In celebration of the new documentary, I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole, premiering at Outfest this week, and Vinegar Syndrome’s new DVD restorations of Poole’s groundbreaking classics Boys in the Sand, Bijou, Bible! and Take One, our interview with the the 78-year-old porn pioneer continues.
I rang up Poole at his home in Jacksonville, Florida to talk about his incredible life and work. Last week we covered Poole’s early years, the impact of Boys in the Sand, and what he thinks of gay porn today. This week our discussion revolves around Poole’s superior follow-up, the enigmatic sex-club dream film Bijou, which never achieved the same name recognition-status as its predecessor despite even greater critical acclaim and a cult fan base amongst die-hard porn enthusiasts which continues to grow. We also touch on Poole’s long-standing celibacy, the encounter which almost made him a very wealthy man, and his struggles following a scary car accident a few years ago.
Bijou is my favorite of all of your films and more than that I think it’s my favorite gay porn film ever made. It’s such an incredible piece of work. Where did the idea for the film come from?
Well after I did Boys in the Sand, I wanted to make another movie right away, and I was on top of the world. I learned so much making the movie I wanted to make another movie to show everybody what I learned. I was going to make a straight movie because right after I did Boys in the Sand, Deep Throat opened and it made all that money. We made a lot of money on our movie but nothing like Deep Throat did. So I thought maybe I should make a straight movie, and Martin liked money too so we entertained that idea. And I got an idea about a fashion model. All my movies come from what’s around me at the time and I was surrounded by models then. So I thought maybe I’ll make a movie about a model and there’s a place where she goes to get her rocks off and get serviced by these guys and it could be totally anonymous and she doesn’t have to have any commitment. She can let her hair down and do whatever she wanted. An then when the Nixon thing got so bad with all the lawsuits and all that, I thought maybe we should stay in this small little genre and they’ll leave us alone. So I took the original idea and twisted it around and made it about a construction worker.In the film, the construction worker sees a beautiful model get hit by a car and then steals her purse where he finds the invitation to the Bijou sex club. It’s an unusually dark and mysterious way to kick off a gay porno movie.
I had to think of some way to get him to the Bijou, and the original idea was that the girl just had the invitation in her purse, and she would open it up and look at it and go down there. I decided to change the model into a construction worker because I wanted it to be really not exactly clear who this type of person was. Most people thought construction workers were straight and so there would be a surprise coming later. I tried to think of things all the way through the movie that would be tension-building, and then have a release. More than one release, or more than one more orgasm.
We’ve mentioned Michael Powell as an influence, but Jean Cocteau seems like even more of an influence on Bijou.
Oh, absolutely. Beauty and the Beast, Blood of a Poet. I used to go to the Thalia often. We would see all those films. Genet as well.
How long did it take you to write Bijou?
I wrote the story in one day. The shooting script in one day. I had one paragraph for each person. I saw it exactly in my head as I wanted to do it. Peter went to the gym and then the baths afterwards and I spent the whole twenty hours just developing the look of the film and what I wanted in the film. It became very organic. We got Bill Harrison to do the film, which was a big plus because he was a wonderful actor, though you wouldn’t believe he is acting in the film. He was so trusting and so right with me, everything I wanted him to do. There was never any resistance. Even though he didn’t always understand what I was going for, he took direction beautifully. I would say pick up the purse and look at it and open it up and bring out the lipstick. Make a phallic symbol out of it. He licked it. He was right with me. He created the film right along with me. Everything I wanted to be not specific, he helped worked out. Right down to I wanted El Greco’s Christ on the back of the door. In the old print they did such a terrible job that you couldn’t see it. But the new restoration by Vinegar Syndrome is absolutely gorgeous and when he goes out of the apartment, there’s El Greco’s Chris on the back of the door, and then there’s Playgirl pictures all over the wall. No shower curtain. All that was done on purpose.You were offering little clues as to what was going to happen.
