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Relax...It's Just Sex

Steven Jon Wolfe entered the entertainment industry in 1981, working as an intern at the American Film Institute while studying film at Cal State Northridge.

"All I've wanted to do since I was a child was to make movies," Wolfe told me at his Sneak Preview Entertainment office February 14, 2002. "I made my first Super 8 movie when I was ten years old. By the time I was in [Taft] High School [in Woodland Hills], I'd graduated up to Super 8 Sound. I made a 25 minute epic kung-fu James Bond spoof.

"None of my family was in the industry. I really really wasn't sure how to get started. So I started interning on projects at the American Film Institute. Then at AFI, I worked on the high profile film Miss Lonelyhearts [1983], based on the Nathaniel West novel. It starred Eric Roberts. It was a big prestigious feature secretly being made through the AFI system, but nobody was telling AFI. It was billed as a second-year director's project so they could get everything for free.

"My first professional feature was Octavia with writer-director David Beaird. I've gone on to make several features with David.

"Then I worked as an assistant to producer Marilyn Jacobs Tenser on My Tutor."

Luke: "That was one of the seminal films of my adolescence. I came of age to that film. I loved it. It was my favorite of the teenage sex comedies."

Steven: "That was the biggest grossing independent film of 1983. It grossed $23 million domestic box office and it cost less than a million.

"I spent eight years working at Crown International Pictures, the company that produced My Tutor. I worked there when they had their most successful films and were operating full steam. My Tutor was such a huge hit that it fueled the next ten years for the company. I did my second film with David Beaird, My Chauffeur at Crown in 1986, It was a big hit. Number one at the box-office the week it opened. Weekend Pass, Tomboy and Hunk were other Crown hits.

"Crown released their own films. My Chauffeur went out on 1200 screens, which was studio-level releasing. Crown sold their own foreign rights. They did their own in-house marketing, publicity, pay-TV sales, home video sales. But there were only about 30 employees working under one roof. A family environment. So I got a good education at Crown. Those days were "boot camp" for me. Now, when I pick a movie that I want to make, part of the decision is based on my background in distribution. People don't realize how many films don't get released now days, even on video. Video has reached a saturation point. In the 1980s, it didn't matter what you sold to home video, you could make money. Now you have to fight for position.

"I'm glad I fell into making the kinds of films we made at Crown as opposed to the slasher exploitation route. These films were fun, even if they weren't stories I wanted to tell. Fortunately, there's not much I've done in my 20 years in the business that I'm not happy my name is on.

"At Crown, I worked side by side with Lynette Prucha. She ran the Pay TV/Home Video department. She's now my business partner. We wrote a couple of screenplays for Crown International that we hoped would get produced but didn't. So we kicked around the idea of starting our own company. I wanted to work on films that told stories which were meaningful to me.

"The market was changing. Teen sex comedies weren't doing well anymore. The independent film movement was going more towards art-house films. Then David Beaird approached me on to produce his film "Scorchers" and I decided to leave Crown. I was nervous about taking the leap. It turned out to be a fantastic experience. I met Jennifer Tilly on Scorchers and we became friends. We've done five films over the years.

"I produced 1992's Only You while my partner Lynnette and I made plans to launch Sneak Preview Entertainment. Our first office was half the size of my [moderately sized] office today. Four of us worked there. I was in a relationship with somebody at the time who was a chiropractor and it was a spare office that he wasn't using. I got him to let us use it for free.

"Now I only make films that I strongly believe in what they have to say. I'm not interested in just finding money for things and then handing it to someone else and saying, 'Go make it. I could care less.' The money part is a necessity but it is far less interesting to me. I like the whole creative process. Having a vision and putting together the pieces of the puzzle in a way to create that vision. I'm very detail oriented and extremely hands on. It's funny because I never really thought about being a producer. When I started in the business, I was terrified of strangers. And talking on the phone to a stranger was inconceivable to me. Now I have to laugh, because I spend most of my days talking on the phone to strangers!

