Not only Dennis Phung was one of the first people I met coming to LA, he also turned me away from working in porn, not necessarily out of good intention, because he didn’t think I had the skill set to edit porn films.
In 1993, armed with my master degree in English from Yale, Derrida, postcolonial and feminist theory, I came out to Los Angeles for film school at UCLA. While I was interning that summer at Strand Releasing, a “friend” said he would like to introduce me to Dennis Phung, this porn director, also queer and Asian, and maybe I could work for him on the side.
We talked on the phone and he invited me to visit him at his condo in Nicholas Canyon at 9 pm. I went to his place, bringing a few of my films on a VHS. We chatted. He was having a glass of wine while I was having a glass of water because I hadn’t even started drinking.
“I just want to make sure you can edit narratives” he said, “Your films sound very experimental. And it’s not easy to work in porn because I shoot, prep, and edit a film every week.”
“I’ll be fine editing your films,” I said. “Before I started making non-linear works, I learned editing from telling more linear stories.”
“Why don’t you give me a massage?” he asked.
“I’m sorry but I’m really bad at massages. None of my boyfriends or lovers liked my massage, seriously,” I answered without missing a beat. “I think I should go.”
“How about if you act in a porn for me? As a favor?” he asked as he was walking me to the door.
“Dennis, I already did a porn in my college days and I didn’t like the experience and it’s not my thing to act in porn,” I said deadpan and left.
That was a job meeting gone well… I thought, went to bed and never looked back. He called me a few days later and said that my films were edited too non-linearly and he couldn’t see me editing a narrative well.
The next time I saw Dennis was in 1996 on television when I just got to my ex-boyfriend’s place. He usually had his TV on at West LA studio apartment where I was flabbergasted to see Dennis’ photo on the news and learned that he was murdered by those teens. He probably let them stay at his place and tried to get them in porn.
When people first come to LA, they all think the porn industry is glamorous, alternative and cool. And I sound judgemental and uncool saying that NO I’m not interested to meet this porn director or go to his party.
“I consume porn but I don’t want to be in porn or care to hang out with people in porn because the industry is hard and economically exploitative to those who work in it,” I say, “And it’s risky and dangerous.”
Years after Dennis’ murder, even today, his death haunts me as a queer and Asian non-binary person in America. Even though I have only met him once, I remember who he was and what he was like so well from that one night. Certainly no one deserves such a horrific and violent end; it was his work, being a porn producer, that put him in such a deadly situation. In pornography, especially gay pornography, you are often forced to create content with young men who are desperate for money. You may also let them stay at your place as you may need an extra favor or two from them. If you think going to a stranger’s house to have sex is risky, it’s even riskier to have to work with desperate young men, who may or may not be drugged up, and let them stay with you.
On Fast & Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, my friend Justin invited me and a few friends to visit his downtown LA set and he told us that a porn film was shooting in the next building and asked if we would like to check it out.
“Why am I leaving a 80+ million dollar Universal set and go visit a no budget set?” I asked.
“We’re on break for half hour… don’t be a party pooper.” Justin patted me on the shoulder and made me go visit that porn set in the next building.
“I thought they only make porn in the San Fernando Valley and why are they shooting in Downtown LA?” I think those were the last words I remember from that night.