CFF 2017: Interview with Punk Rock director Carter Stevens

Carter Stevens has seen a lot in his day, but these days he seems to be enjoying a comfortable, quiet existence. Talking to him on the phone in early April from the comfort of his home in the Poconos, he seems shocked that anybody still cared about the grimy adult films he had made in the 70’s and 80’s in New York City. Carter likes to think that he’s long gone and forgotten from this world, but a quick browse around the internet and social media proves that he still makes it around to conventions and Q&A’s. He is remembered, even if it still baffles him a little.

It’s been 40 years since the release of his film Punk Rock, which will be screened Friday, April 21st at 10 PM at PhilaMOCA as part of our film festival. It’s the film of his that most resembles a “regular”, non-porno movie. it takes the shape of a traditional film noir, where a private eye named Dillinger (Wade Nichols) is hired to find the sex worker daughter of a wealthy businessman, who has just been kidnapped by her pimp from whom she escaped. Along the way, people start getting killed by an unseen murderer, including some of Dillinger’s own associates. His investigation takes him to Max’s Kansas City, an old bar and music club in lower New York City, and at the time a center of the burgeoning punk and glam scenes. Dillinger can’t stand the punk music, but the various women he finds himself with, such as Jena (Crystal Sync), seem to live by this brand new cultural aesthetic. It’s a film with a fascinating production and release history, none of which I knew going into this interview (and which you will learn more about below).

I called him up to talk about subjects as wide reaching as pinball, Jimmy Buffett, Facebook, David Simon’s newest HBO show, and how AIDS devastated his business and artistic community in the early 1980’s.

Andy: You currently live in the Poconos- what brought you up there?

Carter: Getting married and trying to get away from cocaine. I’ve lived here for thirty years now in Pocono Summit.

Andy: When it comes to punk rock, are you more of a Dillinger or a Jena?

Carter: Neither. I was a drunk basically. I used to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, my downtown watering hole. There were two places to drink for the porno community- Bernard’s in the 40’s uptown, or downstairs at Max’s Kansas City (upstairs there was music). A lot of the upstairs people would overflow downstairs into the bar. And I hung out at the bar.

Let me put it to you this way. I’m a Jimmy Buffet parrot-head. That gives you an idea of what relationship I had to punk rock.

Andy: So maybe you were more of a Dillinger.

Carter: Maybe. You gotta understand, Punk Rock was originally a XXX porn film. The hook was a detective movie, but the point of the film was an excuse for sex.

Andy: But there were only two or three sex scenes in the film…

Carter: Well you’re looking at a different version. The version on Amazon which you watched is the R-rated version. It was released to the XXX market and did very well. Almost a year later my distributor came to me and asked if we could take the sex out, and put punk rock music in-because punk rock in that year had suddenly become no longer underground, it was becoming popular. So my distributor wanted to get in on that scene. And there was a hell of a challenge to that. We had to cut out over an hour’s worth of sex, and put in over an hour’s worth of plot and music. So the R version started out the same, but then goes into the new R Rated plot, with a killer, the mafia chief and all of that, and the shootout in the warehouse- that’s a closed loop. Then back into the final ending, which is the same one from the XXX ending.

Andy: So what was the movie called before your distributor put in all the punk stuff?

Carter: It was originally called Punk Rock Orgy, but released as Punk Rock, because you couldn’t put Punk Rock Orgy in the newspapers. The problem is that the distributor, a nice guy, we did a lot of movies together, but he released the R Rated version with an advertising program that tried to sell it as a Saturday Night Fever. In the ad there was even a guy in a white suit with his arm raised- it was called Rock Fever. It just sunk like a rock- it went nowhere with that name. Nobody ever saw it, basically. In fact, we have no idea whatever happened to this version. The version you saw was made from a 3 quarter inch master, from my private collection. It was the only copy still in existence, as far as I know.

Andy: So where did you assemble this version from? And When?

Carter: It was the eighties sometime…cant be more specific than that. It all kinda blends together. What they say about the 80’s is if you remember it, you weren’t really there.

