Falcon In the 90s: Interview with Veteran Videographer Max Phillips
“When I started in the industry—I didn’t know it at the time—I think it was a golden age,” says Max Phillips, reflecting on his unforgettable work with one of the most iconic companies in gay porn history, Falcon Studios. Half of his astounding 20 year career in adult entertainment was spent with the studio, shooting and editing some of the powerhouse’s most awarded and bestselling films.
Alongside fellow GHM contributor, Geoffrey T. Spaulding, Max blessed us with the incredible opportunity to interview him for an in-depth conversation about his time with Falcon and other legendary names like Colt and Mustang. Taking us behind the scenes of some of the most groundbreaking films in gay erotic cinema, Max provides a rare glimpse into what it was like on the set of these beloved classics as well as the personal relationships he developed with screen and industry legends alike.
We couldn’t feel more honored to have been granted with such an intimate invitation into the experience of working during such a special era of time. From start to finish, this discussion is a true gift indeed.
GHM: You’ve shot with Falcon in the 90s. Could you explain the basis of your work with the studio? Have you worked with any other studios?
The 10 years prior to starting work at Falcon, I had been working as a camera operator and editor for a production company that produced sports, entertainment, and public affairs programming for the broadcast and cable networks. In 1997, the company was sold, moved to New York, and everyone was laid off. I sent my resume out to a lot of companies and since I was a fan and customer of Falcon Studios, I sent one to them too. Within a week I got a call from John Rutherford’s assistant asking if I could come in for an interview the following week. Then the next day, I got a call back asking if I could come in now. The following week, I was on the set of Mercury Rising. That was August 1997.
I assisted on the next two Falcon movies, Red Alert and Current Affairs. It was on Red Alert that I first met Chuck Holmes, the founder and owner of Falcon Studios. Chuck was a real presence; I had worked with the crew a lot at this point but with Chuck there, everyone stepped it up a notch.
The first Falcon movie that I shot from beginning to end was The Big Thrill, not long after that I started shooting all of Jocks Studios and Mustang Studios' movies that were directed by Chi Chi LaRue. About a year later, I started taking on some of the editing.
I continued working at Falcon until May 2005 when I started working at Colt Studio, which by then was owned by John Rutherford.
GHM: Given that Falcon is such an iconic name in gay porn, what was it like working with such a respected studio?
When I first started working at Falcon, I had no perspective on how other porn companies did things or where Falcon ranked within the industry. Then I went to my first GAYVN awards show with John Rutherford and Chuck Holmes. Chuck didn’t usually attend industry functions. As we made our way into ballroom, I was walking behind John and Chuck. It was then I realized the stature of Falcon. As we passed through the crowd, I could see heads turn, people talking to each other, and discretely pointing out John and Chuck.
As far as what it was like to work for Falcon, it was like any other well-run business. We were expected to be on time, ready to work, and work hard. Attention to detail was very important. There is a story that goes like this: Chuck was watching a video before he started Falcon, and in that video one of the models had on dirty socks. Chuck said, “They don’t even care enough about this video to give the model clean socks.” People who heard that story and knew it meant “pay attention to the details and not just make sure you have clean socks” did well at Falcon.
But on set and in the office, things were still relaxed and casual. We had the usual benefits, vacation time and healthcare, even a company Christmas party. During the planning stage of the productions, everyone had input. Whenever Chi Chi would come to the office to set up the next Jocks or Mustang movie, he’d let me have some input and be part of the pre-production. I’d always try to get my favorite models in the cast. Sometimes, I’d get my wish and get a look that said, “really, him again?”
The orgies would usually have a pre-determined starting point that tied into the storyline. The director worked out the pairings with the models, trying to take into account their preferences and what he wanted for the overall scene. As things progressed and chemistry developed, the action would be allowed to evolve in a natural way. The director would always maintain control though. John Rutherford or Chi Chi LaRue directed all of the orgies that I shot. The largest orgy that I ever shot was in a Mustang movie, Aftershock, a cast of 40.
The challenge of shooting an orgy is getting enough footage of all the different action and getting every possible angle so that everything will edit together in a way that will make sense to the viewer. You don’t want to jump around too much where the viewer could become confused. It is really challenging for the director, who has to keep track of everyone and what they are doing. It is kind of like herding kittens.
