This article originally ran in the June 2018 issue of AVN magazine. Click here to see the digital edition. Above, Axel Braun with Seth Gamble as Deadpool, the lead character in Braun’s upcoming parody (see full image at bottom; photo by Hank Hoffman)
On a spring afternoon in the AVN Media Network office in Chatsworth, director Axel Braun seemed completely at ease. He greeted everyone with breezy charm, confident that those few he hadn’t met before had a pretty good idea of exactly who he is. As would anyone who has been paying attention to the annual AVN Awards Show.
The statistics speak for themselves: The Italian-born helmsman, known for his triple-X parodies of superheroes and other pop-culture icons, took home AVN’s Director of the Year statuette four times (2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014) and garnered wins in parody categories over eight consecutive years for movies produced first for Vivid Entertainment and then for Wicked Pictures. On top of that, three times his work garnered Movie of the Year status, starting with 24 XXX: An Axel Braun Parody (Wicked) in 2015 and three-peating that honor with his parodies of Peter Pan and Suicide Squad (both for Wicked).
Impressive numbers to be sure. But there’s another one that’s more interesting: the number three. This handsome, cultured 51-year-old is the son of pioneering Italian pornographer Lasse Braun, and the father of Wicked Pictures director Rikki Braun. Three men, three generations, three paths to a career in adult entertainment. During a long conversation on that spring afternoon, Braun talked about his career while also sharing stories of sons and fathers with the skill of a natural-born storyteller.
Above, three faces of Lasse Braun, starting in 1958 at left. All photos courtesy Axel Braun.
In the Beginning
One of the first questions Axel Braun answered was regarding when he first learned what Lasse Braun did for a living. But the much more interesting fact turned out to be that Axel didn’t even meet Lasse until he was 14.
“My mother had an affair with Lasse Braun during a time where she and my dad were separated,” Axel explained. Referring to the man who raised him as “dad” and the one who provided the DNA as “father,” Axel described how he was conceived—an origin story ripe with drama. His dad was a prominent executive with Seagram in Italy, but the comfortable life he provided to Axel’s mother had not included children (his mother bore a stillborn daughter seven years before Axel came along). During a short separation, Axel’s mother hooked up with Lasse briefly. It was just a fling, so she didn’t tell Lasse she had gotten pregnant—but she told the truth to her husband, and he raised Axel as his own.
Lasse spent much of his time away from Italy during Axel’s childhood; he had 77 warrants for his arrest in his home country, so he lived in exile in America after his passport expired. (It wasn’t so bad, Axel said—Lasse lived in Malibu.) When Lasse got back to Italy, he learned about Axel from old friends. “So he made contact with my mom.”
Axel was 14; Lasse was 44. The dad he had grown up with was a buttoned-down executive who wore suits; this new figure had long hair and wore leather jackets. “To a 14-year-old kid that’s very appealing,” Axel recalled. Lasse was presented as an old friend of his mother’s. “My mom has cool friends,” Axel thought. They went to “the fanciest restaurant in Milan … We had this crazy lunch and we talked. He told me he lived in Los Angeles.” Back then, in the porno chic era, Lasse was rubbing up against some interesting elbows. “He was hanging out with Jack Nicholson … Robert Redford,” Axel recalled.
“I always had a contentious relationship with my mother—we would get into screaming matches. … One night I said, ‘Why don’t you guys get divorced—I can go live with Dad’ and she just let it out: ‘He’s not even your dad.’ There are a few things in life that unless they happen, you don’t know how they feel—this is one of them. It was probably the most shocking moment of my life, yet right away I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s that guy.’”
The first thing Axel asked was whether his dad knew. “I appreciated my dad in so many ways, but then you understand that I’m not even his son and he raised me, loving me—it’s just mind-blowing. And I asked, ‘Does he know who my real father is?’ and she said no. And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘He never asked.’ My dad passed away in 1995. He passed away without knowing that I found out.” Axel never talked about it with his dad because of “the risk of breaking his heart.” And he also never revealed that he had followed Lasse into the porn business.
