Back at Mile High Media, Director Nica Noelle Launches Icon Male

This interview originally ran in the June 2014 issue of AVN magazine. Pictured above: the box cover for Forgive Me Father and a still from Prisoners of War, both coming from new gay adult studio Icon Male. For more on the studio, follow @IconMale on Twitter.

In October 2011, director Nica Noelle parted ways with Mile High Media—her home base for four years—to launch two studios with AEBN. The separation was deemed amicable by both sides, with Mile High Media Vice President Jon Blitt thanking Noelle for her role in creating the “Sweet Studios” and assuring consumers that they could “rest easy knowing their favorite studios will remain true to their origin, while continuing to evolve.”

Now, there’s a new wrinkle in the evolution: Noelle is leaving AEBN and returning to the Mile High fold, where she will write and direct gay adult features for the brand-new Icon Male studio.

Fans of Noelle’s brand of couples-friendly, story-driven erotica have been well served on two fronts since her departure. At Mile High, seasoned directors kept up quality in the Sweet Sinner and Sweetheart Video releases, including James Avalon, Dana Vespoli and Melissa Monet. And Noelle went on to do critically acclaimed work at AEBN, picking up a 2013 AVN Award for Best New Studio for her AEBN triumvirate: Hard Candy Films, Girl Candy Films and TransRomantic Films. (The latter, featuring transsexual performers in story-driven movies, was created in May 2012.)

Noelle first ventured into gay porn at AEBN, where she started Rock Candy films. According to Noelle, though AEBN already had Falcon and Raging Stallion producing gay content, she wanted a crack at the market. “I begged and pleaded,” Noelle said. “So finally they said, ‘Okay, you can shoot one movie.’” Her first script was for His Mother’s Lover, a period piece with both gay stars and two Noelle regulars in straight roles: Magdalene St. Michaels and Xander Corvus. “I shot the movie, and it was released on AEBN on a Thursday afternoon. Monday morning I woke up to an email from AEBN that said, “Start writing your next gay movie cause we’ve got a huge hit.”

Noelle is leaving behind some movies at AEBN that will be released on the VOD site n the future. And the Icon Male titles will be available in all the same outlets where one finds Sweetheart and Sweet Sinner films, or any of Mile High’s other studio releases.

AVN: This month you begin releasing gay adult titles through Icon Male. What is this new entity?

Nica Noelle: It’s a line I’m creating for Mile High [Media]. It’s my creative vision, I write and direct all of the movies and shoot camera, but the studio itself belongs to Mile High.

What are the first titles that will be coming out? Can you share a little about storylines and cast?

One of the first series is called Forgive Me Father, which has a religious theme. I’ve been exploring religious themes a lot in the past few years, but I guess I haven’t gotten it out of my system yet. In this series, parishioners go into the confessional booth seeking forgiveness, and as they confess we revisit the sins they’ve committed. I grew up very Catholic and I’ve been to confession quite a bit, so I make it as authentic as possible.

Another series, called Prisoners of War, takes place during World War II, so I had a lot of fun shopping at World War II memorabilia stores, buying wartime newspapers, mess kits and other props. I’m very excited about this one—I’m always the most excited about my period-piece films. Of course, Mile High got a little nervous when they saw I was doing “Nazi porn” but I think we handled it tastefully. This isn’t about concentration camps—everything takes place between German and U.S. soldiers.

We’ve also started a series called Men Seeking Men and another one called Forbidden Encounters. Men Seeking Men deals with men who meet online or through dating sites. We find out little things about them as the story develops; maybe one guy is married to a woman and is secretly exploring his gay urges. We might have a young guy with a fetish for much older men, or a man who wants to be dominated by another guy.

Forbidden Encounters deals with just that: forbidden meetings between people who shouldn’t be together, either because of a family connection, an age difference, a professional involvement. I’m trying to do something a little different with this series—the storyline unfolds during the actual sex scene. There’s really no setup leading to sex—the dialogue takes place as the sex scene gets underway. There are even breaks in the sex where the couple talks, or gets into a fight about something, and then the sex continues in a different vein. My goal at this point is to focus on the narrative of sex itself, rather than create a narrative through dialogue that leads into the sex scene. The sex should be able to communicate the story with as few words as possible. I’m going for mathematical elegance here. It’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced yet, but it’s where I find myself right now, artistically speaking.

