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The nominees for Best Director at this year’s Adult Video News Awards numbered 15, with five women in the group. It’s a statistic that Hollywood can’t boast. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow was the last woman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars—and she’s the only woman to win the award. Among the female filmmakers celebrated at the 2016 AVNs was Bree Mills, who was also nominated for Best Screenplay for her movie The Turning: A Lesbian Horror Story. Mills’s feature, co-directed with longtime collaborator Stills by Alan, stars some of the biggest names in the industry and challenges the social stigmas of being gay through an engaging and cinematically captured tale about a lesbian apocalypse—Spike Lee-esque dolly shot and all.
Before making strides at Gamma Entertainment’s all-girl studio Girlsway, Mills was the award-winning company’s director of marketing. She’s since expanded her vision with new label Pretty Dirty, taking her dramatic story turns, offbeat characters, sly humor, and steamy big-screen look to the boy-girl market. Like Girlsway, the label is already thriving thanks to Mills’s episodic storylines, featuring interconnected narratives and characters. With several features in the works and a fan following to brag about, Mills continues to enthusiastically dismantle lesbian porn and adult cinema stereotypes in her elaborate, delightfully pervy universe.
Alison Nastasi: You started at Gamma Entertainment in a marketing position, but what inspired you to make the full-fledged jump to producing and directing porn? Was there an experience or moment where things clicked?
Bree Mills: I've been with Gamma for about eight years now. While I was the marketing director, a large part of my responsibility was overseeing scenes that were using marketing campaigns for the various content producers and partners that Gamma represents. I had a lot of indirect exposure to content, because, of course, we were monetizing and marketing it in partnership with the content producers. One of the things that always fascinated me about that side of the lens was seeing how consumers, I guess for lack of a better word, consumed content—looking at behaviors and trends, interacting with members, and listing and observing all of the weird little patterns and nuances about porn consumption, particularly people who would go so far as to subscribe to websites. In 2016, you don't have to pay for porn anymore. It's a reality. So the people who actually are members and subscribers to different sites, or active users, are definitely a certain breed. I became really fascinated with the market and data side of it, and didn't really think too much further ahead than that. It was just something that I really enjoyed about my marketing role.
I come from an educational background in film and English—more film theory than actual production. But I came with a basic understanding and awareness of production, and also had done a lot of theater production and stuff growing up. When Gamma made the decision to experiment by shooting some of their own content, which we did, our president contacted his key producers and did some test shoots. This would have been, maybe, four years ago now. It wasn't something he could devote a lot of time to. I stepped in and said, "Hey, why don't I give this a try? I'm really interested in content. I'm really interested in creating brands and product lines—and you’re working very closely with consumers to build them. Why don't I take a stab at it?" Our president, who I'd worked very closely with my entire career at Gamma, gave me the reins, and off I went. I haven't looked back since.
I started behind the scenes, forming the production/post-production company side of it, the support, and working with directors in the field. As I developed Girlsway and launched, I got more and more hands-on. I developed a really good relationship with my creative partner in the project, Stills by Alan. We collaborated so well that we just kept pushing and pushing, and it really got to the point where I started to write full scripts and direct big projects.
You mentioned trends. And it sounds like your films are a true collaborative process. You work closely with Alan, your performers, and the fans every step of the way. Still, the films feel very personal. How do you balance your personal vision with the trends of porn? How influential are those trends?
I think you really need to have a balance of both. When I created Girlsway, it started out as a seed of an idea. I was lucky enough to be working with a team of people who helped to champion that seed and watch it grow, support its growth, and be part of its growth. Alan is obviously a huge part of that, but all of our crew, who have been with us, more or less, since the beginning—my editors, my graphic designers, my marketing staff in Montreal. These are all people who helped to take a piece of clay and mold it. It's kind of gotten to the point where I might be "The Mother of Dragons." But what sure is beautiful, what I really love, and what touches me most about the success of Girlsway, is that everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid. It is such a collective vision at this point. It's such an organic, living, breathing entity. The performers we work with time and time again love what we do, love our scripts and our recurring characters in our soap operas—the whole universe we created. Everybody is on board and carrying the vision, so I don't have to carry it all myself. Girlsway, and the other studios that I manage, particularly our new studio Pretty Dirty, is not a job. This is my life, a 24/7 thing, in terms of thinking about it, coming up with ideas, and brainstorming and working with talent. It really is a passion project. I know Alan is absolutely at the same level. You could tell us that Girlsway was shut down, but we'd still show up the next day with the cameras and scripts. The fact that it’s all-consuming is kind of fitting. I want it to be all-consuming, because it is really what drives me, what gets me up in the morning, and what I’m very passionate about.
