The man behind the legendary trilogy Kansas City Trucking Co., El Paso Wrecking Corp. and LA Tool & Die, Joe Gage is the greatest gay porn director of his generation. He’s also the first artist who dared to suggest that sex between men was more about camaraderie than romance, more about hot action than a lifestyle. While his characters were always working-class Joes, his ’70s epics became blueprints of sexual tension-building and were also stylistically innovative. By 1982, he was already an icon. Then he got married to a woman and left the business for twenty years. He had two sons, directed a play, made some non-pornographic B-movies and wrote a couple of mildly successful novels. Now at 62, he has been making gay porn again, most recently for Titan Films. To meet up with him, I drove an hour out of LA to the historic Wigwam Motel in Rialto, California, on old Route 66. He and his ‘brother’ Sam Gage, his pal and the producer of his classic movies, were kicking back in their giant teepee room having some beers.
Frank: Does your wife call you Joe, even though that’s not your real name?
Joe: She did, I think, until my first son was born.
So she enjoyed the mystique of your persona until you had a kid together…
Then it was time to put Joe Gage away.
Is Joe Gage very different from Tim
No, not at all. The whole Joe Gage thing happened because when I was growing up, my favorite writer was Ed McBain, who also wrote as Evan Hunter. He never said he was really one or the other, he said, ‘This is an Ed McBain book, this is an Evan Hunter book.’ I always wanted to base my career on exactly what he was doing. When the Tim Kincaid side didn’t happen the way the Joe Gage side did, I just went back to concentrating on the Joe Gage side.
Was Tim Kincaid an invention too?
No, that’s real.
Did your parents know about the films you made in the ’70s?
How did they feel about it?
I haven’t spoken to my father in years.
My mother doesn’t approve but she’s not going to bad-mouth it. But everybody knows everything. There are no secrets.
Didn’t you grow up in LA?
No, I grew up on Catalina Island, just off the coast of LA.
How many people live on Catalina?
When I grew up there were 2500, now there are more than 5000.
So it’s still a small community, everyone sort of knows each other…
Are you famous on Catalina Island?
No, I left and rarely go back, and when I do, I go up to the house and see Mom and take her out to a restaurant but I see no one else. My sister is there and I try to avoid her too. That was not a time I look upon fondly at all. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school so I could get off the rock.
Maybe it gave you the opportunity to develop your imagination, years of fantasies…
Half the stuff I write about comes from living there, because it’s a very uptight, small town. It’s Catalina Island, so it’s a tourist town, but what it really is is a bigoted little town in Arkansas. To this day, it has the highest incidence of alcoholism anywhere in the United States. You can sit and drink all winter and collect your unemployment. I remember it as a very small-minded, unpleasantly populated little place.
You live on Long Island now. Do you find it’s more liberal or don’t you care because you’re off on your own?
I’m off on my own but the town is really made up of the super rich and the fairly poor. The poor people are blue collar but they’re fine.
What are you doing out here in Rialto?
Sam and I get together once or twice a year and just see what’s happening, where we are going, what we’re going to do, and toss ideas back and forth.
Are you and Sam still business partners?
Yes for 30 years or more, probably.
How did you meet him?
We met at a party and hit it off. He was a casting director at the time, and I was looking for financing for a project. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him about my ideas for Kansas City Trucking Co. It was so different at the time to try to do something like that, which was a hardcore porn movie but theoretically about something. He put me in touch with some people who became my investors and he ended up producing it.
You acted in one gay porn film before you started making your own. I’ve seen it.
Two actually. I decided just before I started shooting that I should see what the demands are, put myself in that situation and see what it’s going to be like, because there is no other way to do that, to ask somebody to do something, unless you’ve done it. That’s why I get the work out of the guys I work with, because I’ve been there and I know what they’re thinking.
When you made Kansas City Trucking Co., the sex world that you portrayed was a tough, blue-collar experience. No one had done that before. Did that just come from your head, from your fantasy world?
It was not from my fantasy world, it was from my world world.
It was from your real world?
Yeah, the men that I have always interacted with were the phone installer, the guy down the street, the neighbor, you know, just guys. I’m not a gay bar guy, and I guess now, not an Internet hookup guy. I was just living my life, and when you just live your life, you run into people from all walks of life. It was just my view of what guys were like in America and it really took off because it seemed to be so unique, and I thought, ‘I don’t find it unique, I think it’s just the way guys are.’
The movie was made in 1975 right?
It came out at Christmas of ’76 and it really became what it was in 1977.
Gay liberation was happening, really in a mainstream way, at that time in the mid ’70s…
But it was, ‘Look at me, I’m free to be a disco dancer.’ And that’s not what my thing was.
