Interview: Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus (Directors & Producers – ‘Sexy Baby’)

SEXY BABY‘ is the first documentary film to put faces to a seismic cultural shift: the cyber age is creating a new sexual landscape.  Through the chronicling of trends among small town and big city kids, a few things were discovered: Having pubic hair is considered unattractive; most youngsters know someone who has emailed or texted a naked photo of themselves; many kids have accidentally or intentionally had their first introduction to sex be via hardcore online porn; Facebook has created an arena where kids compete to be “liked” and constantly worry about what image to portray – much of what was once private is now made public. And the list goes on.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to understand how a former porn star, a plastic surgery patient and a 12-year-old girl exist in the same film, but the adult entertainment world, represented by retired adult star Nakita Cash, is trickling into the mainstream world and affecting both Laura and Winnifred’s lives – in profoundly different ways. Nakita becomes an ironic role model of sorts. Laura embraces of mainstream culture. And Winnifred is the eyes and ears, constantly questioning the status quo.

We talked with the Co-Director/Producing team of ‘SEXY BABY‘, Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus about the current state of hyper sexualization at home and abroad, where the issues of economics fall into the argument and how the inherent dangers of this issue may be in its casualness.  Since its 2012 Tribeca Film Festival debut, the film has go on to receive universal praise and is now playing on iTunes and all VOD platforms courtesy of FilmBuff.

Buy or Rent ‘SEXY BABY‘ from iTunes – HERE –

Was there any one specific incident which acted as the catalyst for you deciding that this film needed to be made or was the film a culmination of a personal interest over a long period of time?
:  Jill is a writer and I am a photographer.  In 2008, we met while working at the Miami Herald and became very good friends.  I had an assignment that entailed taking photographs at nightclubs in Coconut Grove.  It was mostly college kids, but a few of the clubs I went to had stripper poles in them.  The girl would dance in an imitation of a strip club.  Ordinary girls putting on a show and guys were giving them tips.  I was very surprised to see that because I couldn’t find what their motivation was.  It didn’t look like they were having fun it looked very nonchalant, which was a lot different than in my day.

Jill:  The story that Ronna was working on was an innocuous ordinance story, but it was near University of Miami.  Al the kids out partying that night were college kids.

R:  I put the pictures online for the Herald, called Jill in the morning and told her how disturbed I was.  Again, not because it was crazy but because it didn’t seem like anyone was having any fun.  I couldn’t explain it.  When Jill saw the pictures she noticed these half naked girls trying to impress the guys but it was, in fact, the males who were not impressed.  They have a very “been there done that” look.   We are aware that Miami is a very unique city but this isn’t just happening there.  Miami does have a porn convention and…

J:  We were throwing this idea around as a newspaper story because of the enormity of the topic.  Within this story there are elements of over-sexualization, technology, sexting, definitions of sexiness and a whole host of hot button issues.  In addition there is the whole thing that Ronna is talking about, which is the mainstreaming of porn behavior.

A month into the story there was an exotica convention in South Beach.  We went with a little video camera and that was our first day of shooting.

R:  We didn’t go into it thinking that this was going to be a film.  That was an accident.

J:  So what struck both of us at this convention was that, aside from the industry being there, but we quickly realized how many regular people where there, literally idolizing them.  There is this big reality porn site called Bang Bros. and they had their “bang bus” there so people could go in and simulate sex acts.  Not to mention they had a recruiter there trying to get girls to perform for the company.

Similar to Girls Gone Wild, I guess…
:  Exactly!  There was porn everywhere, but the thing that struck us was the amount of regular people that were there.

R:  There was also a station that was teaching DIY Porn.  The announcer was proclaiming the beauty of the digital age, where now anyone can make porn.  They gave demos on good angles, lighting techniques and so on, making another example of porn in the mainstream.

J:  I hadn’t thought of that moment for years.  I remember that we were walking down the pink shag carpet looking at something.  Ronna noticed it and her mouth was agape.  I remember her stop and stare at this demonstration.  I’m sure if they would have stopped to look back at her they would have stopped the demonstration (laughs).

R:  Everyone just looked so intrigues.

J:  …and that is emblematic of where porn has gone.  That was (kind of) the beginning, but now everyone is making there own porn.

