Director Thomas Mignone Talks The Politics and Culture Behind Vanessa del Rio

In a little under a month, the IndieGoGo campaign to fund Thomas Mignone's upcoming "Vanessa" project will close, leaving the writer/director of On the Doll to prepare for filming, which begins later this year. Produced by Sean Fernald, who helped producer Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels and works with Kick-Ass co-creator John Romita, Jr., the story of a young woman who finds her way into the adult film industry against the backdrop of organized crime in the '70s and '80s doesn't seem like a natural fit for comic book fans, but they're all over the production. The Walking Dead's Michael Rooker calls the project "Boogie Nights meets Taxi Driver" and according to the website is being wooed to play the film's heavy. Mignone is the latest writer to try his hand at scripting a Satanika movie, based on the comics from Glenn Danzig and Simon Bisley. The director is optimistic that the film, which has been in development since 2009, will start to move ahead, giving each of the principal players on the as-yet-untitled film, based loosely on the real life of adult film star Vanessa del Rio, comic book street cred. So, naturally, Mignone stopped by ComicBook.com to talk about the film, what he hopes to accomplish and why crowdfunding is a way forward for a filmmaker who's won awards, shot with bands you've heard of and generally doesn't have trouble getting work. You can check out the trailer for the film below, and then our interview with Mignone below that. And if you're interested in the project, share it around. With a month to go and about half the budget to make up, Mignone is in that same position that so many crowd-funded projects find themselves in; it appears to be coasting along under its own power, but the initial burst of enthusiasm and publicity you get at the beginning of a campaign is petering out and more and more, he's relying on the backers and the fans to really get the word out.

First of all, let's clarify, because I was a bit confused when I started reading up: Is this a documentary? This is not a documentary about Vanessa del Rio. This is a narrative dramatic feature, that's seen through the eyes of this young, twenty-ish year old female protagonist character who people who know what happened back in the day will know that we're alluding to Vanessa del Rio. Much like could watch films like Boogie Nights and you can see the Dirk Diggler character and if you knew the history of John Holmes, you could say, "Oh, it was modeled on John Holmes." Or if you watched Grace of My Heart, the singer/songwriter in that film is dating the cool guy out on the West Coast and you would know that some of the female songwriters that were in the Brill Building period of New York in the '60s that were dating guys like Brian Wilson fo the Beach Boys or something. So there's fictionalized characters that are very much derived from real-life characters. People that know will make that connection to the story, and those who don't see a narrative piece of film that tells a really cool story. When you're writing something like this, do you consider the idea that you're building a version of history that some viewers will accept as gospel? You see this with things like Argo. It's funny, because...I was just having dinner with Glenn Danzig, and because he lived during that period that Vanessa was coming up, would be really appropriate to play one of the lead bad-asses for instance, in much the same way that Henry Rollins played in Heat--so there's a lot of different ways that these stories come about. Do people take them as gospel? Some do, some don't. I get a lot of e-mails from fans of bands like Mudvayne and Slipknot and System of a Down and they're really reading a lot into some of the imagery, much moreso than others but I think that's just the power of film being able to affect people.

It's interesting because you've done music videos and they're so hyper-compressed that nine times out of ten you've got a central narrative that's being used while you're still using the musical part of things. It's not even a short film where you get to decide 100% of the format, because there are certain things within the music that you're using for the video that you've got to accommodate. I agree with you completely there, however there are a lot of filmmakers or a lot of music video directors that focus more on the performance imagery of a music video. That's an essential part of it as a marketing tool that management or the record labels or the artists themselves need to promote who they are as musicians. From a filmmaking perspective, that curtails your ability because you have to integrate into the narrative that you're trying to create for a particular set of lyrics but there's a school of thought that says music videos are promos and not features--but in my case, I feel that on the majority of my videos, I really tried my best to derive a narrative or a conceptual storyline from a song's lyrics and then approach it from a filmmaker's perspective to try to develop a narrative storyline so that it does give you the opportunity to work with actors. A lot of the videos I did have film actors in them and cold openings and storyline elements that MTV or the labels would clip off to put the shorter version up. But it helped me develop my storytelling skills to be able to shoot imagery and themes that would tell the story even within the context of it being a music video promo.

Going in that same vein, is the process of adapting that material similar to what you're doing with the del Rio project? Is there some limitation there in that you have to acknowledge that and don't go off on a tangent? I met Vanessa at a book signing and when I talked to her, she started telling me about her life against the backdrop of New York  which is where I grew up. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I'm a lover of New York. As I was listening to Vanessa, I realized that there's a story about the transformation of New York City in the late '70s and early '80s via guys like Giuliani and censoring done by the Tipper Gores and the federal government trying to muscle out mobsters from running Times Square in order to jumpstart the economy. There's a really bit picture there that Vanessa just happened to find herself thrust in the middle of, and as I listened to her I'm realizing that this is a story that's never been told in a feature film. I became really enamored with that and so I went away from that first meeting with Vanessa and I started to draft a script. Over the course of the next year, I met with her and interviewed with her. I interviewed her friends and then started talking to some of the early rappers, some of the early hip-hop artists and started to really put creative pieces of the story together. I wrote a script that I felt was much bigger than just Vanessa's story, per se, but always keeping that as the prism that everything was being told through. After that script was developed, I was just so in love with the story that I wanted to continue developing it as the film that it's going to be.

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Do you think that's something that's uniquely suited to film? When you read a biography on the printed page, for example, the social context of someone's life is not often played up as a major element, but on film or in comics, you find yourself needing that imagery. Yeah, you're right--there was a ton of chaotic insanity going on in New York in Times Square at this particular time. Across the nation there was an economic depression; AIDS suddenly was happening, which was terrifying people because no one was aware of where it came from, how you could contract it. They just knew that their loved ones were dying. A lot of the sexual revolution and the freedom of the early part of the '70s were suddenly being usurped by fear and fear-mongering that was perpetrated by governments that were kind of wanting to push out these locally-owned Mom & Pop businesses that were organized crime-controlled in order to bring in large corporate behemoths like the Disneys and Viacoms of the world and the real estate in both the public and private sectors were up for grabs, and Eminent Domain was really the tool that was being used to force people out. That fear that was being instilled in people's lives was what allowed them to be pushed out. The adult industry had the finger of blame pointed at it, which allowed that transition to jumpstart. Vanessa, in her specific story, her celebrity and star trajectory occurred so quickly as she was just adored by her fans and the adult industry jumped on that in order to beef up their coffers so that they could fight the litigation that they were under a lot of pressure to fight. There's bigger stories that are going on than just the specifics of a sliver of one person's life, but the fact that she was just a person who happened to be at the right place at the right time, if you will, and she was the one tapped to help with the revenue streams and push out video as it was just starting to happen--and that could have been anybody. She was the same person as many of us--she came from a very devout Catholic upbringing, very disciplined from her parents...but that could have been your friends or my friends or ourselves. We don't know.