"I thought I'd be a director. So I pushed for assistant director jobs in the first few years of my career, wanting to spend as much time next to the camera and director as possible. But they really pushed me at Crown towards producing. They moved me up the ladder, from producer's assistant to production manager, then to producing. I remember my first UPM job. All of a sudden I didn't have to be on the set every minute. It felt like I was free from jail. I didn't realize how much of a bigger picture there is out there. And over the years I've realized that I don't have to be directing the actors to be fulfilled creatively. If you have a strong vision as a producer, your mark is on the film everywhere. And picking what you want to make is fulfilling, especially if audiences click with it.

"When I meet a director and we're in sync with the way we see the picture, it's great. Because they're making the movie that I wanted to make when I read it. I can add to the mix creatively but I don't have to worry about framing shots.

"I primarily make low budget passion projects. It's a long road. When a director and I work together, we might as well be getting married. So I don't want to be married to someone if we don't agree on our vision for the film. I learned just how difficult making a film can be on [1994's] Tollbooth. It was a near disaster. Three weeks before we were due to start, financing pulled out of it. I had faith that the money was going to come from somewhere so we kept going.

"We shot the movie in the Florida Keyes on a shoestring. I didn't think we could do it for the $600,000 we thought we had. Then all of a sudden we didn't even have the $600,000. Four days into the shooting of the film, we're overextended financially. No one in the cast or crew really knows what is going on. We're shooting with some fairly well known actors.

"I arranged for about ten financiers - distributors to screen dailies at Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles. I booked them every 45 minutes separately because I didn't want them in a room together. I sent to LA to be processed ahead of me, then flew to LA on Saturday morning, picked up the film from the lab and drove to the screenings. I didn't really know exactly what I was going to see. We didn't have an AVID [editing equipment] in those days. Or video dailies. I thought, 'God, I hope this works.'

"I flew back to Florida that night where we were having all kinds of incredible problems. Not only did we have no money, but I had to fire my production manager a couple of days into the show. We had computer crashes and weather problems. It was hurricane season. I'd spend an hour on accounting and then I'd go to the set for an hour. I'd spend an hour working on financing and then start all over. I'd keep revolving. I remember being on the phone negotiating over rights for the film and the distributors are asking, 'Oh, how's it going?' And I say, 'Everything's just fine.' As I'm at a pay phone, looking at a storm blowing in, and the lightning is starting to strike. Crew members are scattering in the background and equipment is falling over.

"But everything turned out fine and Tollbooth got rave reviews.

"During Tollbooth, Bulgarian actor Boyan Milushev brought me the script and 50% financing for Bird of Prey ($3.5 million budget). I somehow managed to read it during the Tollbooth disaster and hated it. But I liked the concept - a man spends his life seeking to avenge the death of his father. And he uses the daughter of the man who killed his father to get back at him. But in the course of using her, he falls in love with her.

"Getting that script into shape was a challenge. And we always seemed to be one step behind. I had to figure out how to get it to the starting gate with every obstacle in the way. The script was getting better and better, but I was afraid I'd lose what investment we had if I couldn't get it packaged. One of the problems was that the central character, the lead female was the least interesting character in the script. No one could get a handle on how to fix it. So I asked Jennifer Tilly to come on board the project to play the lead because I knew she would bring an interesting aspect to the character. She's such a good actress I knew she could fill in the blanks and I knew it would help get the rest of the cast packaged. Then on a fluke, in a meeting I had with the investors, and really for lack of anything else to say, I threw out the suggestion of getting Richard Chamberlain to play Jennifer's father. It turns out that Richard Chamberlain is a big star in Bulgaria. The financiers said if we could get him attached to the movie, they'd pay for the whole thing. So that was my next job. I sent Richard the script and he turned it down. And I kept pestering him. I told him we would rewrite it, do whatever he wanted. Finally, he consented to do the film.

