Image credits: Hulu, Steve Granitz/WireImage
A new Hulu series starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan is a picaresque romp through the history of the stolen sex tape that changed pop culture.
Pam & Tommy:
Back when 1995 was young, Pamela Anderson and her new husband, Tommy Lee, the drummer for the flashy metal combo Mötley Crüe, were on top of the world. She was starring in the TV hit “Baywatch,” and while his band was past its 1980s prime, he could still live la vida rocka in their Malibu mansion.
You can’t blame them for wanting to preserve some of their happiest moments — including some very naked, very sexual ones — for posterity, with the help of a Hi8 camcorder.
And then, much to the couple’s dismay, the footage got out. And got around.
Those events and their fallout are dramatized in the eight-part scripted series “Pam & Tommy,” a wild, picaresque romp through the nightclubs, palaces and porn dens of mid-90s Hollywood, which debuted Wednesday on Hulu. But the show has more on its mind than celebrity antics or period-perfect riffs on the outlandish trials and tribulations of its lead couple — although it has those, too.
The series uses the scandal — which begot fortunes, ruined lives and made the celebrity sex tape a defining artifact of the internet age — as a guide through a transitional period in American culture. It depicts a time when glam gave way to grunge and when cheap video and dial-up modems exponentially expanded the reach — and the invasiveness — of the business of sexual imagery.
Seth Rogen, 39, who is among the show’s executive producers, plays Rand Gauthier, the real-life electrician who stole, duplicated and distributed the tape. Rogen recalled by phone his first awareness of the footage. “I was 13, 14 years old when it came out, so I did not know the full story by any means,” he said. “I just knew it was this thing that was floating around my social group a little bit — that was looked on as this mythical thing, like ‘Lord of the Rings’ almost.”
But how to tell such a story, with its obvious sex appeal, in a way that is entertaining but doesn’t add to the exploitation? (Anderson and Lee were not involved in the production.) It was a tricky proposition, especially since the truth is so fanciful that it might enhance the myth.
Based closely on an eye-popping investigative Rolling Stone article from 2014, written by Amanda Chicago Lewis, the show takes off with the narrative equivalent of a Miata’s screeching tires. The man who sets the wheels in motion — and who, in early episodes, appears to be the show’s moral center — is Gauthier, the son of minor Hollywood royalty. (In 1975, his father, Dick Gautier, played Robin Hood in the short-lived Mel Brooks sitcom “When Things Were Rotten.” Rand modified his own last name’s spelling.)
As depicted in “Pam & Tommy,” Gauthier was helping remodel Lee and Anderson’s mansion when he was fired, with money still owed by a capricious and stingy Lee (Sebastian Stan). Already out thousands of dollars, Gauthier returned to recover his tools, when, as Gauthier alleges in the article, Lee stuck a shotgun in his face. (Lee and Anderson declined to comment for the Rolling Stone article.)
Incensed, he plotted an elaborate scheme to recoup his losses by stealing a six-foot-tall safe from Lee’s home, contents unknown. One of the show’s funniest scenes depicts Gauthier trying to fool Lee’s security camera by covering his back with a white pelt and getting down on all fours to look like Lee’s giant dog.
“Because I’m involved in the show, people assume it was made up,” Rogen said, laughing.
Lee had stored the precious video in that safe, alongside his guns and Anderson’s jewelry. The tape was out of sight and out of mind until early 1996, when the couple discovered that footage featuring their X-rated activities on a boat on Lake Mead had begun to surface publicly. Anderson and Lee, now the object of prurient attention, belatedly realized the tape had been stolen and were soon the butt of late-night jokes.
In a plot progression worthy of the Coen brothers, the caper metastasized, spreading into louche corners across North America. The real-life cast of characters grew to include bikers, gamblers, a brutal money lender named Butchie (Andrew Dice Clay) and assorted bottom feeders like Gauthier’s accomplice Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman), a pornographer in the San Fernando Valley.
Bawdy touches accentuate the sleazy vibe of mid-90s Los Angeles, particularly in early episodes. In one scene, the famously well-endowed Lee discusses his love for Anderson with an animated version of his penis (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas). It is as funny as it is surreal, but it isn’t a flight of comic fancy on the screenwriters’ part: Such tête-à-têtes run throughout Lee’s 2004 memoir, “Tommyland.” (A spokesman for Hulu said the series’s dialogue is original.)
