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A friend I had lost touch with contacted me a few months ago with some questions about the Earnest photo book. He and his wife had been fellow members of a writer's group type thing where we all shared our creative projects. There was a novel, a murder mystery dinner, a children's book, the Earnest book, and other projects. It was super fun and provided critical motivation and guidance for the formative stages of the book. The questions were thought-provoking and I had a surprisingly good time reliving old memories and making up answers!

Hello long-lost friend!

I procrastinated dreadfully, but today I have the magical combination of both a free evening and the energy to tackle these questions, so here goes!

I wanted to write to you about Earnest because I teach it as part of my theatre history 1650-1900 course. It's the last play they read and they love it. We talk quite a bit about Oscar Wilde's sexuality in the midst of Victorian Britain which was on the surface staunchly conservative and reserved, but underneath was starting to talk about and experience issues of sexuality that hadn't been talked about before. So I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me that I could share with the class when we read the play. I'll tell them what your project was and my plan is to discuss your process in relation to the text and its cultural context so they can get a sense that this play continues to live on and offer new things to each successive generation.

1. What attracts you to the period of Victorian Britain? What makes it unique, artistically and intellectually?

What a tough question! I am certainly a fan of Victorian Britain, and come to think of it, many kinds of British art from many time periods, but I'm not sure I can answer why. First I'll list all the things I like and see if a pattern emerges. In no particular order:
* Gaskell Occasional Ball - a Victorian ballroom dance held in Oakland every other month, though we don't get up there nearly as often as we'd like. The dancing is super fun and the costumes are amazing!
* Dickens Faire - like the Renaissance Faire, but Victorian! So many fabulous costumes as well as food (roasted chestnuts! yorkshire pudding!) and entertainment (Morris dancing! Drinking songs! Old-timey magic shows!)
* Jeeves and Wooster - 1920s British comedy; the slang Wodehouse uses is really neat and his characters are very funny!
* Dorothy Sayers - 1920s British mysteries; clever people doing clever things; lots of literary allusions
* Harry Potter - the books and movies (and later, the fanfiction) sucked me in and gave me an interest in and appreciation of modern British culture
* Sherlock Holmes - the original stories are so awesome! the RDJ movies are a thrill! the modern BBC reboot is brilliant!
* Jane Austen - 1820s, so Regency rather than Victorian, but Austen is such a fantastic writer I think I would have fallen in love with any period she wrote in
* Georgette Heyer - a 20th century writer of Regency romances; the writer one reads when one wants more Austen, but have read them all too many times
* Downton Abbey - the turn of the century is a time I hadn't paid much attention to because I think the clothing of that era is only so-so, but the drama of all those rigid rules and class distinctions is so addictive!
* Victorian clothes - I love clothes and fancy costumes of all types. When I was designing the costumes for Earnest I was obsessed with the "Natural Form" period (late 1870s), and I really hated the Belle Epoch style (leg-of-mutton sleeves! ugh!) that was in fashion when the play was written (late 1890s). I exercised some poetic license and set the play 20 years earlier so I could use prettier costumes. Currently I'm all about the Early Bustle era (early 1870s); I finished a really awesome 1873 dress last fall.

Hmmm, maybe I like how British culture is just that one crucial step removed from American culture … enough shared aspects to be readily accessible, but with many surprising differences that keep it intriguing. I think it might be at heart the same reason I like science fiction (setting human drama in space in order to tell us more about ourselves), robot stories (recasting human drama with machines in order to tell us more about ourselves ... and as an aside, why are there not more Sidney Crosby robot stories?!? There really should be more!!), time travel and alternate reality stories (changing one thing and puzzling out the consequences), and fan fiction (all manner of what-if and reading-between-the-lines).

I've always liked stories: books, movies, plays, TV, comic books. So many English language stories have their roots in British literature that I think it would be hard to avoid it! Although I do hate Dickens as a writer … so I guess I don't like everything Victorian and British!

