Going into the Gregory Dark

Article by Mitchell Sunderland

Once upon a time in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles-born son of a stripper and an occultist grew up devouring the sex-filled novels of Henry Miller and stoking an interest in beautiful women and art. Smart, bookish, and visually gifted, Gregory Dark ended up going to Stanford University, where he graduated with a Masters in Fine Art, before heading to New York University’s prestigious graduate film school.

Returning to the city of his birth, the painter, conceptual artist, and budding filmmaker dove into L.A.’s burgeoning indie-film scene in the early 1980s. It was while directing a Showtime documentary about the porn industry, Fallen Angels, that Dark accepted an offer to direct his own porn film.

The deal set Dark on a path that would see him bring a new style and sensibility to porn, become a king of soft-core “erotic thrillers” in the nineties, and hit it big as a music-video director in the aughts (think Britney, Mandy Moore, Linkin Park, etc.). Oh, and he directed pro wrestler Kane, who played a deranged serial killer in the 2006 horror movie See No Evil. And did we mention New York’s Whitney Museum owns one of Dark’s early paintings?

Transgressive in his hard-core films (the “Martin Scorsese of the erotic thriller,” as he was once called) and a music-video helmer with more than a hundred credits to his name, Dark became the father of “alt porn,” bringing edge and a New Wave look to onscreen smut. And if anyone’s responsible for today’s porn stars looking more like pop singers and vice versa, it’s Gregory Dark.

Currently, the versatile Angeleno is pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, of all things. “I was curious about human behavior and subconscious and conscious processes,” Dark explains by phone. We talked to this influential artist and director, now 61 years old, about his life, his achievements, and how he got into porn in the first place.

How did your Las Vegas childhood influence your films?

My cousin owned one part of the Dunes Hotel and Casino. I would go to shows, where there would be these dancers and so-called models and topless showgirls. I started to go backstage to see my cousin, and I would see these women walking around naked. They all seemed to be tall, given that I was only nine years old. That was when I started getting interested in pretty women.

At Stanford and NYU, were you interested in exploring sex as a director?

Making porn was an accident. When I went to Stanford, I was into voodoo rituals. Later, in L.A., a guy named Richard Lerner came to me and said, “I just met this porn agent Jim South, and it was the craziest, most insane experience. This would be a phenomenal documentary if we just hung out at his agency.” The appeal was Jim’s personality, which was like a Texas car salesman, and how he would convince these girls to be in the adult industry by appealing to their narcissism. While I was interviewing the owner of the porn company VCA for the film, the guy said to me, “Have you ever thought about making a porno film?” And I said, “I could make a better film than any of these people!”

Why did you believe that?

I was more interested in the experimental films of Stan Brakhage than I was in Hollywood movies, and I thought I could make conceptual art films with sex — films not conventionally erotic but the antithesis of erotic while still showing the act of having sex. In those days, most people were used to porn movies with soap-opera plots and characters. In my movies, people actually wanted to have sex. They went wild. Women had orgasms. The women I cast wanted to have orgasms. You let them go. I would talk to them, tell them how beautiful they were and appeal to their narcissism.

Is that also how you dealt with pop stars?

Female pop stars hired me to make them as beautiful as I could, so I tried to make them feel good about themselves and feel natural and comfortable.