Ed Powers Interviews Mitchell Spinelli
In any profession, there are family names that are synonymous and iconic within an industry. In politics, there are name like Roosevelt and Bush. In the oil industry, the Rockefellers and Gettys will forever be remembered and in perfumes, Chanel and Dior are brands as well as surnames. For the adult film industry, one of the most iconic surnames is Spinelli. Anthony Spinelli made some of the best adult films of all time. He brought a quality and professionalism to every single movie he made. His son Mitchell eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and together, they would write and direct critically acclaimed and groundbreaking movies like Nothing To Hide and Reel People. Their careers in adult film spanned four decades and their contribution to the history of adult films will be timeless and enduring.
One of Mitchell's longtime friends is renowned gonzo director Ed Powers. Ed recently sat down with Mitchell to talk about the past, present, and future of the porn industry.
EP: A Hollywood kid is usually someone whose parents or relatives are celebrities in Hollywood. Do you, Mitch Spinelli, consider yourself a Hollywood kid?
MS: No (laughs). More so in adult, it was within our own community. But, beyond that I have no correlation to that metaphor at all.
Your dad was an actor and a director, and your uncle Jack was an actor. Didn’t you experience Hollywood through them?
Well, my dad was always a struggling actor. Funny, you know when my dad would play cards in the 60s he would have poker night and all his friends were struggling actors. And when I would hang out with my uncle I would see the other side. He would take me to the Polo Lounge and we would see people like Jack Lemmon. They all knew him. But as a “Hollywood kid,” I saw two sides. I saw the heartbreak side and I saw the glory side. So, if I was my uncle’s son I would have been a Hollywood kid.
How was it when your dad transitioned from mainstream to adult work?
Well, back then I guess, they were basically making loops. And he got a lot of pushback because he came with a story, he had a script, and the actors rehearsed. It was very taboo back then. Back then, nobody was doing that. It was pretty revolutionary at that time.
What companies did he approach back then?
At first there weren’t any companies. He made movies for guys who had money, their own home theaters. As the glory days in the 70s happened, he made movies for Essex, Cal Vista, and Caballero, but in the beginning it was just loops with the stories.
No, he would make these 16mm and take them on the road. He would sell them to Hefner in Chicago – all these guys had a route around the country. There were peep shows and different theaters on the route.
In the 70s they had a bin in the adult stores with Super 8s. You had to have a projector to watch them. Did your dad direct any of those?
Well, he directed those, but I don’t know what early titles he would have done. It wasn’t until the 70s that he was making full movies.
How did you get involved with your dad in the adult biz? I mean, did he suddenly say “Son?”
Well, I didn’t know he was in the business until one day when I was 13,I went into the garage looking for my baseball stuff and I grabbed a bat way up high and it started raining film on me. Loops and film. I took it. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was there from like a treasure… So, I took it. I looked at it in the light and I saw a woman sucking a guy’s cock. I couldn’t believe it. This is 1970. This is before… anything. My mom had a 16mm projector. I waited until everyone was asleep. My room was on the other side of the house. So, I put a sheet up and then I put a sheet over me. Then I started to watch it. The projector was so hot that the sheet started to smoke. My dad came and he said, “Well, I gotta tell you what I do.” He explained to me that these films were his and he makes them and he sells them. He’s an adult, he’s not hurting anybody, and this is what he does for a living. Because I always thought he was an actor or a director, but when he told me I understood that this was what he did.
But, how I actually got to work with him was about five years later. One day I came home from school and I saw him working at the desk, he used to write all his own stuff, and I saw him with his hands on his head, shaking. I thought, he has cancer or something, but he was just upset. He said, “I can’t write these anymore.” He’d been working for several different companies. He said, “I’ve been writing four or five of these a month and I’m out of ideas.” I said, “Well, what are you working on?” He said, “It’s a takeoff of Mice and Men.” I saw that with him, the Steinbeck thing. So, I said to him that I would try to put something together and you can look at it. Two days later I gave him the draft and he said, “I love it!” We collaborated and that was Talk Dirty to Me. So, from that point on I was the writer for the scripts that we did.
Talk Dirty to Me came before Nothing to Hide?
But, Nothing to Hide is the prequel to Talk Dirty to Me?
Was this in New York or California?
