February 1, 2001

Tales from the Trenches: The Jon Vincent Story

The star of Bill Kramer's <em>The Jon Vincent Story</em>.

Editor’s Note—Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely sources—a plastic bag floating through a plaza, a little girl climbing up a tree to view a funeral. Bill Kramer happened upon an obituary that led him to the shady netherworld of pornography, escort service and the American dream.

In the midst of my ongoing frustration with the state of the Hollywood film machine and its lack of compelling characters and powerful storylines, I happened to read in a downtown NYC rag that gay porn star Jon Vincent had died of an apparent heroin overdose. The obit went on to state that two ex-wives and one teenage son survived him. Now there was a story waiting to be told. I decided to delve into the world of pornography and uncover the story of Jon Vincent.

On the surface, Jon Vincent’s story held the same fascination as any other porn star’s—What draws someone to this line of work? How do you have sex on camera? Also, like every porn star, Jon (aka Jeff Vickers) had to reinvent himself with a porn “identity.” What are the repercussions of this fabrication and duality? In Jon’s case, the answer was death.

Finding preliminary information on him was easy. An Internet search yielded dozens of websites with message boards devoted to porn stars. I posted messages, asking for any information on Jon, especially from people who knew him personally. I was inundated with e-mails from men and women who had bought Jon’s time and felt that they knew him on a private level.

Although I was skeptical, these “johns” (and “janes”) provided me with enough background information—Jon’s real name, birthplace, phone numbers of family members and friends—that I was able to start piecing his life together. In addition, I was able to find Jon’s obituary in his hometown newspaper, the Baton Rouge Advocate, which provided me with critical biographic information.

The next step was contacting family members, friends and co-workers by phone to see if they would talk to me on camera. This was tricky. Some demanded lots of money; others refused to be interviewed. Fortunately, after much convincing over the phone, I was able to persuade some of Jon’s relatives, friends, co-workers and -- most amazingly -- his johns to speak with me on camera for free.

Once I was ready to shoot, I attempted to set up appointments with interviewees in Los Angeles, his adopted hometown, and Baton Rouge, his real hometown. After establishing initial contact, I found that actually tracking these people down became a full-time job. When dealing with porn directors, escorts, johns and reluctant family members, patience and persistence were essential, but I was getting extremely frustrated. Ultimately, my determination paid off, and I was able to obtain some key interviews, especially with his brother in Louisiana.

When I logged the footage, I was struck by the inconsistencies in what people were saying about Jon. Regarding his sexual orientation, people stated that he was gay, bi, straight and asexual. I also have wildly conflicting viewpoints on his drug problem and death. Some claim that he was a heroin addict, others say a casual user at worst. Some think that Jon killed himself, while others were sure that he died of an accidental overdose.

At first I was extremely confused by the conflicting information. Then I realized what I had uncovered. Jon, like his peers in the adult entertainment industry, was a master of deception and reinvention—ultimately no one knew him. This “reinvention” creates many blurred boundaries in the real world. For example, Jon was such a good escort that many of his “johns” turned into friends and extended family members; many thought he was in love with them. This sort of deluded, self-serving thinking helps to explain the world in which Jon had lived.

Since Jon performed in a visual medium, I decided that I didn’t want the documentary to be standard “talking heads” fare. It was therefore critical that I obtain the rights to as many of his magazine articles and video clips as possible. What surprised me was how easy it was to obtain these rights. The magazine editors and video company owners understand the value of free advertising and, in exchange for proper credits and acknowledgements in the documentary, they were all willing to allow me to use their materials.

Six months into the project, I’m at a critical juncture: I need additional footage and photos from Jon’s childhood to contrast with his lurid life and grisly demise, but I want to be respectful of Jon’s family. Through my web site (www.thejonvincentstory.com), I have been able to play around with the tone of the story and receive feedback from friends and colleagues online.

I ultimately want this film to appeal to a broad audience. Despite the porn context, Jon’s story—his duality, his reinvention—is a classic American conceit.

 

Bill Kramer is a first-time documentary filmmaker and a Director in the Development Department at the Sundance Institute. He previously held non-profit development and management positions at the American Film Institute (AFI) and the Columbia University School of the Arts.

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