“Lasse was a completely different type of relationship, of course,” Axel recalled. Back in 1982, when his mother told Lasse their secret was out, the senior Braun came straight to Milan. “It’s interesting—we didn’t grow up influenced by each other, of course, but we grew up in the same type of environment,” Axel recalled. “We had a strong mother, a father who was very strict and very honorable, the good guy, this type of figure. And genetically, obviously we’re similar. And we were literally finishing each other’s sentences.”
By 1987, Axel was spending much more time with Lasse. He also attended film school, first in Italy and then in Southern California at Columbia College Hollywood. “I started collaborating with him a little bit. He had these projects that were really interesting. For him, porn was literally a revolution. The sexual revolution.”
He added, “His whole pursuit was in opening people’s eyes to the power of sexuality. That’s what it was. … He had a very specific way of depicting sex, the psychology behind it, the reason why—he wanted to always understand why these two people are attracted to each other, no matter what it is.”
Lasse got his start in erotica when he met some guys in Belgium who printed nudie magazines. He told them, “I know a lot of people in Italy who could sell these.” Lasse’s father was a diplomat, so he used the diplomatic plates to import the magazines. Wondering how well movies would sell, he put a classified ad in an Italian paper for “adult movies from Sweden.” So many people sent in money for the non-existent movies that Lasse had to make a movie himself. Shooting in Super 8, he filmed himself having sex with his girlfriend.
“He became wildly successful because there wasn’t anything else at the time. There was no porn,” Axel explained. So Lasse went to the U.S. and met with Reuben Sturman. Exaggerating his own accent and deepening his voice, Axel conjures up his father: “You have all these bookstores and I have all these Super 8 movies. We build little boxes so people can lock themselves in and they can put a coin and project the movie.”
Fast forward to the 1990s: “The first porn set I’ve been to in the United States—I wrote this movie called Fantasy Nights for my father in 1990 and he produced it. Henri Pachard directed, and Alex DeRenzy was director of photography,” Braun recollected. “I’m there with Joey Silvera and Tom Byron and Jerry Butler and Samantha Strong—you name it, a who’s who.” Axel was on set to shoot BTS “with this humongous camera like we had,” and Tom Byron and Rachel Ryan were set to do an anal scene—the pivotal moment of the movie. In addition to him shooting BTS, there were three camera operators capturing the action. “So we are shooting and I’m looking at the monitors … three cameras and these amazing camera people, and yet, nobody has the shot that I envisioned for this.”
“Of course I’m not going to go tap DeRenzy and say, ‘Dude, the other way.’ … So there’s this little loft. I went up and I just shot it for the fuck of it. That’s the shot—I wanted a shot from above, I wanted a clear shot. Two weeks later we’re in the editing room and my father is in the editing room with a million VCRs, the way we were back then, and my father is going over it and we get to that scene and he’s arguing with the editor [again adapting his Lasse voice]—‘No, no, I really need a different shot, not that one, not that one, not that one, it’s a different shot.’ And the guy goes, ‘You don’t have it.’”
As the elder Braun moans, “It’s a catastrophe,” Axel told him, “I think I have the shot.”
“Fine, show me the shot,” he recalled Lasse saying, somewhat grudgingly.
And before long, as Braun remembered it, Lasse was singing a different tune: “That’s it, he has the shot. … My son. Blood of my blood. He has the shot.”
From then on Axel was Lasse’s cameraman—unpaid, but compensated with plenty of opportunity. “That’s how I made a career for myself,” he recalls. “One shot. It was a really good shot.”
Axel and Lasse Braun, shooting Uncontrollable Lust for VCA in March 1997.
The Son Also Rises
The first movie Axel directed on his own was for VCA—a deal he struck with Russ Hampshire. After that he had stints at Elegant Angel, New Sensations and Hustler Video. Compulsion, a 2003 movie for Elegant Angel, was one of his earlier standouts, and he also was known for his squirting movies. But it wasn’t until 2009 at Hustler that Braun first delved into the popular genre of the moment: parodies. And shortly after that he hit his winning streak.
“I only do parodies of subjects that I am emotionally attached to,” Axel said. “Otherwise I don’t. As successful as it could be, if I don’t have a history with it, if I’m not a huge fan of it, I’m not gonna do it. That’s the main reason for my success. Fans are the people that I cater to; if I catered only to people who habitually watch porn and pay for it, there’s like 500 of them left. But I go after a different demographic. I go after people who are fans of the source material—and trust me, a fan will know if you’re bullshitting them. … The reason why they respond so well to my parodies is because they can tell from every little detail that I’m a fan of the source material.”