I've also always loved clothes, or perhaps more accurately costumes … for day-to-day wear I'm pretty happy in a t-shirt and jeans. I think I appreciate dress-up for both the story-telling / role-playing aspects and the visual beauty aspects. I especially like historical clothing where the clothing controls my body shape (corsets, hoop skirts, etc) … I can have a perfectly fashionable historical silhouette (crafted of wires and fabric, and any time period can be put on and off at will) whereas so many modern fashions rely on one having a particular ideal body (crafted of certain genes and hours in the gym, and much harder to interchange). Victorian British clothing is a rich era in historical costume … civilization was modern enough that fashions changed quickly (the rise in trade and machinery made making clothes easier than ever before) so there are a lot of Victorian fashions to choose from. On the other hand, the upper class was wealthy and leisurely, so the clothes were elaborate and impressive … more about beauty than practicality.

Well, I don't know if I've actually answered your question, but hopefully you'll be able to pull something useful from the ramble! :)

2. What led you to adapt Earnest specifically?

The idea for Earnest came from a conversation I had with a friend while we were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. We were commiserating with each other that all of the porn movies we'd ever seen had terrible acting and even more terrible scripts. I'd also recently attended a week-long Gay & Lesbian film festival in San Francisco (Frameline), so I was all fired up about the idea of making an independent movie. The films had ranged from awesome to awful, so I figured it couldn't be too hard to make one myself (famous last words). We hit upon the idea of using a "great masterpiece" script and modifying it to be porn … that would solve the writing problem. At first we considered Shakespeare (there's an old Robin Williams stand-up bit from Live at the Met where he hilariously ponders what it would be like if there was Shakespearean porn), but that seemed a little intimidating … even without the porn Shakespeare can be difficult to do well. Then we remembered Earnest, which the friend and I had seen at school a few years previous. At that point I'd seen several theatrical versions of the play performed by various high school, college, and community theater groups and no matter how low the production values, the play always came across as funny and romantic. Also, the text was in the public domain, so I knew I could use it. Writing a great story from scratch seemed pretty difficult, but building on Oscar Wilde's words seemed like a great way to give us a head start. When I brought the idea home and pitched it to Mr. Bee, he was pretty excited and so the idea stuck. It's hard to imagine that I hadn't discovered fandom or fanfiction or slash yet … that would happen a few years later at one of our writer's group meetings. I was describing our plans for a scene as "hot boy-on-boy-action goes here" and someone asked if I'd heard of slash … later that night, armed with a few strategic links from my enabler, I fell down the rabbit hole and have been having a great time ever since!

3. How did you treat the text in your adaptation? What was most important to leave in? What were you able to cut, if anything? How did you find moments in which you believed the characters would transition from propriety to sensuality/sexuality? How did you plan the balance of text and image?

We considered modifying the text, but through the Barbie storyboards from the writer's group days we realized that it could work as-is. Mr. Bee in particular liked the idea of using the original text unchanged, so that's what we did.

The transition from "normal" to "sexy-times" was something we worked out in outlines and storyboards. Mr. Bee did a first pass through a copy of the script, adding notes wherever he thought we could add porn. I started making storyboards, first by taking photos of friends and housemates. I quickly discovered I was too shy to effectively direct the porn scenes, so I don't think I finished a full storyboard with that method. Then we watched one of the Lord of the Rings special features and Peter Jackson mentioned he used little plastic army men to plan out the large battle scenes. That led me to start working out the blocking by setting up and photographing Barbie dolls. I found I wasn't as shy with the dolls as with real people, so it let me try things out unhindered by embarrassment. That worked out well and I think that's where most of the decisions were made about where to play it straight and where to amp up the sexuality. Compared to the first pass, some parts got toned down (usually if they seemed too silly or implausible) and some parts got amped up (like when I finally realized we could have same-sex relationships as well as het ones, hooray!). When directing the actual photoshoot for the book, I relied heavily on the Barbie storyboards … it was easier to point to a photograph and say "Do this," than to have to explain it all in words. There was still a lot of blushing, though!

