09.29.11

I Am an Accidental Pornographer

Colette Burson, the co-creator of the HBO show, 'Hung,' has found that a large percentage of her job is discussing sex and nudity in great detail.

My first job was as a singing waitress. It was the only job I could get in my small town, an artsy-but-hicky little place in the Appalachian mountains that fast food chains hadn’t farted on yet. So after an overpriced meal hit the tables of a certain Southern-mansion-turned-restaurant, this horny waiter dude (who claimed to be from NEW YORK CITY) would pound the piano, and out I would come, all age 17 of me, singing one of the only tunes I was somewhat comfortable with: “Chim Cher-ee,” or whatever that damn song is called that Dick Van Dyke nails in the sooty clothes, from Mary Poppins.  I usually started with a hand on my cocked knee and a “chimney sweep smile” on my face, hoping against hope that the Cockney accent would hide my multitude of singing errors.  But by the end of the summer I knew: I had no career as a singer. Or as a waitress.

Now my job is working on Hung, the TV show where Thomas Jane and Jane Adams join together to sell Ray’s (Thomas Jane) big dick, which starts its third season on HBO on Sunday. For me, Hung started in the summer of 2008, when I was wildly pregnant, finally had an elective c-section (it’s easier, but nurses give you dirty looks), and then days later started shooting the pilot in Detroit with Alexander Payne.

I co-created Hung and co-run it with my husband, Dmitry Lipkin, who has always called me “Co” (just occurred to me to throw that in). We met in the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU, where we were set up by a professor who called to say, no lie, “He’s very cute, come pick him up when you’re ready.” We were the “artsy types,” the playwrights, the sincere apprentices!—our flag firmly planted in the half of the class that stayed in New York to run a theater company (non-hierarchical!), and earn non-hierarchical non-money. The other half went to Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune as we shook our heads pityingly: Good luck out there, kids. Go see how it feels to sell your soul to film and TV. But time has a way of playing funny tricks. A lot of the Los Angeles contingent ended up moving back to New York.  As for us, we started out playwrights, and now we live and breathe television in sunny Californ-i-yay.

We’re also, in a way, pornographers. Accidental pornographers.

Showrunning Hung means coming up with storylines, developing scripts, and supervising production. We live with the show every day (a state I call Hungland), multitask like lunatics, work crazy long hours, blah blah blah. But the interesting part is how much time we and our writers spend dissecting sex on a lot of different levels.  For example, how the male and female psyches go into and through sexual encounters differently. Or not. Fact is, we have to create sex scenes and the context for them, in almost every episode. So do a lot of shows, but Hung isn’t about people in love. It’s about women who don’t know Ray, who decide to PAY to have sex with him. Why do they do it?  and Would I ever do it?  is what the show is about. (Fascinatingly, I hear a lot on the street about large groups of Marines, as well as clusters of women over 60, who are particularly obsessed with Ray and all the sex he has. I have theories as to why, but that’s another article.) On a more practical level, Step A in Hungland is conceiving and writing the sex scene. Step B, the crucial step (I like to call it “bringing home the bacon”) is shooting it.

Thomas Jane, who plays Ray, is fearless and easy, flashes his white butt in the credits every week, and has shown his penis in movies plenty of times. We show everything but that on Hung (we didn’t go there in Seasons 1 and 2; I’ll get back to this later), but to be fair, our society seems to hold men to a different standard. Flaws in men just aren’t focused on so much, whereas women are fair game and it feels like everybody with a remote is on an armchair safari hunt. There’s not an actress alive who isn’t worried about her sex scene, at least not one that I’ve encountered. Usually she wants to talk to me about her “problem area.” Every chick has a problem area, apparently, and they aren’t keen on having millions of people notice it. Particularly when those millions are capable of freeze-framing, not to mention zooming in and then posting it forever on the Internet.  Given that, who can blame the actresses?

My job, then, becomes one of rock solid, you-can-count-on-me reassurance. I start yakking a mile a minute. Don’t worry, I’m a chick, I’ll be right there in the editing room, I’ll take care of you. It’s true actually, I do look out for them, and even if I think they look good by my own personal standards, I try to stare at that tummy fold or breast wrinkle from the hypercritical, potentially self-loathing actressy point of view. Out of chick solidarity, the editors and I freezeframe and zoom in and imagine it posted on the Internet forever so there won’t be heinous surprises popping up for anybody. I’ve got an ace track record in the “I’ll literally protect your ass” department, which is good for them and good for me (I can point to it in future conversations), and they always answer, “Yes, I’ve heard you do that, it’s so reassuring.” They usually also add, “I really want to do this, I do,” and, “I’ve been staring at myself naked in the mirror and I really want it to be OK!” But I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s a lot of last minute panic. There’s also the inevitable phone conversation after they are cast during which I have to go into detail about what will go down on set. Well, you’ll have a patch… you know, a little piece of material, they call it a patch, it’s placed over your crotch… and Thomas will have a cock sock, are you familiar with that..? Um, no. They usually aren’t.

“Colette, could you come down and take a look at the pubic hair?” That’s a real way to wake up in the morning, lemme tell you.