Clearly much of that source material comes from comic books. Asked about his comics collection when he was young, Axel recalled, “My dad was really good friends with the Italian distributor of both Marvel and DC Comics. … I grew up with full collections of every superhero, Marvel and DC, in two copies. … One to read, and one to keep.” The “keepers” are still at his mother’s house. The first superhero to strike a chord with him was Spider-Man. He’s done two Spider-Man movies and also put the character in a few other movies as well—“because Xander [Corvus] was just so brilliant as Spider-Man.”
With his passion for authenticity in details like costumes and set design, Axel’s parodies caught the eye of geek-culture critics. For the 2010 movie Batman XXX: A Porn Parody, he produced the movie himself and then signed a distribution deal with Vivid Entertainment. Another movie made with Vivid became his most successful title, especially in terms of sales: Star Wars XXX: A Porn Parody (2012). He credits its success to a passion for the source—both his and his collaborator’s, Eli Cross (aka Bryn Pryor). “As huge of a fan of Star Wars as I have been, I had Bryn Pryor on it with me and he’s like the authority on Star Wars shit—it was a labor of love on so many levels. That’s why we tried to do Empire Strikes Back and I tried to do that Indiegogo campaign back then—it’s a movie that’s going to cost half a million dollars. It’s impossible to do it for less. It just can’t happen.”
Braun wanted to raise money, spend it all on a huge production and then give the movie away. “It was an experiment. It was unsuccessful because we didn’t get to the goal, but we raised, like, $130,000, which is unthinkable for a porn movie. … We wanted to go to Alaska to shoot [the ice planet] Hoth. That’s how it needs to be done. Otherwise we’ll be in Hustler studio with Styrofoam … here’s the snow.”
Axel Braun on the set of Justice League XXX (Wicked Pictures)
The most recent entry in his Best Parody winning streak was Justice League XXX: An Axel Braun Parody (2017). But this production was another kind of labor—a grueling one. “I love Justice League. I don’t know how I didn’t die shooting it; I’m actually serious. I remember sitting down and thinking, wow, this has never been this bad in my whole life. I don’t know that I can see this through. It’s going to fall apart.”
He elaborated, “It was a huge production and it was in the middle of summer. And there was a time constraint because I needed to be done before July 1 because I was having a baby. And so I wanted to block out the month of July. … And it’s 100 degrees outside. And you have costumes. And beards. I had had some scenes with Superman, who now has a beard. It takes two-and-a-half weeks for [Ryan] Driller to grow the beard. We don’t get to finish that; he has a bunch of other bookings and he needs to shave the beard and I need to wait two and a half weeks to shoot. … Always to some degree it gets stressful, but this was a particularly cursed production.”
On top of that, he had rented space at Hustler and then the facility was shut down. “Nobody told me because they’re not even aware that I rented the studio and paid already and my sets are inside, built. And then we go and the air conditioning doesn’t work … we’re shooting and it’s 110 degrees. … I always found ways to have a Plan B and a Plan C, and [this time] I got to Plan W—it was hard. Even my trusty production manager Marc Kramer, who’s been with me for 10 years and has seen it all, got to the point where he could almost not see a way out. But in the end we made it through, and winning six AVN Awards for it suddenly made it all worthwhile.”
Dipping Into ‘Deadpool’
For 2018, the big project is Deadpool XXX. In addition to the usual inspired casting, Braun also has interesting collaborators: he co-wrote the script with Jen and Sylvia Soska. Known as the “Twisted Twins,” the Soskas are Canadian siblings who work together as directors, producers and screenwriters.
“The Soskas are just so awesome and talented, and we’ve been fans of each others’ work for years,” Axel elaborated. “They are also huge Deadpool fans and they asked me many times if I was gonna make a parody, and the truth is that I almost didn’t. Not only the comic book character is itself a parody of a superhero, but Ryan Reynolds did such a phenomenal job with it that I really didn’t know how to make this happen. I mean, how do you parody a parody? Then they emailed me this: ‘Axel, the world needs you doing Deadpool.’ Seeing how much they truly loved the character and how highly they thought of me was really inspiring, and suddenly a light bulb went on in my head on how to crack the code to a very funny movie. I emailed them some of my ideas, and we were so on the same page that I straight out asked them if they would consider writing the script with me. Now, keep in mind these are two absolutely brilliant, successful mainstream directors/screenwriters who really don’t need to be associated with a porn director, so you can imagine how stoked I was when they said yes. I am still pinching myself.”