GHM: Was Betrayed as much fun to film as it was to watch?
Betrayed was a fun movie to work on for few reasons. It was shot in the foothills of Northern California, north of Sacramento. The house we were shooting at was located on a huge piece of land with tons of places to shoot, lots of variety.
It was also the first time that some of the cast from French Connections came to the U.S. to do a movie (Luc Jarrett and Virgil Sainclair). Prior to this, they had never been to the U.S.; in fact, French Connections was the first movie for both). The entire cast in Betrayed was great.
GHM: What are your thoughts on these noteworthy performers from that era?
Kevin Williams: Kevin was easy to work with. When he arrived on the set for Betrayed, he didn’t look that much different than he had before he took a break from doing movies. His boyfriend at the time was Lane Fuller and introduced him to John Rutherford. John put Lane in his first movie, Absolute Aqua & Arid that we shot in Australia in 1999.
Steve Pierce: Steve was in The Big Thrill, the first movie that I shot from beginning to end. It was a three-way scene with Steve, Scott Austin as bottoms, and Buck Meadows as the top. Steve was very calm and centered. Scott was a little more carefree, sort of a “whatever” attitude.
Jeff Palmer: Jeff really enjoyed having sex; what you saw on the screen was real and when we stopped rolling camera, Jeff wanted to keep going. Sometimes, we’d have to slow him down so that we could get all of the coverage we needed and that wasn’t a problem for him. He was always hard and ready to go. He did a few pissing scenes and he is the only person that I can remember who could be rock hard while pissing straight up.
Jackson Price: Jackson was a great performer; he always came to the set ready to work and gave it his all. There was a scene in The Violation with Jackson and Colby Taylor that was amazing. They had a real chemistry that was 100% real. Chi Chi was the director and he pretty much started them off and let them go from there. They both were aware of where the camera was and would position themselves so that we could get the best shot. But their performance was like we weren’t in the room.
Two others I’d like to mention…
Travis Wade: Travis was always aware of how his image was being presented and wanted to do his best. It meant something to Travis when he was on the box cover or a magazine layout. He always knew his dialogue when he came to set. When he decided he was ready to bottom on camera (The Crush), he wanted to be sure his fans would be satisfied. His co-star was Colby Taylor and they got to know each other beforehand so they would both be comfortable. Travis wanted Colby as his scene partner because if he was going to bottom, it had to be someone with a big dick, no little starter dick for him. He said, “That is what my fans expect.” When he did personal appearances, he always drew large crowds.
Travis was in the first movie that I directed at Falcon, Hooked. He had just won a GAYVN award and wanted to step it up for this next scene. He told me that he had never rimmed on camera before and he’d like to do in this movie. He really gave his all in the scene, with Anthony Shaw, when I thought we had enough of the rimming, he said, “No, I want to make sure you have everything you need. Let’s do more.”
Colby Taylor: Colby was in the very first scene I shot for The Big Thrill and his scene partner was Derek Cameron. Colby has a very unassuming, friendly personality. Models do movies for several reasons—Colby’s were that he liked the sex and the process of making the movies. He was always aware of where the camera was and would move so that the camera had the best shot. He would be listening to the director and if his scene partner didn’t react to the director’s command to move his arm let’s say, Colby would casually reach over and move this partners arm as if that was the way it was suppose to happen. In the days of the original Falcon Exclusive contracts, Colby re-signed more times and was in more movies than anyone else.
GHM: Are there any movies that were to be made, but didn’t get made for whatever reason?
There wasn’t ever an entire movie that didn’t get made. There was always a lot of pre-planning for every movie, so there weren’t many obstacles that couldn’t be overcome once we got on location. There were a couple of times where once a scene was shot, it didn’t measure up to expectations and it was re-cast and re-shot. During the 90s and early 2000s, if there was a good idea for a movie, it could get made. In 1998, Falcon was one of the first—if not the first—to do a destination type movie with French Connections, where we took the cast and crew to Paris, France. Then in 1999, we traveled to Australia where we made Absolute Aqua, Absolute Arid, and Taken. And in 2000, it was Greece for Out of Athens. Each of these trips was for five weeks. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun because we had time to be tourists.
