Paul Thomas: The Storyteller Eyes New Challenges

LOS ANGELES—The man known simply as “PT” spent his entire adult life entertaining, whether he has been onscreen, onstage or behind the camera. Even now as a recognized master in his field, he still relishes moments of clarity like the one he had in the fall of 2009. That was when Paul Thomas quietly stepped away from directing for Vivid Entertainment Group, the place he called home for nearly 25 years.

“When Vivid and I parted ways one of the first things of course I thought of was maybe I should just stop,” says Thomas, who will turn 60 this month. “I’ve been doing this since I was 24 years old. From the age of 18 until the age of 30, intensely, I also did mainstream entertainment as well. But I’ve been doing X-rated since I was 24 years old. And I thought maybe it’s time to stop.

“Not because I was really tired of it. But we’ve all got these paradigms in our head. I’m almost 65, I could retire. I don’t have to work for money. I don’t need the money. And it lasted a month, realizing I really love to create erotic films. I love it. I love to find new and interesting, intense subjects and make films about them.”

Indeed, Thomas is the most decorated feature filmmaker in X-rated history. He has won the AVN award for Best Film or Best Director 12 times, a remarkable five of each in the past decade alone. And while it would be impossible to tell the story of the porn industry without discussing Thomas’s indelible legacy with Vivid, he is now starting a new phase. The post-Vivid era has already begun for Thomas with his first movie for France’s highly regarded adult company, Marc Dorcel, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Thomas, who lives near the beach in Los Angeles but keeps another residence in Paris, goes back 25 years with Dorcel. So he said it was a natural to reach out to what many consider the class of Europe.

“Paris was interested and I was absolutely thrilled. I was complimented by the fact that Marc Dorcel wanted to do business with me,” Thomas says.

The movie, which at press time was being edited, stars French actress Jade LaRoche and 2010 AVN MILF Performer of the Year Julia Ann alongside lead actor Justin Magnum in a story about a mother and a daughter who fall in love with the same man. Inspired by Thomas’s award-winning 1993 film Justine, its working title is

"We’ll see if it will have sort of a different dramatic impact than some of my American films, just because it’s shot differently. It’s not meant to be so script intensive,” Thomas says. “Hopefully I will have succeeded in combining some of the great European style that Dorcel has and some of my storytelling ability.”

The pressure to live up to expectations, both his own and that of others, is part of what drives him. He realizes that some of his methods over the years may not have been popular, but also maintains there has always been a reason behind them.

“Every beat of every frame of every movie that I do the purpose is to make the orgasm better,” Thomas says.

"If I’m trying to involve you more in the situation, if I’m trying to involve you more with the characters, if I’m trying to get you to believe that, this is really his wife, they love each other and they are really breaking a sacred bond. And so that when she fucks the mailman, you can feel it. There’s some emotional structure that has been broken down here and if you’re coming from where I’m coming from, if you enjoy that feeling of doing the forbidden, of breaking sexual tension, or emotion, the orgasm is better. That’s my stock in trade.”

In this exclusive interview, Thomas reveals more of his philosophy about creating erotic films, moving on with life after Vivid and his greatest achievement.


Why Marc Dorcel?

The moment Vivid and I parted ways I gave them a call thinking maybe I could do some work for them. And they jumped right on it, said absolutely let’s do some work. And I considered it a huge...You know ego... is part of the fuel. For any entertainer, for any good businessman or artist I think ego is part of the fuel. And I think I’m pretty good at what I do at this strange craft that I’ve perfected over the years. But I’ve never enjoyed just doing it for myself. One of the main reasons I love doing a good job is...maybe it goes back to my childhood, pleasing my Dad, and pleasing my Mom and pleasing the coach. And then it was....I used to win awards for VCA all the time, and then it was pleasing [owner] Russell Hampshire. I loved when he thought I did a good job. Loved it. And then of course for years and years it was pleasing [Vivid co-chairman] Steve Hirsch who’s Not Easy to Please. I likened our organization to the Lakers, with Steve being [Lakers owner] Jerry Buss...You win a championship or nothing. There’s no second place. You’re nominated? So what. You’re No. 2? So pleasing Steve Hirsch was a huge motivator for me.

On “the fans”

Pleasing the fans, the people, it’s not that it’s not important to me... But who are they? It’s impossible...Well, ultimately they are the people who pay my paycheck but it’s like this amorphous group of people. They’re not going sit down and say ‘great job,’ it’s too nebulous.

Number two, which flies in the face of what I just said. I don’t think we create good... I’m going to use the word ‘art’...It’s still an art. It’s not a craft. It’s not as if you can do A-B-C-D-E-F-G and come up with a really good film. You can come up with a serviceable film. A lot of people approach this. They want one of these, two of these, three of these, four seconds of this, six seconds of that...and they come up with this. Frankly, it’s more of the direction that that the internet is going. They come up with an extremely predictable, extremely jerkable, clean, polished nice product but never do they come up with anything illuminating.

To come up with something original and illuminating, it’s an art. It’s not by chance. You’ve got to mix it up and break the rules and... So to try to please the fans, the people who keep us alive and in business, I think it’s a mistake. I don’t even think they want us to. I don’t think the fans want the best X-rated filmmakers, John Leslie, John Stagliano, myself, Ren Savant, to try to please them. ... You want the feeling that the filmmaker you’re watching is making a very personal, intense expression. I’ve always felt that way. The fans want me to lead them, to lead them perhaps into new areas or illuminate things they were already thinking of.

On the first movie for Dorcel:

I did a show years ago called Justine which is perhaps my favorite film I’ve ever done. My favorite subject is the sexual tensions between people, particularly within the family. ... A father who lusts for the daughter...A father who lusts for the son’s girlfriend. Of course the husband who loves yet hates seeing his wife with other men. To me maybe this is one of the most important things that I’ve ever had to offer to the business.