And for the audience not to be able to pinpoint him down as one type of person. So that whatever you saw, for instance if you recognized that picture of Christ you might think he had some religious beliefs and then the fact that he had a little tiny unattractive apartment, maybe he was not sophisticated. The radio station was not necessarily talking about things a construction worker might be interested in. And there was rock music playing. Led Zeppelin. I was told that I should take it out or I’d get sued and I never did and I at one point a friend told me that Led Zeppelin had seen it and they thought it was hysterical and wonderful that I’d used that music.
How did you create such a precise world, not just the clues in the apartment but the Bijou club itself? Where did the visual inspiration for that come from?
From my interest in art. Going to art galleries. My association with Andy Warhol. Even though I was not a close friend at all, the whole pop art scene at that time was unbelievable. Peter got me interested in art. I mean I was always interested in art but we used to go to galleries and museums every Saturday. The Whitney, Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum. We’d do that all day. Madison Ave. Soho. All day. It was a big influence. That’s why there’s so much art in Bijou. The Richard Chamberlain sculpture which I owned. He walks by and touches it. It was big enough to fit on a coffee table, I photographed that and then shot Bill Harrison, and made it look four times as big as Bill Harrison was. There’s a chair that Bill sits on when he first walks in the Bijou to take off his shoes, and there’s a Dan Flavin fluorescent sculpture tied to the back of the chair. So there’s art all the way through Bijou. That’s really what made it so visually interesting. I was so overwhelmed with what was around me all the time.
In your book Dirty Poole you describe your art collection, and the list of what you owned is quite staggering.
I spent all my money buying art. At one time I had twenty-six Warhols, four Lichtensteins, two Oldenbergs, one Jasper Johns. I became a serious collector. I had all ten Marilyns. I also bought ten Electric Chairs. Someone said “Why are you spending all your money?” I said, “This is my retirement.” And it turned out to be, because when I stopped making films and I stopped having money coming in and I bottomed out on the drugs, I had no money. I was destitute again and not hire-able. There was nothing I could do. So I started selling piece by piece to keep myself straight and get off the drugs. I never sold art to buy drugs. Not that I didn’t want to. I sold a lot of other things. A Khyber rifle I bought from Afghanistan, but I never sold a piece of art until I wanted to keep living. I had my lover Paul at the time and he was very sick and I wanted keep him safe.
Bijou was critically one of the most acclaimed of your films. To me it seems like one of the few moments in the history of gay porn when you could see the possibility of another kind of porn taking shape. A more artistic, experimental dreamlike genre.
Bijou for me was like watching a live Michelangelo sculpture. With those beautiful bodies. I couldn’t photograph it badly. The way it was lit, the way they did things. The way they would form these pictures like living statues. I was able to capture those. And the fact that it was enigmatic, you had to add to it if you wanted to enjoy it all, if you wanted to keep going. Tension and suspense were always in the back of your mind while watching the movie. Along with the hard-ons and the art. All those things worked and I will be honest and immodest by saying I don’t think there’s ever been another film like it.
I agree with you.
Everybody who’s seen it, well I won’t say everybody because some people didn’t get it at all, the people that did get it has remained in their memory as an event. Jack Fritscher, the writer from San Francisco, he was the founding editor of Drummer Magazine and became a very good writer. Jack carried on about Bijou every time I saw him. Every now and then he’ll write something about Bijou on Facebook, calling it the highlight of his sexual life. After Bijou was over I got an invitation to screen it at the Designer’s Council Conference, where all the designers meet once a year to talk about what they’re doing and discuss what the fashions are going to be. One year they showed Bijou and it was so successful they had to show it again at midnight. Brendan Gill wrote an article about the life-enhancing qualities of the blue movie. He used Bijou and The Devil in Miss Jones as the two examples. Linda Williams, who has written a lot about Boys in the Sand, did this one interview with me after she wrote this book about that film, she said “My god if I had seen Bijou before I wrote that book, three quarters of the book would have been about Bijou. She’s the one who called Bible! “a glorious flop.” By the way, you know we’ve got the most sensational reviews for Bible! since it was released by Vinegar Syndrome. Just unbelievable. Calling it a masterpiece and saying they didn’t know why it didn’t make it on the first time around. It didn’t make it because nobody saw it because we lost our ad campaign. We spent another $180,000 on the film and I couldn’t go on spending any more money. So we just closed. We got good reviews. Fantasic reviews.