It definitely has a lot to do with digitization and technological advancement.  The porn world is sort of a meta-Hollywood, so it inevitably will encounter the same issues that digitization brings to the mainstream, where more and more people are able to do it for less money, therefore making it more accessible from the back end (no pun intended)

You mentioned that you had met Nakita Cash at the conference, but can you tell me how you made the initial contact with Laura and Winnifred?  Were there any interesting people that you did not include in the final film?
Jill:  To go backwards, Nakita was at the convention and was selling stripper poles for a company called X-Pole.  Primarily their sales are to college kids and housewives.  We were very interested in this phenomenon of women putting stripper poles in there houses with kids around.  We asked her about it because she teaches pole dancing to these types of women.  Nakita said she could introduce us to someone who has a teenager daughter, a pole in her house and a lap dancing station.  We went down to Jupiter and filmed her and her daughter, but her story was just too reality TV.  We decided not to pursue her.  We got amazing footage but she just was not a character like Winnifred.  It took us a long time to find Winnifred.

Laura was found through Dr. Stern.  When we were researching this, we wondered what the most extreme effect of porn culture seeping into mainstream.  We would say it is Labiaplasty.  The whole phenomenon of comparing your won nether regions to pornstars.

Ronna:  Now we needed to find a really young kid.  We originally went to the suburbs where we met with middle schools, high schools.  We had a roundtable with the kids and they were speaking to everything we had a hunch about.  The boys were watching porn.  The girls were sending naked text messages.  So this was a verification that we were on the right track.   We were scouting for an average kid for about a year though and it was difficult.

J:  Going up to teenagers in the mall and asking to talk to them about porn and sex was very difficult at times.

I was impressed by how well spoken and opinionated Winnifred was.  When you met her how old was she?
Jill:  She was 12

With Laura, I found it interesting that she was from North Carolina, a state with the tradition of being more conservative.  From political history to the predominance of faith based ideology, I would have thought that the sexual landscape would be more repressed than like Laura portrays it.  Did the fact that you presented, essentially, a rebuttal to this notion play into your minds while making the film?
:  Absolutely!  Dr. Stern lives in South Florida, but we purposely didn’t want to get anyone who lived in South Florida.  Again, that area is not really emblematic of the rest of the country.  Just like Los Angeles, there is a lot of plastic surgery already.  It is a culture and has been for a long time.

Ronna:  We could have found girls from all over, but when he said North Carolina we realized that it was convenient for us, as well as a different demographic from South Florida.

J:  We did sit in his waiting room a lot, just to interview other people.  We did a lot of background research there, so we wanted to go enough to see if this was indeed a trend.

R:  Even though they may be more socially conservative there, Laura’s circle eats up pop culture. For example, one evening we were at a family BBQ with her friends and family.  They were talking about how the local strip club was having an amateur night and was offering a free breast implant surgery for the winner.  The girls actually thought about it, so this was not a one person anomaly.

J:  It was such a strange scene.  The mom was making bread pudding and they were talking so casually about entering this amateur stripping competition.

R:  With Winnifred, it took so long to find what we were looking for that everyone associated what kind of a girl we wanted.  A friend of Jill’s told us about this theater troupe who did issues similar to the film.  We saw Winnifred at one of their rehearsals.  We really were not looking for a New York City kid, but we were so taken by her.  She is really something else.  Winnifred’s mother, Jenny really related to the topic.  She actually showed as an iPhone video of her 4 year old dancing sexy.  She was amused by it, but also horrified.  This embodied the complexity of the issue.

Going back to talking about Nakita, you mentioned that she was selling stripper poles at the convention, which leads to another interesting aspect of the discussion.  Essentially this is Nakita’s post-porn life.  She needs to make a living by falling back on her skill set.  I am interested to see what your impression is on the economics of the argument.  Basically, in a free market system there are peripheral industries which develop as a result of a primary industry, therefore evolving that industry based on market demand.  If people want more and are willing to spend for it, does this say more about modern hyper sexualization’s roots being in economics or is it still a result of a faulty moral compass?
:  That is a very good question!

Ronna:  Sex sells and sex has always sold.  Back when Brooke Shields did her Calvin Klein Jeans commercial that was considered super sexy.  Even 30 years ago sex was used as a marketing tool.  I think that now the envelope has been pushed so far so its a question of how far will it go strictly for the sake of profit?

I ask because I was in Europe over the summer and there the mainstream advertising is blatantly sexual, yet as a whole, the young people there do not engage in sexuality in as (for lack of a better word) deviant a way as here.  Europe has always had a reputation of an open sexual nature so I feel like ingraining that into the culture prevents a lot of the negative aspects in an over sexualized society.  I feel that this is a result of a different economic system, where profit may be more limited than here, therefore the incentive to push the envelop into deviant territories is not as necessary.
:  If you look at reality TV.  That was great economic model so that was also born from a larger profit margin, but does it compromise TV’s creative integrity?

Jill:  You can take that one step further when you look at Kim Kardashain and the origins of her fame.

