LOS ANGELES—Michael Zen, a prominent director of both straight and gay adult movies since 1976, and whose film Blue Movie helped cement the top status of both its star Jenna Jameson and its producer Wicked Pictures, died this morning of pancreatic cancer. He was 83 years old.
"Michael was an editor in our business before he became a director, and he directed many great movies: Skin Hunger, Babylon, Satyr with Jenna Jameson, and he did his series Stardust for Vivid with Jenteal—I think there were 12 episodes; everyone was in it," recalled Penny Antine, Zen's frequent collaborator and screenwriter under the nom de porn of Raven Touchstone. "Michael also taught filmmaking at the college level, like UCLA and I think Marymount. He was first a director of stage productions—theater was his great love—and then film, and his whole life was about the creative arts. He was brilliant. I thought he was perhaps the best director in this business; a lot of people thought he was perhaps over the top but I never did. It was great working with him. He and I collaborated on many movies and I wrote them, he directed them, and I would costume them as well. I loved this man. This was the gentlest, kindest, most thoughtful person—one of the most thoughtful and kind people in the business. Everybody who worked with him loved him."
Several performers shared Antine's feelings about the director.
"Wonderful director, good man. Sorry to hear. I did some great movies with the 2 of you," wrote Mike Horner on Facebook, referring to Zen and Antine, with Asia Carrera adding, "Nooooooooo he was one of my all time favorites. I'm so sad to hear this!!"
"In my dealings with Michael back in the '90s, he was definitely an extremely nice man and very talented and very, very artistic in a sexual way," observed Wicked Pictures owner Steve Orenstein. "I think when he would describe a story or a concept, his eyes would light up and he would picture the whole reason why they would have sex and what was the motivation, and I can picture his eyes lighting up as he was trying to describe what was going to happen in the movie, and he was very into what he was doing both as a filmmaker and as someone creating a sex movie.
"Blue Movie was the first movie Wicked shot on film; I think that was shot in April of '95, and that following award show was a biggie because Blue Movie was up for all the film categories and won, and Jenna won for that and the editing won, I think, and the same year, we had The Wicked One, and I think that won awards on video, so that was a turning point year for Wicked," he added.
In fact, Orenstein first met Zen back in 1992 when Zen directed Secret Garden 1 and 2 for Xcitement Video, of which Orenstein was co-owner.
"Secret Garden was a big deal, definitely a big deal movie—it had some of the top players at the time like Ashlyn Gere and Melanie Moore, and it was one of Jonathan Morgan's first roles, but I don't think we had full ownership to that; I don't think that's in the Wicked catalog," he recalled. "That was done in the final days of Xcitement, because I started Wicked in March of '93."
But according to the Internet Adult Movie Database (IAFD.com), Zen's very first straight movie was in 1977—he apparently directed Falconhead for VCA's HIS gay line a year earlier, though IAFD believed that was a different Michael Zen—Reflections for VCX, which starred Annette Haven, Kristine Heller, Sandy Pinney and Linda Wong, and the plot synopsis on the Internet Movie DataBase quotes VCX as writing, "The twisted passions of Uncontrolled Teenaged Lust...Reflect the fantasies of Youth! Bob and Connie and Joan are cousins. Connie loves doing to Bob what Joan refuses to do to Bob. Remembering her younger days when Connie and Bob would send her to her room, Joan chooses her welcome home party to pick and choose from her cousin's friends in defiance of Connie and Bob. Puts a whole new twist on Kissing Cousins!"
In the years until his retirement in the late '00s, besides Blue Movie and another big Jenna Jameson hit for Wicked, Satyr, Zen was responsible for some top-rated productions from studios like Vivid (the Stardust series starring then-contract star Jenteal), Metro (Taboo 17-19, Things Change 3-4, Cinesex 1-2 and Revenge) and Caballero (Filthy Rich), while on the gay side, he directed for top studios like All Worlds Video, HIS/VCA and Vivid Man. Zen also edited much of his own work.
"I worked with him many years ago," noted award-winning editor Sonny Malone. "So sad to hear this."
Paul Thomas, with whom Zen worked on Reflections, stated, "Michael taught me much about the importance of excellence editing. He was the most intelligent, learned filmmaker we had; gentle, funny, probably a cuckold. He instilled me with knowledge and confidence. Loved him."
That "cuckold" comment was probably said in jest, but Antine remembered, "Michael was bisexual and he was also married and the father of a son, plus I think he has a couple of grandchildren; his wife Monica, to whom he'd been married for about 50 years, let us all know that he died this morning."
"I first started working with Michael probably in '93," she added. "We did Skin Hunger—we did a whole ton of smaller movies for Vivid; lots and lots and lots; probably several dozen, and we worked for at least a half-dozen other companies as well. I saw him and Monica just a couple of months ago; I was out to dinner with them. He was an amazing human being. He was, number one, brilliant. He had such an understanding of film. He was a teacher of filmmaking, all aspects of making film, and he knew every movie, every plot, every star—he was absolutely brilliant. He was kind; he was a very gentle soul. He would remind me sometimes of Charles Laughton because his feet turned out the way Laughton's did, he was built a little bit like Laughton, and he had a kind of Charles Laughton quality to him. He was generous, he was thoughtful, and just one of the best people I've ever known.
"One quick story: We were shooting one of the Taboo movies, which ran late one night. At 1 a.m. we started the final sex scene but the male star couldn't get it up. He yanked and slapped and yelled at that limp puppet in his hand, and the fluffers all tried, but nothing worked. Michael brought in a stunt cock, but that one didn't work either, so the original guy tried again. By now it was 3 a.m. and Michael was missing. I found him in a corner of the studio, in the dark, on his knees, praying, "Dear God, please let this guy get a hard-on and get this scene done so I can send these people home to bed." The absurdity of him praying for a sex scene—he was very anti-religious in his personal life—made us laugh till tears ran down our cheeks. He was one of the most darling human beings ever to grace our industry."
Still, in his later years, Zen was afflicted with the genetically-passed disease Alzheimer's.
"He'd been battling Alzheimer's for the last three or four years," Antine noted. "Actually, when we worked together, his parents were both dying of Alzheimer's, so genetically, he was programmed for it, but two weeks ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and then he died this morning from that. After much thought, I believe Michael was spared a fate worse than death by dying quickly at this time of pancreatic cancer rather than dying slowly over the next few years as Alzheimer's claimed his brain bit by bit till he lost all memory of who he was, what he did, the people he loved, his animals, etc. He died as our Michael, not as some vacant body whose final loss would have been forgetting how to breathe. He was spared the very fate he watched his parents go through, and Monica and those who loved him have been spared watching him disappear cell by cell. I for one am grateful for this final gift he was given by the universe."
At present, there are not yet plans for a memorial for Michael Zen, though Antine's Facebook page is filling up with kudos for him. Check back to AVN.com later for the date and place when they are announced.
Pictured: Michael Zen on the set of Stardust; photos by Penny Antine.