First Person

My epic struggle to make a movie about the late, great Joey Stefano

At least once a week, I get asked, “Whatever happened to that Joey Stefano biopic you were going to do?”

Every time, I sigh and reply, “Still trying to find the financing. Got a million bucks?” This for nearly eighteen years.

The 1994 overdose death of Joey Stefano (born Nicholas Iacona) began haunting me a week after the tragedy of Sept 11, 2001.

I was at A Different Light Bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood and Charles Isherwood’s 1996 biography of the doomed porn star, Wonder Bread and Ecstasy, literally fell off a shelf in front of me.

I had met many “Joeys” while living in LA and working as a director at Central Casting so I knew the type: Young wannabes, who moved to Hollywood to be famous. They knew they were beautiful. Their looks got them behind the ropes and into celebrity parties in the hills. Wide-eyed and naïve, they eventually got hooked on drugs and alcohol and a few months later, began escorting or doing porn for fast money.

I bought the book, read it in one sitting, and immediately contacted legendary porn auteur, Chi Chi LaRue. The drag porn impresario discovered Stefano after being introduced by porn star Tony Davis in 1989 and shortly thereafter, their careers exploded. Stefano became one of the biggest stars in the industry and LaRue one of the biggest producers/directors. Rounding out the legendary Porn Brat Pack of the heyday of gay porn was Geoff Gann (aka “Karen Dior”), Sharon Kane, Chris Green, Fred Bagey (aka “Gender”), and writer Mickey Skee. Other members would come and go, but they were the originals. This, I thought, would be a great cast of characters to revolve a plot around.

Joey’s rise in the porn industry also included an appearance in Madonna’s Sex book, after she spotted him dancing at the Gaiety Theatre, a porn palace in New York City. Drug use was common in those days, but his addiction was on a whole different level. Joey overdosed several times before the final time in that now-infamous motel room at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea.

Chi Chi was the ringleader of this group and no one would be able to tell this story properly without him. However, my plans were squashed when he emailed me back, “I have ZERO interest in ever talking to you about this as a movie.”

I spent the next nine years in LA in and out of casting, working for the showrunners on Crossing Jordan, battling cancer, and working as an assistant to an actress. Like a lot of aspiring behind-the-screen types in Hollywood, I spent most of my time writing screenplays for producers who didn’t have the money they claimed in order to produce my scripts, which had been optioned for one dollar.

Related: Christian Slater Felt Competitive With James Franco Over Those King Cobra Sex Scenes

On a summer night in 2010, I was done with LA and ready to move back to Atlanta, where I grew up. Sitting at St. Felix with some friends, my buddy Adam Cuculich tried to convince me to write, produce and direct my own film. I had no interest in directing. “The only story I’ve ever wanted to direct is the Stefano biopic and Chi Chi 86’d that years ago.” After explaining my fated email in 2001, Adam felt enough time had passed. We paid our tab, we rounded the corner and ran smack into one Chi Chi LaRue. It had to be a sign, right?

The next morning, I sat down with LaRue himself and convinced him to let me write the script. But I would need him to help me get in touch with the others. He had rightfully circled the wagons after Stefano’s death. They were family and families don’t spill secrets.

I had drinks with Sharon Kane at the Abbey and lunch with Chris Green at Aroma Cafe. I flew to New York and interviewed Robert Prion, Michael Musto, and Jerry Douglas. I flew to Las Vegas and interviewed Chi Chi competitor Brian Maley, who found Joey’s lifeless body at that Hollywood La Brea Motel in November 1994.

The reporter, “Mickey Skee,” eluded me for months, until I randomly discovered by accident that I actually already knew him as Mike Szymanski and he sang in the choir at my church. I would discover this information when Mike called me while I was standing in a hallway at Cedars Sinai, where Stefano was pronounced “expired.”