Many times, such tricks are done with digital effects in postproduction, said Jason Collins, whose company, Autonomous FX, designed and built the many prosthetics used in the show. But Lee’s chatty member was brought to life by two puppeteers crouching out of camera range and armed with remote controls.
“Doing it like this allows the director and the creators to feed lines to the puppeteers and to Sebastian,” Collins said, “so they can have maybe a little bit of extra improv and be a little bit looser on the scene that day.”
As the episodes progress, viewers’ allegiances keep switching. Rogen, whose production company with Evan Goldberg, Point Grey, developed the series with Annapurna Pictures for Hulu, was drawn to Gauthier and his ambiguous role in the events.
“I think you like him at first because he’s a simple dopey guy who is trying his best — you don’t think he’s doing anything that bad because he doesn’t think he’s doing anything that bad,” Rogen said.
“The fact is that he truly didn’t consider anyone other than himself,” he added. “And he had a huge negative impact on people’s lives.”
Even Lee can be endearingly goofy, showering Anderson in affection and reveling in every rock-star cliché. But gradually, Anderson emerges as the story’s emotional and moral heart. And she is always a step ahead of most everybody around her, especially her husband, even as her instincts and intelligence are repeatedly ignored.
“She’s ultimately our main character,” said Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”), the show’s creator and a co-showrunner. “She gets the worst of it from a career and a public-perception standpoint, but she certainly gets out of our show as the best person.”
To that end, the show took measures, DeVincentis said, to underscore the vastly diverging ways in which Anderson and Lee lived through the events. Lewis, who wrote the Rolling Stone article, was a consultant for the series; two of the writers were women, and later episodes were directed by women, including Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Hannah Fidell. (Craig Gillespie, who directed “I, Tonya,” directed the first three.)
“These two people had the exact same experience on film, that film was shown to the world, but she was slut-shamed out of the business and he was saved from being a has-been and reinvented as a sort of sex god,” DeVincentis said. “The only difference between them was gender.”
Some early reviews have accused “Pam & Tommy” of trying to have it both ways — to seek redress for Anderson’s humiliation while also capitalizing on the inherent sexiness of the subject. It tells the hidden story of a non-consensual leak, but it was made without Anderson’s consent. The sex and nudity are mostly matter-of-fact, but they’re hardly disguised.
Citing anonymous sources close to Anderson, multiple news outlets, including Entertainment Tonight, US Weekly and The Sun, have reported that she is unhappy about the series. Producers said that they tried: Anderson declined multiple requests by the production to be involved with the series, a Hulu spokesman said. (Anderson did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
“We were constantly monitoring the fine balance of revealing how Pam was victimized while portraying people who lived rock ‘n’ roll lives,” the showrunners said in a follow-up email. “Everyone involved in making the show was in a near-constant dialogue about how our portrayal would thread that needle.”
James, a British actress best known for parts in “Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella” and “Baby Driver,” said that her attempts to contact Anderson were unsuccessful. Siegel acknowledged that James was in some ways a counterintuitive choice for the role, but he had wanted to subvert expectations.
“A lot of people assumed we would cast whoever the biggest bombshell is,” he said. “But one of the takeaways of the show is that Pam is not who you think she is, and we’ve all underestimated her. You’re misjudging Lily maybe the way you’re misjudging Pam.”
James and Stan, 39, had to disappear into their characters. Both talked about having to lose weight and exercise steadily for their role. Stan acknowledged being somewhat intimidated by the drumming scenes, especially since Lee operated at a gonzo level of intensity. (Lee was not asked to participate in the series, but Stan talked with Lee, who Stan said seemed “very touched” that they had connected; Lee declined to comment for this article.)
“You’ve got to remember he was a guy who would be playing upside down on a roller coaster,” he said, referring to something that routinely happened in concert. “You’ve got to have a lot of energy to handle that.”
And then there were the lengthy makeup sessions: James required four hours daily; for his various adornments, Stan needed three, many of them dedicated to the painstaking application of Lee’s tattoos.
“It’s pretty wild because Lily and I didn’t really see each other outside of those costumes until the end,” he said. “Even now, we see each other for press, and we’re like, ‘This is your hair?’”
Both actors put those hours to use by watching countless YouTube videos and practicing their elocution. James’s task was further complicated by having to put on a different accent (Anderson was born in Canada) while wearing prosthetic choppers.
In the end, getting the appearances right didn’t matter as much as getting the characters right. But if James couldn’t meet with Anderson in person, it only motivated her further.
“I just was even more committed to my own research — even more committed to giving my absolute all to play her authentically and do her justice,” she said.