When Fanfic Becomes Porn

Axel Braun, son of porn pioneer Lasse Braun, is reinventing the porn parody. And lots of people are watching. posted on

Ryan Driller, top, and Kimberly Kane on the California City, CA set of Man of Steel XXX: An Axel Braun Parody and Wonder Woman XXX: An Axel Braun Parody. Emily Berl

Wonder Woman has had a rough week. The princess of Themyscira arrives at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude — the clear, upright PVC pipes glowing at the back of the soundstage communicate the setting clearly enough — in a skin-tight costume, double-stick tape strategically in place, looking for help.

“Someone’s trying to tamper with my mind,” she tells Superman urgently, her dark hair glistening under the studio lights. “You’re the only one who can contain me if I lose control.”

“That’s the only reason you came up here?” Superman asks, one eyebrow cocked.

At that moment a massive gust of wind sweeps past, rattling the flimsy aluminum airplane hangar the 11-person film crew is shooting in and interrupting Kimberly Kane and Ryan Driller’s scene.

“Cut!” Axel Braun calls out from the director’s chair.

All day, production on Man of Steel XXX: An Axel Braun Parody and Wonder Woman XXX: An Axel Braun Parody (shot simultaneously) has been hampered by the wind. Braun is filming at a makeshift soundstage two hours outside of Los Angeles — and just down the road from a wind farm — in order to avoid complying with a law passed by L.A. County voters in November requiring condoms be used on all adult film sets.

In the desert town of California City there are no condom laws, but there are various inconveniences and indignities to contend with — including the wind.

Axel Braun directing a scene of dialogue for Wonder Woman XXX. Emily Berl

In theory, that shouldn’t be a problem for Axel Braun, who is currently the most prominent adult film director in the industry. Braun has a strong jaw, a dimpled chin and eyes that crinkle at the corners when he laughs. For the last three years in a row, he has taken home the award for Director of the Year at the Adult Video News Awards, porn’s version of the Oscars. His films — high-budget adaptations of geeky franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek and Superman that sell for $30 to $40 per DVD — are called parodies for legal purposes, but they’re really closer to erotic fanfiction.

He’s not the only one in porn using mainstream movies and comic books for inspiration, but he’s certainly the most successful. While the performers regroup for their next scene, Braun explains the economics of his particular brand of porn parody. “Normally, a porn movie only sells maybe 800 or 1,000 DVDs. We sell 50,000 or 60,000 DVDs. It’s a huge difference,” he says in an accent inflected with notes of his native Italian. “It’s because I really go after this demographic — I don’t even care if porn consumers buy my movies, it’s about the —”

Before he can finish his thought, Braun is interrupted by Man of Steel XXX’s director of photography, Eli Cross. “You have an RV,” Cross shouts from across the soundstage. “Please go to it.”

Braun looks up to see the actors getting in position. “Oh — sex?” he asks.

“Yes,” Cross says patiently, waiting for Braun to leave.

“I do not shoot the sex,” says Adult Video News’ three-time Director of the Year as he exits the hangar. He walks into an air-conditioned luxury RV emblazoned with the Axel Braun Productions logo, and shuts the door.

Emily Berl

He may be a porn director, but for Braun, the sex is the least important part of the film. It’s everything else — the costumes, the sets, the actors’ resemblance to characters — that matters.

Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel cost about $175 million to make; Axel Braun’s Man of Steel XXX has a budget of approximately one-thousandth that — but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at Superman’s suit. It has a texture and cut indistinguishable from the one Henry Cavill wears in the trailers and on billboards for the mainstream film, except in lieu of the iconic “S” that usually graces Superman’s chest there is a stylized “X.”

Getting details like the costumes exactly right is an obsession of Braun’s. “He’s notorious for that,” says adult actress Penny Pax, who worked with Braun on his parodies of The Avengers (as Mockingbird) and The Dark Knight (as Batgirl). “That’s definitely what shows in his final product — all the little things that the fans know, all the comic book nerds.”

Dana Vespoli, who acted in Braun’s films The Avengers XXX: A Porn Parody and This Ain’t Homeland last year, agrees. “He gets really, really, really uptight about hair being as close to the original as possible. Set. Wardobe,” she says. “For Homeland it must have been four to five hours of make-up hiding all the tattoos that I have, pinning my hair up so that we didn’t actually have to cut it.”

Braun wears remarks like these as a badge of honor. “I’m not just slapping some wigs on a couple of porn actors as an excuse to sell a movie,” he says.

Instead, Braun has found a better way to sell movies: catering to these franchises’ massive fan bases by staying as faithful to the original as possible.

“I’m basically making fan films with boobs,” he says. “I’m making them primarily for people who don’t like porn, for people who are fans of the source material — like me.”

But it’s hard to envision a world in which non-porn fanfic movies make as much money — or, let’s face it, are as fun to make.