I remember that Laurence Fishburne’s daughter had made her own sex tape in the hope of becoming famous via the “Kim Kardashian Model”.
Jill:  Exactly!  And when you talk about Europe, we were interested in this dynamic when we had our European premier in Amsterdam.  There was a huge and very emotional response from most of the audience.  Everyone was shocked by the Labiaplasty.  I would say that the part that really resonated universally was the universality of Winnifred and social media.

Ronna:  You could see that they didn’t condone this behavior.  Despite having a more open and liberated sexual outlook in Europe they still understand what the difference is between exhibitionism and true sexuality.  The casualness of it all does not impress them either.

If I could also jump backward a bit to talk more about who we didn’t include in the film.  We interviewed a sexologist and a biological anthropologist.  They confirmed a lot of these issues.

Did you come across anyone who repressed their sexuality at all?  Was anyone on the other extreme of the argument and overly withdrawn?
Jill:  We didn’t really go in search of that, but there were varying degrees of how women use their sexuality.  We were really impressed with Nakita because she is naturally sexy. It is her gift.  She teaches women how to be sexy but some women just don’t have it.  They can go through the motions but there is something missing.

There is still an intangible quality to sexiness…
Jill:  Absolutely!  It’s one of those things that you’re born with or not.  We have a lot of outtakes of people who were not born with it (laughs).

Ronna:  Pole dancing and lap dancing may work for some women but it’s not for all women to express their sexuality with.  I think when the influence is so strong, it limits the concept of what is sexy.  It becomes very formulaic.

J:  Right before Tribeca we went down to the Meatpacking district in the winter.  We were wearing our coats and it was freezing. We definitely were not looking sexy, but packs of women would walk on the cobble stone streets with tiny skirts and hooker heels.  How would a guy know who was a prostitute and who wasn’t?  These girls were just going to a restaurant!

R:  During the high holidays, I was in a conservative synagogue in Maryland and the teenage girls were dressed like that!  Nakita told us an interesting anecdote about how, when she first got into the business, you had to really know where to go to find your stripper outfit.  It was always some back rack somewhere, but now everything she ever would have needed is in the mall, in all the windows.

I see that you have three different versions of the film available, essentially for high school, college and community.  What are the differences between the versions?
Ronna:  Community screenings are actually a choice amongst three versions.  The high school version is 1 hour with the really risque stuff edited out.  We worked with the organization Common Sense Media who helped us with the appropriate content for 14+ students.  The University version is the festival cut, full and unedited.  The third version is the broadcast version.  This is the one you can see on Showtime.  It is basically the full version but there are some minor edits in case the community wants something a little less intense then the University version.

Aside from the educational aspect, you want to get your film out to as big an audience as possible.  How is the VOD platform the right distribution model for ‘Sexy Baby’?
:  We are similar to other documentary filmmakers so you want the biggest piece of the pie to be broadcast sales.  We knew early on to not run after a theatrical release.  The jury is still out on the digital sales though.  Broadcast and International Sales are cut and dry at this point, but VOD still has some defining to do.

Ronna:  It is a new model and still has to be perfected.

J:  When you see the power of iTunes and merchandising you see how important the marketing aspect of VOD is.  If films are marketed correctly then they will find VOD success.

Finally, throughout the development of ‘Sexy Baby’, can you tell me about something that you have learned?  It can be about filmmaking or the subject matter, but what is one thing you learned that you did not know going into the project?
:  For me it was the amount of self sacrifice one has to make in order to see their passion turn into a reality.  Throughout this project Ronna and I spent our savings and then some in order to get this film made.  I think what I learned is how much passion and dedication must go into a project in order for it to turn out the way it should and also that the satisfaction one gets when your hard work is well received is worth all the financial difficulty.

Ronna:  I learned that when you’re shooting a verite film you have to have a tremendous amount of patience. We thought we would be able to shoot the film in a year…but it ended up taking three. You can’t hurry real life! Though next time we make a film, we’ll likely choose characters or a story that has a semblance of an arc upfront. One of the biggest challenges of ‘Sexy Baby‘ was that because we were exploring societal issues, nobody’s story had a clear beginning, middle and end — at least not for a while (hence, 3 years of shooting).
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  1. […] Interview: Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus (Directors & Producers – 'Sexy … At first glance, it may seem difficult to understand how a former porn star, a plastic surgery patient and a 12-year-old girl exist in the same film, but the adult entertainment world, represented by retired adult star Nakita Cash, We definitely were not looking sexy, but packs of women would walk on the cobble stone streets with tiny skirts and hooker heels. Roma Heritage Documentary 'Our School' Opens in Brooklyn @ reRun Theater – January 18-24, […]