Photography by Jared Ryder

Jacky St. James Blurs the Lines Between Porn and Softcore

With her Showtime mini-series ‘Submission,’ porn’s hottest BDSM director is dabbling in the mainstream

Jacky St. James is an acclaimed adult film director and writer with a growing pile of major industry awards to her name. She’s best known for her BDSM and “fauxcest” (porn films with, ahem, “family” themes) films, but this spring she branched out into late-night premium cable with her kinky miniseries, Submission, on Showtime.

Submission follows Ashley (Ashlynn Yennie) who leaves an unsatisfying relationship and becomes embroiled in a thrilling but dangerous BDSM love triangle with a mysterious novelist (Justin Berti) and his submissive (Skin Diamond) as she searches for sexual fulfillment. The erotic thriller wrapped its first season in mid-June.

MEL chatted with Jacky about porn versus mainstream casting, directing, and audiences — and, naturally, some kinky stuff.

Can you give me your elevator pitch for the miniseries?
Submission explores what 50 Shades didn’t — real BDSM done the right way with both parties as willing participants. Submission has a storyline that isn’t the typical late-night campiness. It’s really geared toward couples and people looking for more depth and substance to their erotica.

“After Dark” fare on Showtime has always been adult in nature, but since you and Paul Fishbein (cofounder of Adult Video News, the premier adult entertainment trade publication), the executive producers, are both known for work in pornography, was it a hard sell?
It wasn’t a hard sell because Showtime knew my work. They air a lot of my films (cut down to softcore versions) in their late-night time slots. When they had vocalized an interest in doing a late-night episodic, we pitched an idea that they first passed on. Then [they] asked me to come up with a BDSM concept — and that was how Submission was born. The real challenges we faced (given our backgrounds) was in the casting process and preproduction process. Nobody wants to rent their home to a pornographer — even if they aren’t doing pornographic content. Actors are afraid to be associated with someone who works in adult — regardless of their passion or talent — so finding the rock star cast we had was pretty much a miracle!

The cast list for Submission is like a who’s-who of adult film talent, including Skin Diamond, who plays one of the leads. Was there tension over hiring adult talent for a softcore cable show?
I was in charge of the casting and the network gave final approval. It was an extremely laborious process. I got blacklisted by some of the mainstream audition sites because they were convinced I was trying to “coerce” women into the [porn] industry. It was insanely frustrating, especially given that I am very pro-woman and would never manipulate anyone into a situation that they weren’t comfortable with. So, I had to seek out other avenues of finding women and men that were willing to get naked, have simulated sex, and could act. At one point I was going through IMDB of films that had nudity and then trying to reach out to the performers on Facebook.

The reason for using more adult performers was because of the level of nudity. It is a lot more difficult to find a mainstream person who is willing to get naked for a minor role. So, I cast most of the minor roles as adult performers, because they would be comfortable with the content and be able to deliver a sexy scene. I got a lot of criticism for this — but there’s a lot more that goes into a shoot than what people see in the final product.

Skin got the part because she was the best actor for the part. She was the part. The network was every bit [as] behind her being the lead as we were, and she held her own.

There’s historically been a fine but distinct line between “porn” and “mainstream” entertainment, but in recent years that line has been blurring. Where do you think things stand now?
Mainstream has a cushion of money behind it that somehow can legitimize their sexual content. They have name actors and millions of dollars and a gigantic crew and a team of writers all working on their projects. I would love Submission to help bridge the gap between the two industries, but Submission is still categorized as “late night” or “soft core,” so that can still deflect a certain audience.

Do you think that the wall coming down would be good for the porn industry? For the mainstream industry? Do you think it will come down anytime soon?
It will not come down soon.

There is still so much fear surrounding sexual content and, sadly, I think there always will be. This country is extremely conservative and religion dictates people’s views on it and on morality in general. People have been brought up on obscenity charges for sending pornography to legal adults in certain states. It’s terrifying when you think about it. I hope that the more exposure we have to sexuality, the more we continue to educate, the closer we will get to open-mindedness. But do I think the wall will come down soon? No.

You’ve been winning awards for years as a writer and director of adult films for New Sensations, but for Submission you’ve flown the coop. Are you still working in the adult industry?
I am still working in adult [film]. That’s where I get the most steady work and I’ll always have a soft spot for the industry. Adult is filled with so many wildly creative, intelligent people wanting to put out the best possible content. People outside the industry might not realize that, but it’s true. This isn’t just a “job” for a lot of people — it’s a creative outlet.

What are the differences on set between a full-on porn film and a softcore film?
There is no penetration. And with regards to what happens in the scenes, we had lengthy discussion on what was required beforehand…I wanted to scare away those who weren’t entirely sure, because you never want to be on set with someone who at the last minute says, “Yeah. I feel uncomfortable with the content.” My style is unabashed honesty.

In adult, you definitely have a dialogue before the scenes (what is not ok, what the person likes the most, etc.) but with this — it was a lot more nerve-racking. Most of the non-adult performers hadn’t done sex on camera before, so it was a bit stressful for me. I wanted them to be comfortable — but let’s be honest: When are sex scenes on film ever really comfortable? They’re awkward at best, so it’s about capturing those moments of sexiness and selling the story!

Do you like working on a mainstream set as much as porn?
There are pros and cons. The pros of mainstream are working with trained actors and people who are comfortable and familiar with doing the necessary pre-work for bringing a character to life. Most adult performers do not have theatrical training (there are obvious exceptions). A lot of adult performers spend time on social networking while on set (snapchatting, tweeting, texting, etc.). On this set, nobody was doing that. They were there to be focused and it was absolutely refreshing.

You’ve worked a lot with BDSM, notably with your award-winning Emma Marx series, which porn fans will be familiar with. Is Submission a way to get the same ideas to a new audience, or are you going into different or deeper topics here?
We delve into a lot of different things, but most importantly we have the time to develop the stories over six episodes. One of the most important topics that I wanted to explore was a genuine BDSM relationship in which people are flawed, and how BDSM relationships work…when real issues present themselves. What people need to remember when watching Submission is that this is not a “how-to-BDSM” series. These people are not perfect.

And the story does take time to develop. We don’t discuss boundaries or limits in the first episode. However, we do discuss them. We don’t go down the rabbit hole right away — but we do go down it.

You’ve said in other interviews that you’re not just trying to explore BDSM for viewers — you want viewers to explore sexuality itself. What else can they try, aside from what they see in the show?
People should learn to communicate what they want. It’s really that simple. Be with someone you feel comfortable with expressing your innermost desires [to]. Someone who won’t call you “crazy” for wanting something kinky. At the end of the day, communication and understanding is all you really need to have a great sex life.

Lynsey G. writes about sexuality, feminism and porn for outlets like Bust, McSweeney’s, and Nerve. She blogs, runs a publishing company, and is finishing a memoir.