Transcending Tribeca: Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus of Sexy Baby
More Tribeca Film Festival
Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. While the festival features some major studio films—it opened this year with The Five-Year Engagement, and closes with The Avengers—the majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha Robinson spoke with the filmmakers behind her absolute favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’ documentary Sexy Baby had its world première on Friday, April 20; it plays again at Tribeca April 27 and April 29. Details and tickets are here.
Somewhere at Tribeca, in the nighttime parties and daytime meeting sessions, the focus may be on selling film rights and making distribution deals. During the morning private screenings, the focus is just on eyeballs, on making sure the festival’s films play multiple times for maximum press-and-industry access. But at the evening screenings, where the public can buy tickets, the focus is the films and the people who made them. Tribeca brings in as many of the filmmakers and cast members as possible, to wave at the audience beforehand and stand up for Q&As afterward. For many of the filmmakers and actors, Tribeca is a first chance to see their work in a public setting, and while they show up to represent their work, they also regularly talk about the excitement of re-experiencing it in a packed house for the first time. So many of the principals come to these screenings that while many post-show talk sessions just feature one or two people, it’s not unusual to see a dozen people onstage, including the director, writer, producers, cast members, and more. And often the first thing they do once they take the stage is point out other crew members in the audience.
That was the scene at the post-show Q&A for the world première of Sexy Baby, a playful yet grim documentary look at how easy Internet access to hardcore pornography is affecting the lives of younger people. First-time directors Jill Bauer (a journalist and editor) and Ronna Gradus (a photojournalist) do man-on-the-street interviews and look at porn sites, advertising, popular music videos, a Girls Gone Wild event, and more, but primarily, they followed three subjects for several years to get their perspective and observe their lives. As the film starts, Nichole is a 32-year-old former porn star (under the name Nakita Kash) and pole-dancer—a former Miss PoleChamp USA and America’s Got Talent contestant who teaches pole-dancing to up-and-comers. Laura is a 22-year-old teacher saving up for labiaplasty because she’s uncomfortable with how little her vagina resembles what she’s seen in films. And Winnifred is a precocious, self-possessed 12-year-old who talks frankly and disapprovingly about the effects ubiquitous graphically sexual imagery has on her generation. At the same time, though, she’s experimentating with identity by posting increasingly racy pictures of herself on Facebook.
The fascinating thing about Sexy Baby is that it presents horrifying images—from online galleries of semen-soaked women to Winnifred’s 4-year-old sister doing a grotesquely sexual imitation of a dance she’s seen in music videos—without editorializing. There’s no narration, no tongue-clucking disapproval, just a look at the material widely available online and in the culture, and the three subjects’ thoughts on what it means to them. It’s a spritely, often funny documentary, and yet at times it’s terribly dispiriting.
Warning: Trailer is NSFW.
At Tribeca’s post-première chat, all three subjects (plus Nichole’s 1-year-old show-stealing son and Winnifred’s parents) were present alongside the directors, but the majority of the questions went to Winnifred, who talked about how much she’s matured since the film was made, and how it helped her see the irony of how she was presenting herself. It’s no wonder—of all the stories being told, hers is the most shocking because of her youth and self-awareness, and her inability to resist following her peers’ lead and exempting herself from her own judgement. Tasha later sat down with the directors to talk about how the film came about, why it isn’t just the Winnifred show, and how porn is ruining sex.
The A.V. Club: What was the genesis of this film?