Eroticism to me is when you combine pain and pleasure. It’s this fine edge. It’s almost like an orgasm. It’s a combination of pain and pleasure. I always feel eroticism, good eroticism is conflict. A lot of people don’t understand that. I don’t smile when I cum.

When pain—psychological, sometimes physical—when physical or psychological or spiritual pain is combined with pleasure that makes the hottest situations.

The guy who loves, who pretends he’s anonymous and loves to watch his wife in a club flirt with other men and maybe go a lot further than that. It hurts inside a little bit and yet he’s seeing his wife through another man’s eyes and she’s so erotic. The husband who lusts after his son’s girlfriend. It’s totally forbidden, that’s what makes it better. ...A couple years ago I had a young girl come to my office and she was going to read for a part, and she said PT, how come these people have to have so many problems? She didn’t use the word conflict but what she meant was why can’t we just make happy movies about happy people? And I thought for a second and said you know, ‘you got a good point.’ It’s because of me, where my eroticism comes from.


What was behind you parting ways with Vivid at this point?

You know one could look at that question in two ways...One could look at that question and say what led me to leave Vivid after Twenty-Five Years? I’d rather look at it as, how in the world did Steve Hirsch put up with me for 25 years? I’m only being half facetious. I’m not easy! 


Well if I’m a good erotic filmmaker, if I’m original, I live this shit. Every film I live this stuff. My erotic mind and the dark places I go in my films and my real erotic mind is much darker than I’ve been able to express at Vivid. Because we mainstreamed it. You may see some of the real dark erotic visions and experiences I’ve had over the next few years.

I live and I admit I have had several bouts with drugs. I go to some very dark places. As I said eroticism to me is a combination of pain and pleasure. And I just don’t think I’m an easy person all the time to figure out where I’m coming from, because half the time I don’t know where I’m coming from. I just have faith in my own talent and after as much success as I’ve had I have faith, and so did Steve ultimately, that I would get it done, on time, on budget and in excellent fashion. But if you know Steve Hirsch and you know me, you know what incredibly different types of people we are. He’s very buttoned up and I’m not. And so when you asked me that question, what happened after 25 years I really look at it, partly I look at it that it was amazing that I was there for 25 years. I’m incredibly grateful, I love him to death. We helped each other make our lives. ...

The main difference for us in the parting of ways was Vivid just wanted to go the direction of the internet. And that’s just not where my interest lies. I didn’t really develop the skill-set necessary to take advantage of the internet. I’m the only person you’ll ever see walk in this office—director, actor, grip, p.a., anyone, I don’t like picking up a camera. I don’t like looking through a camera lens. It just takes me away from the moment...There are people who could do both, I guess. I don’t enjoy it. And I found that there were literally thousands of people, don’t forget I worked with film until just two years ago. All I used to shoot in was film so it was a whole different ballgame we’re talking about. It’s a film camera we’re talking about; it’s a whole different set of skills. And it’s not unusual at all for a director not to be the film cameraman.

You don’t really expect the director to be the film cameraman, the guy holding the 35 mm or the Super 16, they were two separate functions. It’s only now that it’s almost expected. It just doesn’t draw me. I found that the most valuable thing that I have to offer was developing these interesting conflicts, personal ability to deal with people, my ability to draw out this talent and show sides of them that might not have been shown before and we made it into a motion picture. That’s the valuable ability that I have.

And it’s much more rare, strictly in a business sense, it’s a more rare commodity than the ability to pick up a camera. I’m not sure all that’s just not a rationalization because I’m just not mechanically oriented.   

How would you describe your level of contentment with what you’ve done in your career?

First of all, for 10 of those...I stopped acting in ‘85 or ‘86 and started directing and for the next 10 years I worked and won awards for Metro and VCA and Western Visuals, a lot of other companies. And I can remember myself saying that then and certainly over my life with Vivid it surpassed any expectations that I might’ve had about how much both monetary and creative satisfaction I could get from this business. I was a fucking filmmaker. I am a fucking filmmaker. I got to work with decent budgets and with casts and crews and characters and all of the aspects of real mainstream filmmaking, albeit on a much lower level. My level of challenge and satisfaction creatively and monetarily was surpassed. A huge part of that was because of my relationship with Playboy, which I established with Playboy before I even knew Vivid. Then Vivid took over that relationship and I continued to benefit from it. And to Steve’s credit he took that relationship to a much higher level probably than I ever would’ve dreamed of.

What do you view as your greatest achievement to this point?

I guess it has to be when I go to shows, every single day I am recognized on the streets. Every day. I’ve always been recognized somewhat, but it’s more so than ever now because of these reality shows that I’ve done for the last three years for Vivid. Every day someone says ‘PT, good work.’ Yesterday at Ralph’s in the supermarket this guy with his wife...his wife says to me ‘PT we love your work keep it up. My husband loves you but he won’t tell you he’s embarrassed.’ And I guess my greatest contribution, although it’s not what motivates me, I don’t really give a shit what people think. It’s not that I don’t give a shit what people think, if I start caring what people think I’m not going to do my best work. But apparently millions of people have connected with my work and it’s lent them some insight into their erotic selves. If you watch my shit there’s a lot there. Giving them some insight into themselves, giving them better orgasms for the evening. I’m sure there’s a lot of men that have gotten women into bed because they’ve gotten them to watch a Paul Thomas film whereas they might not have watched an Evil Angel gonzo. Which I’d rather watch, OK. And I imagine my work has contributed to a lot of pleasurable and even insightful evenings, moments for people.