This time around, the project was announced without an open casting call. The movie will star Seth Gamble in the title role, with Wicked Pictures contract star Jessica Drake as Lady Deadpool—and fellow Wicked director Brad Armstrong in the role of Cable, played in the mainstream version by Josh Brolin. In addition, the cast will include Romi Rain, Aiden Ashley, Ana Foxxx, Ramon Nomar and Angela White.
“I did audition for some of the other roles, but instead of my usual 100-plus people open casting call, I held this one privately since I had a shortlist already going in,” the director said. “Romi Rain never needs to audition again for anything else I’ll ever shoot—her stellar performance as Wonder Woman in Justice League XXX is more than enough for me to know she can nail any role I’d throw at her. Same goes for Seth: His performance as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars XXX and his level of commitment to all my projects are still a blueprint for any actors who work with me.”
A couple are new to the Braun parody universe. “Ramon Nomar also hasn’t been in one yet,” Axel commented. “Luckily I’ve known him for a long time and he’s well aware of my crazy 22-hour days on set … and he’s a very talented and disciplined actor—he actually graduated two years ago from the world-renowned Stella Adler Academy—so hopefully he won’t hate me after this. But having Brad Armstrong is a real treat. This is the first time we ever worked together in the five years I’ve been at Wicked, and I’m totally looking forward to it. And by the way, he’s the one who came up with the idea for Angela’s character, so obviously he brings a lot more to the table than just his acting and performance prowess.”
Despite his experiences with Justice League XXX, Braun doesn’t expect to have as much trouble with this year’s big blockbuster: “I don’t think anything will ever be a more grueling experience than Justice League XXX—I still have PTSD from it, and I know I’m not the only one! The biggest challenge with Deadpool XXX will actually be for Seth. He’s basically acting for the whole movie with his face completely covered by a mask, and he needs to be funny and emote relying entirely on his body language. Luckily he is so talented and committed that I have no doubt he’ll be fantastic.”
Asked what he’d wish for if money were no object, Axel joked, “A cameo by Ryan Reynolds!”
In addition to his affinity for the source material, there’s another factor: how to schedule his projects so they benefit from the promotion surrounding the mainstream versions. He announced Deadpool XXX a week ahead of the theatrical release of Deadpool 2. The Wicked Comix movie is due out September 30—right at the end of the eligibility period for the AVN Awards.
“To be financially viable you have to tap into something that can trigger your YouTube views,” he explained. This approach particularly pays off on a franchise like Star Wars, which has new movies coming out regularly. The Star Wars SFW trailer has garnered 5 million YouTube views, and that translates into sales: “I don’t want to talk money, but I still get very satisfying checks from Vivid every month.”
Given that degree of success, it’s safe to say that Axel Braun has been viewed with some degree of envy within the industry. “You go through many phases in your professional career. And at some point I think it’s important to create a polarizing figure for yourself. I did it back in the days at some point. … I was able to achieve financial success so I buy fancy cars. Then I realized when social media started to take place if I post a picture of my new Rolls-Royce it will get people’s attention and you will have 150 people saying, ‘That’s awesome.’ I’m actually the guy who tints the windows [so no one can see in]. I just love fancy cars. But it’s not because I want to show off. I’m a happily married man in an absolutely monogamous relationship and the goal of the day is to tuck my kids into bed and make sure I spend as much time as I can with them. I’m not ‘the guy.’ But as far as having a persona, yeah, I’ve had pictures taken with a Bentley, and yeah, it gets traction, it gets attention, it gets what people wanna see. They like to create a mythological figure for whatever reason. That’s how fandom works. So I think there is a value in that.”