How do we balance what I see as my personal visions, or what I want to do, versus what we see in the market? My ears and eyes are always open. I sit on quite a lot of data, and I have people who are crunching numbers and coming back with analysis. I definitely reflect quite heavily on each—why trends emerged and what performers are getting more traction than others. It’s a pretty essential part of how I do production planning, taking that analysis into account, along with member feedback. I don't get so blinded by the data that I take away the creativity. I'm obviously not going to go and shoot something that I have seen evidence time and time again doesn't work. But often times, where I am thinking about taking the direction of a story, or certain scenes that we explore, things are very much in sync with what's happening in terms of our trends. I don't even necessarily realize it until it's happening. I think when your pulse is on the market, and when you’re involved with fans, it means that you are kind of one of them. You speak the same language, so you really understand what they want.
When I got to make a movie like The Turning, which was one of our big hits last year… I mean that's a crazy story. It's not necessarily directly correlated back to, "Hey, we've seen that people getting infected by the lesbian apocalypse zombie virus will be a huge hit." But I knew that squirting did very well. I knew that the heavy oral, fluid-based scenes trended well. So if I incorporate that into how I want to tell the story, it allows me to be quite creative and is still giving people what they want. Whenever I'm doing a big project I always try to make sure that it includes a few different key elements—sort of a cinematic challenge or genre we want to emulate, an overarching emotional scene that has previously done well, and then, of course, some sex acts, or something to do with the actual physical side of the scenes that we know is going to hit a mark. I really respect, listen to, and interpret data, but I don't let it drive my creativity. I let the two steer me, and go forward.
The Turning has an interesting thread of social commentary to it, even if it was presented tongue-in-cheek. Can you talk about your intention behind the film?
Oh, absolutely. It's an allegory of homophobia. From the outset, I had full intentions to do that. It's a direct social commentary on the many years in which homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and the fact that it’s still regarded as such in many aspects of society. I figured I would turn that fear, the fear of being gay, and enter that deep-rooted homophobia. I turned it on its head and made it into a literal horror movie. I don't know if necessarily the average viewer would pick up on that, but I ranted very heavily about it in the behind-the-scenes interview. Actually, most of my movies have a lot to do with homophobia and are making a social commentary. Project Pandora, which just came out, is completely about that. The kind of universe I'm creating has a lot to do with taking homophobic stereotypes and exaggerating them in a kind of this comic book-style way. It’s my way of poking fun at all of it.
Yes, you definitely sense that. Regarding your film background and the films you’ve directed, you certainly include visual and narrative references to mainstream cinema. The Business of Women looks very film noir. The Turning has a contemporary horror aesthetic. Project Pandora feels partly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The lurid color scheme reminded me of 70s horror. Who are the directors or the films you admire? What do you like to watch?
I'm a total film junkie. I am really glad you picked up on that, because I try to take one mainstream cinema genre and pay homage to it in every movie that I do. Within that genre, I look at the directors who I am either the most personally influenced by, or I feel are the best representative directors of that genre—and then will try to pay homage to them. Usually, at least once in every film, there's going to be a scene that is almost a shot-for-shot homage. For example, in The Business of Women, it was film noir and trying to play a lot with the lighting and cinematography. Alan will oversee the cinematography and technical side of my features, where I am more working with the talent on the script and the overall crazy vision. I'm very personally influenced by Michael Mann.
I totally see that.
I made everybody in the crew watch an interview with Dante Spinotti, who is his cinematographer, about the use of color to convey emotion that he used in Manhunter. And that was what we did, that was actually the influence we took from all the different color schemes in Project Pandora. You will see there is a lot of red and blue. That was literally our paying respect to Michael Mann and his use of color to convey emotion.