Robert Sotello adjusts a Superman costume. Emily Berl

Fans have been repurposing the characters and storylines of their favorite books for centuries, but fanfiction, like porn, has both proliferated and become infinitely more accessible with the rise of the Internet. There are countless communities devoted to the practice, and a few authors are making money off their work — last year, the movie rights for Fifty Shades of Grey, which author E. L. James says began as Twilight fanfiction, sold to Universal for $5 million. In May, Amazon announced a deal that would allow amateurs the option of making money on their work — but erotica, a major theme found in fanfic, will be strictly forbidden.

But if Braun’s success is any indiction, there is a big appetite for adult fan films. Braun’s Batman XXX, a parody of the ’60s television show he directed in 2010, was the best-selling porn title of that year. Fleshbot called it “the best parody we have ever seen.”

“The costumes are dead on. The characters are dead on. The sets are, yep, you guessed it, dead on. While some parodies settle for giving the viewer the general idea of the show with subtle nods to the original being constrained by budget concerns, Axel went all out on this one,” the reviewer wrote of Batman XXX. “It is exactly as we remember it from our childhood, but with a whole heaping helping of hot sex packed in.”

The success of Batman spurred Vivid Entertainment to create a division exclusively for comic book films, Vivid Superhero. Braun is the imprint’s marquee director. What that means, essentially, is that Braun gets to use Vivid’s money to film any fantasy he’s had since he started reading comic books as a kid. Wonder Woman XXX, for instance, features Angle Man, a relatively obscure villain in the comics, but one of Braun’s favorites because he’s from the part of Italy where Braun grew up.

“When I did Spider-Man XXX, I had a villain that they didn’t use that I wanted to see. Same thing in Iron Man [XXX]: I used the Mandarin, which they’ve now put in Iron Man 3,” Braun says. “It’s a game that geeks understand. I’m trying to do things right, and I’m trying to please an audience that I’m part of.”

Cammy Ellis fixes Kane’s makeup before a scene for Wonder Woman XXX. Emily Berl

Braun’s particular brand of detail-rich, reference-heavy adaptations are new for porn, but parody itself is decidedly not.

“Parody in porn is something that has been going on forever, probably since the beginning,” he says. “As a matter of fact, my father in the ’60s made porn movies that made fun of Casanova, the Vikings, James Bond.”

Braun’s father is the pioneering porn director Lasse Braun, whose 1974 film French Blue was the first hardcore film to appear at the Cannes Film Festival. Both father and son are members of Adult Video News’ Hall of Fame — Lasse was inducted in 1995, and Axel followed in 2011.

“My father started producing and directing adult movies in 1961, so you can say I was doomed from the start,” Braun says. He started actively directing when he moved to the United States in 1990.

Braun was born in Milan, and grew up in a home built in the 12th century, in a bedroom with a 26-foot vaulted ceiling with an original fresco by Renaissance painter Giotto. “My bedroom was in art books — the house is a national monument.” At one point he says, in an act of adolescent rebellion, he painted over the fresco.

He put in his time in the industry, directing retreads of classic themes like Naughty College Girls volumes 32 through 37, before his first parody — a send-up of Happy Days — came out in 2009.

“I grew up watching Happy Days, and to me it was sort of the iconic memory of childhood. Of course there’s a lot of characters involved in these TV shows that you fantasize about and you want to bring to life and put in a sexual situation,” Braun says.

Driller and Billy Glyde prepare to film a fight scene on the set of Man of Steel XXX. Emily Berl

Now 46, he has been married five times; his current wife is 24. Today, Braun tells me she’s a few days past her due date for their first child, a baby girl. (He has one other child, a son who is now in film school, with a previous wife. “I don’t want to talk about him,” Braun says.)

His wife wasn’t in the industry when they met — she worked at an Italian restaurant he frequented in the Valley — but now Braun says she helps him edit the non-sex version of his films he includes in the special features of every DVD.

The clean versions of Braun’s films are shorter versions of his features, 25 or 30 minutes (or more — the sex-free version of the three and a half hour-long Star Wars XXX was over an hour). And Braun insists that a large share of his customers are buying the films just to watch that.

“The biggest compliment is when people write to me and tell me that they didn’t even watch the porn version of the movie, they just like the no-sex version,” he says.

Why would someone watch the sexless version of a porn? Because it’s the only way some fans will ever get to see their favorite characters or storylines adapted for film. “I did Superman vs. Spider-Man — that’s a comic book from the late ’70s, and it has never been adapted in a movie — and people wanted to see a movie; now they have a chance to see that movie.”

Driller, left, with unit production manager Brah Bones and Braun. Emily Berl

It smells like spray paint back inside the hangar. It’s too windy outside so the crew are painting pieces of set for an upcoming scene that takes place in the Themysciran embassy (Wonder Woman’s home planet) inside.

When Braun emerges from the RV back on to the set, several hours of sex scenes later, he makes a face and pulls the his t-shirt up to cover his nose. “I’m getting high off this shit,” he says of the paint fumes.

Cross shoots him a disparaging look, “Really?”

