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Interview with James Bryan (The Dirtiest Game in the World)

A decade before he directed the low budget video nasty Don’t Go in the Woods, cult filmmaker James Bryan shot a variety of sexploitation features for the drive-ins and late-night movie theatres. Perhaps the most notorious of these was 1970’s The Dirtiest Game – also known as The Dirtiest Game in the World – which told of a politician’s attempts at winning the young votes by lobbying to legalise marijuana.

Starring adult veteran Titus Moede and Bryan regular Frank Millen, The Dirtiest Game was the director’s first feature after a series of shorts and documentaries and was intended to shock and repulse his viewers. He succeeded and the movie became controversial for a scene in which a character masturbates with a razor. Eventually, however, the hype finally died down and the film soon got lost amongst the other softcore entries of the era, including Bryan’s own Escape to Passion.

James Bryan reveals all about the making of his first feature film.

Having studied at UCLA during the 1960s, what kind of work did you produce and what were your greatest influences?

As a film student at UCLA I did several short animation films, a like number of live action shorts and did camera on a handful of documentaries. Most of my film work was done with the participation of fellow film students Bill Haugse, Bob Eberlein, Chris Munger and most often with Frank Millen who was on both sides of the camera on the majority of my projects.The biggest influence for me would have to be the abundant screenings in the extensive UCLA; film history courses which sent me rushing off in so many different directions on the cinema compass. I wanted to do it all. No genre would be safe. My first animation project, Inner Limits, was broadcast on network TV, I scored a job on a National Geographic TV Special doing a special effects animated dinosaur segment and I got one of the first student grants from the newly established American Film Institute for my thesis production, Camden, Texas, a short documentary. I was off in all directions at once, drunk with a creative joy of movie making madness.

What part did Bob Chinn play in the direction that your filmmaking career would take during the 1970s?

After crewing together in film school, Bob Chinn and I operated separately but on essentually parallel courses, pretty much on the same time line as well. In the mid seventies as the novelty of working in adult films begin to wear very thin for me, Bob and I considered for a fleeting moment the idea of working together on a few adult projects but it was only for the most fleeting of moments. I decided toiling in the fields of porn was too much for my independent artistic soul.

Early on I had worked with triple X producer Dick Aldrich who found Bob Chinn my perfect directorial replacement when I grew weary and drifted away looking for something more outrageous or less conventional to focus on. Most immediately the long neglected Boogie Vision was calling me back to be finished. Previously Aldrich and I began our association with I Love You, I Love You Not, which was planned as a funding source for the money pit that Boogie Vision became for me.

How come you chose to produce several ‘nudie’ flicks after graduating from film school and how did you become involved in this type of market?

After graduating from film school I was anxious to do a feature length movie. I saw adult films as the least expensive and the most accessible of exploitation films to produce and it was a perfect opportunity to become the epitome of the outrageous hippie moviemaker we were all striving to be at that time. Besides, earlier I had co-directed with Don Goodman a documentary on the making of a skin flick by one of our film school cohorts, so it wasn’t a necessarily a foreign concept. Francis Ford Coppola did the same thing a few quarters before my arrival at UCLA. In their assigned editing room a couple of my classmates found Francis Coppola’s outakes and trims from a nudie he had directed and edited on the QT while taking classes at UCLA.

You have previously stated that Roger Corman’s approach to filmmaking was an influence on you (short schedules, miniscule budgets and one thrill every reel). How did these rules apply when you were producing adult films?

As far as short schedules go, Dirtiest Game was done on a three day schedule for all the main scenes. I did some pickup shots working with one or two people later on. My budget was well under $20,000. As far as the number of thrilling sex/nude scenes I tried for at least ten in total. To keep on the rushed schedule and stay under my lab budget, I tried to maintain a two take maximum during filming. If the first take was good we’d shoot a second take ‘for the trailer/preview,’ which meant the extra lab cost for doing an optical copy of scenes to be used in the trailer could be saved.

The cost per foot for processing the camera negative was and is a good deal cheaper than shooting and processing an optical dupe negative of scenes selected from the cut feature negative for use in the trailer. In the end we were able to hold the shooting ratio below three to one for The Dirtiest Game. The music score budget presented a bit of a problem as well. I wanted to record an original musical score for The Dirtiest Game and by arranging to record three different modest scores in a single session composer Country Al Ross delivered nicely discounted music for each of us three producers sharing the costs.