"We shot it in Sophia, Bulgaria. When the footage came back, it was an unwatchable mess. We spent nine months editing the film. Finally the assistant editor on the film came up with some good ideas on how to restructure it and we went back and shot some new footage, abandoned 30% of the film and completely restructured it. I'm actually fairly proud of the movie in the end. It has a nice message. It looks good. But people don't realize how many things can go wrong. The distributor on this film mistakenly released the it without putting all the subtitles in the movie. On the day the film opened, I remember getting up at five in the morning and going down to the corner newsstand to pick up the LA Times. Kevin Thomas gave us this great review, which said, 'This could've been a gem of a movie except for the filmmaker's choice to have one-third of it in Bulgarian without any subtitles.' I read this and wondered what he was talking about. Then I realized that this was the only time in my career as a producer that I completely left something to someone else, without watching over it. I figured I had already produced the film. I needed to step back and get out of the way of the distributor, so I didn't go to the press screening. It turned out that the distributor didn't put the subtitles on the film and didn't have anyone check it at the lab or have any representatives show up at the press screening. I realized that my tendency to double check every detail myself wasn't such a bad quality.

"It only took us a few days to dub in the subtitles and replace the prints in theaters. But it was a disaster. Every reviewer had seen the movie that way. It's hard enough as an indy film to get attention. The damage was done. There was no way to build momentum on the film by that time. Then this same distributor made a video deal with a company that did a horrible job on home video and then went into bankruptcy. I've learned that having a good film isn't enough on its own to have a hit. A lot of it is luck. And being in the right place at the right time. Over the years, I've stopped trying to predict whether a film I've made was going to be a big hit. And I certainly no longer think that any particular one of them are going to change my life all that much. Early on in my producing career, I would imagine each one would.

"I burned out with Bird of Prey and it took me a couple of years to get another film out there. I mad two incredibly difficult films, back to back. But you just have to keep getting back on that horse and moving on.

"Relax...It's Just Sex [1998, $500,000 budget] was my next project and it made it into Sundance. It was hard getting the project going. It was risky material. Nobody wanted to touch it. I seem to gravitate towards the things that nobody wants to touch. I just find them more interesting."

From a description on Imdb.com: "A mixed group of individuals - lesbian, gays, and heterosexuals who all frequent a local bar struggle to accept each others lifestyles. However when the two gays (Mitchell Anderson, Eddie Garcia) are attacked and fight back and ultimately rape one of their attackers, the group becomes strongly divided on their actions. Jennifer Tilly is the mother hen of the group who tries to hold everyone together. The lesbian lovers (Serena Scott Thomas, Cynda Williams) break up when one admits to having an affair with a man (Billy Wirth)."

Steven: "I flipped over the material after the writer-director P.J. Castellaneta brought it to me. He then decided to go with someone else because I wanted to make it on a lower budget. It's the only time in my career that I was pissed that I didn't land a project. But we kept talking. And a year after I made him an offer on it, I was up at IFFCon (International Film Financing Convention) in San Francisco. I ran into the people who were raising money for the picture. I told them how much I loved it. They were stalled in raising money and they didn't have the ties to talent that I had. So we decided to partner.

"I called Jennifer Tilly to play the role of Tara Ricotto [the mother hen of the group]. I left her a sheepish message on her home phone number saying, 'I'm embarrassed to call you about this because it is such a low budget movie. But it's a great role and I can't think of anyone else playing it besides you. So I hope you will read it.' She read the script and said it was good. But she turned it down. She'd just done Bound, and thought she'd done her risky movie for the year. And I refused to take no for an answer.

"I got her to meet the director. I agreed to give her certain approvals, like over the Director of Photography. I pleaded with her not to pass. Just to keep thinking about it. Then after a couple of months, she agreed to play the role No one else was attached yet. She called me and said 'Somebody has to be the first one to say yes. I reread this thing on the plane. I laughed out loud and I was crying. It's so rare that that happens to me when I'm reading a script. How could I worry about anything else?'

"We got all of her work scheduled into ten days. I made everyone's missive revolve around Jennifer's schedule. She was a trooper. Her last night of shooting was the big gay bashing rape scene. We didn't start shooting until 7PM, because we had to wait for it to be dark. And she was starting work on a miniseries the next day called Bell Mafia, with a 7AM call! She worked all night on our show and then I drove her to her dressing room down the block and she kept going for a 24 hour day.