Ronna Gradus: It was an accident, honestly. We met at The Miami Herald. Jill was a reporter, I was a photographer, and I had to do a story about a noise ordinance in Coconut Grove. The story was boring, but the assignment was fun, I had to go photograph the club scene. It was like a Thursday night, college night, and a lot of mainstream clubs now have poles in them, and girls were pole-dancing, and guys, their classmates, were tipping them. [Laughs.] I’m from New York, I did the club thing when I was in college, and even in high school, and I saw wild things, so it wasn’t that I was like [faux-indignant voice] “This is so sexualized, I can’t even believe it.” It was just more, you know, “Wow, what is the motivation?” Because nobody seemed to be having fun. It was just sort of autopilot behavior. So that’s what really struck me. The vibe, the tone. “Something is different here.” And I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Jill Bauer: So she took pictures that night, obviously, and then the Herald, they put up a slideshow. And so she called me the next day and told me the story, and [said] “I’m not a prude, but this was just something different.” So I was looking at the slide show, and what struck me—because a picture paints a thousand words, which is why we ended up doing a documentary—was that the guys seemed disengaged. You know, been-there, done-that, seen-it. And the girls are trying so hard to get the attention of the guys. So I pitched it to my editor, and she said “Great, yeah, sounds good, do the story.” Then the newspaper started giving the photographers video cameras to go out and shoot stuff. We got very lucky—there was a porn convention in our backyard, really, in Miami Beach. And we said, “Let’s see how mainstream this stuff is. Let’s go to a porn convention and see what’s there. Are regular people going into this porn convention? What’s happening?”
RG: There were 18-year-old girls there that were like, [teenage-girl voice] “We’re here to see Jenna Jameson. She’s our idol, we love her! Oh my God, I want her autograph!”
JB: [Laughs.] And then there was this thing called the Bang Bus. I think it’s still the most successful reality-porn site.
RG: “Reality” in quotes.
JB: And basically the whole theme with “Bang Bus” is that girls, young girls, get on the bus and get banged. And it’s really, really—
RG: It’s like Girls Gone Wild on crack.
JB: But regular people off the street recognized Bang Bus and were getting on it with their boyfriends and simulating sex. And they were all taking pictures of each other, and we thought, “Wow, I guess mainstream U.S.A. and the porn world… really, there is some intersection, there is some crossover, there is some idolization. There is some porn chic.” And so we kind of discovered it in that very, very condensed and traumatic three days that we spent—
RG: [Laughs.] Overwhelming and desensitizing three days.
JB: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: There are so many images from porn sites and highly sexualized music videos in the film, it’s clear you spent a lot of time looking into this stuff. What was that process like for you?
RG: We had a Porn Monday, actually. Because we spent a day with our editor where we just… I mean, right. All those little flashes of porn? That all took a very long time to look for. Originally, actually, the little girl in our film who says, “I saw there were three people ferociously banging, one blonde woman, one Hispanic guy…” [The girl in question is a young adolescent friend of Winnifred’s, trying to describe a pornography clip she accidentally saw, and fumbling to express her reaction. —ed.]
JB: So we looked for it—
RG: [Laughs.] We Googled that. We tried to look for it: “blonde lady, ferociously banging.”
JB: I mean, we looked at every incarnation. We couldn’t find it, because it’s just [snaps fingers rapidly to indicate how quickly porn videos come and go on a site] it’s that fast. I mean, who knows?
RG: For me, it was very traumatic. I’m very visual, I couldn’t get it out of… I mean, I am not anti-porn. At all. But I was horrified by what today’s porn is like, a lot of it.
JB: You’re not anti-porn, you’re anti-violent-porn. Brutality.
RG: It’s very mean-spirited, a lot of porn.
AVC: How long has it been from that first seed of the idea to the première?
RG: Almost four years.
JB: When I knew this was going to be a visual story, a very big story, I didn’t know where it was going to go. Neither one of us knew where it was going to go. We both were pretty committed to not making it a polemic. We were both fans of character-driven vérité documentaries. And so I said, “Let’s do a documentary.” And Ronna said, “You’re crazy.” And I said, “Yeah, but let’s do a documentary.” We at first were using that little camera—
RG: But we knew we needed to get out of Miami to make a real case for the film, for the subject matter. Because Miami is not typical.
AVC: You met Nichole at that porn convention, and brought her on board, right?
