If you think you know erotica, Paul and Ilona Black’s work is a game-changer. Their movies are dark, unsettling, sometimes even nightmarish – a far cry from glossy generic porn, with its emphasis on artificial perfection. They’re the perfect fit for SexArt (and its naughty sister site, The Life Erotic), marrying powerfully arousing imagery with a truly unique flair for the provocative. Their most recent movie for SexArt, ‘Red Vinyl,’ is the most strikingly original and memorable slice of erotica I’ve ever seen.
I vividly remember the night Jon introduced me to the Blacks’ movies. I binged until I’d watched every single one I could find. I just couldn’t look away. I’d scarcely caught my breath before scribbling down a long list of questions I wanted to ask Paul Black about their creative process. Like his movies, his responses were at once challenging, contrary and darkly humourous. This is a man who couldn’t be predictable if he tried!
Paul, your movies have a dark, often psychologically disturbing feel. Has that always been present in your work, or has it developed over time?
PB: Even though most of my life has been devoted to professional music, I have always considered myself an artist first; everything else – musician, operator, director – came second. As an artist I would categorise myself in the drama genre. For me, drama is one of the most powerful and vital trends in art. The psychological pressure that’s subconsciously in my movies is all the same thirst for drama. Of course, when filming erotica, any director is limited in artistic terms. As a rule, erotic videos (particularly modern, commercial ones) already have a well-established genre in which it’s difficult to make your own changes and not scare off the viewer. I started as a director and screenwriter in art house cinema, working in the genre of ‘psychological drama.’ That’s where I developed my style, which is partially seen in my films for the MetArt Network. When I first moved into erotica and hardcore, I decided I would shoot everything the same way I was shooting normal feature movies. Otherwise it wasn’t interesting for me. The first years of such experiments were fails. Everyone advised me to start shooting in the classic genre, but I continued to experiment, and listened to no one. In any movie, be it erotic or feature film, what is important to me is the atmosphere. It can be in any style, but it should evoke emotion. Of course, the combination of an explicit erotic story and a dramatic atmosphere can lead to something similar to the horror genre. I have no way to deeply immerse the viewer into the story, and so contrary to my wishes, the movie has only a surface atmosphere – like horror films. That’s why the viewer may feel the movies are dark and perhaps even negative. But it’s always a happy ending!
Where do you draw your inspiration from – movies, books, music, dreams?
PB: When I realized that my calling was cinema, and not music (although I spent fourteen years in a music group) I immediately paid attention to the outstanding Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Before watching any of his movies, I realized that his point of view was similar to mine. I made that conclusion after reading one of his screenplays purely by chance, when I was learning how to write scripts. Just from his script, I felt the vibrant atmosphere of the movie, and I began to study the details of the scenes. Tarkovsky shot all of his movies in an exclusive, personally invented genre, which has not been used before him, and no one took up after his death. This is a unique director and unique genre. It’s uniqueness is in perfectionism. His every shot is a whole and well-designed work of art. In the words of Tarkovsky: “There are two basic categories of film directors. One consists of those who seek to imitate the world in which they live, the other of those who seek to create their own world.” I include myself in the second category. Let it be a crazy world – but my own. Of course, filming erotica in the genre of Andrei Tarkovsky isn’t in my ability range, and there’s just no need for it. But his world view has certainly left an imprint on me. Another director who is very different to Tarkovsky, but who also influenced my work, is David Lynch. If from Andrei Tarkovsky I studied the visual arts, then David Lynch attracted me with the psychological component to his work. They both created their own world! From the world of erotica, of course, Tinto Brass (although nowadays it’s difficult to watch without laughing). I will say briefly about music: I love all good music. Genre doesn’t matter. I myself, am a former rock musician and have a bunch of favourite bands. But if we’re talking about most favourite, that would be classical music – Johann Sebastian Bach. Concerning books, I’m not a big reader (I’m too lazy to read). As for the inspiration for a movie, it can come from anywhere: images, dreams, thoughts, or even my own desires.
What genre of mainstream movie do you enjoy, and do you think this influences your erotic work?
PB: Art-house cinema and auteur films. Mainly in the genre of drama. There are heaps of film makers who shoot good movies. It’s a pity that many of them aren’t known to the mass audience. As for purely commercial Hollywood cinema, I am indifferent to it. I don’t mind these movies and I think they are necessary and often watch them myself, but it is like, ‘watch and forget.’ But the auteur films definitely affect my work and even my outlook on life. This is why these movies exist – changing lives for the better.
What drew you to shooting erotica?