But Braun is also aware that the times are changing. “Suddenly, the nature of our business has evolved in a way where there’s not the same value of being a part of a big project as there was a few years ago. ManyVids, SextPanther, all those sites, performers have been able to monetize what they do faster, cheaper, they do content trades, they just shoot themselves camming. … Before it was like, I’m a new girl, I’m going to be in an Axel Braun movie, I’m gonna get talked about in mainstream, I’m gonna get promotion, I might be up for awards, there is a value to that. My movies in general don’t carry that cachet anymore.” Romi Rain, however, understood. “She saw the value, for her there was a value. This is a fantastic actress—it’s sad she didn’t win Best Actress, not because I didn’t get an extra award for my movie, but because she was such a force.”
After Deadpool, what might come next? Perhaps another fairy-tale parody? He’s done three for Wicked Pictures—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella—calling them “the first stories that had a sexual component that I could fantasize about. … As a kid you fantasize about these characters, you know what I mean? … Your mind goes there.” Braun said, “The only other one I’ve been wanting to make for a long time is Pinocchio. … But it also needs to make financial sense—for me, for Wicked, for everybody.” At one point a couple of years ago Ron Howard was going to direct a live-action Pinocchio. “If it had that type of mainstream exposure to segue into and promote, then it’s gonna make sense. But right now it’s an expensive movie without a counterpart to go with.”
He’s also eyeing Beetlejuice. “I have a script that is hysterical for it—I was still at Vivid when I wrote it,” he said. But he’s waiting for that mainstream tie-in. “It keeps almost happening,” he said. And there’s Lost in Space, the 1960s TV series that’s now a Netflix show. “I have a script for that, too.”
Rikki Braun on the set of Exposed (Wicked Pictures)
In addition to the young children Axel has with his wife, he also had a son, Rikki Braun, from a previous marriage. “My son, who is 25, went to film school here, actually. He moved here and stayed here four and half years and went to the New York Film Academy,” Axel said. “A whole different plan—again, doors are even more open for him than they were for me with my dad. And I never pressured him, but he enjoyed being around. He helped me on set; he always liked it—he likes the girls. The girls like him—he’s young. He goes to the parties and this kind of stuff.”
Rikki served as assistant director on Batman vs. Superman. And he made the leap to directing when Axel gave him a screenplay to shoot. “I haven’t done an original feature in 15 years. That’s why if I make one this year it’s going to be meaningful for me,” Axel said. He did have one screenplay lying around, but it was “too small a movie for me at this point in my career to make as my first feature in 15 years.” So he offered Exposed to Rikki. “He read it and he loved it. I had planned on Asa playing the lead, and he said, ‘You know who would be great for this? Asa Akira.’
“He started shooting at 24, just like I did. He went to film school, just like I did. His father was a director, just like mine,” Axel recalled.
They have something else in common: a skepticism about religion. In Axel’s case, it took the form of petitioning the Catholic Church to excommunicate him after he became upset when the clergy suggested his sister had been born dead because “God saw she was going to become a murderer or a terrorist.” After that he refused to go to religion class and became “the only minor in Italy to ever request and obtain excommunication from the Catholic Church. I did that when I was seven years old.” Coincidentally, when he visited a seven-year-old Rikki in Italy, his son talked about an incident at school. “They said there was a big bang and that’s how the world came about … Then the other day we had religion class and the priest said God created the world. So what I’m thinking is that one of them is lying. … Which one is lying?”
Answering questions via email while traveling in Europe, Rikki Braun described his own experiences with his famous forebears. Rikki’s earliest memories of Axel, he said, involve “my dad teaching me Krav Maga in Italy when I was like 2 years old. For some reason he was obsessed with making sure I knew how to disarm and subdue somebody who had a gun pointed at my face. Did I mention I was 2? My first memories of Lasse are from when I was 3 and he came to visit. We played for hours, I was chasing him around my dad’s house and shooting him with a squirt gun and by dinner time he was so exhausted and wet that he passed out on the couch before the food was ready and didn’t wake up until 7 a.m.”
Rikki said he always knew about the family business. “My dad was very open about his work, and Lasse was a regular guest on talk shows in Italy, so it was kinda impossible not to know,” he said.