Missing, the movie that I just finished filming in March that comes out in June 2016, is a crime thriller. The opening sequence to it is almost a shot-for-shot replica of the opening sequence of Zodiac. We were very influenced by David Fincher's film—the whole locked-off shot with the car pulling up, and then the guy getting into the car and going to the make-out point? We basically took that and did our own version of it, really trying to stay true to the use of color grading and saturation that Fincher used. And, of course, the way that he built tension in that opening murder scene.
The movie I'm shooting in June 2016 is actually going to be my reimagining of a fairy tale. I'm doing Little Red, inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. I'm using some Sam Raimi references, like with his forest cam in Evil Dead. Also, The Company of Wolves and An American Werewolf in London—some of the ways that they filmed the POV of the creature and that sort of thing. Every movie has a direct connection to at least one, if not several films, cinematographers, or directors—and I actually like to give that as a real challenge to our crew. "Hey guys, look at this. This is what I want to emulate." Certainly for me while I'm writing, because I write from a very visual perspective, I'm a wannabe cinematographer. I have certain shots that I always want to see, that I sort of imagined, which are heavily influenced from films and TV series that I've seen.
Can you paint a picture of what it’s like on a Bree Mills set? What’s the vibe, and how are you interacting with the performers?
A Bree Mills set is heavily organized. I will shoot a feature about once every three months. Let's say I'm shooting something on the third month. The first two months I'm focused on pre-production, getting the story out of my head, getting the script down, a full script. I do vettings. I'll work with my post-production and design team to review the script and make sure we annotate them. By the time I go into production, my editors already have a vision of what they want to put it together, and my designers… I already have my box cover, the look and feel of the logo, and the title conventions. It is almost done. When I come to set, I come with a bible. We call it "porn script theater." I'm the owner of the porn script theater, so I've determined every shoot day, what we are going to shoot, and in terms of what sequences. I manage the schedule, bring everybody in, and then go sequence by sequence to do a reading. I'll read it to them almost in a storyteller way, with character voices—how I imagine it being played out.
Once I've done porn script theater, Alan will take the crew and start setting up to capture the footage. He is really thinking about how to best execute the vision I have and how to get all the detailed shots, because we are working with three, sometimes four camera crews. I will stay and work with the talent on the dialogue. We will divide and conquer that way, then come back together, shoot the sequence, often in one take, because we have done so much practice, and then we will move on. Feature days are solid, long days. It is not a show up, have sex, and go home type of day. It is usually a 12-hour day. We are usually looking at about eight hours of dialogue and four hours of sex. There is a lot of content and substance built into our days. We shoot stuff from all over the movie, so I'm kind of the puzzle master. I know I'm going to shoot this for Episode 3 now, and then we are going to shoot something for Episode 1, then Episode 5. I keep track of the bigger timeline, making sure we are getting everything shot and everybody is briefed. Also, managing the entire wardrobe and making sure that the hair and makeup is how I envisioned it—the look I prepared for each character.
Basically, I'm a complete control freak—speaking in voices, waving my arms around, running through production schedules, and shooting a lot of weird, interesting scenes—but a very nice control freak. I don't think a lot of people approach it that way. I've certainly been told by people, particularly the actresses that I work with, that they appreciate that attention to detail, both from the cinematography and acting sides. A lot of the talent that we work with really enjoy the acting and character side of it. We put a ton of emphasis into characters for Girlsway. It's one of the things we are known for.
Thinking about the talent in your films, your Girlsway movies blend romance, melodrama and humor, and things like horror or taboo subjects. That’s a wide range of emotions and experiences. Dana DeArmond’s approach in Mother’s Secret Twins is more over-the-top. Mercedes Carrera usually has a sensual and more romantic vibe no matter what role she’s playing. How do you work with your stars to elicit their performances?
For standard scenes that go out on Girlsway.com or the smaller series that we do, we always bring in new faces and new talent, but we're very much in favor of finding actresses who not only fit well with our members and have a good response from them, but also fit our vibe—working on the type of content we do, playing characters, and showing diversity.
You'll often see the same faces pop up again and again. That's because it’s somebody we have a very strong collaboration with. "Hey, I'm going to take the Mercedes Carrera character and develop her into this whole Mantis agent for multiple episodes, and create a prequel for her character and an origin story." We have a relationship with Mercedes, and she loves coming on and doing these roles—and, of course, fans love to see her in them. We definitely like to try new people, but we also love the Girlsway girls, people that we mesh well with, and will come back time and time again.
