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Behind the Scenes of a Covid-Themed Zoom Porn

“Am I masturbating with my mask on?” Cherie Deville asks, reclining on her bed. She is playing Kate, a woman so germophobic that she sanitizes her whiteboard to-do list; the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown her into overdrive, and she barely leaves the house, sleeping in goggles and retrieving her delivered groceries while in a full hazmat suit. Yet with her honey-blond hair and perfectly glossed lips, Cherie bears little resemblance to a frazzled germopobe; instead, she looks like a bustier Rita Wilson.

“No, you’re not,” says Bree Mills, from her chair in her office. Via Zoom, she’s directing Deville in Future Darkly: Pandemic, the latest installment in the pornography production company Adult Time’s series of dystopian sci-fi films. “We are all shooting with our masks on, but we are not masturbating with the masks on,” says Mills. Deville nods and proceeds to enthusiastically masturbate in front of the camera, manned by two crew members, shooting one X-rated version of the scene and one R-rated version for release on YouTube, her nude body concealed underneath a sheet. Just moments earlier, she, the two crew members, and Mills were making small talk about going camping, the weirdest places Deville has had sex on camera (it’s a tie between a glacier and on the back of a truck in the middle of the Mojave) and an airplane passing by her home overhead. “One of the most important things to know about being on an adult set,” Mills tells me, “is the number of times you have to stop for airplanes.”

Future Darkly: Pandemic is an experiment in Covid-era adult filmmaking, a feature-length adult movie consisting of segments that were shot either with only the aid of a skeleton crew, or entirely over Zoom. All of the performers are either solo or paired with their real-life partners, and they shot and co-produced the segments at their own homes. Mills started working on the project in late February 2020, at the very start of the pandemic, when the world was just starting to shut down and our understanding of the virus was so limited that people were Googling hazmat suits and frantically scrubbing down their groceries. She invited Rolling Stone to virtually sit in on the development of the film in the spring of 2020, and on the set that fall, to observe the remote filmmaking process, and see how directing intimacy — or, as Mills puts it on set, “s-e-x” — translates in an era when actual intimacy is prohibited.

As it turns out, watching porn being made over Zoom is not dissimilar to participating in any other Zoom event: it’s mostly mundane, interspersed with the occasional moment of levity or absurdity. Later that day, I will watch Deville pretend to seduce a character called the “Free Man,” a maskless MAGA protester meets Marlboro Man, by balling up her panties, inserting them into her vagina, and stuffing them into her mouth while masturbating on a teal table. Mills is unfazed. “Hang on her while she does that so you can hear her say, ‘I want you to put your cock inside me,’ ” is the only thing she says to her sound man.

kate and the free man pandemic sex

“Kate and the Free Man”

Adult Time

“Kate and the Free Man,” as Deville’s segment is called, is one of four vignettes that make up Future Darkly: Pandemic. There’s also “Laura’s Delivery,” about a bored housewife caring for a Covid-19 patient who falls into bed with an Amazon deliveryman; “Alex and Anna,” about a couple reuniting after lockdown (complete with PPE sex); and “Anthony’s Date,” a Her-inspired tale about a lonely man who falls in love with an AI assistant. Future Darkly: Pandemic isn’t the first or only Covid-19-themed porn on the market, but it is among the more ambitious, in that it attempts to capture “the desperation of having a basic human need” — intimacy and human connection — “deprived,” says 3X West, a member of Adult Time’s writing team who worked on the treatment.

Mills is a longtime industry veteran with short spiked hair and an endless supply of lightly distressed band T-shirts. As the chief creative officer for Adult Time and the mind behind what the Daily Beast refers to as “the Netflix of porn,” she produces relatively high-budget, narrative feature films, releasing R-rated versions on YouTube and X-rated versions for paying customers. “I always say I’m a lousy pornographer,” she tells me. “I just like making movies and sex is a fun subject.” Although Mills’ films are glossier and more high-end, the titles of many of her films are decidedly quotidian in the world of porn; 2020 entries on her IMDB page include “Let Me Lick Your Tits,” “In Bed With My Stepsister,” and “Lesbian Revenge Fantasies Volume 3.”

Mills directed Future Darkly: Pandemic from her office in her Los Angeles home, calling into the set and providing direction remotely similar to a typical Zoom meeting, except much of the time people were having sex on the other end of the screen. (Mills will occasionally interject from her desk chair to remind her crew members to put the masks on, which they do dutifully.)

