Before he left the United States in 1988, William Higgins ran a successful store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles called Drake’s.
“Everybody always said, ‘Where did that name come from?’ Well, that’s because the male goose is called a Drake, and male geese have a reputation for being gay…we inherited the name and we kept it.”
That business propelled him to the second stage of his career. Soon after leaving America, he embarked on a “world tour,” visiting Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Spain and Portugal. He finally settled in Amsterdam, where he opened a Drake’s. But he suddenly found it more difficult to keep his filmmaking career flourishing.
“It was really, really difficult to get models because of the social welfare system in Holland. Models would say to me, ‘Why should I put my ass up on the video cassette when the government gives me 1,200 guilders a month for nothing?’ Good point.”
But he tried. On about his third trip to East Berlin, he took his video camera with him (along with the friend “who had got me run out of America”).
“I saw some very handsome Russian soldiers in East Berlin, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to photograph them and use them as the B-roll for a movie. And I was almost immediately arrested by the Stasi, the East German secret police. And of course, they thought I was spying, and I didn’t dare tell them what the real purpose of taking the pictures was,” Higgins recalls. “So I erase the film, and the Stasi guys yells, ‘Hand me the camera!’ He rolled it back and looked at it to be sure that it was erased. If it hadn’t been erased, I think I would have still been in an East German jail by the time the Wall came down.”
He never had enough footage to complete that film. “I couldn’t find any models that were worth shooting. I did find one German model and we made a film with him, and he came up and pretended to be in love with me—and he stole all the video cassettes back. But that’s another story that I’d just as soon not go into.”
So Higgins busied himself with running the shop and other things—his filmmaking hiatus growing to about eight years.
“I go back to Amsterdam, and I decided ‘No more communism!’ So the Wall comes down, and two guys come up from Czechoslovakia and they start working in the Why Not Bar as escorts. One of them now has a very successful and famous business in Prague, and he told me, ‘You need to go down to Prague.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I had enough with communism with the Stasi in East Germany, I’m not going to any of those communist or former communist countries. Forget about it!’”
But his friend insisted, and Higgins relented. He headed to Prague along with a Russian man (who was working for him at Drake’s) as his interpreter. “Nobody spoke Czech, but all of the Czechs spoke Russian. Bad idea—they could all understand him, but they hated him because he was a Russian.”
They crossed the border from Dresden and drove down through Terezin, where Higgins spotted a hitchhiking solder from Slovakia that he decided to pick up.
“He got in the car, and I said to my interpreter, ‘Ask him if he’ll have sex with me for 60 D-Mark.’ He said, ‘What?! You can’t ask somebody if they’ll have sex with you for 60 D-Mark!’” the director recalls. “I said, ‘Just ask him.’ So he turned around to him and said, ‘Will you have sex with him for 60 D-Mark?’ And the kid says, ‘Yup!’ Well, that was the beginning of my love affair with Czechoslovakia.”
Higgins made frequent visits, eventually moving there in 1992.
A New Life
Soon after settling in his new home, Higgins got Drake’s of Prague open. “I never decided to leave (filmmaking). It was just that I was opening the stores in Amsterdam, and then I was opening the stores in Prague.”
But he soon had a change in priorities.
“I knew there was all of this talent here, so I decided to get back into filmmaking. I don’t know how we did it, but we hooked up with this English production crew with Bel Ami and we started shooting films that way. And Dirk Yates with All Worlds Video wanted to hire me to make films for him.”
At the time, he had sold Catalina and couldn’t use the name William Higgins, so he started making films under the name Wim Hof—and made quite a few films for Yates and All Worlds.
“Through a technicality, I got the name William Higgins back and the previous guy got the catalog of the old films, so I switched back to making films. But I never really quit; it was just a matter of ‘I can’t find good enough models.’ Well, when I got to Czechoslovakia, I did.”
He recalls his first “comeback” film fondly.
“It was Andel’s Story, and it was really a lot of fun to make—and we made it all with soldiers. At that time, they had the draft in Czechoslovakia and the guys got paid something like 300 crowns a month, and they were desperate for money. So Andel was a very good-looking guy and he brought in all of his very good-looking friends, and he made that film with us.”
Films like Impromptus, the Prague Buddies series and The Jan Dvorak Story soon followed.
“I was making these films in Prague, and there were a lot of other people who would come over and make films there, and they would say to me, ‘You should have seen the 1990s! There was so much money then, there’s not as nearly as much money now.’ And I said, ‘Honey, you should have been there for the ’80s when we would ship 15,000 films out the door wholesale at $35 each.’”