“I think the passion for movies is somehow genetic,” Rikki mused. “My dad and my grandpa were always huge movie buffs. In the ’90s they would go to matinees together every morning and watch two movies back to back, then one movie at home every night. And my dad owned a chain of video stores in Italy, so I had access to just about every movie ever made. … After I graduated high school I felt film school was the most natural path for me. Meanwhile, I began helping my dad as a production assistant, then worked my way up to camera operator, assistant director and video editor. I did that for four years, and one day he just sat me down and out of the blue told me, ‘I think you’re ready to direct,’ which was quite a shock for me. But here I am and I love it!”
Rikki’s biggest challenge was not disappointing his father. “Exposed was a script he had written for himself, and the fact that he gave it to me created a fantastic amount of pressure. Turned out to be an amazing experience … at the end of Day One on set, he hugged me and told me I did great and that he was impressed and very proud of me. He is really not the kind of guy who gives out compliments easily, so that was pretty much the most amazing moment ever.”
Since then, Rikki has gone on to direct several all-sex movies for Wicked Pictures. “I am honestly still so stoked to see my name and Wicked in the same sentence—being able to shoot for them is a dream come true! I can’t really pick a favorite, but I think that for a director the appreciation for the final result is always blended with the memories of the experience, so I’d say Blondage and Super Naturals are the two that stand out for me.”
In Europe, Rikki writes and directs for Le Iene, an Italian comedy/satire TV show. “Every couple months I come to L.A. to shoot for Wicked. I am actually under lifetime contract with my dad for anything adult related and he lends me to them. Seriously.”
Rikki also believes another adult feature is in the cards. “I love shooting features. I am co-writing one with my dad as we speak, which is pretty exciting.”
And in terms of his future overall, Rikki joked, “I’ve got two sets of very big shoes to fill, so right now my main goal is to not embarrass my dad … or make grandpa roll in his grave.”
Axel Braun and Rikki Braun at work.
But Is It Art?
As he gets closer to hitting the three-decade mark in the business, coming up next year, Axel Braun continues to take his work seriously—as any actor or crew member on his movies can attest to, given the long hours and notoriously close attention to detail. But when speaking to the director, it seems he doesn’t take himself as seriously as others might expect.
“I didn’t get into porn because I wanted to bang the girls. I got into this because the doors were open for me because of my father, because I went to film school and I saw an opportunity to make movies. It was interesting and it was part of my family’s legacy and it was just like, I didn’t really want to—it just happened.”
And now that he’s here, Braun wants to do the best work he can. “I think it’s important to still approach this business and adult filmmaking as something that is of consequence and is not just to make something quick and cheap.”
But as he emphasizes more than once, “I never made the mistake of considering myself an artist—I understand the narrative that some people are propagating that we are all artists; I disagree. If you ask me, Picasso was an artist. Michelangelo was artist. If you want to talk about directors, David Lynch is an artist. Jean Cocteau is an artist. Terrence Malick is an artist. I think that at best we’re entertainers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The issue that I have with the mantra we’re all artists is that it creates unrealistic expectations in the performers, in people who all of a sudden feel like they’re different than something other that what they are. The world doesn’t see us as artists.”
He said he understands “the thought behind it—trying to legitimize what we do,” but he’s realistic about how much respect the outside world will grant to him. “I’m in a privileged position because what I do is a little more talked about in mainstream media; it’s a little more highbrow than most. But the bottom line is we are not perceived as [artists].”
How about Lasse—did he think of himself as an artist? “Absolutely not,” Axel asserted. “He saw himself as a revolutionary, never as an artist. There’s a difference in taking your product seriously and taking yourself seriously. He took the product very seriously; he wanted to make sure that it was the best quality he could give and he wanted to make sure that he had the shots that he wanted, he had the productions that he wanted, he had everything—he followed every step of the way. … But he never took himself seriously.”
And that’s certainly a distinction that Lasse’s son hastens to embrace. Despite the mainstream notice he’s orchestrated, the industry acclaim he’s enjoyed and the many awards he’s won, the director spoke quite articulately about his understanding that success can be fleeting. “Appreciate and be grateful and humble when people put you on the pedestal—know that eventually they will detest you for the very reason why they put you on the pedestal in the first place.” Laughing at himself as much as anything, he said with a smirk, “I’m such a wise older man right now.”
Written by: Sharan Street
Originally published on: https://avn.com/business/articles/video/the-braun-identity-three-generations-of-adult-moviemaking-779101.htmlTags: Axel Braun