PB: I started with feature films, nothing erotic. In my first experiment, I got straight into the professional field of cinematographers, which I didn’t expect. As an amateur dreamer, I immediately got the role of director of a large project with the support of Riga Film Studio and a branch of the company Universal: a professional film crew, honoured artists from the former Soviet Union, plenty of legal issues – and a lot of haemorrhoids! This project got into the International Moscow Film Festival right away – the first project which got to a festival of this level since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So the local film makers took me seriously immediately. Into erotica I came after the silver screen showed me its teeth. Luck turned away. I didn’t finish my own movie. The crew ran off. There were a lot of reasons – one of them funding. There weren’t enough funds to make the movie the way I wanted to. So I thought it’s better not to make a movie at all rather than make a bad movie. And I didn’t have enough experience at that time. That’s the reason I came to erotica. I’ll spend ten years shooting erotica in a cinematic genre, will gain experience and then come back to the big screen. This is what I’m doing now.
Your ideas are often quite bold and challenging. Are you a non-conformist in other areas of your life, or do you channel it all into your work?
PB: My main world view, I put together as a child. I’m not one of those people who often changes their outlook or opinion. I add to it with age, but the key points remain the same! As for society, I never understood it and it never understood me. But over the years I got used to it and I can’t say that it disturbs me. There’s a small number of people with whom I’m interested in spending time and they understand me, and that’s enough for me. At work and in my personal life I’m the same, everything is intertwined. For the majority of people in my homeland, I’m probably more abnormal than normal. But I think that the problem isn’t in me. I live in peace with my conscience, I prefer to tell people the truth and not be a hypocrite. But the truth is not always pleasant to people who are used to having a slaves’ outlook in the seventy years of total control of the population of the USSR. The Soviet Union is long gone, but the society in which I live is still steeped in the values – that are not actually values, from a logical point of view. Yes, I am a person that doesn’t recognize traditions, manners of a society or period. I live only on common sense and my existence in the twenty-first century. And I don’t bother anyone. But my society claims that I do. I live in Europe, but where there are European values it’s bad for most people. So I swim against the tide in my personal life and at work and I’m not afraid. As sung in one song, “Do not cave in under the changing world, it’s better the world will bend under us!”
Does your Latvian heritage influence your work?
PB: “Latvian heritage” isn’t really the right question. I was born in the Soviet Union, in the Latvian SSR. Latvia under the Soviet Union and independent Latvia are two different things. Independent Latvia has only existed for a very short period of time, and honestly, it’s doing very, very badly. I don’t even know whether there is a “Latvian heritage,” I know nothing about it. Good movies in independent Latvia aren’t made, good music either. Latvia doesn’t have time for creativity! But if we talk about the Soviet Latvia, then, of course, there were good movies and good music. But it can hardly be called Latvian heritage. It’s a Soviet legacy, which is closely linked with Russia. It’s the Soviet legacy that, of course, affected me and my work. For example Andrei Tarkovsky, before he left to live in Europe, began his career in the Soviet Union. And his most successful films were made in the USSR. Despite the fact that I don’t like totalitarian government and I love freedom, I am proud of the Soviet Union. I think that it’s the best thing that has happened to Russia. The USSR was unique, though with a lot of drawbacks. Soviet movies were totally different from American films, and this was their advantage. It had its own style. I still with great pleasure watch these old Soviet movies. As for the new Russian cinema, I’m completely indifferent! It’s the same as American films, but poorly made due to low budgets.
Your studio is quite unique and fascinating – how do you create its look?
PB: We try to make all props with our own hands, that’s the only way to make them as planned. We have enough experience in creating interiors from our own ideas. Over the years, we have mastered a lot of professions: from welding to tailoring, from electrical engineering to decorating. The basic experience, I personally got in the construction of scenery for my feature film project. It’s simple, when you’re interested – you do everything step by step, piece by piece, and most importantly, think it all through. Sometimes it’s better to think more, than to do. We gained a lot of experience on the BDSM porn project. We had quite a big team, and the project was very large. All the devices and props were made with our hands. We had our own engineer and electrician. I myself learned a bunch of crafts: welding, blacksmithing, carpentry, and others. It was on this project that I met Ilona, who was invited as a photographer. That’s where we got the idea to work together, even after the end of the project. In recent years, it was mainly just the two of us working together. And, of course, we are very limited in artistic and technical capabilities. But recently we decided to go back to the larger shoot: recruiting a team, developing our studio, in which we are going to build interiors, we’re buying antiques and other props. Generally moving to a new, more complex and large-scale stage, like in cinema.
Do you work with a prop builder or do you like to do all the work yourself?