Our home base was Los Angeles, but we shot those in San Francisco.
Who were some of the camera guys you used back then?
We used a great guy, Bob Maxwell who used to work for George Lucas. And a guy named Tom Jewett, who used to work for Coppola. We got Lucas’ guys and Coppola’s guys when they were on hiatus because their base was San Francisco. We used a guy named Jack Remy who was an assistant at this time to a guy named Jim Bat.
So, the first project you worked on with Anthony Spinelli, your dad, was Talk Dirty to Me?
A little before that one summer I was on the crew with some of the guys.
So you would get them food and stuff?
Well, I started out as a gopher, carrying equipment on the truck. The first day on the truck I remember laughing and goofing off. And after everyone had left he said, “Listen, if you sit around other people think they can sit around. Then you’ll be setting a bad example, its gonna be harder on me, so either you’re going to work or you leave.” So, the next day I got up at sunrise, emptied the truck, made sure all the C stands were right. And he didn’t have to say anything to me again.
He knew you would listen.
I wanted to make him proud.
And what he said made a lot of sense. It wasn’t degrading.
No, he said you sit around and because you’re the boss’ son people will think they can sit around too.
Do you remember any of the films you were part of the crew on?
She was... wow. But, I was 18 and it was my first…
Wow, you got lucky.
So, how many projects did you write?
Many, but before that my dad wrote Vista Valley PTA, Easy, and Portrait of an Affair. Then after that he was ready to just put his head on the desk.
Did you study writing? I mean, you were young. How did you adapt to writing these scripts?
Well, me and dad, we always collaborated on things. For any school project I always would ask the teacher if I could make a film. I wrote all my own stuff. I would do productions with my brother and sister for my dad. You know, if my dad were Kurt Douglas I would have been Michael Douglas.
Did you have your own camera?
Yeah, it was a Super 8, which he got me. I had a little tape recorder and I would just sync the two.
What kind of camera was it? Maybe a Dijour?
Had the cartridge?
A little reel. You get seven or eight of the cartridges or reels and that was my movie.
And you learned how to sync the sound. Very cool. I shot 16mm film and synced it to video, which is kind of the same. Because to get good sound then was very different. What part did your mom have to play in making movies?
Back then most moms were housewives, and once the kids were grown, once we all had drivers licenses, she didn’t have anything to do. So, my dad suggested that she work with us. He sent her to script supervision school, and then that was her thing. And that was before Nothing to Hide. She did Between the Sheets, Portrait of an Affair, Dancers, High School Memories, and the great movie we shot with Seka that never got released called Sunny that we shot in Chicago, and all the videos we did after that. That was her thing, continuity.
Was John Leslie in that movie with Seka that never got released?
What was the name of the company that you formed with your dad?
Dirty Debutantes. The first one was called Plum Productions.
When did you transition from film to video?
1984, remember Kirdy Stevens?
Of course, Taboo.
Yeah, he got ripped off from a list of distributors. He was very close to my dad. He said, he was making close to 50 or 70 bucks. He was very generous. He said, here is the list of distributors, and we set up shop in our garage and called the distributors. The first one was Reel People 3. That was the beginning. If it wasn’t for Kirdy Stevens being a patron saint, we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to know who to call or what to do.
Early on you could network with certain people, and he was good with that. What was the last film you made?
It was when my dad was just getting sick. It was called Heartbeat with John Leslie.
What was the last film you made for your dad?
What did you dad think of video when it came along?
He was thankful that there was something that allowed us to make a film without spending $100,000. Back then for 15 or 20 grand you get your own movie, but as far as the aesthetics and stuff he missed the lighting. We still had intricate lighting, but he missed the grandness of a film.
You mentioned the cost difference between a film and a video. What was the difference?
Probably $100,000, or 50 grand or 60 grand, because you could pull of the same thing, just not the same look as film.
What story stands out with your dad making movies? Not the story of the movie, but a story involving your dad.
Well, there’s a number of them. One of them was, after being on the crew, he made me a production manager, and we’re both pretty disorganized so we had to look for a location in Mill Valley, which is nothing but mountains and terrain. This is before navigation, and we got lost.
So you got lost with your dad?
Yeah, we were looking for a location in the mountains. We both got frustrated but once we both got safely to our destination we laughed. But he had a lot of faith in me, it was amazing.
