy and concentrate on awkward sexual moment, what is it consumers are getting out of your films?  

Dana Vespoli: That’s the only way I know how to shoot and I don’t for a moment think that my stuff is for everybody. When stuff I do tops the charts, ever, I am amazed. Recently my “Real Sex Diary,” did pretty well. I think there’s definitely a market for it. That’s just what I like. Other companies are doing incredibly well sticking with the whole fantasy aspect with perfect makeup, perfect looking girls, and perfect sets. That stuff will always do well. But I think you are starting to see different types of porn coming to the forefront. You’ve got queer product. You’ve got Manuel Ferrara's “Raw.” You have “James Deen’s Sex Tapes.”  

Alfie: Which of your Evil Angel films has sold the best, and did it surprise you?  

Dana Vespoli: Probably, “Fluid.” I spent my first year at Evil trying to find my footing and my voice. With Evil I started from the ground up versus when I started directing for Sweetheart, the brand had already been established.   

At Evil I had to figure out what my brand was and what people wanted to see from me. For the first year there was stuff that just fell flat. "Lesbian Anal POV" didn’t do that well. I did like five of those. I had a talk with Evil and tried to figure out what was happening. They told me the TS movie did well. "Fluid" did well. That gave me a sense that I should still function in this sort of niche way.

I have a tendency to go really far sometimes. I am subversive. I don’t know how else to be. And if I go too far, too hard, it can alienate people. It’s a marriage of art and commerce. I feel like if we are going to do femdom, let’s do femdom. Let’s go as far as we can, but that alienates a lot of people because a lot of fans of femdom are new to it. They don’t want to get scared away. I made two more Fluid movies and I also paid attention to certain things that have been doing well. Incest themes. Older/younger themes. I just put my own spin on those, like I did, “My Evil Step Mom Fucked My Ass.” It’s a little humorous. It tells you what it is. It fits with Evil. It is anal based. It is creepy. I have to be creepy. I’m still figuring out my footing and finding what works.  

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Alfie: When you shoot a pegging film, does the audience want the male performer to identify as "straight"? Is it hard to find “straight” performers willing to shoot pegging scenes?  

Dana Vespoli: It’s really tricky. I am working on a website right now and we are trying to figure out where to put pegging. It almost borders on femdom, but it’s also like TS, which is marketed as straight. I think that is actually incredibly progressive because it recognizes TS performers as female. Pegging is tricky. I did a POV pegging. It’s a little out there. It’s weird. One of the criticisms was that viewers wanted the camera to function as a third person, to observe me with the guys instead of just my perspective. I had to ask myself, “Well do I want to shoot pegging all the time?” It can show up in other movies, but I would rather devote my energy to something I enjoy, like the water bondage in "Fluid," or incest themes, or more girl/boy gender bending themes.  

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Alfie: Your Twitter account contains a lot of pictures and memes from The Shining. What about that story speaks to you?  

Dana Vespoli: You think about things you see when you are little that shape you, and that book was one of those things. I’m a big Stephen King fan and that's one of my favorite books of all time. Anytime a writer or director transcends a genre, I think it’s incredible, and King did that. I think it’s incredibly personal. It’s autobiographical. He was struggling with his own alcoholism. The book was a harsh finger pointing at himself as a father and a husband. It all manifests in this hotel, which is this house of horrors. There is the metaphor of the boiler room. You have to mind it, to go turn it down because if you don’t, the pressure will build and it will explode. In the book, it’s not an axe he chases his family with. It’s a mallet. And in the end he turns the mallet on himself to save his son. I was moved by it. I cried. I was crying reading a horror novel and I empathized with both characters and I was scared at the same time. That is incredible.  

It’s like, Let the Right One In. Is it a horror movie, a coming of age story, or a love story? I love stuff like that. I have always been drawn to The Shining. The story just keeps popping up in my life.  

Alfie: With the exception possibly of "Dana Vespoli's Real Sex Diary," your films aren’t necessarily autobiographic, but they do touch on themes you deal with in your personal life.  

Dana Vespoli: Everything does. "Fluid" came about because water bondage terrifies me. So much of shooting is cathartic for me. I work through stuff by shooting, or doing it, or exploring it. The "Real Sex Diary" is sort of, I feel like the anti-Manuel Ferrara. He has "Raw." He’s this stud. Girls want to fuck him. He could get laid right now if he wanted to because he has become sort of this mythical character and I am really awkward.

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Alfie: You don’t think you could get laid right now if you wanted?  

Dana Vespoli: I could but could I get laid by someone who I want to bang? It’s kind of like my issues with being in porn and trying to hookup. It fails me all the time. I’ll have people hit on me on set. And I’m like, okay, let’s do this and then they suddenly can’t, and I start to wonder, is this because I’m a director and you want to work for me? Am I crossing the line? It’s just always been a struggle. So my joke with it is finding people that I like, and I book them, and I’m like, “Well you kind of have to fuck me now.” But we’re going to fuck the way I feel like fucking so it’s not a scene. It’s awkward. Like Tyler Nixon. I’ve had this sort of porno crush on him. He reminds me of like Zac Efron or one of those of young, handsome, and really sincere, earnest, nice guy. So it’s having sex with him, or Adriana Chechik who blew me off on two different occasions.  

Alfie: Is that the best way to get a job with you, to blow you off?  

