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Ben Sachs: Why do you think it’s worth memorializing Zalman King?
Stephen Fletcher: What King and Adrian Lyne did in Nine 1/2 Weeks—and what King did himself in subsequent films and television projects—went a long way to developing the aesthetics of softcore porn in the 80s and 90s. They were drawing from the look of music videos and fusing it with these sexual fantasies. All those movies that played after ten or 11 at night on Showtime and Cinemax in the 90s: Bedroom Eyes, Animal Instinct... I feel like all of those were children of Zalman King.
How would you define the King touch?
Lots of back-lit nudity and slow-motion writhing. Soft focus. A percussive score with guitar noodling and saxophone laid over it.
George S. Clinton wrote a lot of that, right?
Yeah. So, let’s see. Soft focus, a lot of light shining through narrow slats... silk hanging from places where no one would be motivated to hang it. Lots of smoke—King would pump the smoke machine before rolling so he could get all these beams of light that weren’t necessarily logical, but... He had a distinct style.
In his movies, there’s always at least one sex scene in a completely unhygienic place. Like in Nine 1/2 Weeks, there’s the scene where Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke are going at it on the ground in an alley—in a mud puddle, really. And there’s a scene in Two Moon Junction where the two leads are in this dilapidated—I don’t even know what it is—it’s a warehouse, I guess... and they’re covered in dirt and sand. The actors must have been brushing sand off themselves for days after they shot that scene.
The movies tend to be stories about sexual awakening. There’s usually a female character who’s kind of uptight—either she’s stuck in this passionless relationship or she cares too much about her work or something like that—but she has this kink and so she goes on these sexual adventures. And then some shirtless man ends up feeding her fruit and it brings the tigress out of her. It’s all very naive and very broad, but that’s part of the charm.
I guess I’m nostalgic for it. Before the Internet, if you were a young teenager curious about sex, one of the most of viable options was cable TV. At every sleepover, you always hoped that the parents of the house had Showtime or something... and King's was the name I saw all the time whenever I snuck downstairs at a slumber party.
King had an interesting story too. Did you know he started as an actor? He starred in this Roger Corman movie called Galaxy of Terror, which is a great B movie. It stars Robert Englund, Sig Haig, Grace Zabriskie, people like that, very early in their careers. Also he’s the star of Blue Sunshine, the movie about the kids who take acid and lose their hair and become homicidal maniacs.
I still haven’t seen those.
When did he make the break into writing and directing?
His big break was Nine 1/2 Weeks. He didn’t direct it, but Adrian Lyne [who did] had a similar sensibility. You can see it in Indecent Proposal and his version of Lolita. Lyne could afford better cinematographers [than King], but you see the same love of backlighting and certain other elements.
Why do you describe his work as charming?
Well, in the case of the two movies I’m showing, the sex is tamer than something you’d see on an episode of Game of Thrones—that’s one thing. And the fact that he took so much care in being superficial.
He liked things to be pretty.
Yeah, and I think he believed in creating characters, even though he painted them in very broad strokes. I do sense the loneliness in Mickey Rourke’s character in Nine 1/2 Weeks, for example—Kim Basinger’s too. They’re superficial people that come together for this superficial romance, but something does happen between them... There’s this element of seduction that was important to him.
The way he directed sex was over the top, sure, but he was trying to make it seem gentle and... maybe romantic isn’t the right word for it, but there’s something fun about it. He wasn’t afraid to make sex look like fun.
In hardcore pornography, especially now, it doesn’t seem like people are having fun; it seems like they’re at work.
And [King’s] movies were about the excitement of eroticism. I think that’s why they’re always about people discovering something new about themselves.