X-rated movies became big business during the 1970s, with Deep Throat and Emmanuelle scoring at the box office. How would you describe the industry at that time and how supportive did you find the producers and distributors?

As the X-rated business boomed at the mid point of the seventies adult film budgets quickly grew higher driven by the audience demand for greater production values. When Dirtiest Game was produced the rules for the very tame theatrical adult features were really strict. Female frontal nudity was okay but not male nudity especially not frontal nudity. Fearing action from the vice police, the commercial labs wouldn’t process film with nude scenes unless it was safely discreet. The sex scenes were strictly done as simulated sex scenes, by virtue of the camera’s modest physically obscuring compositions. Even overtly sexual or crude language was avoided.

Yet within a year of my shooting The Dirtiest Game the line between hard core, explicit adult films (loops) and the very restrained adult theatrical features – nudie films – was crossed and recrossed until it was gone forever. The Dirtiest Game was a break thru picture in it’s day, of course it turned out to be maybe ninety days ahead of its time. My attitude toward adult films was not at all serious, the complete opposite of the producers and distributors who wanted the economic porno boom to last a joyful and profitable thousand years.

Your intentions with The Dirtiest Game seemed to be to confront and, in many cases, even repulse the viewer. Would you say that this is a fair assumption and do you feel that you succeeded?

The Dirtiest Game, for me, the choice of style was between either the French Surrealists or the uber mystic Leni Riefenstahl in making a first adult film. It’s apparent in this case the Surrealists held sway.

Cheesy, cheap ass movies have always been a great source of endless entertainment for me and the general audience often finds this approach to film making difficult to deal with. Now, with Dirtiest Game being a sex film from the get-go, a prime cheap ass opportunity presented itself. I could not resist leading the waiting audience into even more challenging cheap and cheesy territory. As long as we were already on the fringe, why not? Many audience members walked out of the Pussy Cat theatre screenings but none asked for their money back. For me that’s success on two levels. It’s enough for me to know that one fellow in Montana blew chunks during the razorblade scene. I’ll always have Montana to look back on and stoke that inner warmth during my cold winter nights yet to come.

The Dirtiest Game in the World

The Dirtiest Game in the World

With the film being shot quickly on 16mm, can you remember what kind of budget you were allocated and what aspect of the production proved to be the most effective?

Back in the day independent distributors weighted the additional costs of finishing a picture in deciding if they really wanted to distribute it or not. Doing a blowup from 16mm to 35mm was a big negative factor for a low budget film looking toward theatrical release. The Dirtiest Game was shot on 35mm for that reason. However I did do the sound post production on 16mm to save a few dollars. The budget edged past $12,000 with the original music from Country Al Ross, the resulting added editing time, the nice main titles and the end credits.

After screening The Dirtiest Game for the most obvious list of adult film distributors without any success, I went back to doing the pre-production on my second planned film. A few months went by and then one day a newly formed distribution company called up for a screening and consequently picked up my picture as their second acquistion for release. They made a couple of changes to increase the running time, buying the Chicago Convention documentary stock footage and extending with trims and out takes the flashback scene leading up to the fatal self inflicted gunshot wound. The new company, Grads, didn’t cut any of the violence or the politics. They added just a tad more of both.

How come you chose to add political undertones to what was to be an adult movie and were you concerned that too much story could take away from the explicit element?

My idea regarding the mixing of explicit material and the political storyline was an extreme test on my notion of the common wisdom dealing with the nature of the exploitation film. If you deliver the reguired ten exploitation scenes then I reasoned you should be able to do whatever you wanted with the rest of the running time. I proved my point. Right?

How did you first meet Titus Moede and how involved was he behind the scenes?

I met Titus Moede, then under his stage name Titus Moody, when I first went looking for a connection to the available adult film actors and actresses for my movie. Mike Hall, the soundman, knew of a small equipment rental outfit that in turn led me to the guy who knew all the adult talent in Hollywood, Titus Moody. Titus worked as a production still photographer and a sometime character actor. His mom, Cherry Moede, did the photo processing and together they fed stills to adult publications and made 8x10s for the acting talent and the crew members on the productions. Titus was casting central for the adult biz and he knew how to put together a great set of stills for advertising your production. A great resource.

What kind of casting process did you go through in order to find suitable actors and do you recall what kind of auditions you held?

