Depending on your view of pornography, director Paul Thomas is either the Ernst Lubitsch or the Mack Sennett of hardcore. With nearly 300 titles under his belt, he is Silicone Valley’s premier porn director, an auteur who works out of Vivid Entertainment’s Studio City headquarters. Thomas maintains a surprisingly ambivalent outlook about screen sex, however, and feels uneasy even watching extended lovemaking scenes in R-rated films. “If the scene goes on too long,” he says, “it feels gratuitous.”
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)Thomas, a fit and commanding-looking man of 57, came to the trade in ways both traditional and novel. On the one hand, he began his 300-plus-role acting career by making 8-mm fuck loops for Jim and Artie Mitchell (along with such scripted classics as The Autobiography of a Flea), and then, in 1987, moved on to directing. On the other, before porn, he played Peter in the film version of Jesus Christ, Superstar and appeared in the first production of San Francisco’s camp phenomenon Beach Blanket Babylon. He was also born into the Sara Lee baking family as Philip Toubus and, in 1982, would serve a year in prison for cocaine smuggling.
What sets Thomas apart from most of his industry colleagues is his insistence on production quality and storytelling — thanks to Vivid’s comparatively high budgets, he is able to shoot on film instead of video. Thomas understands that film is the medium whose texture is closest to dreams, while video makes sex look as though it were recorded on surveillance tape. He also has based some of his movies on more mainstream films — his Justine was inspired by Louis Malle’s Damage. Even as “serious” porn has been derided as pretentious and — worse — boring, Thomas sticks to his emphasis on narrative.
“People want some story with their eroticism,” he insists. “If you can make them believe in the characters and their conflicts, it heightens the inevitable sex in the screenplay.”
In a 2004 issue of Granta devoted to film, Canadian director Atom Egoyan fantasized about interviewing Thomas, although it’s clear that “P.T.,” as he is known in the business, would trade all the skin talent in the Valley to be behind Egoyan’s camera: “What I’m strongest at, storytelling, I can’t really exercise the way I could if I didn’t have to bother with so much hardcore sex.”
Yet it is also Thomas’ dedication to film craft that makes him sound melancholy a decade into the gonzo porn aesthetic that prizes jumpy videos that often show women getting raped and tortured.
“There’s so much of it,” he says, “so many more agents, so many more girls. These people are more businesslike, but they want business like a bunch of whores. They’re a bunch of young kids who love to be paid for fucking. Which is great, but the mentality to create motion-picture stories is not there as much as it was when I started.”
His latest release, Debbie Does Dallas… Again, puts on the line his reputation for making the familiar seem fresh, even as he continues to marvel at the outrage his business stirs in Congress and in statehouses.
“I’m constantly surprised,” he says, “that sex really brings out the righteous indignation in people — and how big a deal and demon they make sex out to be when it really doesn’t deserve the attention.”
Thomas says he’s not even sure he’d enter the business today — one in which, he laments, actresses don’t understand the need to bring yesterday’s costumes to the set for the sake of scene continuity. He knows one thing, though — Hollywood never will make films even approximating the sexual candor offered by porn.
“Even the mildest pornography is shocking to the average person,” he says. “I’m surprised it’s legal.”