PB: At the moment there are three of us working. Me, Ilona and a technical assistant. Our technical assistant also has a variety of professions, including construction. But everything is done by the three of us. I am very demanding about details and hard to please. So I try to participate in all aspects of preparation and shooting. Otherwise, I’ll start redoing everything! Anyway, the director simply must take part in everything. We’re not making movies large enough for me not to have time for the construction or selection of clothes. If there’s time, it’s better to do everything yourself. So the three of us are carpenters, tailors, painters, designers and porters!
Can you tell us more about the studio?
PB: It’s 300 square meters, which is necessary for the construction of large sets for our ideas. It’s very difficult to work in ready-made interiors. The search for them takes a lot of time, and it’s almost impossible to find a finished interior which exactly meets our artistic requirements. I’m not even talking about the convenience of interior lighting and other technical details that can only be realized in a stationary position. That’s why big movies are shot on studio sets. Shooting erotica in similar hotels, that all look the same, saddens us. Yes, you have to work less, but the result should be more important than laziness. We don’t have any special story ideas at the moment. The studio solves the issues with the interior, and the plot ideas come and go. We do have plans that include an idea of a mini series in the genre of steampunk. Those who know this genre, will understand how difficult it is from a visual standpoint and how hard it will be to work on the decor. With respect to the storyline, there are several options, but we are still thinking about it. Perhaps it will be a series associated with various sex machines. But I know for sure – erotica in this genre has never been done before!
How do you plan and script your shoots?
PB: Before each shoot we write a detailed scenario. Every frame, every action, every emotion of the model, sound and light is clearly written in the script in advance. Usually a script for a movie is five pages of A4, about five scenes and seventy main frames. Improvisation is permissible only in the last scene. Prior to that, the model does what is written in the script. There I’m an uncompromising man. If the model isn’t getting it right, then we shoot take after take until she gets it. Ninety-nine percent of the models on our shoots end up in a state of shock. Since they are not used to working with such scenarios, it takes a very long time to get used to this way of filming – many run away from the shoot. I only feel the artistic emotion when writing a script. During the filming, it’s purely technical work.
You specialise in the ‘short, sharp shock’ for SexArt – very complex ideas explored in a very brief time frame. Any plans to shoot some longer stories, or do you prefer just to tease us?
PB: Heh! I don’t believe that the length of the frames in our films are ‘short’ or ‘prolonged.’ The frame shows exactly as much as it was created to show. The duration of the movies isn’t long on SexArt. If you take a big movie, which lasts one and a half hours on average, you can show a whole life. And in our movies we have only one scene – masturbation. Why stretch it? I would make it even shorter, about five minutes. That’s enough to see the process even wrapped in a movie wrapper. I’m also a big opponent of the view that when shots change rapidly, it’s impossible to see something. Something is still possible? That’s what I want the audience to see. It’s not a static image, which you can watch as much as you wish. Films are vivid pictures and frames. Put together, they give an overall picture of what is happening, even if they change frequently. Take any Hollywood movie, there is a frequent change of frames, and to me personally, everything is clear. Although there are those who complain about this, they say, “too fast, nothing is clear, too dark.” Reminds me of my grandmother, when she first saw a clip of Michael Jackson: “Oh, everything is so fast that nothing is clear.” But she’s a grandmother and saw it for the first time, so it’s forgivable. She just has to watch carefully and train the brain for quicker analysis! The twenty-first century is the century of speed! I don’t think that the process of masturbation is very different from a similar scene in the cinema, and there it’s lively and concise. It’s old school, that the frame should last at least five seconds.
Is there a SexArt or The Life Erotic movie that you are most proud of?
PB: Most likely not. I would say that there are bad movies, and movies that are more or less okay. I’m always unhappy with the result. I’m like that. To make a film, showing the most of our abilities, we need other opportunities that we don’t have. It’s time, technical possibilities and other circumstances. At the moment, we do things based on our capabilities, rather than abilities. My idea of a good movie, which I can be proud of, is levels higher – by all indicators – from what we are doing now. That’s why now we decided to move to another, more challenging phase of filming. Let’s see what we will turn out. But for now I’m still not happy with the result. For that, I’m not liked by models and sometimes the team. Nobody will ever hear praise from me...
Which movie was the most challenging to shoot?
