Cheyenne Picardo wrote and directed Remedy, a film based on her experiences as a professional switch that is currently making the rounds at film festivals internationally. Her movie is an unflinching look at what it’s like to work in a Manhattan ‘house dungeon,’ in which dommes, subs, and switches work shifts for the owner, who in turn provides clients, space, and equipment. I worked as a pro-switch in a Manhattan house myself and spoke with Picardo via email about Remedy and her experiences in the sex industry.
You’re open about the fact that Remedy is based on your time working in a house. As someone who did the same job, I have to say I was blown away by just how true-to-life the movie was. In telling this story, was realism a major concern for you?
It was paramount. When I first started working on the script, back in 2007, I was preoccupied with recreating, with absolute accuracy, every detail of sessions that had happened a good three years before. Because I was producing my own film as part of my MFA thesis, I never saw the need to format the screenplay in the traditional way, so it read like a long journal entry with dialogue.
Then, a year after writing Remedy, I began to shoot the film, and the limitations of the script started to become obvious. Clients were rewritten according to the best actors I could find. Some of my dialogue was scrapped entirely because it was so laced with narcotic haze—I wrote the first draft while bedridden with a spiral fracture. Some scenes were rewritten the night before shooting, often with my assistant director Melissa Roth or the actors who would be playing the parts. For other scenes, like ones involving heavy bondage or corporal, my only direction was to hit a few dialogue points and dramatic beats but otherwise talk normally, and I shaped the acting and language as we shot. I think these methods enhanced the realism tremendously in the final product.
Whatever changes I made to “my story” were OK—as long as I retained emotional truth, and as long as what I depicted was either something I had experienced firsthand or something that a friend in the industry had told me over takeout while we sat the overnight shifts watching gonzo porn or Charlie Rose.
Ultimately—and I’m very free with this—the biggest “lies” in the film are these: I did have a dungeon boyfriend, but we didn’t actually lip-lock; the manager is not based on any single person; and the co-workers are meant to represent certain types of women who work in dungeons, not caricature the actual people I worked with.
The sex industry is full of artists of all sorts, yet we rarely see depictions of sex work in the media that are produced by us (with some exceptions for the ‘gritty sex work memoir’ genre of writing). Why do you think that is?
I wonder if there aren’t actually some sex workers or former sex workers behind some of those depictions, at least the BDSM-related ones. I’m particularly interested in the origin stories behind those characters that make dommes look like Aeon Flux. I may get myself in trouble here, but part of the reason I felt obligated to complete Remedy despite all of the complications and panic attacks that came with making it, was that, outside of The Red Umbrella Project, quite a few of those memoirs felt like they were written by self-aggrandizing independents who seemed to align very much with those stock characters in network dramas who grocery shop in latex catsuits and keep bullwhips in their Prada bags. Did these women ever sit shift for an eight-hour overnight? Why did so many seem to deny that their work was part of a service industry, or any form of sex work? And the fact that I couldn’t even remember seeing a switch or sub in any of these books made it seem like people like me were intentionally unmentionable, the bottom rung of a subgroup of the whore hierarchy.
So that is one problem, which thanks to things like RedUP, is finally starting to shift. These superhero memoirs and media depictions are no longer symbolic of a whole industry. The more stories, comic and tragic, we have floating around the media, the better—as long as they are true to a sex worker’s real experiences.
Also consider that in order to have an accurate depiction of sex work produced in the media, the sex worker would have to have creative control. Even when they act as consultants on shows and movies depicting sex workers, the final cut is ultimately approved by someone, usually male, who is far more likely to want to see the sex worker he sees in his mind’s eye: the fantasy, the woman in the ad. He doesn’t want to see the actual person.
I think two things need to happen for there to be more sex worker stories out there. One, sex workers need to create more content. Two—and this is the tricky part—we need to make it OK in America to enjoy watching the full spectrum of honest human sexuality without it having to be shot from the waist up, from a male point of view, or in the context of a rape investigation.
