Angie Rowntree discusses her career, Sssh.com, and her latest film “Invictus”

"...I wanted to tell a story that sounded a warning call: If we’re going to turn things around, we need to start right now, before we transform our world into something like the one depicted in Invictus..."

To describe Angie Rowntree as talented would be correct but a gross oversimplification. With a background in business and journalism, Rowntree is a pioneer in feminist adult entertainment, founded Sssh.com – the web’s longest-running porn-for-women site, was one of the first directors to explore 360 VR erotica, and an amazing director in general. In addition to her many responsibilities, Rowntree recently directed Invictus (an erotic dystopian film), which was released as an explicit version on Sssh.com and an rated R version that can be found on Amazon Prime. The rated R version has gone on to garner praise from non-adult entertainment organizations, and has earned the Award of Prestige for Best Scif-Fi film at the Vegas Movie Awards and received an honorable mention in the category for Best Indie Feature. Wanting to learn more about Rowntree’s career and her work on Invictus, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.

You can learn more about Angie Rowntree by following her on Twitter at @AngieRowntree.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?

Angie Rowntree: It’s funny, I’m a filmmaker, but the stories which have impacted me the most over the years have all come from books. I’m sort of a book fetishist you could say; I don’t just love reading them, I love the way they feel in my hands, even the way they smell.

Some of my favorites are relatively obscure books written by authors who are far more famous for their other works. Everybody has heard of Moby Dick, for example, but the book by Melville that resonated way more with me was The Confidence Man. It makes brilliant use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – a narrator who lies to you about the very story you’re reading. Even though that’s a device I’ve never used myself, I was just fascinated by the process of realizing that’s what I was reading. At first, I thought “Wait a minute; this story is full of contradictions and doesn’t make any sense.” But then I realized the story isn’t just about a con; the story itself IS a con. I haven’t read that book in decades – I still remember vividly what it felt like to realize I was reading a story unlike any other I’d read and how deeply satisfying that experience was. I think that book is a big part of what makes me strive to find unique stories to tell – and unexpected ways to tell them.

Since I’ve done a couple sci-fi stories lately, a couple of my favorite sci-fi authors come to mind, too. I love Isaac Asimov, in part because his stories, while certainly sci-fi, are more about people than they are wild, fantastic visions of future technologies. The Foundation series really captures his ability to develop characters and to take the reader inside the psychology of those characters, because it covers this enormous range of time, introducing and exploring a huge number of characters along the way, each of which has considerable depth. I also love Frank Herbert’s Dune (more the first book than the whole series). Herbert gave such rich, detailed descriptions of every facet of the story, from the way the characters looked and dressed to the scent of the ‘spice’ that’s at the heart of the tale – and the sandworms, of course. I was very taken with the sandworms.

Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment in which this goal crystallized for you?

Rowntree: Growing up, whenever I watched movies, I found myself filled with questions. Why did they do that? What made the director pick that shot? What’s the director trying to tell the audience on a subconscious level? What’s the subtext? Is there another story here? (Sometimes, probably too often, I’d pepper my friends with the same questions, which probably made me not-so-fun to watch movies with, come to think of it.)

On the bright side, I think asking those questions led me to start making films in my mind to try to find the answers – or the way I’d answer those questions if I had been the director, at least. From there, the mental process became making up new stories of my own, answering the same sort of questions, but not rooted in someone else’s story or film. It started with pictures in my mind, sort of the embryo of a narrative that didn’t have form just yet, then the pictures would take life and become full stories.

I think there was always a part of me that was burning to tell the stories that took shape in my head, but my career was facing in another direction at the time. As fate would have it though, my husband and I got involved in the very early days of the online adult entertainment industry.

From the start, I was confused and frustrated by the lack of adult entertainment that seemed to be made with a female audience in mind. When I’d ask people in the adult industry why that was, they told me there was “no market” because “women don’t watch porn.” I thought those assumptions were bogus – and I also thought the real problem was there was so little adult content out there from a woman’s perspective.