I like it too. Did the gay porn crowd go see the films that were coming out in the straight world and borrow from what they were doing? Because some of their films had much more money than you did.
I saw The Devil in Miss Jones which I thought was brilliant. I saw Behind the Green Door, which offended me because they stole the concept from Bijou. I didn’t like the Mitchell Brothers either. I went to pitch them a script that I had written for Georgina Spelvin and Bill Cable called “The Hammer and the Nail”, and I took Georgina with me to San Francisco to meet with the Mitchell Brothers, and they said, “Naw, we’re doing our own films now, we don’t want to do anything else.” But he said, “Georgina if you’d like to do public appearances and stick dildos in your cunt and sell em for twenty dollars we’d like to do that.” And I took Georgina by the hand and said, “Let’s get out of here.” And we left. It was the most degrading thing they could have possibly said to her. Not that she wouldn’t do it! But how dare they say that. We were there for one purpose. I didn’t take kindly to the Mitchell Brothers. They deserved everything they got. Anyway, I didn’t see a lot of porno films. Not even gay films. Especially since I started making them. I saw some of Jack Deveau’s films because he was my friend and he and my partner were schoolboy chums up in Canada. Even though he was the competition. He said “I think I’m gonna make a porno movie, if you can do it I can do it.” I said “You’re absolutely right. Buy your camera and do it.”
He made some very brilliant films too.
He did. Bobby Alvarez, his lover was an editor so he had a built-in system. He would direct and hand it to bobby. He had a staff of writers. He was wonderful, I loved him. Very spicy. He was a terrific cook.
Does it make you angry or upset that the porn world didn’t follow your example more with regards to artfulness, fantasy, and experimentation?
Oh, I just think it’s unfortunate. Some people think my films have too much foreplay. The younger crowd that were raised on this other type of porno films, not that they’re sleazy, but they’re sleazy. They’re just people fucking. Nothing stimulates your imagination. They’re there for one reason, to get you off. To get you hot. The people who made the Ballet Russes documentary I was in, they showed my films to some people and they said a lot of people were disinterested during the foreplay. They wanted to get down to business. That’s one reason I’m sort of thrilled with these new editions of Vinegar Syndrome. They restored them frame by frame. Gorgeous to look at. People haven’t seen anything like that.
They’re loaded with extras. Commentaries, etc.
Those things are much more interesting than the movies sometimes. They have a lot of my 8mm films where I was learning with the camera. I was thrilled because some of them are very good. I love the one with Peter cooking, where I put Julia Child in the background while Peter’s cooking. You can’t follow what’s being said. We did things that were fun and that’s what it’s all about.
In your book you say around 1980 you stopped having sex after you went through recovery, that sex and drugs were inextricably linked and so giving up sex was the key to maintaining sobriety.
And my lover’s sobriety at the same time. Paul. It was all about the same time that it happened that AIDS started. It just sort of happened. It sort of seemed the way to go. I had been sexual for so many years, since I was eight years old. I was having sex with adults when I was ten. I was an abused child but I did the abusing. I was the one who found the places to get it off and I went there. My god. I could have gotten in big trouble. I remember at one point I got picked up downtown in a movie theater, he said, “Let’s take a ride in my car, and we went out to some highway a back road, and he gave me a bible, and he said now you hold this bible and while he was blowing me I held up the bible so that if anyone drove by it would look like I was just in the car waiting for someone reading the bible. He could have been a serial killer! I could have gotten in terrible trouble but I never did.So the intense sexual life from an early age made it easier to give sex up?
