LOS ANGELES—Lena Paul turned a negative experience into something meaningful in her new collaboration with Bree Mills for PureTaboo.
Paul, the fan-voted winner of the 2018 AVN Hottest Newcomer award, worked closely with Mills, the head of production for Gamma Films and creator of the 2018 AVN Award-winning Best New Imprint, on Paul's first screenwriting endeavor, “Airtight Invasion,” that will go live on Thursday for members of PureTaboo.
Paul stars in the unconventional episode that tackles sensitive themes such as the effects of trauma on sexual fantasies, the complex emotions that can intensify rough sex, and the plight of porn performers who want their voices heard in the #MeToo movement.
The 24-year-old Paul, who debuted in the adult industry in 2016 and has racked up more than 150 credits, told AVN the difference between shooting “Airtight Invasion” and all her other projects so far could be summarized in a word.
“Ownership,” Paul said. “Having control of the project was the biggest difference for me. It’s very empowering not just to talk about my story but to feel supported while doing it.
“Working with Bree always feels like a collaborative process for me. Despite the heaviness of the content that she shoots and the kink element, Bree is always warm and supportive and has never left me feeling pressured or degraded by the content we're doing. The crew, my fellow talents, Lisa—our makeup artist—everyone was so precious and supportive the whole day. It's a very treasured memory to me, actually.”
Mills, who co-directed the 2018 AVN Award-winning Best Drama, Half His Age: A Teenage Tragedy, with her producing partner Craven Moorehead, is no stranger to exploring delicate material. Her team recently aligned with reigning AVN Female Performer of the Year Angela White for a groundbreaking episode for PureTaboo about body shaming called “The Weight of Infidelity.”
Mills said it wasn’t so much the substance of Paul’s story that compelled her to green-light it as it was “Lena’s experience behind it.”
“To take your literal recurring nightmare and confront it head-on in a creative way, while also sharing your vulnerability and strength so transparently with the audience takes a lot of guts,” Mills told AVN. “I knew I needed to give Lena the stage and this is truly her episode!”
In the scene Paul plays 18-year-old Veronica, the daughter of a wealthy businessman with suspected ties to organized crime. Her father, played by PureTaboo go-to guy Derrick Pierce, is out of town for the weekend when Veronica gets kidnapped by three masked men who say her dad owes them a ton of money. When the ensuing ransom negotiations stall and tensions escalate, Veronica decides to do the unthinkable and invites her captors to fuck her and send dad the photo evidence.
The thugs—veteran studs Bambino, Johnny Goodluck and Codey Steele—proceed to deflower Veronica in a rowdy, no-holes-barred collision that leads to her first on-screen “airtight” penetration.
With a sense of dread hanging over the moment, Paul & Co. orchestrate a delicate dance of depravity they hope not only will titillate, but also continue the industry’s conversation about female empowerment and representation.
"First off, Lena is amazing," Codey Steele told AVN. "Her sexual energy is off the damn charts and it shows on screen. When it comes to sex it's so easy to work with someone who genuinely just loves sex. We had worked together once or twice before this project. We both got along famously. ... Lena is an amazing seductress and her acting was just amazing in this episode for PureTaboo. It was such a pleasure working with her and an honor to help her with this personal project. I just hope I'm lucky enough to see her again and again throughout our careers."
In this exclusive interview with Lena and Bree, the two discuss the making of “Airtight Invasion,” how they approached the sensitive subject matter and why there is therapeutic power in reexamining a distressing emotional event.
AVN: How challenging was it for you to take something so personal and translate that into a story that you turned into a treatment, a script?
Lena Paul: I lived with the Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala for some time while I was doing research at my university and they talked about revisiting traumas as a form of healing. A medicine man would take you to the site of something that happened to you and walk you through the steps of it as a way of truly putting it to bed. I sort of wanted to create a type of healing situation for me. Although I definitely feel that I have moved forward from this trauma, I think I really wanted to test myself and see if that held up as true.
How would you describe the process you went through to achieve that?
To be entirely frank, when the scenario given to me was multiple men, this wasn't really something that innately turns me on so I just asked myself, ‘How can I make this situation meaningful to me?’ I don't mind being dirty, but I'm a chemistry girl and group sex dynamics actually make it harder for me to create meaningful connection between myself and my partners. So I sort of discounted the idea of making this about pleasure and wanted to make this about challenging myself instead. So I asked myself, ‘How can I channel my inner darkness and struggles into something that is compelling for women I know who have this fetish to watch?’
When did you have this recurring nightmare and what was the frequency of it?
I've alluded to this in some interviews, but in college I experienced intimate partner violence. I never really had nightmares before that, but after being assaulted, the mind does interesting things to try and make sense of when awful things happen to you. I made my roommates triple check the locks of our house every night and I myself did the same thing when I'd wake up in the night. I'd still fall asleep and dream of men breaking into the house and taking me. This lasted for maybe a year or two after the end of the relationship, eventually fading in frequency. The more powerful I've become in my life, the less I've dreamed this.
How much of the narrative is based on your experience and how much of it is taking creative license?