GHM: Was it all John Rutherford on the set for direction or did you have any say in what was filmed and why?
John Rutherford, and Chi Chi LaRue for the most part, directed all of the movies that I shot and edited. They were almost always on set directing. We worked well together and I could take my cues on what to shoot by the direction they were giving to the models. We would talk during breaks to make sure we had all of the footage we needed. We developed a kind of shorthand to communicate with each other to keep distractions of the models to a minimum. It was really great that I was also editing the movies and could talk about how things would cut together while we were shooting.
I did direct two Jocks Studios movies, Hooked, Getting It In The End, and the Alone With solo series while at Falcon. But I feel better as the camera operator, supporting the director in getting what they need, and taking care of the technical side of things. I have a lot of respect for the directors I’ve worked with. They have a lot of responsibility and moving parts to deal with.
GHM: What are your thoughts on where the industry is in 2017? What would you like to see change? Is there anything you miss about the industry during your time of working in it?
When I started in the industry—I didn’t know it at the time—I think it was a golden age. That is not to say everything after that isn’t as good. The end of one golden age is the beginning of the next golden age. I would compare gay porn in the 1990s to the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. In both cases, performers were under contract and only occasionally be loaned out to another studio. At Falcon, a performer would only be signed to a Falcon Exclusive contract if they had never worked for anyone else before. Exclusives could be groomed and their onscreen persona developed over time, just like contract stars in Hollywood. Exclusive performers were paid more than non-exclusive performers, guaranteed a minimum number of scenes per contract, and paid a completion bonus when the contract was finished. Performers today have more control over their onscreen persona and work for a range of different studios.
Another big difference in the 90s through mid 2000s was the expense of production equipment. There were inexpensive VHS cameras at the time, but the quality wasn’t very good. We were shooting with broadcast quality video equipment and lighting. I would guess that we had between $150,000 and $200,000 invested in production equipment. Where things were less expensive then were in distribution; everything was released on VHS. The cost of blank tape was cheap and Falcon had its own duplication lab. There were no online stores; everything was sold through mail order or in a brick and mortar store. And brick and mortar stores usually purchased the movies from a small number of wholesale distributors.
Both the Hollywood and gay porn studio system faced challenges that changed how they did business. Hollywood was challenged by television and gay porn by the internet.
Now the cost of cameras and editing equipment has come way down and the quality is unbelievable. And of course there is the Internet; every studio has to have a website. The Internet has leveled the playing field. Now quality productions can be produced and distributed for a lot less than in the 90s. This has made it possible to produce more mainstream productions, along with opening up markets for niche and fetish productions.
Also, today's performers may get paid less per scene than performers in the past, but a performer today can be in more scenes in one month than a performer from the past could do in one year. There are, I think, more performers in the business today than in the past and there is more actual product. The retail price of the videos has come way down. In the 90s, a movie on VHS with four to six scenes would retail for between $40 and $75. People are still buying complete movies on DVDs, but not like they used to.
What I miss most from the past is the stable of exclusive performers. I got to meet a lot of models as they were just starting out and see them develop over time. It was a real family feeling. I made many friends during that time and I still remain in contact with some.
GHM: Are you still working in porn? If not, do you anticipate returning?
In January of 2016, because of conditions in the industry, I stopped working full time for Colt Studio. I am still doing freelance work for various studios. My ideal job would be to shoot one movie every month or so, and then edit it. Being involved in a project from beginning to end is very rewarding.
I also really enjoyed shooting solo scenes. I directed, shot, and edited two solo series, at Falcon, Alone With, and at Colt, BuckShots. Often times, solos don’t get the attention and care to make them really enjoyable. For me they are a lot of fun and a great way to really show off a performer.
I remember when I first started out, at the end of a day of shooting, I’d be driving home through San Francisco and I would see all of the office workers heading home with tired, blank looks on their faces. I’d smile and say to myself, “They have no idea what I did at work today.” I still get that smile, it’s still fun.
And there it is, folks! We can't thank Mr. Phillips enough for such a wonderful interview. To stay up-to-date with all of GHM's latest moves, be sure to follow us on Twitter!
Until next time,