That was the “Ah-ha!” moment for me, when I realized my unfulfilled desire to make movies turned out to dovetail so perfectly with an opportunity that grew out of a business I was already running, a career path I was already on. I started collecting survey data on what women wanted to see in erotic entertainment, thought about ways to incorporate those fantasies and desires into the kind of stories and narratives I wanted to tell, and I was off and running as an indie adult filmmaker.

Yanes: You have degrees in business and journalism. How do you feel these educations have helped you build your entertainment career?

Rowntree: Business was a cop-out, to be perfectly honest. Business is what you study when you need to kill time, because you don’t know what to take and your parents are saying “Go to school!” That’s what it was for me, at least. As I studied business, I was waiting for an epiphany that never came – a reason to feel passionate about my chosen field of study that just never materialized. The irony is, in retrospect those business studies have proven very useful. I may have loathed a lot of those classes at the time, but now I must admit they gave me a great foundation for running my own company.

Journalism was a different story altogether. I began taking journalism courses later, after finishing my business degree – and I loved it from the start. Especially photojournalism and the way it affords you the opportunity to tell a story through images. To invoke emotion within an audience – to make a difference. To help people look outside themselves and their own backyard and see the world for what it really is, a sometimes not-so-beautiful place. I then took filmmaking classes and masterclasses and knew I’d found my love – even if I didn’t get to pursue that passion right away.

As a photojournalist, I think I had a knack for capturing the raw truth and drama of a moment in a single shot. As a filmmaker, now I’m capturing the rawness in human relationships and life.

Yanes: Your recent film is Invictus. What was the inspiration behind this story? On this note, was there a moment in which a character took on a life of their own?

Rowntree: The inspiration behind Invictus was my belief that we’re facing a time in human history that’s fraught with real danger for us all. We face crucial choices and there’s urgent action that needs to be taken on a variety of fronts. I wanted to tell a story that sounded a warning call: If we’re going to turn things around, we need to start right now, before we transform our world into something like the one depicted in Invictus. I’m extremely concerned about the state of our environment, about climate change, the rise of far-right ethnonationalism around the world, our eroding commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of the press: Invictus references and draws on each of these areas.

As is the case with a lot of my movies, the basic theme of Invictus started life as a crowdsourced concept that came from Sssh.com members. Naturally, a lot of these ideas are highly influenced by what’s current in the other media people consume, whether it’s TV, content on streaming platforms, or on the big screen. So, we get a lot of requests for familiar genres, often attached to a specific call for strong female leads. Lately, there have been tons of requests for post-apocalyptic and dystopian futuristic stories – which may say something about the current mental and emotional state of our country and the world.

The basic theme of Invictus came from a member-submitted concept: They wanted a post-Apocalyptic tale with a strong, driven heroine at its core. I took that basic idea and attached it to the message I wanted to communicate about the crossroads at which we stand right now, as a country, as a world and as a species.

I love the Jane Darling character.  As much as I loved her in the script, I loved her even more once Jane was in the hands of Delirious Hunter, who really owned the character and played Jane with immense passion. Jane is simultaneously vulnerable and strong, a sort of study in contradictions that add up to a very compelling presence.

Honestly, I feel a small tug of regret that we couldn’t do more with Jane. I think one downside of being a small, independent studio is that there’s just not the time or budget to explore all the avenues I’d like to go down with a character like Jane. What was she like before the wheels of society came off, for example? How much of her strength was already there, versus forged in the fire of adversity she faced after the collapse? Jane is very complicated; maybe I should do a prequel to answer some of my own questions.

Yanes: Invictus was made for Sssh.com (an adult entertainment website), but it is getting accolades and awards from non-porn organizations. In addition to Invictus being a good film, do you see this praise as a sign that adult entertainment movies are finally being valued and respected outside of the industry?

Rowntree: I’m not sure it’s a sign of any broader trend in terms of adult entertainment being more accepted or respected outside the industry, so much as it is proof that adult movies can do more than titillate and arouse their viewers – or that just because a movie titillates and arouses, that doesn’t mean it can’t have serious value as a story.