Higgins says there was already saturation in the market, and the money to be made was declining. He decided there was huge potential with the internet, so he started EuroMilitary.com, which later morphed into WilliamHiggins.com.
“I thought, ‘I ought to get a leg up on the internet before anybody else does.’ And I did,” he said. “And I remember when my later distributor said to me and in front of everybody, ‘Oh, Bill thinks the internet is more important than DVDs, I can’t believe that!’ Well of course the internet destroyed VHS and destroyed DVD, and eventually—I have to be very sincere about it—the internet has destroyed the internet, because of the 21 words in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that really allow piracy to a great extent. So that’s how I morphed into the internet. I really have to say I could see VHS and DVD dying.”
Higgins says he noticed a real decline of the porn business in 2007: “I have been in this business a long time, and every time a recession has come along in the porn business, I have seen my feet knocked out from under me. And that’s of course what happened.”
Higgins notes that before the big recession from around 2007-10, he could so some things that aren’t as easy now—like shooting twins.
“They want a lot of money to appear before the camera. But you can say, ‘Okay, I can spend a lot of money because I’ll make it back in selling the DVDs over a period of years.’ Well now, there is no DVD, so when you put something out on the internet, it’s pirated that very day. I’ve decided that the internet is kind of like episodic sitcoms on mainstream television. You show it, it hits the air and its dead. And I really think that that’s what it is. You get your money in the first showing on the internet, and you have no residual income—so there’s no investing a lot of money on special projects and special models because you’re going to get the same amount of money from them as anybody else.
“And back in those days, every one of the other studios would have an ‘ego movie’ that they would go and shoot in Greece or South Africa, and spend about $150,000 on them. And they would come back, and that would be their big DVD release for the year. I never did that…never. And that’s all gone.”
Starting in 2007, Higgins and his business manager started to cut expenses by about two-thirds, “which was very painful to do, because a lot of the people had been working with us for quite a long time. So now we have a very efficient crew and we have a budget. We never bust the budget. Pavel will bust the budget a little bit if you get a really exceptional model—he will give him a few hundred bucks more than the run-of-the-mill model. But that’s the most we bust the budget. And I would say over time, he has worked the company back up to a make-a-living profit. You can’t make a fortune at it anymore, but I’m very grateful to be in that position because I continue to be able to do what I want to do. But ego really has to go out the window.”
Higgins admits he didn’t realize how good he had it when he started.
“It was really in the infancy, and I didn’t realize it at the time—but 40 years ago was really the gold rush, especially when VHS came along. And now, you really have to run a very efficient operation to stay in business…I met a German guy the other day who started seven years ago, and with a little bit of investment, he makes a fairly good living at it, but nothing like 40 years ago.”
Nonetheless, he doesn’t miss anything from the Golden Age.
“I love working in Prague. The richer the country gets, we still get the same amount and the same quality of models that we did 30 years ago when I started here, so I don’t miss it. I love what I’m doing, I love the advances in technology, I love gadgets,” Higgins says.
“I just still love tinkering around, getting in and finding out how something works. And if I find some kind of better lights or camera to use, I’m the first to recommend it. I will tell you this though: Remember the boom in 3D a few years back? Pavel and my chief IT came to me and said, ‘We’ve got us all switched to 3D.’ And I said, ‘No…because 3D is a fad and it will die just like all the other fads.’ And they said, ‘Well, Bel Ami is shooting a 3D movie.’ And I said, ‘Well you come to me when Bel Ami shoots its second 3D movie,’ which has never happened…fast forward a few years later, Pavel came to me and he said, ‘I don’t think porn looks very good when it’s shot in 3D.’ I always like to win an argument like that.”
Another thing he’s opposed to? Stories in porn.
“To be frank about it, I’m opposed to any story at all nowadays. We did the stories back in the beginning because you had to have a lot of story if you got up in front of a jury to say, ‘This is art, it’s not pornography.’ And I think that sort of caught on…but nobody believes that,” he says. “I love (interviews) because it’s true. They don’t make it up, they just tell the real thing.”
Higgins also says its easier to shoot in the Czech Republic because it’s a lot cheaper to do business there.
“When I left America, the AIDS crisis had just hit. So with the model situation, you had a firehose and then somebody turned it off—and it was ‘drip, drip, drip’ from 1986 on. I think things have come back in the USA, but I still think it must be more and more expensive to shoot there because there’s no city—with the possible exception of San Francisco—where you can get all of the models. So studios like Corbin Fisher and Sean Cody, they’re flying the models in from hither, thither and yon. They put them up in hotels, they wine and dine them, they shoot them and then they send them back from wherever they come from. That is very expensive.”