There’s a pattern to the “nudity required” role, which is this: Actresses audition, full of brio. They get cast. Suddenly, they begin to feel quite a bit less confident. They begin to sweat and call their agents, who talk them off the cliff. They go home, undress, stare at themselves naked in mirrors a lot. They have trusted friends hold mirrors in places they normally don’t look. They panic even more deeply and begin to hyperventilate. A call is then arranged with me, the female half of the creator team, to go over details. I reassure them that their panic is a part of a very familiar pattern. It’s new to them but old hat to me. I tell them the truth, which is that they’ll be FINE in the end.  Listen, I say. I know it’s really hard right now but this role is going to be great for you. Nudity never hurt anybody. Look how it’s been for Rebecca Creskoff! Believe me, the first time she came to the set she was trembling and holding her manager’s hand, but you know what she said to me later in the season? “Just so you know, the curtains match the drapes!” I swear to God!!! Yes!  And that’s why we see her auburn airport runway in Episode 9!! So look. You’ll probably have an anxious week, and even though I tell you not to diet you’re going to spend the next three days fasting… but just know I’ll be in the editing room and absolutely nothing gets by me. I’ll make sure you’re beautiful. I’M A WOMAN, TOO. Plus. You’ll wear a robe the whole time on set. Rachel’s your dresser, she’s so nice and funny and supportive, she’ll remove the robe right before shooting. The first time it’s hell, really hell, it feels awkward and you’re embarrassed, you feel naked, and as a matter of fact, you are indeed naked. But here’s the good news. It’s like a wall; it lasts one or two minutes. And then you break through. You don’t care. It’s amazing. You are lib-er-ated. You could shoot that damn sex scene all day. You don’t even WANT your clothes back.

Really? They ask. Really truly, I say. Cuz it’s true. And if they still hesitate, I throw down my final zinger: You’ll be so glad you did it when you’re 60!  They always agree with that one. Somehow it always works better than you’d think it would.

Why is it so hard to get actresses to be naked, I’m sometimes asked? Aren’t actors naked on TV all the time? The difference is that our naked actresses—not always, but usually—need to be real actors. They need chops. We want to give them meaty lines and have them play real characters. Also, most of the time, they aren’t 20. Finding talent plus bravery in the age of the Internet is a difficult task.

“Colette, could you come down and take a look at the pubic hair?” That’s a real way to wake up in the morning, lemme tell you. I walk down to a trailer. The costume department chicks come in, along with our actress, sweet and pretty. This is a “full naked” role, not a “partially naked” one, so no snatch patch and everything needs attention.   She nonchalantly drops trow, and three or so of us stare at the pattern of her pubic hair.  I try to look thoughtful and matter-of-fact. The makeup artist says something like, “Would you like it thicker?” Pause. We all contemplate. “Or is that thick enough?” And she usually says something like, “I was thinking a thin strip, like an airport runway.” And then, depending on my mood, I give a thumbs-up to the airport strip idea, or else say rebelliously, “I’m sick of all this shaved like a preschool girl thing! Fuck that! We’re bringin’ back the bush!!”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the penis issue is less complicated. We don’t talk pubic hair. It just all boils down to whether we SHOW or DON’T SHOW. We get fervent opinions either way. I myself go back and forth. Why not show? But on the other hand… isn’t the perfect penis a different thing for everybody? In what state would we show said penis? Should we cheat like Boogie Nights did, flashing everybody the biggest cock of all time? Or just aim for fattish and nicely sized? Or hell, just run with whatever mood Thomas happens to be in that day? But wouldn’t showing Ray’s dong be kind of a turn off? And here you can see where it all gets really tricky. Why would it ever be a turn off, at least for penis-favorable individuals? Is it the reality of it all, meaning some level of fantasy is required? What does the word sexy really mean?

One thing I figured out after working on the big dick show for three years is that yes, some ingredient of fantasy is indeed required to make a pot of sexy. For women, sex is a lot in their heads. Ray embodies this idea in Season 3 more than ever, and the character is shinier and funnier because of it. Ray is sexy when he connects to his clients upstairs. Downstairs can’t be shabby, it’s really good that Ray’s horny-on-the-spot with no erectile dysfunction in sight, but what’s most important is that he worms his way into each client’s brain. Throughout Season 3 I had a card taped to my door to remind me of all this, scrawled in black marker:  RAY + SEX = HAPPINESS.

Back when we sold Hung, it was like passing out candy to kids at Christmas. Honest to God, out of all the rooms I ever sat in or tried to sell something in, I never saw anything like it. It was like a fountain spurting positive energy was in the center of every conference table. Dmitry and I and our producer Michael Rosenberg would walk in, small talk a bit, and then Rosey would usually blurt something like, “We’re here to sell you a show about a guy with a big dick.” Everyone’s eyes would light up. Usually the room had more men in it than women, it’s worth pointing out, but still–they would smile. They would look enchanted. They would pull out their checkbooks. And then Dmitry and I would get to details, explain how we meant for the show to be more, about the economy and the complexity of sexuality and blah blah blah, but really it was just a cherry on the sundae at that point, because the room was sold, sold, sold. We sold that sucker six different times. And I would be thrilled, because I knew we could deliver something special, the big dick plus something more–but the rebel in me would secretly think, I’m a feminist, what am I doing here?

You live and you learn. I was a bad singing waitress, but I turned out to be a pretty good pornographer.