It’s also important to note that the version of Invictus I submitted to the film festivals isn’t the fully sexually explicit version available on Sssh.com. I think even adult films that emphasize story, and in which the sex is integral (as opposed to gratuitous) to the story, are still a bridge too far for most film festivals if the sex in them is too ‘hardcore’, for lack of a better word.

Yanes: One of the plots in Invictus centers on the government censoring independent press. How much of this storyline is based on your journalism background?

Rowntree: Honestly, none of that is based on my journalism background. It just flows from current events and where I see things going in the future. To me, it’s the next logical step to politicians claiming anything critical of them is “fake news” and calling for “opening up the libel laws.”

Yanes: There are currently two versions of Invictus, an R-rated version for Amazon Prime and an explicit version for Sssh.com. What steps were taken to make sure you should make various versions without compromising the story?

Rowntree: The key is finding a balance in which the sex is integral to the story, but the story isn’t diminished or blunted by the choice of a different camera angle. No core story elements change with the use of less explicit camera angles, but I can’t really say the story doesn’t change at all in the process of altering the sex scenes. It certainly changes the experience of watching the film, because we all react differently to depictions of sex – and I think we react differently to varying degrees of explicitness, too.

Yanes: Invictus is set in a dystopian future. Were there any classic stories you were inspired by when crafting the world Invictus is set in?

Rowntree: I try not to allow other stories to influence my films too much or take them into territory that’s derivative. That said, you can’t help but be influenced by classics that made a huge impression and shaped our ideas about what a post-Apocalyptic world might be like.

Invictus has some elements in common with the classic film On the Beach, for example. In that story, the world has been largely obliterated by nuclear war and while some survivors are overwhelmed and almost in denial of what has happened, others are focused on salvaging what can be salvaged and seeing if they can find other survivors. There’s no direct link between the stories of On the Beach and Invictus, exactly, but there is the same kind of tension between a person like Jane, who wants to confront the problems in front of her, maybe even rebuild some semblance of society, and others who have acquiesced to the nightmare they’re living.

Yanes: When people finish watching Invictus, what do you hope they take away from the story?

Rowntree: Ideally, I want people to walk away from Invictus with a sense of both urgency and hope. I want them to feel urgency about the need to address the challenges and pending disasters we’ve been courting through decades of environmental neglect and policy lunacy, and hope that if we respond to the urgency with something other than denial and inaction, there’s still a chance to avoid the sort of dystopia envisioned in the film. Put another way, the world needs more Janes now, rather than waiting until things are truly dire for people like her to emerge and lead the way.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Rowntree: We just released Alla Prima, which is a stark contrast to Invictus, both thematically and conceptually. Alla Prima is a story told without use of words. Color represents desire in building a depiction of the passion and intimacy that exists between a truly connected couple. I hesitate to say more than that, because the story is meant to be told through the visuals – and maybe the story it tells each viewer is a little different. Alla Prima stars Ava Mir-Ausziehen and Malcolm Lovejoy, who are simply amazing. Their performance beautifully captured the connection, trust and mutual fervor I want to communicate in an erotic scene.

This month, we’ll release another film called Desolation. It’s another post-apocalyptic tale, this time about people who were left behind in an evacuation of the earth. It’s got a very different plot arc than Invictus, this one centered around a woman who’s forced to scavenge around in the dust of civilization’s collapse to survive, while awaiting her promised rescue. Stephie Staar and Dave Dixon star in Desolation.

Another project I’m very excited about is a series that will be filmed in New Orleans. It’s the story of an ancient book and the profound impact it has had on the lives of each person who has owned it over the years. The series is written by Sarah Valmont, whose vision I love and very much look forward to bringing to the screen.

Remember, you can learn more about Angie Rowntree by following her on Twitter at @AngieRowntree.

And remember to follow me on Twitter at @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on Twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

 

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