"Everyone bonded on that film because they were so behind the material. P.J. Castellaneta wrote a brilliant script. It was funny because a week before we were to shoot, he came to me with a new version of the script. He said, 'I'm really worried about some of the language and some of the situations, so I've toned it down.' I took it home and read it and I hated it.

"The movie largely revolves around this gay bashing incident where Mitchell Anderson's character is so full of rage that he turns around his gay bashing and he rapes his basher in front of all his friends. And P.J. changed it to just a gay bashing. I told him this was probably one of the few times in his life he would get to make just what he originally wrote. He already had the money and his producers loved the script.

"We finished the editing the day before Sundance and I drove the print up there. It had a lot of buzz up there but as much as everyone loved it, they were all scared to death of it. It was the first gay-themed film I had made. It's interesting to see how far we've come in the past several years because that film was tame compared to what you see on television with Queer as Folk now. Everyone was scared to death of the gay sex scenes. A lot of people wanted to pick up the film if we trimmed the gay sex out completely. But if you trimmed these scenes out of the film, then what was it really about? The whole theme of the film is that people are too uptight about sex. Everybody [in the film] has it. And all the different people who are having it in different ways all want the same things out of life. It had a strong moral message. We opted to go with a small distributor that specialized in gay-themed films.

"Relax... always makes the list of the top 20 gay films selling on video. I traveled all over the world with the film. People came up to us everywhere we went and said, 'Thank you for making this movie.' A lot of straight people said to me, 'I never realized until I saw this movie that we're all the same.' The reason I make movies is to hopefully touch and entertain people and try to contribute towards bettering the world in some way. I felt that I accomplished my goal with Relax.

"Twin Falls Idaho [1999, $600,000 budget] was my next film. It also went to Sundance. It was an easier experience. We shot it in 17 days. With today's marketplace, you have to deliver a lot for nothing."

From Imdb.com: "Francis and Blake Falls (Michael Polish, Mark Polish) are Siamese twins who live in a neat little room in a rundown hotel. While sharing some organs, Blake is always fit and Francis is very sickly. Into their world comes a young lady (Michele Hicks), who turns their world upside down. She gets involved with Blake, and convinces the two to attend a Halloween party, where they can pass themselves off as wearing a costume. Eventually Francis becomes really ill, and they have to be separated. They then face the physical and mental strains that come from their proposed separation. Viewers will be inclined to believe that the two are really Siamese twins, but in fact they are simply real-life brothers playing the parts convincingly."

"As exciting as it was to have Relax at Sundance, it was infinitely more nerve-wracking than I ever expected. It was so stressful that when Twin Falls got in [to Sundance], I toyed with not going. Then at the last minute I realized how silly it was to have a film there and not go.

"The first Sundance experience with Relax was so stressful because you didn't realize how many pressures you would have on you, not having had a film there before. Every moment everyone you talk to wants to know if you've sold it yet. The people who are making offers are dancing around trying to find out who else is making offers. I had the whole 35-person cast with me. And every one wanted to know what was going on every minute.

"There was constant press. We were on the list as one of the big buzz movies and you expect that ten minutes after you screen your film, it will be sold. And when that doesn't happen, you start to worry. It didn't sell until four months after Sundance.

"I told the cast, aside from the four key stars, that they shouldn't come because we couldn't assure them of getting into all the screenings. They only give you eight tickets. And everyone decides to come anyway and they're all standing there waiting to get in. I remember showing up at a cocktail party with 35 people and having to go in to find a friend to let us all in.

"When we came for Twin Falls, my producing partner Rena Ronson had then taken a job at William Morris. And having William Morris represent us made the process easier. And having been through the process once, I didn't have as much anticipation, so I could just enjoy it. At a certain you learn to accept that you're proud that you got a movie made, and that's enough. So that one sold while we were there to Sony Classics.

