Gay men of a certain age, specifically those who were of sexual maturity in the early 1990s, likely retain fond memories of adult film star Joey Stefano. A veteran of nearly 50 gay porn films, the actor’s popularity was so widespread that even Madonna sought him out to participate in a photo shoot for her racy Sex book. Stefano (born Nicholas Iacona) was even rumored to have been involved in relationships with many entertainment executives, including (then-closeted) David Geffen. Now, nearly two decades after his drug-related death in 1994, Stefano’s short but eventful life and his friendships with porn pals Chi Chi LaRue, Sharon Kane, Mickey Skee and others (dubbed the porn version of the “brat pack”) is the subject of an upcoming film titled, appropriately, X-Rated. Acclaimed filmmaker Chad Darnell, whose comedy Birthday Cake recently nabbed the Jury Prize for Best Film at the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, chats with Queerty about his journey bringing the tale to the screen and why people are still interested in the tragic film star.
What is so intriguing about Joey Stefano’s life that makes him worthy of a feature film?
This is a story about addiction. The film is about the entire “porn brat pack:” Chi Chi LaRue, Sharon Kane, Mickey Skee, Karen Dior and of course, Joey. They were a family. So, while Joey’s story is front and center in the film, as I’ve joked, it’s a little more X-Men and less Wolverine. It’s an ensemble film. Each of these characters battled years of addiction and Joey’s addictions killed him and everyone knew his addiction would kill him. But I have to call him Nick. Nicholas Iacona was his real name and Joey was just a stage name. I’ve become very protective of him after years of interviews.
Did you base your screenplay on Wonder Bread and Ecstasy, Charles Isherwood’s biography of him?
I honestly had never heard of Joey Stefano before the book literally fell in front of me. I remember buying the book at A Different Light in West Hollywood a week after September 11 in 2001. It literally fell off the shelf and landed at my feet. I read it in one sitting and immediately emailed Larry Paciotti (AKA “Chi Chi LaRue”) and he very bluntly replied, “I have zero interest in ever discussing this with you as a movie.”
Then nine years later, I was sitting at St. Felix (a West Hollywood restaurant located across the street from La Rue’s adult shop), with my friend Adam Cuculich and a few other people, contemplating a movie back to Atlanta. I was tired of writing scripts for producers who couldn’t get them made. And tired of writing for free. I was ready to go back to Atlanta and return to a life of casting and Adam encouraged me to direct my own films. Produce my own work. At the time, that seemed completely impossible and I said the only script that I’ve ever wanted to produce on my own was the Joey Stefano story.
We finished our drinks, rounded the corner and ran smack into Larry. [We] set a meeting for the next day and I convinced Larry to allow me to write the script. I knew it would be impossible to do the story without his involvement.
I never went back to Isherwood’s book, because I wanted to find the story on my own. I didn’t want to be influenced by his research. It had been nearly a decade since I read it. I knew the key plot points and I remember feeling that it was missing something. And it wasn’t due to his research. It’s simply at the time he interviewed everyone for the book, it was fresh for them. So they protected each other and not all of the truth came out in the book.
What additional research did you do?
I reached out to everyone who knew him or met him. I didn’t care if they only met him at club, I wanted to meet everyone who would meet with me, because their perception, their stories of him are important to the story. I interviewed Larry, Sharon, Brian Maley in Vegas. Directors like Robert Prion and Jerry Douglas in New York. Anybody who was interested, I wanted to talk to them. I met with close to a hundred people.
And Mickey Skee, the reporter who documented their entire rise to fame, was an invaluable resource and finding him was yet another one of those “spiritual” moments. Turned out, we already knew each other, but I didn’t know about his past and “Skee” is a pen name. He shared videos, tapes, press articles. I’m really proud of the script. Capturing Nick’s voice was paramount. And from everyone who has read it, said I got it.
Has his family been cooperative?
Sadly, no. I’ve reached out to them a number of times but I was told it was “just too painful.” I was also aware that they had attempted to bring legal action against Alyson Books (the publisher of Wonderbread) and a few theatres who attempted plays about Nick. So I also wanted to let them know the movie was happening. It’s like inviting the neighbors over to a party. Sure you want them to come and be a part of it, but mainly you’re letting them know that you’re going to be making a lot of noise.
But in the end, I asked every single person I interviewed what Nick told them about his childhood and upbringing. They all had the same story. And if I could talk to his family, I would tell them again that I’m very protective of him and respectful to their loss. They are not the villains in this movie as have been speculated in the past by bloggers. The villain here is addiction. I would hope that if I die tragically and a screenwriter approached my family, they would talk to him or her in order to share their story. But in the end, I have what I need to satisfy those questions.