AVC: What were you looking for in your other main subjects in the documentary?
JB: Well, we weren’t actually looking for Nichole. We were looking for a student, someone who takes pole dancing from her, who has kids. [Nichole] led us to a woman who she taught, who had a lap-dance station in her house and a pole in her house, and was encouraging her daughter to keep her husband that way.
AVC: Is she the one we see taking lessons from Nichole in the film?
JB: No, she didn’t end up in the film. She was very—I don’t want to say one-dimensional, but she was very reality-TV. It was an amazing story in a lot of ways. We followed it, we pursued it. And it is one of those “on the cutting-room floor” stories. So we were going for the mom and the teenager at first. The daughter is 17, the mom the influence, all of that…
RG: That, we thought, is the most literal embodiment of the crossover, right? Like, here is a stripper pole in this woman’s house. So we just thought that that was a really good representation, but—
JB: We were thinking a high-school girl, a middle-school girl, and a college girl. Laura was the college girl at the time. She was finishing, and then she was going to go to school for teaching. So we figured, “Okay, that sort of makes sense.” So our biggest challenge was finding a middle-school girl. At first, we thought we wanted a “bad” middle-school girl, somebody who’s going to house parties and rainbow parties and all the things you hear about. But right away when we found Winnifred, we knew this was somebody who could speak to it with perspective, in a strange way. And we thought, “Wow, how many kids that age can be in [her teen culture], and really in it, and not impervious, but then have moments of being outside of it, being able to speak to it? And then be surrounded by friends who are in it more than she is?”
AVC: There’s so much focus on Winnifred in the film, and there was so much focus on her at the Q&A, and she’s in such a dynamic time of change compared to Laura or Nichole, in spite of the big things they’re going through. Were you ever tempted to just make it a movie about Winnifred and her friends, and about youth culture and pornography?
JB: I don’t think we were, because—
RG: We put so much work into the others that we were like, “We are not cutting you out of the film.”
JB: I feel like [a film about Winnifred] would have not gone to the places we really needed a porn star to talk about, like making love. [Nichole gives a speech to the camera at one point about the difference between “sport sex” and lovemaking. —ed.]
RG: Winnifred even said it. When she saw the movie for the first time, she was like “I can not wait to meet her, because guys in my school need to hear that.”
JB: Nakita teaches Winnifred, and taught us. It was hard to leave that.
AVC: What kind of sensitivity did you have to have with Winnifred, given that you’re essentially documenting the first sexual awakenings of a child?
RG: I would say [we were filming things] even before that. One of our very first shoots, her sister started that insane sexy dance, and she was 4. We have stuff still on the cutting-room floor that’s like—
JB: I mean, we have really sexy, you know—
RG: And that at the time was like, “Are we crossing a line by keeping the camera rolling on this sexy dancing that’s happening right now?” But I think our approach was to get it, and then we could always leave it out. It’s better to have the option and make judgment calls later.
JB: We made a lot of judgment calls. We have a lot of material we didn’t use. It took us a very long time to portray each of the characters in a very fair way. I think that they’re all, at the end of the day, extremely—it’s a very fair representation. There are things with each character that—when the outside world—people judge, right? So you really have to work hard with footage, because if you present certain things, people will judge it. So everything has to be really contextualized.
RG: You also have to consider what you personally know about these people. Think to yourself, “If we just put up these two minutes, the audience is not going to know the context.” So you really have to cognizant of “Who are they? Is this true to them?”
JB: Test screenings are enormously helpful. Because when people say, “Oh my God, what…” and then you say, “No, no, no, but you don’t understand, she did this, and that, and this and that. But you don’t know, because we didn’t get that on camera, or [the audience] didn’t have that conversation.”
AVC: You have access to so many uncomfortable, personal things, from the graphic shot of Laura’s pre-op labia to the scenes of Winnifred fighting with her parents. Was there any point where you didn’t get the access that you wanted, or where the subjects said, “I’d really rather you not put that on film”?