PB: It’s difficult to answer this question. Each film is unique and each has unique difficulties. I’ll reveal a secret – the atmosphere at our shoots is horrible! I’m a very demanding and also nervous person on the set. Any of our shoots is a mini stress for everyone. Therefore, no one loves the process of filming, and many models absolutely don’t want to work with us. Everybody likes it when it’s finished. Working with models is difficult for our genre. Not all models quickly get into the heart of the process. Not everyone can act. Not all understand what’s happening. I don’t know how other people shoot and how they manage to keep calm, but our shoots take place in a very nervewracking atmosphere. First of all, the models can’t always do what we need them to do – it’s very rare that they can. Second, we have a lot of technical difficulties, which – as far as I can judge – others don’t. We simply don’t have enough hands to work properly. I’m also very demanding about details, pedantic, in fact. We spend a lot of time and effort on things that it is quite possible no one will even notice, but if they are noticed, then it will only be by someone who understands such things. But I can’t decide for other people, “will they notice or not?” We must always do everything perfectly, as if for ourselves.
Do you have a muse – a model who particularly inspires you?
PB: I think not. Of all the models I’ve shot, I haven’t yet found one that would be one hundred percent right for our genre. It’s not models that we need, but actresses. But, actresses don’t film in such frank erotica. The model that best copes with the tasks is Raeah. Usually, with her, the shooting takes place with minimal conflict! And, of course, if everyone played and understood the process of filming like Emily, then the level of shooting would be much higher. But Emily isn’t a ‘model.’
Does it take a particular kind of girl to rise to the challenge – you are asking them to do so much more than just look pretty?
PB: Ha ha ha!!! For the models we’re a silent (or loud) horror! There hasn’t been a single model that didn’t say something like, “I’m shocked, I didn’t think it would be so difficult! I wasn’t warned that this was such a nightmare, I want to go home...” They all say roughly the same thing: “No one shoots such complex scenarios. Nobody takes that long. No one takes so many plans, takes, parts, bottles, buttons, and so on.” They don’t understand why we shoot an orgasm ten times. Why it’s necessary before each shot, to stay still in the correct position and analyse the previous frame. Why are we constantly managing props, light, focus. Why they can’t move after each frame. Models get a good lesson and remember our shoots for a long time. For the next director who will be filming her after us, it’ll be much easier to work with the model. But in the beginning, they’re all spoiled and capricious. But after five hours of filming, they begin to understand that nothing will be over, unless they do what’s asked of them. Some even run away!
How do you get the model into character?
PB: Any emotion on her face is thought through and written by me, up to the point of me rehearsing it in front of a mirror. Another thing is that often the model can’t repeat fifty percent of what is written in the script, and instead of getting the correct emotions, I get something else. But I’m sure that if I don’t demand the maximum, then I won’t even get a minimum. So I always fill the script with complicated things. Often the models have gloomy emotions, and it’s their actual real emotions. As I said, we have a gloomy atmosphere on set and models have a similar emotional outcome. Our models more often cry than smile. I used to try to be patient, but then realized that this tolerance to the models reflected badly in the movies. I’d rather have the models hate me, than make a movie where the models act like in a porno, restrain smiles, look into the camera, and so on.
Yourself and your wife Ilona obviously share a powerful creative vision – do you find yourselves discussing shots over the dinner table?
PB: Ilona is the second director, and from scripting to the last stages of working in the recording studio, we do everything together. Also many scenarios and ideas are fully owned by Ilona. The only division of responsibilities occurs during the assembly of the film and photo processing. Everything else we do and come up with together. Yes, of course, we often talk about the shoots. It also happens in the middle of the night. It may occur during lunch and in the bathroom and even during a visit to my family or friends. It’s an essential part of our lives and all of our loved ones are up to date about it.
Has Ilona influenced your portrayal of women on film?
PB: No, I don’t think so. Images of the models in the films aren’t really worked through. We want to correct this situation and begin to pay more attention to it. Before, often, the appearance of the model didn’t correspond with the film. But, of course, there’s a common style and understanding of how the model should look in our movies. The key aspect here is simplicity! The most frequent difficulty lies in the fact that the model is too glamorous, and we have to wash the whole thing off to somehow infuse her into our film. But sometimes there’s just not enough time.
What do you hope your viewers get from your movies?
PB: I still don’t know what the audience wants. First of all, the audience is diverse. One needs one thing, another something else. Someone will say they got aesthetic pleasure from our movies, and the other will grumble that they didn’t have time to see something there. But, of course, I have an idea of what type of audience will understand our films. If a person has an aesthetic artistic taste, they will appreciate and understand our films at least from that point of view. If a person is just in need of an orgasm, it’s unlikely. It’s probably almost impossible to masturbate to our films – I wouldn’t be able to! But there’s porn for that. Our movies are for careful reviewing by certain people – and such people do exist, I know.
If you think you might be one of them, take a look at Paul and Ilona Black’s movies. I guarantee your view of erotica will never be the same once you do!