Geoff Gann (aka “Karen Dior”) died in 2004, Fred Bagey (aka “Gender”) vanished off the face of the Earth, and I couldn’t locate Tony Davis to save my life. Stefano’s family declined all interview requests.

I interviewed close to a hundred people. It was important for me to interview everyone personally and only use the research, interviews and archives that Mike provided to me. Mike’s apartment is a vault of history, containing clippings, photos, tapes, and notes going back nearly thirty years. My research took about a year before I had the first draft.

I wanted the “realies” (what I called “the real people”) to sign-off on the script. Even in places where action might be a composite of events, I wanted them to feel I portrayed them accurately and authentically. Read: I didn’t want to stand up in a Q&A next to Chi Chi and have him scream, “That never happened!”

I was also obsessed with finding the infamous red shirt everyone spoke of in their interviews. The story of the “red sweatshirt” first appeared in an article Mike wrote for Manshots about the night of Joey’s death. The shirt was passed around the mourning friends, just hours after he died, still damp from his sweat. Sharon didn’t have it. Chi Chi didn’t have it. No one could remember who had it. Chris thought Geoff had it or one of Geoff’s lovers had it, but most of them were dead.

With the script completed, I attached Missi Pyle as “Sharon Kane,” Willam Belli as “Geoff Gann/ Karen Dior,” and Ryan O’Connor as “Chi Chi LaRue.” Years later, I attached Michelle Visage as a talk show host (a composite character from the 90s) and Alaska as “Gender.”

Related: Queerty Query: Chi Chi LaRue

In 2010, agents and managers would laugh when I sent the script and an offer for “Joey.” “He’s not going to play a gay character.” “We’re not going to LET my client play a gay character.” “He’s not going to do nudity.” (Months later the same actor leaked his own sex tape.) Even out actors’ agents turned it down because the money wasn’t enough or “he’s not going to play a porn star!” “What’s the budget? It’s only a million? Ha!”

At least six of those actors have since come out publicly over the last nine years. At one point, the team for one of the biggest names in Hollywood said, “It’s perfect for him! We love this script and it’s a great role!” and two days later, “Can we stick a pin in this? He’s going into rehab.”

At one point in 2018, we had a “Joey” lead officially on the hook. I was ecstatic. His agents were ecstatic because he hadn’t taken any film roles since he started his successful series. The day we were going to make the announcement, they emailed he had cold feet and was scared about getting the role wrong.

Each time a cast announcement was released, it was picked up by nearly every gay news site all over the world. On Good Friday 2012, we released character photos of Ryan, Missi, and Willam through The Advocate and I received a phone call saying we temporarily crashed their servers from the traffic.

The budget hovered at around a million dollars. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s also A LOT of money. That’s all actors making favored nations at about two thousand a week at SAG-AFTRA low scale. It probably wouldn’t afford the nineties soundtrack we want. And it would be a lot of the time-honored Hollywood indie tradition: beg, borrow, steal. It would mean asking friends to work as extras for free on big days. It would be good food (which is the most important thing on any set) and no trailers. The reason is financial: You want the investors to make their money back and a small profit, but investing in an LGBTQ centric film about an adult star in 2010 was a huge risk.

I really liked “King Cobra,” which was inspired by the life of porn star, Brent Corrigan. However, Corrigan came out against the filmmakers, saying they “bastardized” his life to present an inaccurate portrayal of the murder and of his time in porn.

Because our industry loves to oversimplify projects, people would say, “Oh, it’s a gay ‘Boogie Nights’” and I always correct them, “It’s Gia with a dude.” For me, it’s not a movie about the porn industry. It’s a movie about addiction and the family you create. And it is entirely sympathetic to Joey’s difficult journey, from losing his father as a teen to coming out in a small town Chester, Pennsylvania, to falling into big-town addiction, a not uncommon trajectory for young gay men who, thank god, mostly survive.

We did four investor readings and every time, the script was praised. But every time I was asked, “Do you have a horror script? You know horror sells. I mean, who is going to pay to see a movie about a dead gay porn star?”