Did you face any initial resistance when you started working in gay porn? If so, was it from your own fans or from consumers of gay porn?

None whatsoever. Gay porn fans responded with great enthusiasm, as did the performers. I think they know another gay man when they see one! I may have a vagina, but gay porn is where I feel most at home, most understood, and most comfortable. I love to tell men’s stories. As for fans of my straight films, a lot of them have started buying my gay movies. Believe it or not.

When you first started shooting gay porn, did you take the same approach as with straight or girl/girl erotica?

I take the exact same approach with all of my studios. Hot sex is hot sex. It’s not somehow different because it’s two men, or two women, or a man and a woman, or a transwoman. Passion, intimacy, real body language—these are universal indicators of great sex. I’ve also stuck to my formula of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. My characters aren’t exotic or avant garde; they’re everyday folks facing everyday temptations.

In your gay titles, you’ve maintained the characteristics that mark your couples porn: romantic music, softer lighting, attention to set decoration. How have reviewers and consumers responded to those qualities?

Viewers and fans always appreciate when producers pay attention to those details. Taking the time to create an environment that doesn’t immediately shatter the fourth wall is always noticed, if only on a subconscious level. Porn has limited budgets and we can only do so much, but I think the fans know I do all I can to give them a quality experience. I have never phoned a movie in, no matter how tired I am, no matter how many obstacles we face. I have a responsibility to the fans and I take it very seriously. With everything else they could buy, they choose to buy my movies. I would never betray that trust. I just wish I could give them more.

When you started shooting gay porn, were there directors whose work had an impact on you?

James Ivory of Merchant Ivory Films.

Is there a sweeping generalization you can make about who is most challenging to direct: straight women, lesbian women, straight men, gay men, or genderqueer performers?

Intelligent people are the easiest to direct. Artists who care about the work and want to do something beautiful and meaningful are the easiest. Sexual orientation and gender don’t enter into it. If a performer is smart, artistic, sensitive, and cares about the work, that person will be the most fun and the easiest to direct.

I will say I think straight male performers are the most underrated, underappreciated performers. So many of them have inspired me to levels of admiration I never could have predicted. It’s incredibly hard to do what they do, but they’re often overlooked because most of the attention is placed on the girl in the scene, even if she’s just lying there half-heartedly moaning. I think the fact that these guys are undervalued affects their overall self worth, and they often react by placing even more importance on their looks, their bodies, their ability to “stay hard.” But I wish they’d let their hair turn gray and take pride in how amazing they are. It’s so difficult to find men in porn who let themselves age gracefully. They worry that their value decreases as they age, but it’s just not true. We need sexy, older male performers. We need to find our Daniel Day-Lewis, our Jeremy Irons. Porn desperately needs a Jeremy Irons! Maybe then I can finally make Lolita XXX.
I read an interview where you described feminist porn as being created by a woman “purely for her own sense of sexual expression,” a process that sidesteps the “male gaze.” Does this hold true for your gay movies? Do they also subvert the “male gaze”?

I was giving what I thought would be a more accurate description of “feminist porn” in an effort to explain why I don’t consider myself a “feminist pornographer.” I don’t approach anything I do from the perspective of gender. As an artist, I’m driven by ideas, not politics.

You’ve tackled many taboos in a short time in your gay porn titles—including religion, infidelity and incest. How do you choose your subjects? Have you begun getting suggestions from fans?

In general, I try to be cognizant of “trends” with the fans. Straight porn fans will sometimes go through a “we want big boobs!” phase, or request more hardcore close-ups and fewer wide shots, or vice versa. I try to stay on top of that, because it’s normal to want something different now and then, to have enough of one thing and want the opposite. I’m sure gay fans will be the same.

But as for the themes I choose, that comes from deep within. I grew up Catholic, and Catholicism is a very powerful religion because almost everything is a sin. So you’re always feeling guilty about something. Plus, it’s not enough to just avoid committing the sin; your intentions have to be pure, too. Your soul has to be pure. Then we go to church and everywhere are statues of this beautiful naked guy hanging on a cross, looking anguished and in pain. And we’re told this is the man we must love more than anyone or anything—this man is God. By the time I was about five years old, the ideas of anguish, suffering and love were indistinguishable to me. That’s why the characters in my movies are often anguished and in pain, because for me that goes hand in hand with intense, romantic love.

