‘Finding Bliss” stars Leelee Sobieski as Jody Balaban, a young film school graduate who heads out to Los Angeles with high and naive hopes for a bright future. Ultimately, the only job she can get is editing porn flicks at the same studio where “Gladiator” was shot. Well, not exactly “Gladiator.” It was “Glad He Ate Her.”
She takes the position reluctantly, and only because she expects to use the company’s facilities at night to shoot her own project.
Julie Davis is the prototype and creator (writer/director/editor) of Jody. Julie herself once was a naïve film school graduate who went to Los Angeles with high hopes for a bright future. While she did some free-lance editing of straight-to-video movies, she finally found work at the Playboy Channel.
“I was desperate for a real job, with a real salary and benefits and a 401K and a (business) card with my name on it,” Davis said in a telephone interview.
One of her duties involved a Playboy co-venture with Vivid Entertainment, a leading adult entertainment company. Her responsibility while working for Playboy was to cut certain graphic scenes and turn hard core films (those depicting penetration) into soft core.
As Davis says in a director’s statement about her life: “My dreams, hopes, ambitions [were] to do something meaningful with my life. And here it was — a hunky lifeguard saving a girl from drowning and then giving her mouth to vagina resuscitation.”
This movie is not the first time Davis has created doppelgängers of herself. Her debut film, a well-regarded Sundance favorite, “I Love You, Don’t Touch Me!,” was about a young Jewish girl who refused to have sex until she met The One.
And, yes, Davis says: “I was waiting for the right person. I wanted to be in love and I wanted [the sex] to mean something.”
Her second film, “Amy’s Orgasm,” was “based on my meeting my husband,” Davis said. Now Davis is married. “Amy’s Orgasm” yielded one of her favorite souvenirs — a poster in Hebrew from the movie’s release in Israel.
Because there are so many similarities between fact and fiction, figuring out where her characters end and Julie Davis begins can be difficult. “My alter-egos are Jewish because I write from what I know,” she said. “I write from experience.”
While that’s a big plus in the sense that it cuts down on research time and expenses, there are drawbacks.
“Resistance to the Jewish characters [in the film industry] is a constant problem.” Davis said. “I have people telling me all the time, ‘Your characters are too Jewish. Why are all your characters Jewish?’ The original script [for ‘Finding Bliss’] was much more Jewish.”
One scene that was cut from “Finding Bliss” was a nightmarish flashback to Jody’s bat mitzvah.
“Jewish [film ] executives are the worst,” Davis said. “They even told me not to make Jody’s name too Jewish.”
So the character’s name was changed from Fishbein to the more neutral Balaban.
“I’ve been hearing this for so many years now. It’s become annoying for me,” Davis said. “And it’s become an issue when I write a script. There’s now this self-censoring voice in my head saying: Don’t make [this character] Jewish.
“Hollywood doesn’t think Jewish girls are sexy or they’re like Barbra Streisand, pushy and aggressive.”
Despite the restrictions, Davis managed to create a humorous, smartly written script that was picked up by Showtime to make into a series. But even when that was scotched by a change in management, Davis refused to give up.
Eventually she got the rights to “Finding Bliss” back from Showtime, continued to hone the script and looked for financing. When, after four years, she finally got backing for a low-budget effort, the script was good enough to attract relatively big names.
Cast members include Kristen Johnson (from “3rd Rock from the Sun”), who plays Irene Fox, the head of Grind Studios, which creates adult entertainment — “We don’t use the ‘P’ word here.”
She hires Jody to provide a female point of view and lift her latest production from adult movie to art house cinema.
Jamie Kennedy is one of the male lead actors — named Richard (Dick) Harder — and Denise Richards plays Laura, the lead actress in the more serious film Jody directs at night.
It’s tough sledding for Jody. By day, she’s edits the “adult film” and fights her obvious attraction to its director, Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis). At night, she shoots her own film about a young girl waiting for The One.
And both day and night, she tries to keep her strict parents from discovering she works at Grind.
The denouement, Jody’s metamorphosis, is more Woody Allen than Kafka. And it is realized through the insight of one of the porn queens, who doesn’t see the logic of Jody’s script. No one, Jody is told, would really say “no” for so long to a longtime boyfriend.
When Jody finally gets it, she revises the script, and that leads to the film’s happy ending.
For director Davis, a happy ending would simply mean financing to make a bigger film next time.
Raised in Miami, the daughter of an ophthalmologist and a stay-at-home mom, Davis was “Reform, but observant. I was a bat mitzvah, went to temple most Friday nights and went to religious school,” she said.
She studied classical piano for 13 years, acted in school productions, loved photography and did a lot of creative writing. “I wasn’t great at anything, but I was good at a lot of things,” she said. “I felt like Salieri in ‘Amadeus.’”
Davis had an epiphany when she took a film course at Dartmouth College. It seemed a way to combine her passions. “My first student film turned out really well and it became an addiction,” she said.
Unlike the fictional Balaban parents, Davis’s parents were fully supportive — even during the Playboy period. In fact, when “Finding Bliss” was shown at the Slamdance Festival early last year, they flew out to Park City, Utah.
When they arrived at Julie’s condo, they didn’t blink when they discovered porn actor Ron Jeremy sleeping on the couch — not even when Mom said, “I think he’s naked.” For the record, he wasn’t. Also for the record, Julie said, “My mom knows who he is because I told her about him. She doesn’t know his ‘work.’ My dad however, does!” Jeremy visited the festival to support the film. “He even helped me put up posters on the main street,” Davis said.
“The best part: When we all went out for sushi later that night, the people at the next table comped our meal because they love Ron. Now that’s something to impress Jewish parents with!”
“Finding Bliss” opens in New York City June 4, Los Angeles June 11 and other locations during the summer.
Curt Schleier teaches business writing to executives and is editor of tvsoundoff.com and filmsoundoff.com.
Watch the trailer for “Finding Bliss” below:
This story "Film — Bliss, By Way of Adult Movies: From Bat Mitzvah and Playboy to Art" was written by Curt Schleier.