The scene of Remedy cleaning up after a session-gone-bad hit me in the gut, and I realized that it’s just this sort of painful, poetic detail that gets lost when non-workers try to tell our stories. In what other ways do you think your first-hand experience made you better equipped to make this movie?
Well, I actually did work in a house with coworkers I absolutely adored, many of whom I’m still in touch with. I wanted to portray them honestly, without judgment, and with as much depth as I could muster within the limited screen time. I regret that I couldn’t put it all in one film. It’s the sort of thing that deserves a series. Hell, it’s no more extreme than what happened in a single episode of Oz, is it?
As for the more banal elements, as a rule, I think too much. Every time I prepared for or did a session, I discovered some new peculiarity of the work. Since completing Remedy, I want to figure out a way to express all of it. To that end, I just got done this weekend shooting a bunch of random segments of mundane in-between-session moments. Things that I would have loved to include in the film but didn’t, so I’m trying to turn them into something else. A short piece? Promo? Pilot?
A question that still lingers for me after watching Remedy is how workers in other segments of the industry (including the independent BDSM sector) have responded to some of the negative aspects of this film. Have you gotten any pushback from other sex workers for this, or has the response been (as I would hope) mostly supportive?
When I started making Remedy, I quite literally went into hiding. I didn’t know what people would think, and I’m very aware of the enmity toward so-called temp dommes who enter the industry for two months so they can write some silly editorial. So when the rough cut opened CineKink last year, I was afraid of what kind of feedback I would get.
But to date I have gotten no pushback, and a LOT of support, although every sex worker who’s seen it has asked me if anyone has given me flack. Only one person, a pro-sub, admitted she was really upset by the film when she saw it, only to realize hours later that she was upset because it was triggering things that she hadn’t really been able to face about her past.
In deference to pros who have had different experiences than I had, I tried to keep the film as personal and subjective as possible. I also was always conscious of retaining sex-positivity, despite the film’s somewhat tragic trajectory. I did this by making sure that whatever mistakes Remedy made, I was never condemning her for her sexuality, for enjoying kinky sex, or for choosing to do sex work. Rem’s tragic flaw is pride, not lust, and it’s the climate of sex-negativity and sex-work stigma that creates the dangerous environment she’s in. No victim blaming here.
Did you write this film with any particular audience in mind? For example, did you see this as something that would introduce a wider population to this industry?
I had a bunch of agendas. First, the film needed to be true to the work and the workers. Second, I wanted to be very careful to not marginalize and alienate the (for lack of a better word) civilian BDSM community—as I am a part of that. Third, retaining a consistent subjective point of view, I was inviting everybody to be Remedy for two hours, even if they didn’t understand the scene or the industry. I’m not sure I accomplished the third part, given that very few festivals have accepted Remedy that aren’t sexuality-specific. Perhaps if I were tight with James Franco, that would be different.
I’ve had a number of colleagues ask where they can see this film. There was just a screening this past Sunday, but many may have missed it thanks to the Super Bowl. Is the film coming back to New York any time soon, or should we take that enthusiasm and help push for a distributor?
Please, tell everyone you know about the film. More interest means more private events. More private events means I get closer to being able to pay for legal fees, music licensing, and any other incidentals. If I only had the patience for a financial slave…
Finally, would it surprise you at all to know that a certain dental fetishist is still regularly creeping out the new girls of the New York scene?
I’m not the least bit surprised. I was, however, surprised to find out that the holistic reflexology thing that I pulled out of my ass one night in 2005 is something he still requests. (And yes, it did actually put him to sleep.)
Remedy will be showing in London on February 27th at the Flying Dutchman; in Lausanne, Switzerland at the La Fete du Slip festival March 7th to 9th, and in Toronto as part of the Erotic Film Festival, tentatively scheduled for March 31st to April 2nd. Picardo says, “I would love to set up a suggested-donation private screening tour that could help defray licensing costs and get Remedy out there faster,” so if you’re interested in seeing the movie in your city, let her know in the comments.
You can read Lori Adorable’s review of Remedy here.