When Julie Davis arrived in Los Angeles two decades ago with a pipe dream, she hoped she might end up directing a movie at a big Hollywood studio. She never imagined that she'd end up in a dark room at the Playboy Channel editing hard-core pornography.
Davis, then in her early 20s, had recently graduated from the editing program at the American Film Institute, but she still couldn't find a job. Even though she also had an Ivy League diploma from Dartmouth College, she found herself flipping through the back pages of Variety, searching for any possible entry into the film world.
So when someone told her about the Playboy gig, which had real-world perks such as a 401(k) and medical benefits, she begrudgingly decided to take the job.
"The feeling I felt when I was there was, 'I'm too good to be at a place like this. I can't believe I'm working here and slumming here with these people,' " recalls Davis, now 41, late last month at a downtown Los Angeles restaurant.
After about a year with the racy employer, Davis quit her job to pursue her filmmaking career, but the brief stint in the adult entertainment industry stuck with her. Years later, the experience has become the basis of "Finding Bliss," her latest film, which will premiere at Laemmle's Sunset 5 on Friday. Plausibly enough, the movie, an independent production that Davis wrote and directed, is about a college-educated girl (Leelee Sobieski) who can land only a job at a porn company, whose facilities and talent (including Denise Richards and Jamie Kennedy) she uses to shoot her own movie.
Ironically, in her quest to get the film funded, Davis actually turned to the adult entertainment industry for help, approaching Canoga Park-based Wicked Pictures for financing. Though the majority of the movie's $1.5-million budget came from Toronto-based production company LightShow Entertainment, Wicked contributed $10,000 as well as posters, footage and contract actresses for Davis to use in her movie, which the director estimates would have cost her about $200,000.
"We do a lot of product placement stuff and we're very selective about the things we get involved in," says Hethalein Mares, Wicked's publicist. "To me, it was a very cute, realistic, honest story that had a positive background story about the adult industry. This movie was like a diamond in the rough that we thought had something special."
Throughout production, which took place over 20 days in Spokane, Wash., Davis was in touch with Wicked, specifying the type of material she needed.
"I'd send her screen-grabs … of a character with black hair and a white face and red lips and say, 'Do you have any movies, of the 500,000 you've done, where a girl looks like this?' Davis says. "And she'd send me a box of films with the exact places where I would find those scenes. … All that stuff that Wicked gave us gave it so much more authenticity."
Even with Wicked's help, getting the film made has been a struggle, Davis admits. The script, the first incarnation of which was written in 1997, has changed numerous times — at one point even landing at Showtime as a pilot. (It was passed over for "The L-Word," says Davis.)
"Every day was such a compromise," she says of the film's shoot. "We were getting half the shots. We just didn't have the time. … And the producers didn't care. They're all about the bottom line. They don't care about what's in the box; it's just about the cover of the box — like a porn film, almost. And this was my labor of love."
Still, Davis managed to keep the chaos from affecting her actors, says Kennedy, who plays a porn star turned serious actor in the film, in which he has a scene with full-frontal nudity.
"There was a lot of behind-the-scenes crying, budget changes, producers not showing up," Kennedy says. "Somebody's supposed to be naked and somebody isn't. There was a lot of that stuff that happened — it was an independent movie."
But the challenges of participating in a lower-budget film are worth it, says the actor, who believes "the movie has the potential to break out."
"For me, when you do a smaller movie, you take less money, but you own a piece of it," he says.
As for Davis, she's just happy it is being released — even if it's only on a couple of screens.
"It's funny, [the filmmaking process] is like childbirth," she says. "It's so painful, and once you go through it you say you're never going to go through it again. But once you have the baby, you forget, and you do it again. That's how I see making an independent film."