RG: Well, Winnifred’s family was unbelievable.
JB: They were really, really open. I mean, there were times—
RG: Winnifred’s dad was more protective. I think he was more of a traditional dad, “I’m the protector of my daughter.”
JB: I’ll tell you—there was a time. We followed Winnifred—this is not in the film at all. We followed Winnifred to summer camp. She went to summer camp for a week. It was like this gymnastics/skateboarding camp in rural Pennsylvania.
RG: That’s a completely different film. That’s its own film there.
JB: At a place abutting sort of an Amish community. So there were all these kids on their iPhones, and their techie stuff and their skateboards, and then literally yards away, there were horses and buggies. So anyway, she was at camp, and she was with her girlfriends, and they were flirting with boys and running around. We drove there, and we spent some time trying to get her at camp with her friends, interacting with boys and everything. And we sensed that she didn’t want us there. This is how we sensed it: She ran away from us. [Laughs.]
RG: [Laughs.] Into the night.
JB: It was really awkward. She didn’t want us there. Nothing was going on, but it was like—
RG: You have to gauge “Is this worth pushing her on? We need her long-term, so we don’t want to blow it now and piss her off…”
JB: And also, we respected her wanting to flirt with boys. We both flirted with boys. We probably still do. So I think we were pretty sensitive to that, and we just got out of her hair.
RG: Nichole, the biggest obstacle with her was, her husband was a very private guy. They did not want to let us into their house. So that, we had to really push for. They never let us see her bedroom.
JB: And then when she had her baby, I went down there with our co-producer, and he shot it, because Ronna was very far away from the world, she was in Machu Picchu.
RG: I was hiking the Inca trail. She had the baby five weeks early.
JB: So we went, and they shut me out so many times, because they wanted their privacy. I mean, you’re stressed, it’s your first baby and all that. So I tried not to be too pushy, but we really wanted that moment. But it worked. You know, we had already—luckily, it was the final scene in the film, so we had established a relationship for so long that she could say to me, “Get out of my face.” It was okay, because I knew she was going to give me some kind of other access.
AVC: Given the extreme sexual content of some of the film, are you worried about ratings, or where or how the film might be able to play?
RG: Yeah. If it goes into theatrical, we’ll have to blur some things, probably, but we also are very interested in doing an educational version to play in high schools, even. I mean, that would be heavily edited. But also a university one that we would love to take to campuses, and have different screenings for guys and girls, so people could really talk afterward.
JB: Yeah. Our sales agent is working to get it released as broadly as possible, and of course if there are things that need to be done to it, we’ll do it.
AVC: Speaking of screening it for guys—you talk to some boys during the film, in casual interviews, but all three of your main subjects are female. Was there ever any thought about needing a male subject?
JB: Yes, absolutely we talked about it.
RG: And I mean, I think that’s why we did man-on-the-street [interviews], because we knew “We can’t leave the guys out of this.”
JB: In fact, we were thinking this would be our next documentary. I think it’s really, really important, and we worked really, really hard at making this documentary something that would be appealing to men, and something where they wouldn’t feel complicit, because they’re not. We’re in it together, men and women. When you have a film with women in it, people can misperceive it as a feminist treatise or something like that, and it was really important to us to make it broad, and a conversation about men and women, between men and women. So, that’s actually why we talked to Ken, Winnifred’s dad, a lot, and Nakita’s husband, also. And the men on the street—we talked to a lot of guys.
AVC: You’ve emphasized that you aren’t anti-pornography, but did the process of making this change your attitude toward pornography?
JB: I never really watched porn before this, so I think it educated me. Ronna always says, “Look.” We were doing the interstitials, in fact, she said, “We have to put some mean porn in there. Because people have to know. A lot of people don’t know what kind of porn is out there.” Well, I am one of those people. I did not know what kind of porn was out there.
RG: I think a lot of women don’t have a clue.
