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“I Could Only Shoot When I Had Increments of $200 to Spend”: Lizzie Borden on Working Girls, Harvey Weinstein and Changing Perceptions of Sex Work

Working Girls

Highly respected but rarely screened, Working Girls, Lizzie Borden’s 1986 feature about a group of women working an extended shift in a Manhattan brothel, finally makes its way to home video this week thanks to the Criterion Collection. Presented in a new 4K digital restoration, the film is long overdue for reappraisal, and not merely due to the struggles currently faced by sex workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Borden’s previous feature, Born in Flames, was defiantly scrappy and overtly political. Working Girls represents an upgrade in production value while retaining Borden’s unwavering interest in feminist politics, race relations, workers’ rights and the commodification of labor. Less a cautionary tale than an organizing tool—attuned to topics as varied as female leadership, hourly compensation and customer retention rate—the film is both fascinating and humorous in the way it presents the mundane day-to-day operations of a brothel with a revolving front door. 

As Molly (Louise Smith) and her co-workers repeatedly meet with white-collar johns for intimate sessions of sexual-fantasy fulfillment, Borden lures the viewer in with methodical pacing that emphasizes, as Roger Ebert noted in his review for the film’s 1987 theatrical release, why “the world’s oldest profession is, despite everything, a profession.” A few weeks before Working Girls’ new home video release, I spoke with Borden about film production in the ’80s, the reception to her work then as opposed to now and why she always looks forward to sharing her movies with new, receptive audiences. 

Filmmaker: Born in Flames was released in the spring of 1983 and your second feature, Working Girls, would make its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 1986. Did prep on Working Girls begin in earnest right after the release of Born in Flames? I believe you had conducted a number of interviews with sex workers for personal research, but was your intention always to make a narrative film about their profession? What was the timeline of events that led you to write Working Girls?

Borden: The seeds for Working Girls actually came during the time I was making Born in Flames. My first feature took so many years to get made, and during this time I was also interacting with women who worked in a specific brothel that would ultimately serve as the basis for Working Girls. I actually featured some of these women in Born in Flames

Filmmaker: Really?

Borden: It’s this very tiny, fast shot of the actual brothel, a shot that you wouldn’t even remember by the time you finish watching the film. It’s the shot of a woman picking money up off of a bed, and I filmed that by sneaking into the actual brothel when the madam wasn’t present. There’s also a montage of women’s labor in the film and it includes a shot of a condom being placed on an erect penis. Of course, that was a set-up shot, but its inclusion signaled my intention to do a film about women’s labor, if not in that particular brothel then somewhere else. This was all going through my head as I was making Born in Flames, as that film really required me to be editing day in and day out. I “found the film” as I went along.

Making Born in Flames was as much an experience of editing as it was creating fictional scenes to then go out and shoot. I could only shoot when I had increments of $200 to spend. I’d go out, shoot for $200 and integrate that footage into the film. That was my production routine. I would sometimes be inspired by something I saw in the street, then I’d go home and write a scene where the characters are centered around [that event or object]. Other times, I would know a particular event was upcoming in the city, like a march or a demonstration, and I’d put my fictional characters into that real event or write text for a faux newscaster to read in the film. 

It was during this period that I was also writing the script for Working Girl. That took a while, although I was luckily helped by one of the women who was working in the brothel at the time. I wasn’t doing any academic research on sex workers beforehand, however. My research was based on the women I knew and sneaking into the brothel with a tape recorder when the madam wasn’t present. I was recording like crazy. I also talked to the men who came in and the women who came in, as the madam wasn’t there all the time. 

What I was really interested in were the women downtown who were working there. These women were artists, women who were studying for their doctorates, etc. One English woman in particular (who is now a psychiatrist) was having difficulty obtaining a green card, so she was working in the brothel. But none of this seemed unusual, as there were always elements of the sex industry downtown.There were women who were stripping and women like Cookie Mueller who were dancing downtown. There wasn’t a lot of moral judgment about this particular line of work. 