Dana Vespoli: No, no, no. Not at all. The people I tend to want to hook up with are people whom I’ve spent enough time with on set.  

Alfie: There seems to be an explosion of psychosexual kind of porn coming from new directors who started out as fetish performers. In the same way "The Shining" had such an impact on you development, do you think the horror films have had an impact on porn and the new wave of porn directors?  

Dana Vespoli: Horror is a popular genre. Some directors grasp onto things that are popular in mainstream culture, like the vampire stuff or the Fifty Shades thing. They jump on things that are doing well in mainstream hoping there will be a carry over for porn.  

But there definitely is more psychosexual stuff. Look at Michael Bisco does, or Jacky St. James for New Sensations with experimental BDSM stuff, or the odd incest themes.    

There's a great book by Carol J. Clover called Men, Women, and Chainsaws in which she deconstructs the modern horror movie genre and shows what is happening in popular culture. Some porn is a reflection, especially with people who work a lot in BDSM. They are more open. It is more psychological. They are open to exploring what is in our immediate consciousness. I think we are more psychologically driven now, because I think it is a weird time history. I very openly say porn is cathartic for me, and I work through a lot of stuff, but I think a lot of other directors do as well.  

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Alfie: Do you get permission to film your public lesbian sex scenes?  

Dana Vespoli: No. It is truly guerilla shooting. It is a calculated risk. I would never try to do anything where we could legitimately get thrown in jail. It is usually places where the stakes are high, but not so high that I am risking my talent’s safety. I’ve shot stuff in dressing rooms at the mall. I’ve shot outback at a café. We cased the café first. No one ever goes out there.  

Alfie: You are like sexual burglars.  

Dana Vespoli: Kind of. That is another thing where, because I am so shy, I wanted to try something—  

Alfie: —Where you got your adrenaline pumping?  

Dana Vespoli: Exactly, but I also firmly believe, that most of the time when people see stuff—as long as there aren’t children around. I would never do that. I would never do anything where there was a chance children would see us. I stay far away from schools and family oriented places. If we see families at the beach, we go father down the beach—but most of the time if people catch us, they just chuckle and go about their day, or they have a new anecdote to tell their friends, or they are just jaded. It’s a rare individual who would call the cops to bust us.  

Alfie: If you were arrested for one of those scenes, do you think it would make great—  

Dana Vespoli:—Publicity?  

Alfie: Right, but also a public statement, as it would be much easier to make the case that your work is art compared to other directors. Would you ever want that kind of publicity?  

Dana Vespoli: No. There are a lot of things I already deal with balancing being a parent and a pornographer. My kids don’t need to deal with that shit. If I didn’t have children, I could see that as being a kind of sassy, fun, way to bring attention to the product. It would be a great way to advertise it.  

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Alfie: You’ve said twice in this interview that shooting porn is cathartic for you. You’ve also said that shooting porn is a kind of safe, creative space for you. When you want to challenge yourself as an artist, how do you get outside your comfort zone to discover new terrain?  

Dana Vespoli: There is always a place to go, if not for me, then vicariously through someone else. I’ve said this before. I think I even told you this before. I’m incredibly voyeuristic. I enjoy watching. I am fascinated by human behavior. I feel connected to my talent. I love when they want to try things that scare them a little. Karlie Montana told me, “You know, I’ve never done anal, but I want you to do this to me. I want you to be the first.” She trusted me. To me someone’s trust is the greatest gift. I care for the girls I shoot so much. I love people. I feel connected to the talent. I’m also incredibly nurturing and maternal. I want to take care of them. It’s creepy because I’m saying I’m maternal and I’m attracted to most of them.  

Alfie: Which may partially explain why you’ve been exploring incest themes recently.  

Dana Vespoli: Exactly. But, the incest theme, it is weird for me, because it’s more older-younger. It’s often step-parent or step-sibling. But I’ve had fantasies about having a step-brother or sister that I am really attracted to. I think of the step-mom thing mostly in fairy tale terms.  

But with pushing the envelope, there is always a place to go. There is always someone who wants to go a little further. Take water bondage. The idea of being tied up and submerged is absolutely fucking terrifying, but I get excited watching it. I want to know how it feels. Justine Joli said that she sometimes falls asleep in bondage if you blindfold her. That’s a true power bottom. I don’t know that I could ever go there, but I love to watch it and document it. There will always be a place to go.  

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Alfie: Do you get approached by a lot of fans, or are your fans far more respectful and shy than other people’s fans?  

Dana Vespoli: My fans are a lot like me. It’s funny. They tend to be respectful. They tend to be really Gen X, like tattoos and dyed hair and philosophical. Then I also get a lot of fans that are just about the butt, but I don’t really get hit on. I don’t think people recognize me.  

Alfie: You don’t think people are just intimidated by you?  

Dana Vespoli: It’s weird if anyone is intimidated by me. I’m such a dork. I’m so shy.  

Alfie: Everyone I’ve asked about you sees you as this looming figure.  

Dana Vespoli: I’ve had a couple girls say that I intimidate them. That’s weird to me. It might be because they are just really young.  

Follow Dana Vespoli on Twitter, @danavespoli, and Instagram, @vespolidana. See the trailers for her Evil Angel films here.

Read more by Alfie at shawnalff.com

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