A lot of this is more symbolic than literal. There's multiple elements that are based on my experience as a woman in general, not just as a survivor of assault, even the opening where Veronica's safety concerns are being dismissed and minimized by a man who is supposed to support her—in this case, her father; in my case it was a partner. I make some pointed comments throughout the scene about how this man's reputation matters more than his daughter's safety, which is the whole reason that we take degrading photos of me in the scenario. She knows that no one is coming for her and she has to take matters into her own hands to motivate people to help her by playing on their weaknesses. You watch the transition from a scared young woman with no personal agency to a master of her own fate with a shrewd understanding of some of the more shadowy elements of why no one is coming for her over the course of the story. I was never assaulted by this many people at once to be sure, and the sex in the scene is consensual—in the sense that she has an agenda—but not pleasurable, really, for her. I wanted to highlight the ways that women use sex as a tool in our arsenal when society has deprived us of other negotiating tools.
How would you describe the experience of performing the 'airtight' four-way sex scene?
Intense. I love all the boys I picked, and they're such good souls. Everyone in the room applauded when we were done; even Bree looked a bit shaken and used the same descriptor (how intense it was) for watching us do our job. I was completely in sub space and you can look at my face the whole time and how different my demeanor is from my normal, bubbly on-screen persona to know how heavy it was. I took a break at one point and just had to excuse myself to collect myself for a moment, which I never do, just because the amount of sensation and the intensity of the context was so overwhelming. I don't want to reveal the twist, but at the end of the sex when I have my moment of triumph, that shaking and hyperventilating was very real. I felt fucking euphoric when the scene climaxed, so to speak (the thing at the end that you have to watch and see for yourself!) That was when the whole room burst into applause as I mentioned. I can't tell you how empowering that moment felt. It was literally the most special and amazing sensation I've had in this business; better than any orgasm, and I mean it. And then to be immediately covered in back slaps and support from people I adore… I'm going to remember that moment for a long time and it was very healing to visualize the faces of those who have meant harm for me and symbolically handle it that way.
What were your emotions leading up to the performance that day?
Excited, determined, way more serious than I normally am—I’m kind of a goofball on set normally. I basically stayed method acting the whole day, trying to relive those dark places in my mind in order to really convey what I wanted to during the sex scene. I had worked with all the boys before in boy/girl settings and I love all of them so much. They were the cutest gentlemen; they'd slap me on the face in the scene and then give me a little pet when no one was looking and mouth ‘are you ok?’ in between rotations. They were all checking on me and making sure I had everything I needed the whole day, it was so sweet. I couldn't have had a better cast.
What has been your previous experience with rough sex? What is it about the nature of rough sex that makes it such a common fantasy among women?
I love the meditative, even healing nature of rough sex. I'm typically more dominant and wind up running a scene (in D/s terms, not a film scene) rather than being the submissive. I've helped partners unlock repressed memories and process their own traumas. A friend once asked me to choke them out one time to help them process through their own assault, which involved that act and had made them scared of being rough with their partner. I think that the fantasy of degrading sex plays into two spaces for women: a) we're exposed to violence in ways that men are not and rough sex can act as a conduit for us to work through that, but more commonly it's b) women do a fuck-ton of emotional labor all the time which is exhausting, and to be physically overwhelmed and ‘used’ sexually is an enjoyable fantasy for us because it gets us out of our heads. You're definitely not thinking about your grocery list when a man has his fingers shoved down your throat and he's telling you that he's going to own all your holes for the next thirty minutes. This is not a gender-exclusive thing either, as evidenced by the number of CEOs and hedge fund managers in my email asking me to peg them and beat the fuck out of them because they're so stressed out they want to lose control and get out of their own heads for a bit.
How did confronting your worst nightmare in the form of a fantasy porn scenario help you further process your personal experience? Has making this PureTaboo episode helped the healing process?
As I mentioned, the Mayans I lived with believe that there's power in revisiting trauma which I've subsequently learned is something that modern therapy embraces as well. For me this wasn't about giving up my control and letting a bunch of men gang-bang me for fun. This was about redressing and reframing my own fears and giving me a space where I could change the endings of my nightmares and control the narrative. A kind of desensitization therapy, if you will. Not coincidentally I think, I haven't had a bad dream since filming this.
Where do you think the adult industry—the female performers in particular—fits in the #MeToo movement and how is the porn industry’s place similar or different than mainstream entertainment or other industries?
Christ, the answer to this question could fill up a book. In brevity, I think it's difficult for us to truly have a #MeToo movement because we function like a persecuted subculture which has a ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Subcultures which face persecution tend to close ranks around those who are criticized among them, which can make calling out predators difficult. People like me, who do well financially and can bear to suffer the potential criticism and blacklisting that comes from naming and shaming, have a responsibility to call out abusers and support and amplify the brave women who risk their livelihoods by speaking out when they're just a new name on a roster that can quickly be replaced.