Text/image balance: This evolved quite a bit over time. For a long while (the first year or two of planning?), we were still expecting to make a live-action film, rather than a photo-comic. It was sometime during the writer's group era when we had the big epiphany and decided to change formats. There were two driving factors there: 1) Mr. Bee and I had tried to make a pornographic short film as a learning exercise; we were so abjectly horrified at the results we immediately deleted the footage; it seemed making a movie actually was difficult! and 2) the Barbie storyboards were coming along well and getting a good reception at the writer's group; it was clear that a lot of the technical issues like acting and sound and movement could be avoided with still photography while still having a lot of good bits: porn and plot and costumes and sets. Anyway, once the decision was made to do a photo-book, I took more care in lining up the text and pictures … usually with one line of dialogue per photo. There were a lot of revisions when putting together the final book (switch from landscape to portrait, changed from a pretty strict 2x3 grid of photos to a slightly more fluid, comic-book-inspired variable layout) but the basic concept stayed the same (usually one line of dialog per photo).

4. When you were doing the photography, how did you direct the actors to take on their roles as written while focusing on their sexuality? How much research did you have them do on their characters? How did you have them get to know each other as characters and actors before they performed in the erotic scenes?

The Barbie storyboards were essential here. I really did do a lot of pointing to the appropriate image and saying "Do that," or sometimes "Do that, but with a [insert emotion here] face instead of a Barbie smile." There was also a lot of freedom inherent in the still photo format as opposed to a movie or live play. I could take 10 photos with the actor making a different face in each one and then just choose later which one worked best. We didn't rehearse in advance (at least I don't remember it but my memory is a little foggy; the photo shoot was in 2005 - wow - it's been 8 years!). I think there was some behind-the-scenes negotiation and practice, but the actors organized that themselves one-on-one … I was just going to throw them together and wing it! :) The kink scene (Chasuble/Prism bondage and spanking) was done with on-the-fly negotiation. I tied Chasuble up, having practiced on Jack the week before, and that went smoothly. Chasuble and Prism were very communicative with each other during the spanking, to the amusement of us all: "You can hit pretty hard." "Oh, dearie, I wouldn't want to hurt you, are you sure?" "Yes, harder, go ahead." "Was that alright? Are you sure?" "Oh yeah, you can go harder … much harder … OK! OK! OK! That was plenty!" "Wow, this is fun! Are you sure you got the shot? Maybe I should spank him some more just to be sure?"

5. What has the reception been to the completed project?

Most people who've seen it have responded pretty positively, which has been fun. I think the idea of the book generates as much if not more excitement than the execution of it, if that makes sense. Some people are intrigued by the porn, some by the photobook format, others by the costumes or other specific visual elements. The first year after it was out it was really thrilling (equal parts exciting and terrifying) to watch peoples' faces as they paged through the book for the first time. I haven't had a chance to do that in a while, though. Once people have had a chance to read through the whole thing at their own pace, sometimes they come back and say nice things, which is great. Overall I'm pretty pleased with the end product, so that's good.

It turns out that making a book is much more fun than marketing one, so I haven't done much to get it out there. Since it was (self) published in 2007, I think over 100 copies have been printed. It's not going to get me on any best-seller lists, but it's pretty exciting nonetheless! I meant to keep better track of the exact number, but the book accounting is also something I've been procrastinating. About a dozen copies were given to the cast and crew, a dozen have been sold to friends in person, a dozen were sold to strangers at conventions (a slash con and a sex-and-steampunk con), and the rest were bought through the online store, so I don't know who they went to (I expect it's mostly friends, but there's probably at least a few random strangers). For me the most rewarding part was creating the first copy so I could see in reality the concept I'd imagined in my head. Having other people enjoy it is awesome, but it's not the motivating factor. Making money off of this sort of project was a nice dream, but is so incredibly far from actually happening I'm glad I wasn't counting on it. Good thing I still have a day job! I've also been positively inspired by the fan community to think of art less commercially and more in terms of giving gifts back to the community & contributing to a communal body of work. I think my previous models for how to make art were all commercial: the indie filmmaker, courting investors and hoping to be picked up by a distributer; the artist trying to sell paintings at prices high enough to be a sole source of income; etc. Thank you fandom, for showing me another path!

Well, this has been surprisingly fun. I haven't really though about Earnest in a long time and it was neat to relive those memories. Whee! Maybe someday I'll get around to uploading the barbie storyboards; they're pretty amusing. It won't be tonight, though - it's already way past my bedtime. Good night!
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