Well, in your movies, even in your new movies, no one is ever ‘gay’. The word is never mentioned…
And they’re also never ‘straight’ though, that’s the point. People constantly say, ‘Oh here’s another Joe Gage movie, he’s going to have straight guys going gay or straight guys having sex.’ But no, that’s not it at all. My stuff is about guys who get up in the morning, go to work, do their job and then see what happens…
You are someone who seems to have lived by the ideal you created in your movies. You are making movies for a gay male audience, you’re from time to time in your movies having sex with men and then you get married to a woman. Since you’ve never defined yourself sexually, you can do anything you want to do.
I think anybody can do anything they want to do. I think it’s so confining, so diminishing to say, ‘I am a gay man.’ My approach has always been: you’re a human being first, you’re a man second, you’re a gay man way third. You can’t define yourself. America loves to define itself.
How did you meet your wife?
I was working for a movie company in New York where she worked as producer. We teamed on a couple of projects and eventually linked up personally as well.
When you got married, did you have people in your life who were angry with you or felt betrayed?
There were some people who drifted out of my life as a result of that, a few who were living totally gay lifestyles.
But no one was shocked? People who knew you were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just Joe?’
And even now, you don’t consider your lifestyle a gay lifestyle?
You’re just a guy?
Yeah, I live out in the middle of nowhere, out in the woods. I’m not in the center of any kind of gay neighborhood, I don’t live that life. I do my work, play with the dog, run on the beach, watch a little TV, do some writing. My work takes a tremendous amount of the day and I see friends once in a while, but I value my solitude too. I’ve always been happy being pretty solitary. Since my wife and I separated, I see my kids two or three times a month for a weekend. I’m going through a period of being alone and liking it.
Have you been having sex with guys all along while you’ve been married?
I was one hundred percent faithful to my wife during my years as a full-time husband. I’ve been separated for a few years now, although I remain married.
Have your sons ever seen your movies? What do they think about what you do for a living?
Well both of my sons are straight, and sure they have peered over my shoulder while I’ve been at the editing console… My older son has composed several film scores for me, but he keeps his viewing of the explicit content to a minimum. I tried to raise them to be nonjudgmental of others, but I can’t say either are that thrilled about my occupation.
Do you enjoy watching porn?
I do, I watch porn all the time, I love it and watch it and collect it, and have it. I live it, I live with porn, porn is my life.
Do you like the work of other directors?
I like amateur porn the best, because it’s real. It’s real sex.
Do you like today’s more professional crop of porn actors?
Well the ones that are usually available to everybody are the ones I rarely use. They have that West-Hollywood-escort vibe that to a large degree doesn’t interest me. Because with them, the meter is always running and they’re into it because they can do it, they’re not into it because they are compelled to do it. I’m into this because I’m compelled to do it, not just because I’m adept at doing it.
How come you didn’t do porn for 20 years?
Because when I left I was given the opportunity to do other projects, more mainstream kind of stuff, and it was made clear to me that the only way to do it was to turn my back on the porn industry. Also, I was married and I had kids and I didn’t want to be involved with adult films. But the mainstream stuff was much worse in terms of the people you had to work with. In general, people have much more ethics in hardcore than in the regular world.
(Sam enters the room)
Sam: Hey, how is it going?
Would you ever put yourself in a sexual role again?
I think I’m a little too old. Sam, what do you think?
Sam: I don’t know, gauze on the lens?
Sam: Somebody is going to make a movie sometime soon with really old fuckers.
They do already; I’ve seen them on the Internet.
I’m wondering, How old is too old?
Never, as far as I’m concerned, never if it’s the right person in the right situation. I don’t see why not, am I wrong? (to Sam) Don’t you start kibitzing from that corner!
There’re a lot of intergenerational scenes in your movies; not fetish movies like Daddy-Son or Grandpa movies, but in your stories, it just seems normal, it’s not treated as a fetish. You have all these different situations and sometimes, it’s like a guy in his 50s showing the way to someone who’s 20.
Because that’s the way it works. That’s how most people find out about sex. If they don’t have sex with a peer, they have sex with an older person. So why not show that? It’s like a power exchange, and the opposite of what you think is going on. It’s not an older person seducing a younger guy; it’s about a younger guy drawing an older guy into his sexuality.
I think a lot of times it’s the young people who are stalking older people.
Do you like chicken?
I like people. I don’t really fixate on any particular group.
So, for you, ethnicity and age don’t matter, it’s the situation?
It’s the situation and the sexuality. Sam, do you think of me fixating on anything in particular?
Sam: No, it’s definitively the sexual tension.
What are you working on now?
My new movie is called Cop Shack on 101, which is a two-parter. The first part is just being finished now. The second part I just shot which has something you’ll probably be interested in: it has a girl in it. When I put girls in my earlier movies, someone asked my why. I think the hottest thing about gay sex is that it’s forbidden and it’s taboo and now that it’s suddenly so acceptable, the next step would be a gay guy having sex with a girl because that’s totally wrong.