What award meant the most to your dad?
I only got one award that was the Hall of Fame for AVN. I think Nothing To Hide, because that won so many awards. He won for director, I think I may have won for script, I don’t remember. That was a big one because he worked so closely with John and Richard Pacheco, and that was the closest we got to making a real movie. Everything was just so enchanting, and I think that was the best time he had, the one that meant the most.
What do you think of people in the industry today that are still making films?
I don’t know. I’ve been out of that loop for about 3 or 4 years now, so I don’t know if anyone’s really making films anymore. I think a couple companies like Wicked are doing bigger productions, but I think it’s a whole new landscape now. I think it’s basically internet companies who are the most popular.
Do you miss making films?
Yeah, I miss producing, and adding to our catalog each month, and traveling around the world, and going to shows. I miss that type of stuff. Everybody has a good run, whether it be VCA, Legend, companies that aren’t here anymore.
There were a lot of films being made back then too. We took it for granted, because if you think about the amount of films…
Well, when we started out, if you had one a month you were a big company. Then it was two a month, then it was one a week, then you had your comps and your features. And pretty soon guys like VCA were putting out 10, 15, 20 a month. And some of them were big productions.
You had foreign sales back in the day too, right?
Oh foreign sales, broadcast sales, mail-order sales…
Some countries would pay $10,000 for a film.
Yeah, absolutely. Playboy would pay big bucks for a film.
You had to edit it specially for them, right?
Yeah, which was easy.
Now you talked about a couple of the camera people, but who were your favorite stars to work with?
It had to be Joey Silvera, because either you got him or you didn’t. He was either the funniest guy in the world, or just the most difficult guy in the world, or the rudest guy in the world. He was that dry. Funny, creative, and always kept everybody laughing. John Leslie too, both those guys.
I heard there was something about John and his garden, and he thought his passing gas didn’t smell. Was there any truth to that story?
You know, it’s funny, yeah. Because he thought he ate so good – vegetables and everything – that his farts didn’t smell.
Like that adage, “you think your shit don’t stink.”
Yeah, so I took him at his word. I know that he lit a couple matches.
Are you still producing videos?
Short answer is no.
The last thing you did was comps, right?
Comps, and then my Plum turned into Rain which turned into gonzo. So I haven’t shot anything in about four years, but before that, for a good 10-12 year stretch Rain became Acid Rain and it was all gonzo basically because the business changed, probably around 2001-2002.
In what way did the business change?
It changed because of different companies. It was like when the Beatles came to America; it changed music, it changed everything. When Red Light kinda put down their flag, they did the gonzo where you never saw the guy; it was just hardcore sex with the girl, no introduction. That was the difference. They were so successful that everybody copied them.
You mean somebody like me?
You were before that. You were way before that. But before they started doing that stuff, features became obsolete right away. It’s like Fabian and Bobby V. and Bobby Roydell before the Beatles came; they were obsolete. And that’s what Red Light was like in a way. They were so big at that time. And Anabolic was really kinda before them.
Would you describe that as debauchery?
No, it was a lot of very hard sex. Wall-to-wall, I’d never seen anything like that before, and I was really hesitant. But I had my company Rain and we were kinda dying because we did everything very gentle, and we had filters on. So my wife and I took some videos home, Anabolic and Red Light, and we were like, “This is what we’re going to have to do, if we’re going to survive.” So we called it Acid Rain, and I got the same guys, the John Strongs, and I modeled myself – copied – kinda what they did, and it turned everything around.
So give me some examples of the titles you were doing before you went hard with gonzo.
We called them morality plays. We had titles called The Face, with Sarah Jane Hamilton and Jonathan Morgan, who was a great actor. We had a title called In the Bush with Sean Michaels and John Doe. Great stories, of course, that revolved around the sex. Sizzle, with Raven. The Girl Next Door with K.C. Williams. Those were great stories, with great sets, and great productions.
What about the titles when you went hard?
They were like, Fuck My Dirty Shithole, ATM City, Butt Junkies, I Love Them Latin, I Love Them Asian, I Love Them Natural, I Love Them Circumcised, I Don’t Love Them Circumcised… no, but we had a bunch of stuff. We had 200-300 Acid Rain titles. We on Best New Production Company in 2005, at NightMoves. We did shows, we took big booths, we were a little more aggressive because I wanted to make it as big and successful as I could. We had a good run with that from about 2003-2012. Then the business changed. Internet was totally prevalent and everything seemed to change.