Alan and I have a hard and fast rule that we will never cast somebody for one of our features that we have not worked with before. The features are a real showcase, so if someone has done well on Girlsway, that is a way to demonstrate, "Hey, you have really connected well with our members, and we are going to feature you in our biggest projects." But also, these are our most challenging projects, our most ambitious, and we need everybody to be committed to it and understand what it takes to do it. We are our own crew, our own set, and our own experience, and it isn't for everybody. These are not gonzo shoots, where you show up, and a couple hours later you're out. I mean, these are long days and sometimes multiple day runs, with a lot of dialogue and acting. If that's not your thing, then it's not your thing, and that's cool—but we want to make sure whoever is showing up to a feature is ready for it. We're very, very selective. The people who are in those projects are the biggest stars on our network.
And that interconnectedness you were talking about with the stories and characters definitely immerses the viewer more in your world.
My vision for that, besides wanting to be the Ryan Murphy of porn, is that I want people to get off and get equally excited for next week's episode. In my mind, what we are making is no different than what you would see in a popular, mainstream cable show—in terms of the way a story is constructed. I want you to get immersed in the experience. I want you to care about the characters. I want you to want to know what happens next. Obviously, this serves a good creative purpose. It allows us to develop these storylines, and basically this universe, and take this Marvel Comics approach to what we do. It has a commercial benefit as well. The longer you stick around, the more we can make our stuff. It is tapping into that consumer behavior. When you have your favorite TV show, you can't fucking wait for next week. Why can't the same experience exist for your adult entertainment? That's really one of the key pillars behind the vision I am trying to bring to the brands that I've created. We're not so different from any other type of fandom. Our fans watch Game of Thrones and go to Comic-Con. There is the same type of consumerism, except it's a different medium—so I treat it this way.
A common complaint about lesbian porn is that it’s often male-focused, but that almost suggests that women can't fantasize about things like the mommy-daughter dynamic. What are some of the biggest misconceptions about lesbian porn?
Oh, that is a good question. I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The majority of our audience is male. We are very open to any type. We have women, we have hetero couples, we have lesbian couples, but we have a predominantly male audience. If you were to look at porn viewership overall, it is still a majority of males, although there are increasingly more and more women and couples who are coming out and saying, "Yeah, I watch it—and I'm cool to share that." I would say one misconception about lesbian porn is that it's all fake. Porn in general is a performance. It isn't the same thing as an intimate one-on-one experience between two people—for the most part, unless it is shot on a home video, I guess.
We really strive to find and work with the people who enjoy performing and women who enjoy performing with other women. When you see that chemistry come out on screen, it is authentic. In Project Pandora, Cherie Deville and Jenna Sativa had never worked together before. When they came and did their scene, there was so much chemistry going on that the cameras stopped, and our BTS [behind-the-scenes] guy tried to go in and do a post-scene interview and found it very difficult to get their attention. I like to think of it as a dance—to find that rhythm and build that chemistry. When two people have it, it's there, and it is definitely authentic, even if it is a performance.
Yeah, I would say there is a misconception all lesbian porn is fake, that they all have boyfriends, and that there are no real lesbians. The reality is that off-camera, they may have boyfriends, or whatnot, but there is genuine chemistry to be found. We can certainly tell when it's there.
I think the other misconception is that you can't really have fun with the storylines—they all have to be the sorority-house hazing, or I am a straight girl, and this is my first time. These are very limited storylines. Also, that people don't care about female-empowered characters. We have firmly proven that to be the opposite. We get criticism from fans if there is not enough story.
The tagline for Girlsway is "Every woman is a lesbian at heart." The way you generally exclude men from fully entering the frame when shooting is interesting, because it perhaps suggested, in part, that you're leaving a doorway open for straight or bi-curious women to walk through and feel comfortable becoming immersed in the girl-girl fantasy (speaking of the casting of men in husband/partner roles). What have hetero women told you about your films?
The reason we keep men "in the shadows" in our stories is a little tongue-in-cheek ode to those fans who are girl-girl purists—aka men who absolutely detest seeing any males in their lesbian content. It started out as a joke—our own version of Peanuts, where you never fully see the parents—but quickly became one of our signatures. We're now at the point where every male member of our crew has been a husband, a father, a son—and they have all been blackmailed, cheated on, or otherwise mistreated!
