Anatomical Detectives: Spadola and Powers Talk About "Private Dicks"
By Augusta Palmer
Two years ago, Meema Spadola and Thom Powers finished their independent documentary on one part of the female anatomy, "Breasts," with funds from HBO-Cinemax's Reel Life series. When it aired, "Breasts" became the network's highest rated documentary ever. This Monday marks the premiere of their new documentary on yet another anatomical subject, "Private Dicks: Men Exposed," made exclusively for HBO. Much like its predecessor, "Private Dicks" features interviews with a variety of people of multiple races, professions, and gender identities about how having a penis has influenced their lives.
indieWIRE visited the two director/producers at the offices of their newly-formed production company, Sugar Pictures. Amid the installation of an array of appropriately candy-colored iMacs, we discussed various bodily appendages and varying degrees of independence for documentary filmmakers.
indieWIRE: How did you approach the making of "Private Dicks"?
Meema Spadola: Thankfully, HBO recognized what we had done with "Breasts" as a working formula. And I mean "formula" in a nice way, not in a bad way.
And so we basically repeated the same format: we're going to get a certain number of guys, we're going to ask them these questions about their penises, we're going to do it in the studio. You know, it's a very controllable kind of project to do. There's no shooting B roll, there's no worrying about the weather. It's just getting the subject to the studio and shooting them. Easy - I mean easier when you have a budget.
And then the hard part is picking the right person, asking the right questions, and then editing. For a piece like this, editing is pretty intense. It's very much like writing, I think, and you have to impose some kind of story where there is none. I mean, there's no natural narrative arc to this. So we imposed this arc stretching from childhood to the last section, which is called maturity. And it's not exactly about aging; it's about maturing - maturing sexually or having a more mature attitude towards sex, whereas at the beginning there's much more of a "haha," "peepee," jerk off kind of immature attitude. And then at the end, it's more "making a woman come, that's a beautiful thing" or declining libido. . . It was a real struggle to know how to end the film.
iW: So was it easier to get women to take their tops off or to get men to take their pants off?
Thom Powers: It's easier to get women to take their tops off. I mean not for me personally. . . . There were guys who I interviewed beforehand who said, "Well, can I do this with my face blacked out?" To which I always said, "This isn't a film about the mafia." An important part of it is seeing your face, an important part is to not treat this like it's a subject of shame. But probably the difference for women is that they have less to hide. I mean if size is the issue, for example.
Spadola: Breasts are the most public private part. Penises are the most private ones. You never see penises - unless you're sleeping with someone, peeing next to someone, taking a shower next to someone or watching porn.
Powers: There are more penises in this film than I've seen on television ever.
iW: Unless you're watching a Harvey Keitel movie... Why do you think the subject of penises is so much more sensitive than breasts? I mean when you were titling the film, I know you decided that you couldn't just call it "Penises".
Powers: Right. Well, first of all it's not a very good word. Second, TV Guide wouldn't print it. They wouldn't even print "Private Dicks." When they reviewed the film they called it "Men Exposed."
Powers: People keep asking me what surprised me the most when making the film. And what surprised me is the depth of fear and resistance around the subject. I knew that it was a subject that people weren't really comfortable with and that I myself wasn't really comfortable with before we started making it. But the degree to which people don't want to talk about this subject or want to avoid it.
Spadola: Or just want to laugh it off. We got so many questionnaires back where people were just making absolute jokes... I would say at least half of the questionnaires [sent out to cull subjects for the film] were joking.
Men have so much invested in that image of being in control. Todd [one of the documentary's subjects] said that part of being a man is being really in control of your sexuality, like being able to get a hard-on when you want it and performing the way you want to. And then part of being a man seems to be this celebration and glorification of being totally out of control with your sexuality, where you're kind of running wild and your testosterone is taking over or you're thinking with your dick. . . It didn't make it into the film, but it's a great quote; a perfect way of explaining why it's difficult to be a man, why it's difficult to have a penis.
iW: What was the difference between making "Breasts," which was really an independent film which you sold to Cinemax and making "Private Dicks," which HBO-Cinemax commissioned? Do you still consider "Private Dicks" to be "independent?