Braun and Cross have worked on all but two of Braun’s parodies together. They make a good team — Braun obsesses over the hair and costumes, and Cross worries about almost everything else. He films the action, advises the art department and, with Braun, writes the scripts. (On the Man of Steel XXX script, he is credited as Mark Logan, the same name he used when he was the editor of Adult Video News for five years.)

Vespoli says they balance each other out. “Axel will shout out, how about this for a parody, or how about that for a parody and Eli is like the grumpy one like, ‘HOW would we shoot that?’ They have that kind of a collaboration.”

Between the two of them, it’s not hard to spot the real geek — Braun may claim he grew up a big comic book nerd (“Still, to this day — I have full collections of all the Marvel and DC comic books, double. I kept one for reading and one for collecting.”) but Cross is the one in the Marvel Comics t-shirt with the elvish armband tattoo.

Cross is a purist when it comes to comic books, and it’s a condition that gives him mixed feelings about his role in Braun’s films. “I don’t like making them. I’ll shoot it, and I’m glad to have the work and sometimes it’s fun, but I’m aware that I’m largely ripping off stuff that I tend to enjoy. Not that I think we can do anything worse to it than people like Brett Ratner have done or what I think Zach Snyder is about to do,” he says, referring to the Man of Steel director.

Emily Berl

Cross is not the only one with mixed feelings. Writers of beloved genre fiction — including George R. R. Martin, Anne Rice, and Orson Scott Card (author of Ender’s Game) to name a few — are often outspoken about their opposition to their characters’ being repurposed by amateurs.

The argument is largely related to concerns about copyright. “If you do not defend your copyright, legally the case can be made that you have abandoned it, and you lose all ability to protect your work,” Martin has written on his blog. (Others have correctly pointed out that this is really more an issue in protecting trademark than copyright.)

Somewhat miraculously, Braun has yet to encounter any legal action from the owners of the rights to the franchises he is parodying, but skirmishes over copyright are not uncommon in the industry. Ryan Driller, the actor playing Superman, also acted in the Fifty Shades of Grey porn, whose distribution was stopped after Universal Studios sued. After today’s shoot, he is heading to an industry convention in New Jersey, where he is sure he will be propositioned for increasingly rare black market copies of the film.

“When we did Star Wars we were sure, like if anybody’s going to sue you it’s Lucas[Film] — not a peep. We didn’t hear a word,” Cross says. “I think they just know they’d only be giving us extra press, because they are not going to get that injunction that keeps us from selling it. All that happens is that we sell an extra 1,000 copies and I don’t think they want to do that.”

Braun plays by the rules, using signifiers like “This Ain’t” or “…An Axel Braun Parody” in the titles and tacking disclaimers on to each film. “We have a set of guidelines and a set of rules to make parodies, and we just follow them closely,” Braun says. And they employ lawyers whose job it is to check everything out — “the way things are depicted, the way we use the characters. It needs to be done right.”

If it is done right, a parody that is just close enough to the original can cash in on the residual hype generated by a blockbuster release — and that’s a benefit Braun takes full advantage of.

“I have a lot of movies in the can, and we shoot them, and we try to release them with their mainstream counterparts so we can get more press,” he says. Braun’s version of Iron Man XXX for example, was shot over a year ago, but he sat on it until this spring in order to time its release to the release of Iron Man 3.

Emily Berl

Snyder’s Man of Steel will debut in theaters on June 14; Man of Steel XXX: An Axel Braun Parody will be released online sometime in the next few weeks, according to a Vivid spokesperson. In other words, Braun will introduce his film around the same time that Warner Brothers’ massive marketing campaign has whipped fan interest to a frenzied peak.

“The great thing about that is that they are spending $300 million on worldwide marketing and we’re spending zero because they are doing our marketing for us,” Cross says.

Of course, there is a downside to releasing his film just after a similar film with 1,000 times the budget: the side-by-side comparisons.

“The production value that they use in a movie will never be even close to a porn parody,” Braun says. “But you try to play with the story and try to play with the way it’s shot. When we did Dark Knight XXX, which was last year, it really looked and felt like a darker Batman movie, and of course it didn’t have the crazy budget, but it still looked OK.”

Last month, Braun posted a photo of his version of Wolverine to his Facebook page. “Dear Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner, Gavin Hood, Matthew Vaughn, and James Mangold,” Braun wrote, addressing the directors of various mainstream X-Men adaptations. “I’m sorry none of you guys had the balls to put Wolverine in the classic yellow and blue costume. Alas, I did :)”

He talks a big game, but it’s hard not to feel that a part of Braun — the part that doesn’t shoot the sex, the part that claims he doesn’t watch porn either — wishes he could just be making mainstream films.

Ask Braun about it and he’ll tell you that ship has sailed. “It’s a little late in the game and I’m content with what I do and the position that I’m in in this industry. I don’t have any delusions of crossing over based on the success of my porn movies.”

If he was given a shot, though?

“Oh, fuck yeah,” Braun says, laughing. “Oh yeah. You can quote me on that.”

Emily Berl

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