One of the highlights at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival is the documentary Danland, which follows the romantic pursuits of a well-known producer and star of amateur pornography. The film begins with this man, ‘Porno’ Dan Leal, on his wedding day, but we can’t really see who the bride is. Then we go back a few years and watch his relationships grow and die, some resurrected, others gone for good. It’s truly a movie for equal enjoyment among couples. There’s the porn stuff for the guys and the romance for the girls. And for just general doc lovers it’s an entertaining look into a strange and complicated world.
Although I was unable to make it to Park City this year, I managed to talk with Danland director Alexandra Berger from miles away. A veteran of the film industry, this is the filmmaker’s feature directorial debut and it displays a great new voice in the doc community and promise of wonderful things to come. Below is our conversation, in which we discussed inception of narrative in verite documentary, the benefit of being a woman documenting this subject matter and the difficulty to market a film that really should appeal to everyone.
How did you become involved with Dan and decide to make a film about him?
I had a friend who moved from New York to D.C., and when he did so he told me that he felt invisible, so he joined a Yahoo! Group of black men who fulfilled women’s fantasies of having multiple partners at once. And that Yahoo! Group was discovered by Dan Leal —‘Porno Dan’ — and Dan said, “hey, why don’t you guys come do your fantasy sex acts in my basement and I’ll shoot them and give you snacks and sodas, and if you don’t want to show your face you can wear a mask.” That group agreed and allowed Dan to do that. So then my friend confessed to me at one point that he had been performing in porno films. From there, first I was shocked, and then I became very interested. I was intrigued by these men who wear masks having sex with women, just the anonymity. That’s what lured me initially.
So the gang sex scene in the film was the first you’d shot? When did you decide the film would focus on Dan? And what direction did you expect the story to go in?
We thought Dan would be our guide. We did not necessarily think the film was going to be about Dan. I thought it was going to be about these anonymous men wearing masks in his porn films. But then when he got nominated for his first AVN [Adult Video News] Award, we felt we had to go with him to Vegas and see where that took us. It was always a verite style documentary. I wasn’t going into it with, “this is what I want to uncover.” I really wanted to let the story reveal itself.
Quite early on, in fact the very first time I met Dan and the first time I interviewed him, that’s when he talked about Emily and how they just broke up. I actually just shot that interview as a way to get familiar with Dan, get to know his story. I didn’t think it was ever going to end up in the film. But during that interview, I definitely clued in to the fact that this was a person who was lonely, really seeking intimacy and then finding that very difficult.
With this kind of filmmaking, how do you know how long to follow the characters, how far do you go with the story? Were you ever hoping that this happens or that happens?
Really if you were to ask me what I wished for, I wished that he and [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS] worked out. I mean, if I could have made anything happen. But in reality I was completely shocked when he called me and told me he was getting married. I had no idea that that was coming. The person he ended up marrying…I remembered and I liked. I really just wanted the best for all the people that I met.
Because I felt that I was letting the film tell the story, as soon as the wedding happened I knew I had the film and it was done and that was it, and there was no more need to continue following the story. But I didn’t actually wish for that or hope for that. I really had no idea that would happen.
Can you talk about how you decided to then structure some of the film so it’s not just unfolding? For instance, the film opens with a tease of the wedding. What made you go this route?
It was actually one the last things that we decided to do. We thought about doing it earlier, but we didn’t think we had the ability to make it work. So we tried a lot of other things that people thought were not really engaging enough. We had two editors, and one of them worked with me on the initial layout and then the other editor, Ann Husaini, came in and we really crafted more of the story together. But then I needed additional help and my previous editor, David Petersen, came back in for the intro and we really whipped that together. And finally this time it worked. It was a way for us to excite the audience, and really the reveal of that, because there’s an ending to the ending, it didn’t feel like I was giving the movie away.
Talk about what it was like to film in such a wild and wanton world. How hard is it to stay distanced from what’s going on? At one point we do see you shooting a scene for one of Dan’s movies.
Well that was the only time I was ever involved in the filming of an actual porno. And what I agreed to do was to turn the camera on and leave it on the table. For me, that was really confronting the concept of crossing the line. If I press this button am I now a pornographer? In that moment, I agreed to do it because that was such an awkward scene and probably the only time I was involved with a shoot where it was just myself, my camera person and Dan and another person. Most of the shoots had a lot more people in them and the doors were open. This was a locked door and impromptu shoot. I thought in that moment, he’s about to have sex with this person whether I turn the camera on or not. And I preferred having the camera going because then it was business.
But in general I got used to people having sex all around me. I got to know the people. I generally like a lot of the people I met. And to whatever degree I got very immersed in their world at that time. I really cared about a lot of the people. Watching them have sex, because I was used to it, it just rolled off my back after a while.
Do you have any conscious reason for including that awkward scene in your own film? Was it just to admittedly show us that this was the only instance of your involvement?