It just sort of happened. When Paul died I was still grieving over that. And I wasn’t sexually active at all during that period. We became celibate together. The main objective was to keep him alive as long as we could. He had a liver disease. We had gotten ourselves straight and I had to find a way to make a living because I wasn’t going to do porno movies anymore. I had done a few videos. They’re still pretty good. I mean they’re not super sophisticated. But there’s some intellect in them. I kept creating good movies but they didn’t come from my experience. They came from my mind. I thought of porno stories. I made one called The Hustlers. But I just never got back into the sexual mode. When you make pornography you get up, have a cup of coffee, sit down on the machine and start editing, it becomes a business. Becomes something else. I never had that need anymore. I didn’t need to fall in love again. I had four of the best love affairs anyone could possibly have. Including being married to a woman once, and so I’d had all that. What else was there for me to have? Except the repetition of something I’d already had. It was a funny way to look at it. It’s always a different experience because there’s different people but I didn’t have the courage to go through it all again.
So have you really never had sex since 1980?
No I had sex one time. It was after I came back to Jacksonville, about eight years ago with an old friend I used to ball with in men’s rooms when I was about 15. We used to have sex regularly. He worked downtown and when I’d see him downtown on his lunch hour, we’d go somewhere and have a little matinee. Then when I came back in 2003 I didn’t know anybody in Jacksonville. They were either dead or moved away. The only gay people I know where my sister and her lesbian lover. And my nephew is gay. That was my experience with gay people down here. I don’t drink anymore. I haven’t drunk since I was in my thirties, so I don’t go to gay bars. I thought well I’m gonna call Roy. I looked in the phone book and Roy was still there. I called him up and he said, “Oh my god Wakefield, I can’t believe it’s you. We have to get together. We’ll have dinner. Come to my house.” So I went to his house. He had married this woman who was a millionaire. She died and left him millions. He had a gorgeous home on the river down here. The first date we had, we had dinner and went back to his house. We tricked. And it was very unsuccessful. I mean I had an orgasm in thirty seconds.
Well after all those years, of course!
I said, “Roy I’m so sorry!” and explained to him the whole situation. I said this is the first time I’ve had sex in over 25 years. And the next day he called and said, “I want to take care of you. I want you to come and move in with me. Live with me.” I said, “Roy, this is moving too fast.” He said, “I don’t ever want you to have to worry about anything else as long as you live. I’ll take care of you totally and you’ll have everything you want, and we’ll live together, in this nice beautiful house. I said, “Let’s just cool it for a while.” Well, within six weeks he was dead. He had pancreatic cancer. He went very fast. Found out about it and within four weeks he was gone. He found out about two weeks after we got together. So that put the kibosh on that.
Oh my god. That’s awful on so many levels!
If I’d only said yes I would have been an heiress. We had a great time being back together. As it turns out he was almost a stalker. He had a scrapbook of everything I had done. Reviews of movies, After Dark articles. He brought it out and showed me that night. He said I’ve thougtha bout you all the time. Who knows what would have happened? He did introduce me to people here. He took me to a dinner group of gay people that I meet with, we have dinner every Wednesday night. We go to different restaurants every Wednesday. It’s a very congenial atmosphere. Some of us have gotten very close, some of us haven’t. As I said I don’t go to bars, so it’s nice to have this to develop friendships.
Going back to my earlier inquiry, just to clarify, if you’re celibate you don’t jerk off either?
No. I don’t masturbate. I had an enlarged prostate for a while and my PSA was very high. I sort of just turned off sex, it’s very strange. I was a very sexual human being. I think the last time I masturbated was maybe four or five years ago.
What is your day-to-day like now?
First of all I get up in the a.m. and feed my animals. I have coffee and once in a while I’ll have a roll or something. I go shopping. I watch a lot of television. I watch the things that were on the night before because there’s so much that I like on television that I can’t watch everything. I watch one thing and tape another one. My sister is here so I go visit her often. I play bridge as much as I can. I could play every day but I don’t. I play 2 or 3 times a day. It’s very different to what I’m used to. I’ve gotten used to it. I’m resolved to the fact that the wild days are gone, but I still have a few in me.