In the Czech Republic, the director says that the biggest traveling expense to bring in a model is about 1,000 crowns (koruna), or about $45 U.S. dollars.
“They shoot the scene and then they get on the bus or train and go back home at night. lf they have a scene the next day, they sleep on the couch in the studio. So that just makes it a whole lot less expensive. I think we’re not paying the same as the U.S., but we’re paying comparable to the U.S. for the models. It’s much easier to shoot porn nowadays; I’m not going to say exactly how, but you can figure that out. But I would never go back and try and start doing porn in the USA again.
“And another thing is, the biggest studios, I watch some of their stuff very carefully, and I notice that the quality of the models goes down, and it hasn’t happened here…I think in the Czech Republic, it has become more or less acceptable to do porn. There are still horror stories—like some customers find out (a model’s) Facebook page, then they find out the name of their girlfriend, and the girlfriend finds out that they’re been doing gay porn and it’s a big drama—but that doesn’t happen that often.”
Higgins shares that he doesn’t do much of the actual filming very often anymore.
“I have cut down the amount of work I do considerably because I’ve had some health problems, particularly with walking. I had to have a knee replacement, so it’s very hard for me to stand there with a camera for five hours—or especially to kneel down on the floor with a camera—which I didn’t have any problem with before. The walking is a very big problem with me; it’s caused me to cut down my work by quite a lot. I still do what I want to do, and I let the guys do the rest.”
That isn’t helped by the fact that the most frequently used studio is up a hill and four flights of stairs.
“And also, in that same studio, one of our staff members committed suicide about six years ago—which doesn’t bother the Czechs at all, but it bothers me a lot. So I don’t get to film many projects. I usually get there when we have guests. What I do is I look at the rushes and I write notes. I have a very good cameraman, and he’s very interested in learning and he absorbs everything I say. And also, the models love him—he’s very easy to work with, so I’m very happy with what he’s doing.”
Higgins doesn’t have plans to move; he lives above the offices and next door to his studios. “I can still make it up and down that one flight of stairs. I told my business partner a while back, ‘I ought to buy a little place in a village.’ And he says, ‘You know Bill, you wanted to buy a little place in the village when you could get around. When you can’t get around, you want a place in the city where the hospital, the supermarket and all of the restaurants you want to go to are just down the street.’ I said, ‘You’ve got it there.’ So I plan to stay in Prague.”
Last Man Standing?
Forty years ago, William Higgins didn’t grasp the magnitude of what he was doing.
“I didn’t understand it. I certainly had no idea that it would grow to the dimensions that it has. I went to one GayVN Awards in Los Angeles—one of the few they actually had for just the gay side—and there were 4,000 people there,” he recalls. “I was already over here, but I went back to be inducted into the GayVN Hall of Fame, and there must have been hundreds and hundreds of directors and producers and everybody working in the industry. When I started, there were, I don’t know, four or five people in L.A., five people in San Francisco, maybe four people in New York—and all working part time except for the people in San Francisco. Who ever knew that it would grow any bigger? But trust me, those days in the 1980s were the big profit days. We didn’t realize it, but it turned out that way.”
Even after leaving the States and starting anew Europe, Higgins kept his name alive on his original label—Catalina, which was eventually acquired by Channel 1 Releasing. In 2016, C1R released Uncut and Raw, the director’s first new Catalina title in two decades. Later that year, C1R also started to release Higgins' Catalina classics in a multipart anthology. C1R continues to release new content under the Catalina Video/William Higgins Bareback label, including recent release Raw Exams.
“I've always gotten along quite well with the guys at Channel 1. I sold Catalina years ago. At some point, they bought Catalina from the person who bought it from me. I had nothing to do with that transaction. Paladin got quite upset when I made a twins’ movie in which the twins actually had sex with each other…quite upset. So, I contacted Channel 1 to see if they would release the movie. They did. Later, they contacted me about releasing future William Higgins titles. It's worked out well for both of us (I hope).”
And in an age when directors and performers come and go, Higgins is one of the very few who has maintained relevance over decades.
“I think there’s an arc to everybody’s career. My name is still known and I get contacted by many traveling firemen who happens to be in Prague, so I don’t think I’ll be forgotten for a long time,” he says. “Actually, what I most proud of is being one of the last men standing. I don’t know virtually anybody else who’s still around when I was around back then, maybe Joe Gage. But he had been out of the business for 20 years and he came back; who knows if he’s still working. And I had been working more or less for the whole 40 years in the business, and I am very proud of that. What I really am hoping to be the capping of my career is to be the last man standing. I hope to continue until I drop.”
For Part 1 of the interview, click here.