Co-directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein and stars Amanda Seyfried and Peter Sarsgaard talk of the challenges in making a movie on infamous pornstar Linda Lovelace.
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11 Jun 2013 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2016 - 4:10 PM

When Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein stood before the 2013 Sundance crowd, they dedicated their film Lovelace to Linda Boreman, the woman who became known as Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, the landmark 1972 movie that brought pornography into the mainstream.

It’s a fascinating, really dark story and I'm drawn to that stuff – Amanda Seyfried

“We wanted to fill in what we see as a crucial gap in the legacy of Linda Lovelace and that was her humanity,” Epstein told the crowd. “So we dedicate this evening to Linda. She was only a porn star for 17 days; she made $1250 and the movie made $600 million.”

The openly gay filmmakers who had make their cinematic mark broaching gay subjects, joked how someone “had the notion that somehow we would be the directors to consider for a movie about a heterosexual porn star!” Yet in their previous award-winning documentaries, they had never been squeamish as they comprehensively dealt with social issues and sexuality.

Before joining up with Friedman, Epstein had directed The Times of Harvey Milk about the murdered gay San Francisco mayor (later played by Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's Milk). Then together they made Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (their AIDS tribute won the 1990 Academy Award for best documentary); The Celluloid Closet about gays in Hollywood; Paragraph 175 about the Nazi persecution of gays (it won Berlin Festival's FIPRESCI and Teddy awards in 2000); and their first dramatic feature Howl, focusing on gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, played by James Franco, who now plays Hugh Hefner in Lovelace.

Like Howl, Lovelace, based on a screenplay by Andy Bellin, is a dramatic biopic, which fits in with the kind of real-life stories at which Epstein and Friedman excel. Initially, they lull audiences into submission with the public version of events depicting nubile Linda as young woman with sexual talents. Then in an unusual move, they retrace events so that we see the actual story of a woman being virtually pimped out by her husband, Chuck Traynor, of whom she is ultimately terrified. He also kept the $1250. The film traces her life in near-captivity and her eventual escape. The film stops there because as Epstein puts it, she found her own voice.

“Linda's life became self-actualised and empowered,” he says. “We felt we'd taken the story up to her activist period where she then became more of an anti-porn spokesperson.”

Even if Boreman also went on to have a regular happy life with a loving husband and kids, the tragedy didn't stop there, as she was killed in a car crash at age 53.

Friedman and Epstein's film traces the life of the young Linda, who lost her virginity at 19, had her first baby at 20, and who took the world by storm as Linda Lovelace at 23. Doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried has been hugely successful as a cinematic ingénue in movies like Mamma Mia!, Dear John and more recently Les Misérables. While no actress could perhaps better capture Linda's initial innocence, the 27-year-old, who has been acting for over a decade, was keen to stretch her acting muscles.

“Audiences will be very surprised because Amanda is fearless, she is tender, she is tough and vulnerable,” admits Friedman, “and she is transformed. You might not recognise her; she really did become Linda.”

“It's a fascinating, really dark story and I'm drawn to that stuff,” Seyfried admits. “I was looking for a challenge and I wanted to play somebody who really existed and had a story to tell and this seemed like the perfect fit for me. I really wanted to be the voice of Linda; I felt for her in a big way. I feel like people have this blind idea of her and I think it's important that every story gets told. I mean, she wanted so badly to be heard and she wrote a bunch of books and she spoke out. She had so much to say and I felt we could do that for her. The violent scenes weren't so easy to film—you've got to go deep—yet overall I had a fun time, strangely enough.”

The true hero of the piece, though, is actor Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Chuck. Sarsgaard has long been prepared to play nasty and vile, even if he is one of the nicest and most talented of actors. Who can forget his slimy teacher in An Education, and going right back to the beginning, his creeping audiences out with his breakthrough role as rapist John Lotter in Kimberly Peirce's acclaimed transgender drama, 1999's Boys Don't Cry? In fact, I hadn't met him since.

“Oh my God,” he chortles, admitting he has also played some nice guys in-between. He admitted before the Sundance premiere how he had balked at accepting the role, and on stage after the screening was clearly shaken up as his usually velveteen voice quivered as he spoke.

“Oh boy, for weeks I was walking around the house,” he recalls. “I guess there was a part of me that wanted to do it, but at the time I had a five-year old daughter and a pregnant wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal]. I think the resistance that I had playing it is in the movie.”

“What's so amazing about Peter's take on Chuck, says Epstein, “was that he understood that Chuck needed Linda more than Linda needed Chuck. That was something Peter was able to bring to the part.”

Ultimately, the background of the film, the shift of social mores in the '70s, was what interested the filmmakers.

“It was a real opening up of sexuality, the so-called sexual revolution where there was a new frankness about sex,” Friedman explains. “Gradually, I guess, it was evolving from the Kinsey Reports [two books on human sexual behaviour: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953)] but didn't really burst into mass culture until the '60s, early '70s. When that much change happens there are always unintended consequences and I think the sexual revolution worked out better for some people than for others. I think the second wave of feminism was part of this shift and one of the things that fascinated us in the story is that Linda embodies all of that. She found her own liberation in discovering her sexuality and then she had to find her own personhood and discover her voice.

“We are now at such a different place where pornography sits in the culture; that genie is out of the bottle and porn is ubiquitous and mainstream and free on the internet. So it seemed that it would be interesting to look at that historical moment which Linda so personified, even if for the rest of her life she felt she had been objectified and commodified and had to find her way out of that.”

Feminist Gloria Steinem was close to the project and offered her guidance in recreating Linda's experiences. “It was actually Gloria who encouraged us to look at how what happened to Linda could have happened to anybody,” says Friedman. “We don't want to question what it was about her that got her into that, because Gloria's analogy was asking a concentration camp victim what it was in their psyche that made them a victim. She said it's really interesting what makes men behave this way. It really made us realise there was a lot to explore in Chuck's character in their relationship and in the dynamics.”

When it came to portraying the porn world, Sex and the City's Chris Noth is outstanding as impresario Anthony Romano, an amalgamation of a few real-life characters, Noth says. “He is the guy who funds the whole thing; he is married to the mob.” Also given Franco's presence, such classy actors help convey the vibrant upbeat porn world of the film's first section.

Another actor known for sexual movies, Sharon Stone, is also worth looking out for in the role of Linda's mum—and you really have to look out, as she is almost unrecognisable.

“We wanted to work with Sharon because she's a great actor and we knew she could bring something unexpected to the role,” Epstein notes. “At some point, we realised there was some built-in irony there, but that wasn't the motivating factor.”

Lovelace screens at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Click here for our full coverage of the festival.