Andy: How do you think this movie relates to other late 70’s NYC films like Taxi Driver or The Warriors?

Carter: Hopefully it does, because those are great films. I helped shoot additional footage for Taxi Driver and had a credit for the film- and my girlfriend at the time was the script girl for The Warriors. So I ended up being greatly influenced by those films, but Punk Rock was made before either. There’s a new TV show called The Deuce being made by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), all about the porno scene back then- I was interviewed for it as were a number of other people I worked with back then. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I lived in Chelsea, which is just below Times Square, down in the high 20’s. My studio was just off 8th Avenue.

Andy: How did you find the bands you filmed?

Carter: I found them, simply by sitting in Max’s, and watching different bands. I picked three of the most different bands I could pick. I wanted a different look from each band- I didn’t want the same punk look. You had The Squirrels in their platform sneakers and school jackets, and then the Spicy Bits, a hardcore rock band, and then The Fast, the most well known of the three. I saw them perform, approached them and asked if they would be interested in being in the film.

Andy: Who else was hanging out at Max’s with you?

Carter: Debbie Harry.

Andy: Got any stories you can share?

Carter: None that I can tell.

Andy: Fair enough! Who else was there?

Carter: David Byrne, other faces, I don’t know…it was a bar!

Andy: I know the Velvet Underground had a famous live album there.

Carter: Lou Reed was dating my secretary in fact. He came to my office to pick her up but I don’t think I ever saw him perform. I just knew him as the guy dating my secretary.

Andy: What kind of film did you shoot on?

Carter: On 35 mm. The problem is the copy that you’re looking at was made from a video, the only existing copy that’s left is a 3 quarter inch video that was originally made from the film.

Andy: What happened to the original?

Carter: We don’t know. It disappeared. God only knows what happened to it.

Andy: When you go to New York now, or in the last ten years, and you’re around the area where Punk Rock is set, what do you think?

Carter: It’s like Disneyland East. It’s become so homogenized, there’s no room for the artistic, independent, writers, that ilk…they have all been priced out of New York. There used to be a great underbelly of New York that gave it that sleazy flavor…which is totally gone. It’s not the same anymore. Even the areas that were sleazy and run down have come gentrified and expensive, like Williamsburg and Brooklyn.

Andy: How did you come to work with Frank Adonis? He’s one of those “that guys,” playing small roles in classics like True Romance, Goodfellas and Casino. In fact his next film after Punk Rock was in a supporting role in Raging Bull.

Carter: He would play gangsters, he was a real artist and an old friend of mine. He did that part for me as a favor. It wasn’t as much a casting thing, as much as “Frank can you do me a favor? I need a mob boss.” He said he couldn’t do an X rated film- I told him it would be an R Rated film! He didn’t want to associated with X rated films, as they would ruin his career as a legitimate actor.

Andy: Have you kept up with him?

Carter: I did for a few years. I haven’t really kept up with anyone since I moved up here. I’m the hermit on the mountain.

Andy: So what is it like to come down and present this movie then, 40 years later?

Carter: It’s unbelievable. The fact that people are watching my film 40 years later blows my mind. We were outlaws, and the fact that this stuff is being seriously shown and discussed is just mind blowing to me. It’s hard to believe that people take them seriously.

Andy: Well its a special kind of film- people don’t really make em like this anymore. You capture the city in such a different light than what it is today. I remember visiting New York as a child in the 90’s and it was even way rougher than it is now. So your films really show a particular time and a particular place so well.

Carter: …And we were trying to make it info a Film Noir type of experience, of walking the streets of New York and what they were like back then…but my favorite story about the film is the ending. I co wrote the script with a friend, and I would write things, make changes, he would do the same- we worked back and forth and back and forth. One day he sends me the ending scene, and I call up and say “that is brilliant! I love the ending. “(SPOILER FOR PUNK ROCK AHEAD) He says “yeah I got the idea from Sunset Boulevard. I said “But you know he’s dead from the beginning of the movie! That’s how the movie opens.” He says “oh, I missed the beginning of the film.” So had he seen all of Sunset Boulevard at the time, we would have never had an ending for the film. (SPOILER OVER)

Andy: Any other good production stories?