What advice would you give someone today who wanted to start making content… DVDs, Internet, etc?
Always respect the courtesy flush. No, I’m kidding. If someone wanted to make DVDs, I would tell them don’t do that today. But if this was 10 years ago, I would say you can’t just make a DVD, you have to own it. You have to have control over it, don’t give it up. Don’t let somebody else distribute it. Try to have as total control as you can to all sources of revenue. And pay attention to the revenue, and how much it is. And don’t get complacent either… always gotta be changing.
So you would recommend people to lean towards Internet probably?
I think that’s all there is today. You can’t buy a DVD in a store anymore. Everything has shifted, whether it be music, we do adult entertainment, or even shopping for clothes, or shopping for utilities, or washing machines. It’s just a whole different situation and generation of people who consume things totally different. You just have to roll with it. Change is faster today, if you don’t change with it, you become antiquated and not relevant no matter what you do.
When you were making movies, did you think about the future then? About the changes that were coming?
No, I wish I did. Some people in this business have the capacity do that. They see the wave coming, I wait until the wave is almost on top of me. And I struggle, come up to the surface, and I survive. Some people, whether it be Steven Hirsch from Vivid, they see the wave just about to swell about two miles away and they prepare. That’s one regret that I have, the fault I wish I’d corrected or had the ability to compensate for, 100%.
Would you have wanted to work for Vivid?
Yeah, of course, who wouldn’t?
I don’t know, there was a time when I was distributing other people’s stuff and I wanted to downsize right away.
Because you’re like me. I’m pretty good at running a company with four or five people. Hirsch, guys like that, you put them in any kind of business and they would’ve been successful. Not just what we do, you put them in anything. That’s just the way they’re built.
When you saw people doing distribution deals, like Joey and Randy, and people like that, what did you think of it?
Joey, love him with all my heart, he was dying as an actor. He couldn’t do it anymore. And if Stagliano hadn’t come along at that time, I don’t know what Joey would’ve done. He lived in a little studio apartment off Mission, a terrible area. I was envious, crazy envious. But Joey’s smart enough to know his limitations. He’s not going to do a Jules Jordan and go off on his own. And today, Joey’s a millionaire. And well-deserved.
He was known for doing a lot of transsexual stuff, right?
Yeah. If I was ahead of the curve, I would’ve shot a lot of transsexual stuff in Brazil at that time. I kinda jumped on the bandwagon with that when there was so much of it that it didn’t really mean anything unless you were Evil Angel, it’s a little different ballgame.
So in the industry today, it’s really more Internet-oriented?
Everything is Internet-oriented. Sears, the biggest retailer in the world growing up, they’re going to be going out of business probably very soon, same with JC Penney. Everything is Internet-based today.
You have one more story about you on a set, or you on a movie? Anything that comes to mind that may have been really funny?
There was one with John Leslie, it may have been Nothing To Hide, where the husband was walking into the scene and he just ad-libbed something. He said something to the woman that had nothing to do with anything, but it was so funny the way he said it that I started laughing, and then John started laughing, and then everyone was laughing.
He had an inside humor, John. He had a humor that he could make something that was happening very funny.
Yeah, and if you had chemistry like John Leslie and my dad, there were some things you just didn’t even have to say. You would just make a look or look up, and it was over. My dad had a friend, he brought him to the set, who was a real eccentric guy. And we’re in the waiting room, Joey was there, and the guy came in and started counting the cork indents on the wall. And that was too much for Joey, the guy became Joey’s best friend. Joey thought he was the most fascinating guy in the world, and he would talk to Joey and the guy was just out there. But Joey thought he was a genius.
So I’m going to wrap this up, but for anyone who doesn’t know, I’m sitting in the presence of a man who had learned from genuinely beautiful men, who were Sam Weston and Anthony Spinelli, who fathered a great son and married a great woman. It’s a family business that still, to this day, is hanging in there and flourishing in its own way and changing with the times.
Check out Anthony and Mitchell Spinelli's collaborative filmography on HotMovies.
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