Shooting the most intimate acts remotely during a pandemic “felt like the porno science fair a little bit,” says Siouxsie Q, who with Mills was the director of “Anthony’s Date.” Q shot her partner Michael Vegas as the titular character, a lonely man who falls in love with an AI assistant, played by Ana Foxx. “There was such a spirit of experimentation. All the rules had been thrown out the window,” says Q. “Anyone who wanted to do things the old way, that wasn’t really going to fly in this new way of life post-COVID.”

Anthony's Date michael vegas pandemic porn

“Anthony’s Date”

Adult Time

Deville says that all things considered, the virtual shoot Mills and her crew had set up was much more like a traditional shooting experience than most of the content she’s made during the pandemic. “All the other at-home shoots were more, ‘Here’s what we’d like you to do, here’s what app we need you to use on your cell phone, here are the things you need,’ ” she told me in December. “This shoot at least felt closer to what we’d done pre-Covid, in that I had an actual director.” 

Over the past eight months, the industry has changed dramatically. At the start of the pandemic, a months-long moratorium imposed by the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), an industry lobbying group, shut production down immediately, causing widespread panic within the industry. At the time, insiders predicted that a shutdown would have a disastrous effect on performers, the vast majority of whom are independent contractors and do not have health care or other benefits upon which to rely if they are unemployed.

Yet as the pandemic has raged on, something surprising has happened: those at the upper echelons of the industry — the producers, directors, distributors, and people who have traditionally held the most power in the industry — have floundered, while performers have thrived. “The pandemic really slapped the studios in the face,” says Mills. “But it didn’t stop the performers with the assets they had built, the fan bases they had built, and the ability to provide content for their audiences.”

With many studios on hiatus from shooting due to a resurgence in cases, performers are pivoting to making solo content at home and selling it on subscription content sites. “If this had been back in the Nineties or early 2000s where most pornographic performers were dependent on being on-set, I’d be in trouble,” says Deville. “But now, we have our OnlyFans and our clip stores and our Pornhub accounts.” (The only types of performers who are hard to book, says Deville, are MILFs, whom she has heard from talent bookers are not working as frequently: “I do wonder if they’re worried, like, ‘we’re so old we’re gonna die [of Covid],’” she says, jokingly.) 

Alex and Anna pandemic porn

“Alex and Anna”

Adult Time

Jake Adams, a compact adult performer who resembles a young Robert De Niro, plays a delivery person in “Laura’s Delivery,” featuring his partner Scarlett Siren as a bored housewife caring for her Covid-positive, housebound husband. For performers like Adams, who lives with Siren and has a shoot house that he rents out to other producers, the pandemic has been nothing short of a business opportunity. “It gave me a unique opportunity to get in contact with companies to sell them some content,” he says. “People were in desperate need so they were buying it like crazy.”

Siouxsie has had a similar experience, referring to this period as a “renaissance” in the adult industry for performers and small, independent content creators. “This has been an opportunity for independent content producers and activists like myself to really step forward and be producers in a real way. We have ultimate control over a set now,” she says. “When I’m walking onto a set, it’s my set. I have the ability to provide the PPE and be in control of that and who exactly is on my set, and that was something we didn’t have before. We weren’t having big studios come to us and be like OK, will you please shoot for us? It’s really in the best interest of these companies to come to these performers and give them the autonomy they’ve been asking for for generations.”

Of course, this trend does not apply to all performers; those who haven’t built substantive online followings continue to work with studios that are still using traditional in-person shooting methods, albeit with PPE, scaled-back crew, and testing at least 24 hours in advance. Yet some performers like Deville are not comfortable with these safeguards, due to rifts in internal testing systems and a lack of faith in other performers’ quarantine habits. “Even just looking at some people’s Instagrams you can tell they’re out and about, and I can’t control the social life of the entire industry,” she says. Fortunately for her, she has a large enough fanbase and sufficient name recognition that she makes a decent amount of money producing her own content, and theoretically would never have to shoot for a studio again. “It’s not so much the direct income of shooting i want or even need,” she says. “It’s more that it keeps me relevant in the pornographic market.”

With such a seismic shift going on within the industry, production companies like Adult Time are obviously not in prime position to make money right now. But Mills says she’s not particularly worried, and that projects like Pandemic: Future Darkly provide a prime prospect to show how studios can adjust their traditional output models. “What we did with the pandemic is a perfect example of how easy it is to adapt to make something and how more opportunities can come out of it afterwards,” she says. “It’s on the studios to embrace the path forward. It’s sort of like when people started making videos on YouTube and then YouTubers were looked down upon for the establishment. Now everyone’s trying to make YouTube stuff.”

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