When it comes to hetero women, I already feel as if we have quite a sizable following. Quite a few hetero couples are members of our site. I am told by many of them that our site is their favorite, because they can get lost in the sensuality of two women together. I think this is true of a lot of female porn consumers in general—even if they are hetero, their porn tastes are girl-girl.
Do you think your performers respond differently to you because you’re a woman?
I don't necessarily want to generalize it, but I think that when you are working for a woman there is a certain amount of instinctual trust that exists. The feedback I have received from many of the actresses I have worked for is less to do with the fact that I am a woman directly and more to do with the fact that I care so much about story, set-up, emotional ties to sex and characters—that I really try to work with them to help them understand the vision for the character I had and help build them up to a point that when they go into the sex, they're empowered to carry that character through the sex.
I have been told some companies are just like, "Yeah, yeah, just do the set-up. Yeah, yeah, you're a college girl, seducing this girl." So by the time the sex starts, nobody cares about the story. I've been told—not just me, but Alan, too—that we really try to get you to understand that this is the psychological side of your character. This is the emotion that we want to carry though it and the language that we are looking for. We want to see it from beginning to end. They find that gives them motivation to go out and do a performance that they wouldn't normally do.
Adriana Chechik, a very popular performer in a whole range of things, said to me once what she really liked about her experience on The Turning was that many people worked with her because of her body and because of the sexual performance she can do, but we were really there for her to act. It was her first opportunity to focus on the acting side and not just on the sex act. For her, that was a very liberating experience.
Tell me what the vision is for your new label Pretty Dirty?
At the end of the day, what I aspire to do—in terms of the type of content that I like to produce—are story-based scenarios. We had a lot of success doing all-female stories or female-driven stories. I always knew, from very early on, that there were a lot of stories that I wanted to tell that had to do with men and women. Last summer, I pitched it to Gamma—my vision for what I was referring to as "Girlsway's dirty younger brother." It’s essentially the same spirit—these tabloid-y, soap opera-esque, story scenes that are either stand-alone or multipart episodes. These have to do with situations involving men and women/boy-girl sex. I'm really inspired. My motto for Pretty Dirty is: if the story isn't worthy of the front page of a tabloid, it probably isn't a Pretty Dirty story. We are shooting one tomorrow about a feral woman who comes out of the wilderness and infiltrates this poor, innocent couple. You know, all these kinds of crazy stories involving men and women—but also listening to data points, things that are working in the market, and putting our own spin on them. If sharing your wife, or what's called "hotwife-ing," is in, what really weird, perverted thing can I do to have some hotwife-ing in it? I’m giving that to myself as a challenge—to take some of these big themes that are popular right now and put my own spin on them.
What’s in store for the future?
The next Girlsway feature that is going into production is Little Red, which is a lesbian fairytale. It is going to be the first reimagining of a fairytale, so I have taken the main points of the plot and used them as an influence to create my own story. It's not a parody. It is definitely a reimagining—like a little bit à la what Tim Burton has done in the past. That’s being shot in June and will be released later on in the summer. We have been creating films that are interconnected, so the last three movies that have gone out are part of the same larger narrative. This one is a break—its own individual piece. I am excited to see how people react, because that idea of reimagining things is something I wouldn't mind exploring further, a couple of times a year with different projects. If people like it, I’ll keep doing it. Everyone is already getting quite excited about it. I do a lot of leaks on Twitter, because I can't keep my mouth shut.
Missing is the big one that we are releasing worldwide on June 3—and it is definitely our most ambitious project. It stars Riley Reid in a fantastic performance as our investigative journalist who is dragged down the rabbit hole. Riley just won Performer of the Year at AVN, so she’s at the top of her game. It's a side of her that I can guarantee nobody has seen before. If anybody's a fan of Riley Reid, it is really worth checking out, because she just did an amazing job, and she is supported by a wonderful cast. You have some of the biggest performers in the industry participating in the project. There are all kinds of tricks going on, in terms of cinematography, storytelling, and editing. I am very, very proud of the outcome. I don't think you have ever seen anything like it in porn.