JB: And the other thing is that we both actively date, and we have this conversation all the time. The guys I go out with are divorced, newly divorced, or they’re in their 40s or 50s. And sometimes in their 80s—you take what you can get. [Laughs.]
RG: That is not true—
JB: So when people say, what are you working on? “Okay, three characters, etcetera…” and when I get to the labiaplasty part, they’re like, “What? Bigger? Smaller?” They have no idea what it is. Then the guys that Ronna dates—
RG: I get to that part, “Yeah, then we have a surgery, it’s called labiaplasty…” and they either know exactly what it is—one guy was like, “Yeah, my ex-girlfriend had that while we were together.” And other guys say, “Yeah, I understand some girls would want that.” In fact, one guy said to me, “Well, no, I shouldn’t. This is a first date.” And I was like, “Come on, I’ve heard it all, so go ahead.” And he goes, “Well all right, some girls, yeah, they really look like a hot, open-faced roast-beef sandwich.” And I was, “Okay, check please.” So it’s really remarkable [the difference age makes in awareness]. And right there is your little test group of the fact that pornography is affecting things.
JB: To go a little bit further with the answer—I’ve always wanted to write a separate story on this, and now it’s probably been done. I hope it has. I’m sure it has been done. My friends are in their late 40s, and I am so sure that all of their husbands watch porn. I think most men are watching porn, and I think that it’s very disruptive to relationships. I mean Internet porn. I think it’s disruptive when it’s the go-to. Then you’re in bed with the real thing, and you don’t have to do the work. That was always the beauty of sex, is that you learn each other’s bodies, and you learn what to do, what pleases your partner and all of that. And I just feel like it’s just so [snaps fingers] “I can get this, it’s quick, I don’t have to wine and dine anybody, I don’t have to have a conversation, I don’t have to care how your day was.” I think that’s incredibly destructive to human relationships between men and women. And it is inescapable, it’s so easy to get.
RG: And for me, I would say having now watched a lot of porn, what strikes me is that as a woman, I look at a lot of it and I go, “I know for a fact that that can not feel good.” But of course it’s like “Ooh yeah, that’s fantastic,” that’s what the woman is putting out there. And I look at that and think, “This is going to fuck so many people up.” So many guys, they have such a misconception of what sex should feel like. And we have talked to so many college girls who say, “And then I’m like, ‘What was that? Does he think that feels good?’” So it is totally playing out, and that is so sad to me.
JB: I bet if we went out on the street right now and interviewed people, there probably isn’t a woman under the age of 35, and maybe even 40—certainly if a woman is actively dating—who hasn’t had a guy try a porn move on her. I mean, a porn move from today’s Internet porn. Whatever it is. Choking, hair-pulling, spitting—
RG: I think spitting is really happening. [Laughs.] They spit on you.
AVC: You said yourselves that this isn’t a polemic, it’s not an advocacy doc or a scare-tactics doc. You don’t lead people to a conclusion or suggest activism. But do you personally have any thoughts on what you want people to do after watching this movie?
RG: For me, I guess it would focus on kids. I hope parents walk out of the film and say, “Oh shit. I really should ask some real questions here, and assume my kid is seeing more than I think they are.” And really, I hope people have more honest conversations.
JB: And not rely on the schools’ health sex-ed class. I mean, that is so incredibly surface. Really, it is about the next generation. And also, the whole point—there’s a lot of stuff in the film that’s shocking. And we’re not being gratuitous—
RG: We had a feminist come to a test screening and say, “Aren’t you just perpetuating the exploitation by showing this very degrading porn?” And I think we feel like “No, in fact, we are opening some people’s eyes as to what is out there, because people need to know. We need to deal with it.
JB: It’s a hard thing to do, because people don’t really want to know about it. So it’s really hard. It’s hard to be those people. “Sorry, somebody had to do it.” [Laughs.]
RG: “Sorry to depress you.” [Laughs.]