How many animals do you have?
I had three cats inside. One that I had since New York he was 14 years old. I had to put him down last summer. I brought another one inside. He had been left out in the garden. Every one of these apartments opens out to a garden. I had been feeding her and it got to be winter and I thought, she’s not going to make it. She’s been here about three or four years. I brought another one in from the front of the building. I feed about eight cats outside my building every day. I go out and whistle and they come. I’ve turned into a cat lady.
Who would have thought that the most famous gay porn director of all time would turn out to be not just a cat lady but a bridge lady?
Ha! That’s true. I lead a very quiet life. I talk on the phone a lot to friends in New York and California. I’m still grieving for New York. The biggest mistake I ever made was coming home. I should have done everything I could to stay in New York. But I couldn’t retire and stay in New York. I could not afford it.
Nobody can afford to live in New York anymore.
I know. I was paying 2100 dollars to live in a very nice apartment on Jones St. in the Village. Very quiet. Not a lot of traffic. Nice apartment. Wonderful cat. I entertained people a lot. But now I’m too old to entertain. I’m too old to cook for more than three people. It’s a strain. I’m 78 and have had a hard life. I was fine until I had the accident.
This is why you’re seeing doctors, right? What kind of accident was it?
I was crossing the intersection right outside my condo, and I got the green light and she was on her cell phone and going about fifty miles an hour and she didn’t see me. She was in the far lane and if she had been in the near lane she would have seen me. But there were two cars already stopped for the red light, that’s why she couldn’t see me. She went barreling past and spun me around two times. Damaged four vertebrae in my neck. Affected my lower body and neck. They wanted me to have three operations and I said, “unh-uh” I’m too old to do three operations. I’ll take pain management. That’s where I went this morning I went to get cortisone shots in my lower back to prepare me for my L.A. trip. I see a lot of doctors. I have no complaints. I’ve lived alone since 1985 when Paul died. Even in my younger days when I was on Broadway I was alone. I’m very content with myself. I like myself so I don’t have trouble being alone.
My last question: do you have advice for a young person who saw your films and wanted to follow in your footsteps?
Get yourself a camera and just do it. I said that to Joe Gage. Joe and Sam came to see me at Hot Flash in San Francisco. He said, “Sam and I are thinking about doing a movie and we were hoping you might be able to help us out.” I didn’t have the money because I had a store to run and was making 28 dollars a week. They said “How do we do it?” I said buy yourself a camera and shoot it, or rent it. There’s no knowing how. I certainly didn’t know how. I learned every film I was doing. Every film that I did when it was over I couldn’t wait to make another film to correct all the mistakes that I had made in the previous film and show what I had learned. Even Boys in the Sand, each segment gets better, technically. What I learned I put into the next section. And then Bijou was the next step. Then the next film was Bible!, and that film is beautiful technically. Staggering that I got that film out of 16mm. I sound very immodest but I am also a realist. And honest. I know what I do, when it’s good and when it’s not good. So I would just say do it. However you have to do it. Like Jim Tushinski and me. It took us 7 years to make this documentary and we did it! I was very supportive of him making it. And I’m very proud of it.
Below, a promo for the Vinegar Syndrome remaster of Bijou.
Adam Baran is a filmmaker, blogger, former online editor of Butt Magazine and co-curator of Queer/Art/Film. His short film JACKPOT, about a porn-hunting gay teen, won Best Short Film at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and was recently featured on The Huffington Post, Queerty, and Towleroad, among others. He is a features programmer at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival and NewFest in New York. In his spare time, he complains about things to his friends. “Fisting for Compliments”, his weekly musings about the intersection of sex, art, porn, and history, will appear every Monday on TheSword. You can contact him at Adam@TheSword.com and follow him on Twitter at @ABaran999. Check out his previous columns in the Fisting For Compliments Archive.