While I didn’t go to film school, I had seen the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and had seen Alan J. Pakula’s Klute and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, of course. The street sex workers were on the West Side (on the piers, many trans) and that seemed dangerous; the high-class call girls were on the Upper East Side. It seemed so dangerous to me, as you’d hear these stories about these women in the news or maybe see somebody you suspect is a high-class call girl in the lobby of a fancy hotel. But the brothel downtown felt different, almost middle-class. The guys who would visit just seemed like regular guys who would stop in on their way home to Long Island, and the women who worked there didn’t dress up in special clothes, but rather ordinary dresses or skirts. This isn’t something I had particularly seen before on film. I’ve done a lot of reading since then, growing much more enmeshed in the sex industry and meeting different workers, like Margot St. James, who started COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and Tracy Quan, a spokesperson for PONY (Prostitutes of New York). I wanted to shoot the film as a kind of organizing tool and it all came together while I was editing Born in Flames

Born in Flames had a script that evolved on the flatbed editing table, although I can’t use the word “Steenbeck” today, as younger people wouldn’t probably know what a Steenbeck is! It took a long time to finish, as it wasn’t a documentary that follows its subject to wherever their subject leads them. Born in Flames had to be experimental in the sense that it was going to be a very manipulated framework for a narrative story, and the first two years of working on the film, I didn’t even have a story. It was about finding the characters and the voices that would come from several downtown artists, middle-and-working-class people below 14th street. It was an interesting way to work and it wouldn’t have been completed without the community downtown. 

No matter what kind of film they were making, there were certain places every filmmaker went, like Rafik and other labs that would develop film for very little money. I shot Born in Flames on reversal film stock so that I could pre-cut what I didn’t want, then make copies of the reversal film I knew I was going to use. Sometimes I would shoot a whole day and keep just a twentieth of the footage. I don’t know what happened to the outtakes but I wish I still had them. I think they were all lost when I moved to Los Angeles. Anyway, I had created my own personal method of editing as I wasn’t a professional and had never worked with an assistant.

This was all happening as I was searching for the story of Working Girls and, once I found it, coming up with a plot. As I observed how some women were working in a brothel and thinking, “yeah, that is a good way to make some money,” I began writing the script with the help of a woman who worked in that particular brothel (and in many other brothels previously), and she would inform me, “no, this isn’t right,” or “it wouldn’t be that way” as I wrote the script. There was also an artist friend of mine, Kurt Ossenfort, who amazingly helped to build a brothel replica for the film even before I had finished the script, and he built it inside my loft! He’s credited as the production designer on the film, and he was building the set before we were even ready to shoot anything. I did it all backwards!

Filmmaker: Did that help you in unexpected ways? Not only having the set built before you were ready to go into production but literally living with it day in and day out?

Borden: Actually, yes, and it was both funny and fascinating to see this replica of a middle-class brothel with wild walls and a bathroom and kitchen that didn’t work, all housed inside a grungy loft with a grungy, pseudo-kitchen. I had wished the replica’s bathroom and kitchen worked, as it looked so much nicer than my own! Having the set within my loft especially helped toward the end of production, as I could shoot small pick-up shots to mark the film’s ellipses in time. One of the biggest questions I had was how to portray a single day and how to deal with the concept of time on film. I began thinking of ways to use the upstairs and downstairs of the set, even if there wasn’t actually an “upstairs set.” The staircase actually led to another part of the loft that we kept redressing to serve as different rooms in the film. I kind of knew what I wanted to do. 

Setting the film over the course of one day was less about the inner psychology of one person than it was my recurring interest in the idea of groups. Born in Flames is made up of a group of women, and so too is Working Girls. Working Girls is primarily focused on one woman, yes, but it’s really about a group in the sense that in the daytime, Molly’s relationship to a group of women makes the job go easier, while in the evening, her inability to talk or relate to the other women makes the job go slower. Of course, the villain in all of this is the madam.

I didn’t have the correct budget, as my approach was to just get it shot for the amount of money I had. The money I had was my rent money in escrow, as I was fighting to keep my loft at that moment in time. I obtained a few small grants that helped me get by. The late D.A. Pennebaker, who I knew due to [Pennebaker’s partner] Chris Hegedus having shot some of Born in Flames, helped me obtain one.

Filmmaker: And speaking of documentary filmmakers involved in Direct Cinema, Ricky Leacock appears on camera as one of the johns in Working Girls.

Borden: That was a connection too. Ricky was so happy to play a john in the film. I remember him telling me, “I hope I’m fired from MIT on charges of moral turpitude.” But he wasn’t, of course, and he was one of the most fun guys to work with.