Powers: Everyone has their own definitions of what's an independent film. I think that there's no question that there's a big financial difference between the making of "Breasts" and "Private Dicks." But I think "Private Dicks is every bit an independent film. I think everything that appears on HBO has that kind of spirit of independence. You can look at it content-wise. Their slogan is "It's not TV, it's HBO," and as glib a slogan as that is, I think they kind of live up to it. "Private Dicks" is a film that could never ever appear on commercial television. Every year there are probably a million hours on television programmed with sports and in the history of American television there's never been one hour devoted to the penis.
In terms of the career side of things, when this film is over we have to hustle our next film. We're not on anyone's payroll. which is both a nerve-wracking and a liberating experience. I'd very much love to go back and do another HBO film; but all the ideas I have now are not necessarily HBO ideas. So I might go somewhere else to do my next film...
Spadola: To add to that, certainly with ITVS I get final cut on my documentary and you don't get final cut with HBO. But, I'm pretty amazed at how open they are.
iW: So you didn't experience any constraints working for them on "Dicks"?
Spadola: Not really. Initially they weren't too sure about nudity and that was something we felt really strongly about.
Powers: And they backed us up entirely. There was not a single frame of the film changed for censorious reasons. They had input on things. And sometimes it comes down to niggling changes which your first instinct about is "I don't want to change this because this is the way I did it in the first place." And I look at it now and some of the changes they made are better. The others, well, there's literally not a change in the film that rankles me.
iW: One really interesting choice you made was using vibrantly colored backgrounds behind your subjects. It's very unexpected and really changes the tone of the film. What made you decide to do that?
Powers: We went through a lot of ideas. We wanted a look that was different from "Breasts" and yet we wanted that special space of the studio as opposed to filming people in their homes.
Spadola: That was never something we wanted to do. When we were doing "Breasts" people kept saying, "Oh, if you had money you could go to the strip joint where the stripper works... You could do this, you could do that." But that was never ever what we were interested in. For me, it's sort of equalizing to put everyone in the same space... I do think that there's something really formally very interesting about seeing a supposed limitation like talking heads and saying, "How far can you take that?" People said to us, "You can't do an hour of talking heads." But I thought about how you can use that to your advantage. We talked about shooting guys in a locker room, or in a bedroom, or in a doctor's office. Ultimately, it was foolish.
Powers: Ultimately, that background is just distracting. . .The colored backgrounds came out of a discussion with our cameraman, Will Rexer. And part of the idea behind the colored backgrounds is that I wanted to make a happy film about the penis. Recognizing that people come to the subject with a certain amount of anxiety, I wanted to make just this bright Easter-egg film...
Spadola: And I think there's something just so subversive about taking something that's so "dirty" and taboo and making it in the most bright, cheerful colors. How can something that's purple or pink or blue be dirty? That's not scary. That's not a mean color.
Powers: But when we were finished shooting, we wondered if we had made the biggest mistake in the world. . . . It wasn't until we started editing, until we started seeing the colors next to each other, which we loved. And then we sent it to HBO and we were afraid that they were just going to flip out.
Spadola: We hadn't mentioned it to them.
Powers: We didn't really check it out with HBO.
Spadola: That's part of being independent. You don't ask people permission to do things. You just do it.
Powers: And HBO didn't say anything about the colors.
Spadola: In fact they never did. And we didn't ask.
iW: A "don't ask, don't tell" color policy?
Spadola: That's our policy about a lot of things.
Meema Spadola and Thom Powers' "Private Dicks: Men Exposed" is a part of HBO's America Undercover series and airs for the first time on Monday, March 15th at 11 pm on HBO.
[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer currently teaching at New York's School of Visual Arts and pursuing her doctorate in Cinema Studies at N.Y.U.]