Wicked Director Brad Armstrong Explores 'Underworld'

This story originally ran in the August issue of AVN magazine. Underworld is being released today by Wicked Pictures.

On a warm June afternoon, Wicked Pictures director Brad Armstrong is working on Underworld, his big fall movie project, but his attention is focused right now on the little things. He’s meticulously drawing black lines around performer Toni Ribas’ wrists while Ribas’ costar, Asphyxia Noir, sits on a couch reading her script. Noir has already been through the painting process, and the tattooed beauty has fresh ink on her fingers, wrists, neck, shins and knees that look like stitches. There’s even black stitching painted on her white ankle-high boots with black laces.

Armstrong focuses intently, drawing around Ribas’ elbows as well and then adding stitch marks. The muscular porn star is bare-chested, wearing a pair of knee-length shorts. Armstrong explains that they are going to shoot dialog first, because once the action gets hot and heavy, he fears his handiwork will smudge.

While he works, his leading lady—Wicked contract star Jessica Drake—fills in the blanks on the project. Drake plays Tanya, a young woman who, after “making the sweet love” with fiancé Steve St. Croix, is mugged, shot and left for dead. Once at the hospital, Drake says, “the anesthesia has side effects that sort of transport me to a fantasy underworld—hence the title. And in the underworld, what’s so cool is that everyone I’m coming across directly correlates with what is going on in the operating room.”

The previous day, they filmed a scene showing the first person she meets: a character named Slice, played by Xander Corvus. “He’s a guy on stilts with crazy Edward Scissorhands things on his hands—and he’s the scalpel.” Drake explains. Julia Ann plays the ventilator to which Tanya is tethered, while Derrick Pierce embodies the spirit of Death.

Does Death win in the end? Drake explains that it’s as yet uncertain. “So there are alternate endings—will I live or will I die?” Armstrong hasn’t chosen yet, she says; he just shot it both ways. “I’m pulling to die because I think it’s a bit darker and I really like what goes on when I’m in death’s lair.”

This day, she’s doing a scene set in the hospital, with Noir and Ribas as Stitch and Suture. “I’ve wanted to work with Asphyxia Noir forever. … I also have Toni Ribas, whom I’ve hired for my instructional series, but I’ve never worked with him before.

“So, I’m tied up at the beginning of the scene…” Drake pauses. “Here, I’ll give you an exclusive: I don’t like being tied up, but nobody knows it. Brad may know it, but we don’t do it at home, so it doesn’t really come up. I like tying people up. I like being restrained by hands. But I’m actually going to be stitched to the walls. So we’ll see how that goes. I’m really interested to see what happens here.

It’s not the only physical challenge she’s faced on this shoot. There was the previous day’s scene in which she was hanging limp in a harness as Death tried to grab her. “This is probably the hardest movie that I’ve done since Fallen,” Drake says, referring to Armstrong’s award-winning 2008 fantasy about a fallen angel. “This may be harder. We wrapped at 5am, got to bed at 6am, got up at 9:30am.

“Everybody’s doing a great job,” she adds. “We have amazing people.”

A look around the room proves Drake’s last point. The stitches that Armstrong has drawn onto his performers are echoed in black yarn on several white fabric panels in the center of the set, which are being pushed around by award-winning art direction team Kylie Ireland and Andy Appleton.

Ireland, who started in the business in 1994, said that her presence on the set represented a milestone: “It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with Brad.” But she certainly was aware of his reputation for dominating the AVN Awards in the art direction category. Ireland joked that once she started to work on production design, she teased Armstrong: “One of these days I’m going kick your ass and win an AVN Award.” (She realized her goal last January.)

Production manager David Lord takes a few minutes to talk after surveying the food table. Yesterday’s shoot went very long, so there will need to be plenty of fuel for the crew. The most popular item is the Nutella—and there’s almost none left.

In addition to directing his own projects, including an all-sex movie titled Wet, Lord recently did a cameo on Armstrong’s recent comedy Just Visiting. But Lord’s role here is much bigger. Crediting Armstrong as a source of inspiration in his career, Lord says, “It’s been eight years since I worked with Brad. Apparently he has enough confidence in me to hire me as his PM for his big show of the year.”

And this is a big show. Though this day’s shoot is intimate compared to other scenes with more special effects, it’s clear from the crew he’s assembled that Armstrong has very ambitious plans for Underworld. As still photographer Marc Star shoots Jessica Drake against the white backdrop, veteran Wicked cinematographer Francois Clousot is preparing to work his magic. And on a second camera is award-winning cinematographer Alex Ladd. A former owner of DVSX, Ladd got back into adult movies because of his love of working with DSLR cameras. And Wicked vet Lee Snyders is doing the BTS footage.

They’re all here to bring Armstrong’s vision to life. He stops working for a few minutes to talk about the project and to show some photos of earlier shoots on his smartphone, including outdoor scenes at a place called Club Ed that looks a bit like Vasquez Rocks.

From the beginning Armstrong had ideas about the cast. As he was writing, he had Asphyxia Noir in mind. “Sometimes when I’m writing I know who’s going to play whom. Like I knew Xander,” Armstrong said, noting that he is using Corvus prominently in the trailer. “I had him say ‘Welcome to the Underworld,’ looking into the camera.”

Armstrong says, “It’s one of those things where people are either going to love this movie or couldn’t care less about it—‘Oh, it’s too artsy.’ … It’s kind of a cross between a little bit of everything. You’ve got the sci-fi with a couple of the scenes; you’ve got the eerie, goth-y noir kind of thing with the scenes with Xander. … And the outdoor stuff in the desert.”

He also talks about some setups in a water park, which he describes as “fucking stupid pretty,” that represent action in the operating room. Capri Cavanni will perform as “Gauze Girl,” with a body-double doing aerial work—which meant he had to match the height, weight, skin tone and body type of the two performers.

Asa Akira will do a scene in a different pool. “She’s playing blood, so she’s gong to rise up out of the pool. She’s in this badass red outfit and the guys are in these barbarian skirt thingies. Great visual,” he says with satisfaction.

At last, everything’s set for shooting to begin today. Drake’s arms are looped through the black stitching on the white fabric backdrop, as Armstrong shows Noir how to enter the scene swinging on a rope—no small feat given the platform shoes she’s wearing, which make it difficult for her to push off and gain momentum. But with each swing she gains confidence. The scene begins, with Drake as the injured Tanya and Noir as Stitch, the incarnation of Tanya’s post-surgery wounds.

Tanya turns to Stitch and demands to be turned loose. “Loose is a naughty word for a stitch,” Noir says. “A stitch gets loose and all sorts of bad things can happen: loss of limb, infection …” she pauses.

She’s left off “internal bleeding,” so out comes the clapboard. The rehearsal takes several run-throughs, with slightly different line readings, as the crew stays vigilant for any ambient noise from the outside, stopping the action when passing trucks or planes are audible. It’s now edging into late afternoon, and it’s becoming apparent that everyone will be here for quite some time to come.

But it also feels like there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing. During a moment of silence as a truck goes by, one voice rings out in the semi-darkness with a bit of happy news: “We have new Nutella.” With that it’s certain: The show will go on.