Oh that’s awesome!
So when it’s wrong…
…it’s totally hot.
In your recent movies, there’s a lot of watersports, piss stuff. Does it get you off?
Oh yeah, it always has. I have watersports in most of my movies. I love it. I got this great review last week and they specifically talked about the watersports and they said it’s art. ‘This isn’t fetish porn, people, it’s art!’ (laughs)
There’s a guy my friend met on the Internet and he’s into getting pies smashed into his face, I think it’s called sploshing. So he came to LA — he lives in Alabama or something — and he wanted us to throw him a party and have a gang of guys pie him in the face.
Was there sex involved, were dicks out?
Well, it ended up that he got peed on by some of the guys and he jacked off and got 30 pies in his face. He pays people to pie him in the face all over the country and he collects these experiences on videotape and it’s amazing stuff, it really is art!
When you’re editing your movies, do you ever get turned on and just bang out a load?
When you’re filming a scene, do you know if it’s going to be good?
No, when I’m filming, half the time the things I think are incredibly hot are just okay when I see them, and some of the other stuff I had no idea would be so hot. You have to be removed from the scene of the crime and then you see it in a whole different context and it becomes clearer.
You get actors to appear in your films that don’t work in other films — your own discoveries. How do you feel about the way men look now vs. the way they looked in the ’70s?
Half the people Titan wants me to work with, I either say ‘no’ to or I’ll use him if they tell him to stop shaving his balls, stop trimming his pubes, get rid of all of the piercings. I try to make them look different.
So you don’t like that shaved look?
I hate it.
Let’s get these pictures of me done, while we still have the light.
Would you put this trucker hat on?
I’ve never been able to find a cap I like. Does this look okay?
Yep. Are you gonna let me take any sexy pictures of you? This is for BUTT magazine and the readers want to see skin.
For me it’s really simple: performers can do anything they want to sell a movie, or themselves for that matter. Directors should keep it zipped up, unless they’re performing as well.
Aw come on!
These days, I’m only available for private viewings. (laughs)
Are you still a sci-fi fan?
Yes, I made a couple of sci-fi pictures. I grew up reading sci-fi, but I don’t do it much anymore. I don’t follow who’s hot anymore. But I see all the movies.
Did you see the Scientology one with John Travolta, Battlefield Earth?
Of course, it was ludicrous and hilarious, a sad waste of money.
What about horror movies?
I see all of them. I love Final Destination 2.
What about Saw?
I never saw that one. I don’t like sadism. I like tension, what’s going to happen, fear — all those things are fun. That’s why I hated the opening of Jaws so much, because it’s nothing more than the celebration of that girl’s suffering. It’s the most sadistic thing that’s ever been shown before or since in a mainstream American movie.
Have you seen Hostel?
I haven’t seen Hostel or Saw for the same reason. I can smell them when they’re going to be sadistic. Sadism is not my bag. It makes me angry. It begs the question, what’s the point? What’s the fucking point?
Sam: If torture or sadism is important to a story, if it has a reason…
In Marathon Man it works…
But it’s now just entertainment. It’s a way for teenagers to get excited seeing people being tortured.
It’s the Roman Colosseum and how many people have said that is where we are now in history: America is exactly where ancient Rome was. We’re about to collapse.
Do you know about the Mayan calendar that ends in 2012?
Oh no! (laughs)
What music are you listening to? Do your sons influence you?
I’ve downloaded a whole bunch of stuff in the last month. I like the new Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris album, I’ve been listening to it all of last summer. I like a lot of country & western music. I also like house music. Do you know Hed Kandi?
I don’t know house music at all.
I listen to chill music, not disco dance music. I listen to a lot of jazz, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck. Oh, I played Charles Aznavour and Piaf, their classic album last week, lots of stuff. Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys…
Are you Latin?
My father is Mexican, my mother is Irish and Scottish.
Wow! Are you uncut?
I am partially circumcised. I always thought this was called ‘French Cut’ but recently found out that wasn’t the case. By the way, I made sure that my sons remained as God made them at birth. I’ve always wondered: if Jesus was Jewish, why did he have a Mexican name? (laughs)
Ha ha ha, I don’t know? Does Latin culture speak to you?
You don’t feature many Latin guys in your films.
I haven’t been able to find a lot of Latin or black guys to work with. When I find them, I work with them. I just worked with a black guy for the first time in years, because I couldn’t find anyone that was right for what I wanted.
Sam: In the ’70s and ’80s there weren’t any Latin guys around working.
For Latin guys, I think culturally it’s still a big taboo. One last thing: when you’re walking down the street, around how many different women do you check out in one day?
I don’t ever walk down the street; I’m out in the country.
Okay, when you’re in New York City walking down the street…
Maybe two or three.
So how many guys catch your eye in the same amount of time?
Probably 15 to 20.
Cool, I just had to know.