I thought it was really important to put it in the film, because I thought it was a really great moment to give the audience perspective. Also, my voice is in the film all the way along, and I thought it was a way to give the audience perspective on the fact that here’s this filmmaker immersed in this world. And I think for a lot of audience members it’s a way for them to connect to the film more. This world can be foreign to a lot of people, and I’m probably a more familiar type of person to many viewers. Also to show the issues that I was being confronted with while filming this.
Do you think being a woman made it any harder or stranger for you to document this subject?
Absolutely, because I think Dan acted very differently with women than men. Dan definitely saw women as either those he’d just love and adore and shower with everything, and change his whole life to be with them, or they were people to be manipulated. I think I was confounding for him because I could see right through him. I could see when he was trying to manipulate me. I could see where things were going. And I think Dan and I both had a learning curve trying to get to know each other and finding a way to communicate and ultimately find a way to be together. We spent a lot of time with him. It was a process to try to get to know each other the whole time. We’re always learning how to communicate with each other.
I think I’m the type of person that people do tell things to. But for me in the case of shooting this film, I definitely think it was the women who opened up to me very quickly, and Dan stayed pretty enigmatic for a long time. It really took him a long time before I felt that he was truly vulnerable with me in an interview. That was really hard. It was interesting to me because usually people tell me everything. And that’s probably because I’m prone to disclosure myself.
Might your being a woman filmmaker also help in your role as a gateway to this world for audiences?
If you’re saying that it might have more popular appeal because I’m a woman filmmaker, that could possibly be true. I’m a very girly girl kind of girl. I believe in love, I want everybody to be in love and that was something I clued in on Dan early and what drew me to him. It was what connected me to him and made me say, “okay this is something I’m interested in doing.” You go in and do a test interview. You don’t know for sure if that’s a character or a person or a story that you want to follow. My goal was to humanize the people in the industry and turn them into people to care about, for those who don’t know much about them. Through his loneliness and his desire for intimacy I felt this was a way to do this, because it was what impacted me.
Who would you say this film is for, and where do you think it can go now?
I tried to make a film that was really palatable for everybody, except for maybe people under 17 years old. Even though there’s the backdrop of this world of pornography, it’s really the story of a desire for intimacy and love that’s pulling the film forward. The fact that he’s a pornographer was a part of his life but doesn’t define the film and hopefully isn’t putting people off from watching it.
Did you ever think about how difficult it might be to sell or market such an X-rated documentary?
Of course, it’s a big concern when you’re dealing with such a difficult topic. I mean, the word pornography, or porn really, is a hot button topic. You say that to somebody and they immediately have a reaction and immediate expectation and immediate opinion about it. So when you’re dealing with that you’re dealing with a pretty insurmountable perception. You make this film and so many people have an idea of what they want it to be, of what they expect it to be and what they hope for it to be. It’s impossible to meet the expectations for every single person. So that was certainly a challenge, and I was highly aware of that. I really tried to make a movie that has the potential to get onto television and video on demand. You make a film, you want people to see it. You want to get it out in the world. So I was trying to tell the story and not let the sex overwhelm the viewers to where they felt they were watching a porn film.
Is Dan at Slamdance promoting the film with you?
First of all, Dan has not seen the movie. We literally finished our movie the day before we came out here. We were a work in progress when we submitted. And Dan got nominated this year for 14 AVN Awards, and they were held the very day of our premiere. So he has not seen the film. He knows about it. He’s busy right now. I’m sure he will eventually see the movie, and I have to say I’m both interested in seeing his reaction and I have some anxiety about it as well. There’s some painful stuff in there for him, and I’m wondering how he’ll react.
What’s next for you? Another documentary?
I actually have another documentary that’s shot, and once this is done I’m hoping to find the money to start editing it. I followed a group of guys who play Dungeons & Dragons together on a fairly regular basis. It’s really about that as a subculture, about this community that they created.
To wrap up I thought maybe you could share some of your favorite documentaries with our readers and include any that have influenced you or this film, as well.
Gosh, I love so many documentaries. Two of my favorites I feel are really stereotypical, but they would be Grey Gardens and Sherman’s March. I think they are very influential films. Obviously the idea of having your film get away from you — there was a large period initially where Dan kept disappearing and we were having to hunt him down and stake him out. There was always a chance the film was going to get away from us. Also I love the intimacy of Grey Gardens, the character study. I consider myself in some ways as a social anthropologist. I love to uncover things and I love to understand things more. So a film like Grey Gardens really appeals to me on that level. And it’s probably also why the world of porn would interest me, because to me porn is a subculture and I find it fascinating. The ability to look behind the curtain and get to understand and know what was going on in this world was interesting to me.
So those are two films that I certainly admire. But there are many. On a totally different subject, I love the movie Life and Debt. That’s a brilliant documentary. I just saw King Corn and it was so engaging. It was on TV and just drew me in completely. I love My Brother’s Keeper. I’m a huge fan of that film. There are so many. I mean, I love documentary film.
[Added later via text message:] Just thought of one of my all time fave docs: The Saltmen of Tibet.