Carter: Well the pinball machine they used was my pinball machine. That was one of the greatest pinball machines ever made. I sold it when I moved out of New York, and I regret it all the time.

Andy: It’s used as a nice sexual metaphor in the film..

Carter: Exactly. I love the Fireball- its an incredible machine. Anyone that knows pinball machines rates it one of the great pinball machines ever made. You can have up to five balls going at once, you can capture the balls and then hit the release button and all five balls will come lose, and you’re playing five balls at one time. There’s a spinning in the middle of the board, a spinning wheel that the ball will hit and then it will shoot it off in another direction, you never know where the ball is going. One of the greatest pinball machines ever made.

Andy: Now that you’ve retired from adult film-making, what is your main hobby?

Carter: Facebook. Its great. Social media is actually a marvelous genre for X rated people. I’ve reconnected with many, many of my friends and co workers who I haven’t seen in 20 or 30 years. Long Jean Silver, who I lived with in New York, we reconnected on Facebook. She lives out in Arizona. And a lot of former porn people are on Facebook. It’s a great community. I’m sure some business is done but its mostly just us bullshitting about the old days.

Andy: I was reading about star Wade Nichols, and was sad to see that he ended up dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1985. What was your relationship with Wade like?

Carter: His real name was Dennis Poza. He worked under the name of Dennis Parker in Edge Of Night, the soap opera. He also did an album of disco songs. He was gay, but did x-rated films, what we call “straight for pay.” He was a hell of an actor, that I used in whatever I could. We were very good friends, he was a very sweet man. My daughter, when she first started coming of age, became very enamored with him on Edge Of Night. I told Wade about her crush and he sat down and wrote her a four page letter, sent her half a dozen autographed pictures that he hung up all over her room. He was a really sweet guy. He was openly gay, too.

Andy: What was the relationship like between straight and gay performers and crew members back then?

Carter: Pre-AIDS there was no problem, and then all of a sudden everybody was scared shitless because nobody knew where it came from. It was seen as the gay disease. There were years in there were if you had even done one gay scene, you were ostracized. If people suspected that you were bisexual, they wouldn’t want to work with you.

I had a lot of friends who I worked with and knew who died of it. It decimated the business, and the whole community was scared shitless. I can’t put it any other way. There’s no other polite way to say it, because it was that serious.

Andy: So when you left NYC, Reagan still hadn’t even spoken about it.

Carter: Right. When I got out, I didn’t have anything to do with it anymore. I met my second wife, we wanted to get married, get away from the cocaine lifestyle. We moved to the Poconos, got married, she got pregnant with my youngest, and I just got away from the porno business for a while. But I did a lot of fetish films in the 90’s. Spanx-A-Lot…gee I cant think of half the titles. The Painful World of Moose Malloy. Princess Pamela Payne. We shot Footprints, a whole series of foot fetish stuff. Cross dressing, you name the fetish and we did a film about it. We filmed them up here in the Poconos- like I said there was no sex in them. All fetish. They were cheap, easy and quick to make- I was publishing two magazines a month, plus a newspaper. So we were running ads for our videos in our publications. Cross promoting all our product.

Andy: Since you’re coming down to Philly for this, do you have any memories of making it down to Philly for any reason in the late 70s?

Carter: Um…what I remember about Philadelphia was Phil Con. Phil Con was the Philadelphia science fiction convention. I was a fan, and good friends with a lot of the well known science fiction authors. Every year I would go down for the weekend when it was Phil Con.

Andy: What was the city like back then?

Carter:…….Damn If I remember. [laughs] But I do remember driving through the city with some friends. I wanted some pretzels, the Philadelphia pretzels, and we were on the way back, and my friend said “we didn’t get the pretzels!” I said “well if god had wanted me to have them, he would have provided.” And just when I said that, a pretzel cart rolled around the corner. I bought two dozen pretzels.

Come out and see Carter Stevens present Punk Rock at 40, this Friday at PhilaMOCA! Event details and tickets here.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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