But I also think that we have a unique opportunity in the #MeToo moment to give a voice to women struggling to figure out how you can believe that men and women are equal and still want to see women get their brains fucked out in scenes and play submissive. How you can be a feminist and still want to be slapped in the face during sex, or peed on or whatever shameful thing it is that turns you on and confuses you.
For a long time, pornography has been defined by the shady reputation of casting couches and sleazy agents that are more or less trafficking girls. I remember looking at porn as a young person and feeling guilty because I felt I was contributing to the damage of those on the screen. One look at the AVN Awards Show this January and the number of women in administrative and managerial roles being honored tells me that this is not the story that we want to tell about ourselves. As sex workers AND entertainers who routinely navigate very blurry personal and professional lines at work, I think that we have a lot of advice for our sisters in mainstream entertainment about assertively advocating for your own personal boundaries.
What do you hope PureTaboo viewers, your fans and fans of adult entertainment take away from this scene and your performance?
Firstly, I hope some of you, especially those who have participated in non-consensual sexual violence (and I know you're out there), will be uncomfortable watching this. This wasn't made for you and your time is coming, I want you to know that.
Secondly, I talked to women about this scene, particularly women who have their own #MeToo stories, and what I hoped to accomplish with it and was expecting to face criticism, but the response blew me away. So many women told me about how they struggled with being both drawn to rough sex in their fantasy life and repulsed by it because of their past traumas and worrying that they were encouraging violence against women with their viewership of rough/degrading sex scenes. I felt strongly that it was important for me to make a scene, in my first writing credit, that was for women who had suffered the same injustices I had and who felt guilty about how their fantasy life changes after suffering trauma. You are absolutely not alone if you fantasize about rough sex after being raped or assaulted, and you are in no way responsible or perpetuating misogynistic narratives by doing so. You're working through trauma and that takes time, and I hope that this movie is a safe tool for you to engage in healing fantasy play with.
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AVN: About how many times had you worked Lena before this scene and what was it about Lena that made you want to collaborate with her on this level?
Bree Mills: This was actually only the second scene I have directed Lena in personally, although she has shot for our other studios many times. I was really impressed by her professionalism, acting abilities and interest in filmmaking during our first episode and had full intentions of bringing her back, when she hit me up to ask if I would be willing to shoot one of her firsts as a storyline scene. She had seen what we had done with Kristen Scott’s first DP, ‘The Nerd’s Revenge’ and was interested in a similar type of collaboration. The story she had in mind really struck a nerve with me and, ultimately, we decided to pursue the project as a pure collaboration versus a first ... although it does feature Lena’s first ‘airtight’ position on film!
How did you work with Lena on developing and finalizing her story treatment? How did you arrive at what you ultimately brought to set that day?
Lena and I had several discussions about her story concept and what was important for her in terms of the characters, plot, and intensity. I then finalized it into a story treatment and we workshopped each sequence on set with the other cast and crew. Lena also played a role in the casting and overall styling of the episode.
How would you describe Lena’s acting performance in “Airtight Invasion”? How would you describe Lena’s sexual performance?
Lena is a very natural method actress. Once she gets inside her character, she runs with her. She’s a great performer to direct. When it comes to sex, she’s already proven that she is an A-list star, but I feel like this scene was extra intense because of the emotions involved and because it was one of the most personally challenging in Lena’s career at that time. We saw her push herself and deliver something truly extraordinary! The pop-shot ending on this one is one of my favorite moments we’ve ever filmed.
What went into your decisions about who to cast opposite Lena? Derrick Pierce as the father; the captors Bambino, Johnny Goodluck and Codey Steele? The actor who played Veronica's bodyguard, Bruno?
Bruno was actually a cameo by my co-producer Craven Moorehead! As for the rest of the cast, Lena and I chose them together.
How would you describe these actors’ performances?
The three actors who portrayed our henchmen (Johnny, Codey, Bambino) complimented each other very well as a supporting cast. Each character had his own distinct personality and I loved seeing them riff off each other and keep in character throughout the entire story including the sex scene. And when you need a rich dad in a nice suit with a heart of gold, there isn’t a better man to call than Derrick Pierce!
What, if anything, surprised you about the making of “Airtight Invasion”?
The seriousness and sensitivity to which everyone took the story on set. It could have easily been brushed off as another trendy rough sex plot but the story really hit hard to each cast member and challenged them in ways they don’t normally face in a scene. That rawness comes out in the final product. I also love doing these immersive one-act play scenarios and this one came together very nicely in that dimly lit garage.
Which sequence of “Airtight Invasion” was the most challenging to shoot and why?
If you look closely, the whole opening sequence is essentially one long tracking shot. Those are always a fun challenge to choreograph and film. Also, the sex itself was very intense and the actors found creative ways to have sex in a fairly confined space.
What kind of statement do you think this episode makes in terms of the #MeToo movement as it relates to the adult industry and performer experiences?
That there are many ways to raise your voice and make a statement. As performers and filmmakers, this includes taking our medium and using it as a platform not just to get people off but also to make them think. This was Lena’s statement. What is yours?
All images courtesy of PureTaboo. For the "Airtight" trailer, click here.