Once I connected with Titus, casting was simple. I mainly looked at people in terms of type, thinking acting talent would be a plus but not so important as being ready, in our case, to do that acting in the nude. When I met Titus at his apartment I knew at once I wanted him for the lead. Actually in responding to his offbeat unfocused projection of personal energy, I was casting against type. Coleman Francis was sleeping on the couch at the time presenting the perfect picture of the derelict political hack, my idea of the corrupt boss type. With Titus all the available women I needed could be found scribled down in his wellworn phone book. As it was, Titus would listen to my descriptive sketch of characters from the script then either he gave me phone numbers or had people drop by when I would be around his place.

Bruce Beard who had worked with a well known San Francisco improv group was staying at my apartment for a few weeks and jumped in to help when I told him I was going to be writing a script about sex, drugs and politics. We pretty much hashed out the story outline and created a character for him in one evening of bouncing ideas back and forth. Seeing how I was working the casting, Titus sent along the untried first-timer Jean Stone to see if he was correct in assuming that she would fit nicely into my unorthodox casting approach. She was unarguably an authentic original type, that robust and driven Jean. She had stopped over in LA on her way from Australia to a pioneer kibbutz in Israel.

Frank Millen was of course the first to be cast as the ‘best friend’ in that I never considered making a film without the benefit of his headache-inducing comic genius. Frank generated laughs in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes in his unmatched role as the manic assistant director. He single-handedly kept the spirit of Laurel and Hardy meets Abbot and Costello alive and bouyed up on our hectic set while generating nonstop epidemic outbursts of involuntery laughter offset with those urgent gasps for air from the hapless cast and crew.

How did you choose the various locations around Venice Beech and was it an enjoyable experience shooting in your own apartment?

Choosing the Venice locations had as much to do with convenience as with artistic and evocative dramatic qualities. I lived in Venice at the time. Venice was cool in that new bohemian kind of way and the rents were very cheap. On working in my apartment as our Venice production base camp; with me, shooting anywhere is very enjoyable experience.

Perhaps inspired by Touch of Evil, there was a not so casual competition among us UCLA film students to keep coming up with inspired Venice locations to film around. Prompted by my really low budget, I filmed in my own apartment on Market Street as well as the neighbors’ place downstairs. The more story locations you can find at one site the more time you can save avoiding additional set strikes and time consuming moves to the next distant location.

Incidentally, my good taste in locations was confirmed when the exterior of this same apartment house later appeared in Fade to Black. The cameraman Chris Munger had rented a room down the street in the Marko Building because Jim Morrison had stayed there before Jim’s efforts with The Doors were so well rewarded. We used the Jim Morrison room as a location and a bit later as our editing room.

Our Venice oil field location had inspired Orson Welles as well as subsequent scores of atuned film school types who followed in Welles’ footsteps down along the murky Venice canals.

What kind of atmosphere was there on set and was everyone comfortable with the excessive nudity? Did you yourself have any issues with what you were required to shoot?

There was a heady atmosphere around the set of Dirtiest Game. The sexual revolution was in full bloom in LA at the time and we all had the flush of that new experience to process. Naturally the puritanical social bulwarks of the day were crumbling and we were all anxious to join the rushing tide of history. Those moved by the passion to behold physical beauty joined agreeably with those moved by the passion to display physical beauty in this rag-tag pageant of our jaunty little production. At that time people in search of all things ‘hip’ were attracted to the ‘oh,so naughty’ nudie film production scene. It was new and exciting for most of us and as I recall, there always seemed to be new volunteer stillmen showing up on the set, ready to help us out.

Why did it take two years for the movie to finally get a release and were you concerned that the content may be too graphic for most audiences?

The varying release dates for The Dirtiest Game most likely resulted from the distributors’ corporate transformations and the re-publishing of the product lists on different dates. Titus Moody and I did a cult VHS release of The Dirtiest Game in the early nineties. Titus was a master at generating press for his professional involvments and hyperbole was his faithful friend. Whatever facts he might have wanted to be twisted in the interests of showmanship were fine with me.

The conflict generated by The Dirtiest Game was generally satisfying for me in that it was the level of gaping open-mouthed reaction I had hoped for.

How did audiences react to the shocking nature of the film and what kind of controversy did you experience?

