Many successful porn movies have been adapted from books: think of the “Emanuelle” series, Ernest Greene’s “O” movies, and don’t forget my upcoming porn version of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” But Bob Chinn’s “Flesh of the Lotus,” a pulpy porn-noir set in 1972 Los Angeles, is the only book adapted from a porn movie.
Bob Chinn directed the first six “Johnny Wadd” movies throughout the 1970s. They were porn’s first serial and the vehicle that made a star of John Holmes.
I talked with Chinn from his home in New Mexico.
Gram Ponante: You wrote the first “Wadd” script on the back of an envelope, shortly after John Holmes showed up at your office looking for a job. What was it about the character of Wadd that made you want to give him a series of fully-developed books?
Bob Chinn: When I made that first Wadd film, I never expected that people would ever want or expect to see Johnny Wadd as a recurring character. When it happened that they did, I tried my best to make better and more interesting films with him despite the budget constraints. It always bothered me that I was never able to develop Johnny Wadd beyond the one-dimensional character seen in those low-budget films. When I decided to write the books, I finally saw the opportunity to not only develop Johnny Wadd’s character but to also reflect the remarkable times in which he lived.
Chinn’s budget for the first “Wadd” movie was $750, and Holmes was to be paid $50 for his day’s work in 1971. But Holmes argued the price up to $75. On the Sunday the movie was shot, the actors arrived in separate cars at a public place, then they were given the address of the shooting location near the beach. On that day Chinn directed under the name Bob Lain.
Chinn: At the time I made those one-day wonders it was still illegal to make them, so I used a variety of pseudonyms. No sense in leading the police right to your door, is there?
“Flesh of the Lotus” is based on the second Wadd film, taking place in the final weeks of 1972. The book’s Wadd (and it’s hard not to picture John Holmes when reading it) is an L.A. native, a private detective, and a disillusioned Vietnam veteran. It is in the book that Chinn’s politics come out and, beyond the novelty of a book-based reboot of a porn movie, the snapshot he provides of the Los Angeles of that time and the attitudes of Chinn’s own generation are fascinating.
Gram: While there are doubtless plenty of things our government doesn’t tell us today, your generation grew up with censorship and banned books. You write in the introduction to “Flesh of the Lotus” that it was a common practice for you to go down to the Post Office and sign destruction orders for naughty books you’d ordered from the Netherlands that they’d intercepted.
Chinn: Some of the books that I sent off to the Netherlands for that were banned here are now considered significant works of literature – books by Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, J.P. Donleavy, Chester Himes, and Vladimir Nabokov – the first time I read “Lolita” it was in the 2-volume Olympia Press edition.. Others reflected a bohemian and inspired artistic freedom and rebellion against censorship. They all provided inspiration for my book. When I decided that I would include graphic sex scenes in my Johnny Wadd novels it occurred to me that I should do so in the vein of those old Olympia Press books that I had enjoyed so much in my youth.
While “Flesh of the Lotus” does have its share of sex, Wadd isn’t so much driven by sex as by his own sense of helplessness and anger. An old flame has been murdered and Wadd, who is at first a suspect, must navigate through the personal and professional jealousy of his ex-best friend—a fat L.A.P.D. vice cop—as well as the seedier neighborhoods of L.A.
Nowhere is the freedom of the book compared with the restrictions of a porn movie made more clear than at one point when Wadd can’t have sex on the first date.
We also learn that “Wadd” is the private dick’s real name; a Polish ancestor had it shortened from Wadja at Ellis Island.
Gram: You mention that Holmes eventually grew tired of being identified as “Johnny Wadd,” but that toward the end of his life he asked you to do more Wadd films, but you refused. (Terminally ill at the time, Holmes got Chinn’s permission to make “The Return of Johnny Wadd.”) The notion of the troubled private detective is not a new one, but there’s something particularly of its time and place about Wadd. Could he exist now?
Chinn: I think that Johnny Wadd was a product of that particular era and as such I believe he should stay in that era.
Gram: What would Wadd be up to in 2011, at age 71?
Chinn: He’d probably be somewhat like me. An old guy but still interested in life and sexually active.
Gram: And how about Holmes?
Chinn: Can’t speculate on that one. He burned himself out way too soon. Now all he’s doing is pushing daisies.
Chinn says he keeps in touch with a few people from the porn industry that he’s known “for years and years,” but otherwise his involvement with the business is limited. He sees the industry he started in and retired from as wholly different from the one that exists today.
Gram: You have drifted in and out of the porn world in your various creative ventures [Chinn is in his late 60’s]. What perspective do you have on the adult industry of today versus the one you got your start in?
Chinn: The porn business today is absolutely nothing like it was back in the 70’s. Back then we were shooting on film instead of video and we really had to hustle to keep one step ahead of the law. But it seemed as if we had more freedom in what we could show and express. It was a time before all those legal guidelines were handed down that placed so many restrictions on showing things—product labels and business signs as an example. What had been an exciting adventure back in the 70’s has now turned into a somewhat dull and predictable business. All the fun’s gone out of it.
Gram: It’s interesting that the aftermath of porn’s de facto legalization took the thrill out of it for you.
Chinn: It seemed as if there might be the possibility of a breakthrough with the mainstream market somewhere in the future. The video revolution effectively ended this dream. With porn readily available on videotape the adult film theatres began closing. The film producers were replaced by businessmen who cut the budgets and creativity out of an industry that had virtually grown out of nothing. Around this time I got out of the business for awhile. I returned to make a few features on 16mm for a company that still sold to the European film market as well as the video market, and I even made a few video features. Then I retired back to Hawaii to watch my kids grow up. I had resigned myself to a life of relative obscurity when, 13 years later, “Boogie Nights” came out and people in the business began remembering me. I was persuaded to come out of retirement and make 28 more shot-on-video features before finally deciding that I’d had enough.
Gram: Though the “Wadd” films put you on the map, you actually had a porn career between your USC film degree and your meeting with Holmes.
Chinn: I first started in this business because it was the only aspect of the film industry that opened up to me and gave me employment. The first films I made were silent 1-reel beaver girl loops, softcore boy-girl loops, then hardcore loops. These subsequently evolved into primitive synch-sound 16mm 1-hour features, and eventually to 35mm full-length features that showed in regular adult theatres. It got to the point where we were shooting even more ambitious features with Panavision cameras and lenses.
Gram: As much as you’ve left the business behind, this planned series of books is pulling you right back in. You are writing your autobiography and Formosa Films has just optioned the story of your 10-year relationship with Holmes. If they’d only liten, what pearls of wisdom might you give to someone just getting into the porn business?
Chinn: I doubt if there’s a porn performer today that would really be interested in what I have to say.
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: Holmes shot “Wadd” on a Sunday; John Holmes book also measured in “Inches”; Porn Valley Two-Headed Donkey Tour—The Wonderland Murders
See also: Bear Manor Fiction