In general, my boilerplate is, the more forbidden and the creepier the better. Incest is a huge fantasy because it’s completely forbidden. For that reason, we enjoy the fantasy aspect of other people doing it, yet if we think of doing it ourselves most of us are repulsed; even nauseated. That dichotomy really interests me, and supports my belief that what turns us on in a porn movie, what we like to watch other people doing, is not necessarily something we want ourselves in real life.

This is also why I love doing period piece films—there’s that added layer of forbidden desire. The longing glances, secret meetings—not to mention the elaborate clothing of the Victorian or Edwardian era. People were expected to act a certain way and to express only civilized thoughts and feelings, and so the undercurrent of sexual tension must have been almost unbearable.

Socially proscribed sexual liaisons are often part of your storylines. Sex between men is high up on the “forbidden” list for many in the mainstream. Did that help make your entry into gay porn more natural?

What really surprised me is the number of emails I’ve received from my straight and lesbian porn fans telling me that they’re now watching my gay films. Some of them even confess to being turned on by them. They’re allowing themselves to enjoy something they’ve previously avoided, because they’re so familiar with me and with my work. So I have seen a certain amount of coming together between straight and gay porn fans, and it’s thrilling for me.

You’ve worked closely with female performers who have served as “muses” for you. Are there gay performers who have served in this role as well?

Tommy Defendi and Ty Roderick are two of my rock stars. Other go-to guys are Boston Miles, Adam Russo, Trenton Ducati, Casey Tanner. … I’m still learning who’s who and meeting new performers all the time, but I’m definitely having the muse experience already.

How would you characterize the straight porn industry’s attitude toward the gay porn industry? Do you think it is changing?

I think the straight porn industry’s attitude toward gay performers is hypocritical, ignorant and what you would expect from people who don’t bother to research their “beliefs” before spouting off about them. I have no patience for it. And yes, I do think it’s changing. Straight women are increasingly intrigued and turned on by gay and bisexual porn, and that’s allowed straight men to open their minds a little, from what I’ve observed. I also cast many straight performers in my gay films, and that’s helped to bridge the gap a little. Xander Corvus had a huge character role in His Mother’s Lover. Magdalene St. Michaels, Samantha Ryan, Dana DeArmond and Elexis Monroe have all made appearances in my gay films.

You’ve done many different kinds of adult erotica during your career. Is there anything type of porn you enjoy but don’t feel is something you want to create yourself?

Everything I enjoy watching, I want to create.

I know you enjoy speaking on college campuses. Do you find that younger people are more open to a broader spectrum of sexuality? Are there responses that you get from students that surprise you?

I think smart people of all ages, people who are facile with ideas and don’t have a political agenda, are the most intellectually open and honest. The students at Yale blew me away. They deserve their reputation as tomorrow’s intellectual giants. In contrast, the women’s group I spoke to at Columbia University was a nightmare. They sat there sulking, refusing to make eye contact, refusing to engage in any discussion or debate. Every once in a while one would pipe up with an incoherent remark about how offensive she found something in porn, and then go silent again. I couldn’t figure out why they even bothered coming to the lecture. They had obviously made up their minds before they even walked in the door, and they were incredibly rude, considering I was an unpaid guest who had taken the time to come speak to them. But again, they were coming from a political place; they were a feminist group of some kind. They had an agenda. You can’t talk to people like that—they’ve closed themselves off to new ideas, or they just don’t have the intellectual firepower to engage in debate.

With increased academic interest in adult entertainment and the rise of feminist porn, are mainstream attitudes changing toward adult movies?

That’s hard to say. I’d like to think so. I think writer/directors like Dana Vespoli are the future in terms of bridging the gap between porn and art films. I profiled her recently for Psychology Tomorrow magazine, and in preparation for our interview I had a little Dana Vespoli film marathon, and this woman is a monster talent. I don’t think there’s any director like her working in porn today—she’s a true artist, and what she’s doing just hasn’t been done. After I watched her feature films for Evil Angel I spent the next two days battering her with emails and texts, offering my insights, asking her to explain why she did this or that. In my experience, only true art evokes that type of urgent, powerful response on the part of the viewer.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you are working on a book. What’s the latest development?

I’m still working on it. I’ve structured it in a very odd, “old-timey” format that was quite common around the turn of the 19th century, but from what I can tell no one uses anymore. I guess you could call it a period-piece memoir.