Audiences were shocked, shocked, I tell you. The distributor actually heard back from the bookers and subdistributors around the country. This was a little out of the ordinary so it made them nervous, or so they told me. On a personal level, my close friends found it disturbing and the more delicately minded didn’t speak to me for a few weeks afterwards. My reputation as an off the rails film maniac was firmly established. Sweet!

What rating did the movie receive and how much exposure and success did it find? What type of cinemas was it screened at and what effect did it have on your career?

Adult themed films with extreme and violent content traditionally take a self-imposed ‘X’ for a rating from the MPAA. With a self-imposed X a producer or distributor doesn’t have to pay the usual fee to be screened and rated by the board but they do get to use the copyrighted rating letter on the advertising and the theatrical prints.

The distributor, Grads, was a branch of the top-of-the-line Pussy Cat Adult Theatre chain so Dirtiest Game got booked in the best adult theaters around the country. It was enough of a success that the Grads Corporation took up my second adult film, Escape to Passion.

The distributor did have a slight regret over the extreme nature of Dirtiest Game, it was not the kind of film that could be re-edited to a softer drive-in version which represented a bonus rental market that could be utilized in a majority of cases of nudie films. The idea of getting a film to crossover into the marginally general release venue of the national drive-in theaters really got my interest. So Escape to Passion was carefully crafted to easily fit the drive-in slot and so happily it did find it’s way into the dreamed of circuit of drive-ins.

For me, the ultimate proof of The Dirtiest Game‘s success was it’s inordinate popularity with the government staffers in Washington DC. A certain Capitol-adjacent bar cashed in on the Dirtiest Game phenomenon buying at top dollar their own 16mm print from the distributor and playing it for over a year until the print faded out and was worn to tatters. Now that’s when you absolutely know for sure, they really, really love you!

I was driven to do more and more and more.

You continued to work on similar productions like Escape to Passion and I Love You, I Love You Not. Do you have fond memories of these experiences and would you say that this route is an effective way to break into the industry?

The Dirtiest Game and Escape to Passion were done pretty much back-to-back with the ambitious and overbalanced Boogie Vision following quickly afterwards. Instead of the three day production schedule of the first films, the cast and I improvised scenes over a couple of months and the tapes of these sessions evolved into a final script which we shot on a expanded schedule of weeks instead of days, blowing thru the budget and soaking up the cash flow in short order. My plan was for Boogie Vision to be my final adult related project before moving exclusively into the general release market.

I Love You, I Love You Not was an afterthought, an idea I pitched to former Grads employee Dick Aldrich as a cheap quickie production that he could use to start up his own new distribution company and generate for me some badly needed funding for the stalled Boogie Vision. Before I Love You, I Love You Not could return any money to restart Boogie Vision, Dick Aldrich dropped by the editing room proposing that we do High School Fantasies on a generously adequate budget he had in place at the time.

We’re talking Temptation in the Wilderness here. The offer you can’t refuse, at least it was so for me.

Working in adult films can be a hoot but this contributes to a career in film only if you want to make more adult films. To do general release films you will have to first overcome the fact you worked in the adult biz.

It’s the type of film experience that can build your talent and abilities but those adult credits are likely to be black marks on your general release score card. If you are hoping to cross the X to R rating line, the difficultly will be making youself one of those rare exceptions that prove a pretty hard-shelled rule.

Sheryl Powell and James Bryan

Sheryl Powell and James Bryan

Having later found mainstream success with Don’t Go in the Woods, have you since considered returning to the adult industry and are there any of those films that have still remained undiscovered?

After Woods, Executioner II and Hell Riders, there was a nice outsized production boom in Hollywood for independent action films. So a lot of jobs in post production were available for several years.

I went for the easy money in post production sound which led unexpectly to doing sound effects editing on higher budget adult videos. Wouldn’t you know, the inhouse director at this particular adult video company died suddenly and I got the call to fill in.

Again, how could I say no? A half dozen adult videos later I took that my final break from the adult biz. The thrill was definitely gone.

Are there any plans to release The Dirtiest Game on DVD, and when was the last time that you watched it yourself?

The cherished The Dirtiest Game will be put out on DVD by Code Red in 2010. Most recently I screened it last month in order to prepare for recording the director’s commentary for the DVD. It was Stephen Thrower’s Nightmare USA which included a flattering recognition of The Dirtiest Game that has generated a marked and growing interest in this early and alarming example from my film work.

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