In my opinion, there was a clear progression from Born in Flames to Working Girls, with one of the shared themes being labor. If you were living downtown in the 1980s, there was always the question of how do you do your work? How can you afford to work on your art, your music, your education? What jobs are available to someone who possesses a liberal arts education? How do you buy time? Which is worse: renting your body out for a few hours a week or renting your mind out for 40 hours a week? Everyone figured that Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch’s partner, had a really great job because she worked in a Xerox store where a lot of punk musicians came in that she got to meet. But that was a 40-hours-a-week job. That’s labor!

Filmmaker: And I believe her feature debut, Sleepwalk, premiered at Cannes the same year Working Girls did, in 1986.

Borden: I think so! It was a time where a lot of women were making films and a cross-current existed between each one. Bette Gordon had made her film, Variety, a few years earlier, and it features the photographer, Nan Goldin, in a supporting role, and we feature Nan’s photographs in Working GirlsThat cross-current made low-budget filmmaking possible for us during that brief period of time. Spike Lee, Ross McElwee, and I all used the same camera from Du Art Film Laboratory, a Super 16 camera Irwin Young gave to us for free in exchange for doing all of our lab work at Du Art. And then somebody stole the camera after the sixth person….Anyway, we were able to save money that way.

People sometimes ask me, “Who are you making your film for?” I was just making Working Girls to make it, as I hadn’t seen a film like that before. I really had no idea how I was going to finish it. I just wanted to get it in the can, and that’s when two female producers of a production company, Alternate Current, came on to help me obtain the necessary funds to finish it. I think the final budget was somewhere around $300,000, which was enormous, I thought. It’s interesting to look back now on these projects. Had I known Born in Flames would take five years to make, I don’t know if I would have set out to make it. And had I known that Working Girls would cost $300,000, I’m not sure I would’ve jumped in, but you just have to jump in somewhere.

Filmmaker: Working Girls premiered at Cannes in 1986, screened at Sundance in 1987, then opened for a theatrical run in February 1987 at the 57th Street Playhouse (now the DGA Theater) in New York. What was the experience like screening the film in these environments and how, on the eve of a new restoration and Criterion Collection release, have conversations around the film changed and grown?    

Borden: The film was hardly done when we were accepted into Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. We were thrilled to accept the invitation, but it was the most overwhelming in-person experience. We were in the same section as Spike Lee’s film, She’s Gotta Have It, that year, and that felt ironic as we both shared the same camera, right? Spike felt instantly at home in Cannes and was even selling tube socks for promotion on the Croisette! But I was overwhelmed. I hadn’t brought many clothes and didn’t know how to deal with the whole Cannes experience. But Harvey Weinstein saw the film there and John Pierson had been handling sales on the film. There’s some debate over if Harvey picked the film up at Cannes or Sundance the following January, but that all eventually came to pass.

Our Sundance experience was really interesting, as there weren’t a lot of large crowds back then (and this was before the Sundance Institute officially rebranded the festival as the Sundance Film Festival). There weren’t a lot of sales agents there and it was the kind of festival where you could be standing in line behind Roger Ebert and start up a conversation. It was still seen as a “do-it-yourself independent film festival” in 1987. I had no issues with Harvey Weinstein back then, although at a certain point, things changed. The actual madam of the brothel grew freaked out, as we used her real first name, Susan, in the film. We used other real people’s first names as well, like Shawn and Michael. I realized that we were going to have to dub those names out at the last minute to maintain their privacy, switching Susan to “Lucy” and Shawn to “Dawn” and Michael to “Miles,” etc. I told Harvey my intention and he said, “I don’t care. Do it with your own money.”

Filmmaker: So you swapped their names out in post via ADR? 

Borden: I did, in a dinky place that worked for our budget, which was very small. Harvey was romancing someone in his office, Eve Chilton, back then, and they went on to be married [from 1987-2004], so it didn’t seem too weird at the time. The only argument Harvey and I had was regarding his advertising campaign for the film, which made it look like a sexy “come hither” type of movie. We anticipated that that would be how he was going to sell it and we couldn’t have argued with him anyway. I didn’t detect anything too weird about him, except that he would lose his temper and occasionally throw a chair at the wall.

Opening the film on 57th Street was interesting. I remember standing with my producer, Andi Gladstone, across the street from the theater and seeing people line up for the next screening. Like Cannes, it was an out-of-body experience, i.e. “these people are coming to see our movie? Why?” It was a bizarre experience! But the reception to the film was different then, and what I’ve found over the years is that much of the film’s life today comes as a result of social media. The movie hasn’t changed but the audience has. What I’m most happy about is that sex workers have discovered the film online and consider it to be true to life. The film has been unavailable for a long period of time and I discovered that once the Weinsteins left Miramax and formed The Weinstein Company, all the in-house prints were lost, every single one of them. A few prints of the film exist in vaults somewhere in Europe, but stateside, the prints were gone and it became difficult to see the film. 

