Entertainment

08.23.14

James Franco Gets Kinky: Inside the BDSM Porn Documentary 'Kink'

The James Franco–produced bondage-porn documentary Kink is in theaters Aug. 22. Marlow Stern spoke with the makers back at Sundance about the NSFW film.

Kink, an X-rated BDSM-porn documentary, opens with a director, who goes by the nom de guerre Maitresse Madeline, grilling her novice male subject with a series of probing questions.

We are going to tie you up today. We are going to spank you. We are going to flog you. We might cane you. We might paddle you. We like to choke around here. Do you like to get choked? Can we slap you in the face? What about your nipples? Can we clamp your nipples? Can we punch you in the stomach? We’re going to make love to your butthole, too.

Directed by Christina Voros and produced by the ubiquitous James Franco, the film, which made its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, paints a sweaty, screaming portrait of life inside Kink.com—the world’s premier BDSM-porn site, made up of 18 subscription sites and housed in the historic San Francisco Armory. The company, founded by Brit Peter Acworth, shoots all its videos in the 200,000-square-foot space that, in addition to room for offices and gear, also has about 50 movie sets.

“I am kinky,” Acworth, who founded the site out of his Columbia University dorm room in 1997, tells The Daily Beast. “I’ve always had an intense desire to be tied up, since childhood, so when I discovered bondage pornography around 17, then I felt, I guess I’m kinky, and that’s OK. So I started a business to help people demystify it and help them find their sexuality.”

BDSM, for the uninitiated, is short for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism. And the documentary features behind-the-scenes footage of Kink.com videos of both men and women tied up by ropes, drowned in bathtubs, being shocked in the genitals by an electric wand, and being penetrated by a plethora of DIY industrial-strength “fuck machines.”

"I think that sex and sexuality are topics of endless exploration," says Franco.

“Peter saw an online picture of a woman getting fucked by a machine and said, ‘That’s insane. I want that,’” TomCat, a transgender Kink.com director, tells The Daily Beast. “He started calling builders. We’ve had everything from modified motorcycles to rocking chairs with dildos. We’ve had people from NASA build for us.”

The interesting thing about Kink is that it operates as a big, strange family of sorts. All 130 employees share a similar vision and all seem very gung ho about their racy products.

After optioning Stephen Elliott’s 2009 book The Adderall Diaries, Franco, as a favor, agreed to shoot a couple of days on the film adaptation of Elliott’s first screenplay, About Cherry, in mid-2011. The movie shot a few days inside the Armory, and Franco was given a crash course in the world of Kink.com.

“I was given a tour of the place, and then I got to watch a video being made,” says Franco. “It was very interesting because the dynamic in front of the camera was very different from what was happening off camera. It was a BDSM scene of a girl in a cage, and very intense, but off-screen it was surprisingly warm and cooperative, with everyone as a willing participant. I thought I’d like to explore this, and I’m sure a lot of other people would, too.”

It took several months to convince Acworth and the Kink.com team that they were going to make an objective documentary and once their subjects agreed, Franco offered the directing task to Voros, his longtime collaborator.

“One of the things I learned in making the film is the world of BDSM really is a continuum, and from the outside, a lot of it may seem very extreme, but there are elements that are very relatable,” says Voros.

Video screenshot

The trailer for ‘Kink,’ a documentary on BDSM, from director Christina Voros and producer James Franco.

The relatability of BDSM, of course, is due in large part to the immense popularity of the bondage-themed novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Franco, for his part, says he hasn’t read it, so isn’t sure yet if he’d be interested in playing the role of the book’s kinky protagonist, Christian Grey, in the upcoming film adaptation. “I think it’s a fascinating world, but it all depends on the take on it. There’s a way to make this world ugly, and there’s a way to make it interesting.”

Acworth, meanwhile, wasn’t much of a fan.

“I was expecting to be turned on, but I got through about the fourth chapter and found it very slow moving,” says Acworth. “But I think it’s generated a lot of interest in the BDSM community, and those people who are curious may take it one step further and get involved.”

The documentary paints a very positive portrait of Kink.com’s BDSM oeuvre. All the models are said to give testimonials before and after shooting the more extreme scenes, and many of them are reminded time and again to use their “safe word” when things get too painful. And according to the documentary, when the submissive is under great duress, they enter a “subspace” where large amounts of dopamine are released, tantamount to being on ecstasy; a state of sexual euphoria.

“You can’t abuse a model’s ‘safe word’ or tie a rope around their neck so they can choke,” says Acworth. “There are a number of rules that, if you break it, the bank will take away your funding. We can show somebody pissing, but we can’t show somebody getting pissed on, weirdly enough.”

Not all stars have had positive experiences with Kink, however. Former porn star Aurora Snow appeared in Indietro, Kink’s first feature film, and says that starring in Kink.com films is “a bit of a mind fuck.”

“They are a company that looks for the moment when a girl has been mentally and at times physically pushed too far; the borderline of tears and pain,” says Snow. “Sometimes talent leaves with giant bruises that take weeks to disappear.”

She adds, “The scenes will push a girl over the edge. It’s standard practice on set to take breaks in between filming and during these breaks the talent is fawned, told how amazing they are, catered to, etc. It makes for a very confusing experience when trying to evaluate one's own feelings about what’s really happening.”

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Kink

Kink.com, meanwhile, has “thrived in our niche,” according to Acworth. The site has about 632,000 unique visitors per month, according to traffic-analytics site Compete.com, and Acworth says the company will be expanding soon to incorporate more “live videos with social networking,” which he sees as the future of the BDSM genre. But Kink.com does have its drawbacks, too.

“It’s very difficult to borrow money,” says Acworth. “We have a very small loan against the Armory, because it’s tough to get a big loan, since the banks view it as a reputational risk. If we were to default on that loan, the banks would end up owning a BDSM pornography company, which they don’t want on their books. And it’s difficult to take a company like this public no matter how successful it got just because of the nature of the content. There’s no exit strategy, so I’ll probably be doing this for the rest of my life, really.”

In addition to Kink, Franco has another BDSM-themed documentary here at Sundance, Interior. Leather Bar. Codirected by Franco and pal Travis Mathews, the film reimagines the lost 40-minute orgy sequence from William Friedkin’s 1980 gay-bondage cult classic, Cruising. So, the million-dollar question: why is Franco, who has played a handful of gay characters on screen—including fellating a prosthetic penis in his recent directorial effort The Broken Tower—seemingly obsessed with gay culture and subculture?

“I, as an artist, am interested in how we define ourselves as people, how we interact with each other, and what the dynamics of power in relationships are,” says Franco. “Even though a lot of people might not engage in some of the activities that the people at Kink do, I think there’s something about the dynamics at play that speak to something more universal. That’s probably one of the things that people find interesting about Fifty Shades of Grey, too. While a lot of the readers haven’t had the experiences detailed in that book, there’s something that’s drawing them to it. I think that sex and sexuality are topics of endless exploration.”