"Clean and Narrow [1999] was our next film. It was written and directed by one of our clients, William Katt. We're also in the management business (actors, writers and directors). Bill had written a wonderful script and found an investor. When it became real, we stepped in to help. Unfortunately, I don't think the finished movie lived up to its potential. But I was glad to be involved in it. Especially to help Bill direct his first film. I got my longtime friend Sondra Locke to come out of acting retirement to play a role. Jack Noseworthy and Laura Leighton had a wonderful chemistry together.

"I just finished Fast Sofa [2001], based on a cult novel. I've been working with the director Salome Breziner on it pretty much every day since we finished Tollbooth in 1994 to make it. In 2000, we finally started to make it. We made our first digital film at the same time, "Circuit" with director Dirk Shafer. It's all about the gay circuit party scene and is pretty immense in scope. Doing the two simultaneously was quite a challenge. But for years I wanted to see if I could manage more than one at a time.

"I'm now doing post production on Sex and Violence [2002], a 31-day digital video shoot in Los Angeles, New York and Fresno. Again with writer-director David Beaird. We have a 20-year history working together. We actually started representing David in our management division as a writer-director in 1997. This is my fifth movie with Jennifer Tilly. Patrick Warburton who plays the lead actually played a small supporting role as Jennifer's husband in Scorchers. We put together a terrific cast (Eric Roberts, Carol Kane, Simon Callow, John Glover, Marie Matiko) on a $500,000 budget.

"I made one of those phone calls to Eric Roberts like I made to Jennifer Tilly. While we were doing Fast Sofa with Eric, he said to me, 'I love to do small interesting films. If you ever have a great role, please keep me in mind.' I called him and asked him to read the script of Sex and Violence. It was different for him. 'You're not playing a crazy guy like you always get pigeonholed into playing. It's a nice sympathetic character.' I don't think we see enough of that out of Eric. More times than not, people cast him as a psychotic. Here he plays the best friend. We made his part bigger and bigger as we went along, because things were going so well. David kept writing more for him, handing stuff over to him, combining characters."

David Aaron Clark writes on rec.arts.movies.erotica (RAME): Madison was in several straight-to-video late-night cable wonders, including Fred Olen Ray's EVIL TOONS, and a very odd, dark little psychological horror movie with William Katt where she had no lines but was a stripper in the bad part of town -- and the main element of the boxcover. Its title escapes me, unfortunately. She also was the inspiration for the porn star character in a novel called FAST SOFA which I believe is suppposed to be a movie one of these days -- great book, for those who read something besides RAME and the backs of box covers. She absolutely was not a bitch in real life, but a mercurial free spirit who was very generous and loved by everybody around her. She went through some fucked-up shit, as porn folk inevitably do, because it's a very difficult business to be in on both the professional and personal level. She was a friend of mine before I ever became a director, and a damn sight classier than the pack of grubby little whores that wander their way into the field today ...

I found this summary of Fast Sofa on Imdb.com: "This road picture follows a dope fiend named Rick (Jake Busey), who believes his goal in life is to track down Ginger (Jennifer Tilly), a famous porn star who is currently staying in her Beverly Hills hideaway. Rick is obsessed with Ginger, watches her movies obsessively, and deals drugs on the side, all to the chagrin of his lover Tamara (Natasha Lyonne). He decides to seek out Ginger via the road, and along the way picks up Jules (Crispin Glover), a neurotic, virginal type."

Wolfe: "We seemed to develop a formula as a company where we do one film in the $3 million range every couple of years and in between we continually turn out $500,000 movies with theatrical viability. Every two-to-three films is a gay-themed one. We know can do certain numbers with a gay audience. And being a gay film maker I like the idea of contributing what I hope is much more than a lot of them are, movies with just a bunch of guys running around with their shirts off, we're trying to make good movies. But $500,000 is about the limit for what you can spend on that kind of film and be safe about it. I like to try to get my investors paid back so they keep letting us make movies. Indy films really don't usually do more than a million dollars at the box office. So you have to derive your satisfaction out of your work itself. Twin Falls Idaho, as well received as it was, only did one million dollars at the box office. But it got people talking and seemed to touch people."