Sex workers found the film online and would post about how they found it to be an authentic depiction [of the industry]. This came over a period of time where social media allowed for more communication, globally, amongst sex workers and the notions and attitudes toward sex work shifted from shame to pride. There was a sense of bonding between sex workers thanks to social media and it allowed for political action to occur, where sex workers could form groups or alliances against the FOSTA-SESTA bill that was passed by the United States Congress in 2018. Social media allowed for global political action to rise up.

That change in perception changed the perception of Working Girls, although not on a huge scale, as the film just hasn’t been visible for a long time. This new 4K restoration of the film looks a lot better and hopefully not as low-budget! I hope the film’s visual power and specific color scheme comes through now. My goal has been to have the film more widely seen, especially in this new societal context. I made the film because I hadn’t seen stories like this back then, although there was Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I considered her film slow back then, but I’ve really come to love it and now think it’s the key film about prostitution. 

I also hope that this new restoration makes more people understand that what I made was not a documentary. I want to ask you a question: when you saw Working Girls for the first time, did you think it was a documentary? That it possessed documentary elements?  

Filmmaker: I wouldn’t say documentary, no. It’s definitely scripted, there’s a narrative framework there, numerous cast members. There’s an inherent realism based on your findings, of course, but I wouldn’t label the film as nonfiction in the truest classification of the word, whatever that is.

Borden: Yes, and while I wanted the film to feel like the viewer is a “fly on the wall,” I also wanted the film to feel very stylized. The stylization has to do with how the duration of time is portrayed in the film, as there are sections where the women are just waiting downstairs for their next client. When a new client arrives, we always use a dolly shot to signal their arrival. Once the clients go upstairs, we incorporate music into the scene and get even more highly stylized, reflecting the sexual fantasies that each man has. There are also ellipses in time once we’re upstairs and the color becomes very bright (and once we hit evening, the colors convey a different feeling). So, I understand those who call the film a documentary in that “fly on the wall” sense, but other than that? No, it’s not a documentary at all. 

Filmmaker: Those artistic flourishes certainly stand out as deliberate choices.  

Borden: I also think there’s a younger generation of men who understand the female characters in both Born in Flames and Working Girls in a new way. For example, one of the best compliments I received was a man telling me that he had a boss just like Lucy [the madam character in Working Girls] and he wasn’t referring to working in the sex industry specifically. I didn’t know if there were entry points into the film for young men but, post-Occupy Wall Street, there have been young men who (and this pertains more to Born in Flames) view the whole genderqueer spectrum a bit differently and who aren’t alienated from the characters in the film. Perhaps men today can relate to the labor and boss issues in Working Girls in a way that’s different than it was in the 1980s, when the film felt like a different kind of movie. 

The movies haven’t changed, but how audiences view them has. That’s what interests me, as both Born in Flames and Working Girls are about asking questions. For example, at the end of Born in Flames, the film makes you ask: what would happen after the final shot? If the answer is that the women would all be arrested, as that kind of revolution simply cannot work in a capitalist country, then what do you think of violence? What do you think of that kind of violence? The ending is supposed to provoke arguments or inspire people to act and do something any way they can. And with Working Girls, you leave the movie wondering: will Molly follow-up on [the john] Elliot’s business card? Or will she change her mind and go back to working in the brothel? What will she do for money moving forward?

Labor remains the biggest issue, and both of the films relate to today, at least as they pertain to the current job market, especially for women. I know a stripper who’s 50 years old and teaches memoir writing at UCLA. She’s still a stripper but the strip clubs have been closed [due to the pandemic], so she’s a sex worker who also publishes in magazines and online publications like the Huffington Post. It’s not enough money to live on though, so what do we do for money? And how do we change that? I honestly don’t feel like it’s going to change any time soon and, due to the pandemic, it’s gotten even worse, despite what current jobs reports say. It’s an ongoing question and I like the idea of films that ask questions and provoke arguments. When I participate in Q&As after screenings of my films now, I like hearing from different generations of viewers. That’s the only way I can actually understand.

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