Potential investors appeared and disappeared (one, committing suicide after a major fraud investigation). One producer claimed to have an in with a major studio and months later, fired for embezzlement. One was a pathological liar and had to be legally removed.

For years, I would call the attached actors, “so there’s been some new interest” only to have the trail go cold months later. It was soul-crushing. God knows Chi Chi grew tired of seeing my name pop up on his phone with news of another interested investor, only to have him disappear.

In 2012, my short film “Groom’s Cake” (and the feature film sequel, “Birthday Cake”) hit the festival circuits and we won awards all over the world. I tried to travel to as many cities as possible, hoping I would meet a millionaire/s who would invest in the new film. Lots of leads, which all went cold. I’ll be the first to admit “Cake” isn’t “Schindler’s List.” It’s a mockumentary made for $15,000. And to date, thanks to a terrible distribution deal, we still haven’t made half of that back.

I learned from Ava DuVernay while working on “Selma”: “It’s all in self-distribution now. You have to distribute it on your own.”

Related: Biopic about legendary adult star Joey Stefano announced and guess who’s set to star?

Burned and heartbroken, I put “Joey” away, hoping it might find the right timing in a few years.

In 2017, everything changed: “Moonlight” won Best Picture. “Call Me By Your Name” was an awards darling.

Everyone in Hollywood was suddenly clamoring for “their Moonlight.” The phone started ringing again. “Do you still have that Stefano script?” Another set of producers materialized and once again, empty promises all around.

But the landscape had officially changed. Hollywood was seeking and distributing LGBTQ centric films in theaters and on television now more than ever before. To name just a few: “Love, Simon,” “Killing Eve,” and, most recently, “Batwoman.” Even “Queer Eye” and “Will & Grace” were back.

And of course, “Pose” changed representation for trans actors forever. Steven Canals blew the door off the hinges.

Two years ago, I got a phone call from Tony Davis’ husband, Wayne. He had found my Facebook page for the film. Tony was diagnosed with AIDS in 1993 and hit hard with meningitis in 2013 and again in 2014. He’s 75% disabled and the brain lesions left him verbally and mobility compromised, according to Wayne, who was able to help me understand Tony. They both read the script and loved it. I made a trip to LA and met them.

While sitting with them at the Renaissance Hotel with Wayne and Tony, who I’d finally found, Mike called me and said he’d found something he had to show me. He had recently come across a box of Karen Dior’s clothing and each of the pieces had little notes pinned inside them. Dresses. Shirts. Jeans.

He pulled out a red poplin shirt with a note that read: “Nicky died in this.” Mike realized when he wrote the story the night of his death, his note, “a red, sweaty shirt” was rewritten by Manshots as “a red sweatshirt.”

I still have no explanation as to why I felt the need to find this shirt for nearly eighteen years, but here it was. I felt like I had finally caught this ghost I had been chasing for nearly two decades.

I’ve probably sent the script to over 500 actors, agents, investors and producers.

In my telling of the story, it’s about a group of friends who loved each other, worked together, celebrated their angels and battled their own demons together. Joey Stefano was one of the most beloved porn stars of his generation because, in a time when we were just starting to understand HIV, he provided an escape. He was the Italian everyman turned to sex fantasy. He had a charisma you just couldn’t describe. The Porn Brat Pack was royalty in West Hollywood in the early nineties. When they walked into a club, people stopped and stared. They parted crowds.

Today, anyone with an iPhone can be a “porn star.”

And even more, it’s a story about addiction. It makes no judgments on its players. Addiction is the villain in this story. Addiction is a disease that wants you dead.

This November marks the 25th anniversary of Nick Iacona’s death. Today, he’s buried in an unmarked grave in a small cemetery, not far from his childhood home in Chester.

I really hope I get to share his story soon.

(And if you have a million dollars, call me.)