The article was originally published as “The Man Behind the Camera” in the June 2015 issue of Alberta Venture. Copyright belongs to the author.
The smell of leather and sweat filling the Beverly Bronx Boxing Club is quickly forgotten when Kris “The Raven” Blackwell arrives. Tall and busty, with a ferocious and gothic look that clashes with red pants and puckering painted lips, she enters the locker room late, dragging a small suitcase. While children in the daycare upstairs stamp and shriek, and body slams in the adjacent room thunder, she sits below a Muhammed Ali poster, undresses and shoves her tanned fists into MMA mitts.
It’s February, four months from her debut fight in June. But it will be no ordinary match, apparent when Blackwell unzips and flops open her luggage. Among her sweats and sneakers: a corset, four-inch stiletto heels, and no fewer than three lace bras. That’s because Blackwell is training for the Lingerie Fighting Championships (LFC), an upstart, Edmonton-based MMA league combining the skill of martial arts, the flair of professional wrestling and the sex appeal of a Budweiser commercial. And of the two men present that afternoon, it’s the brainchild of the unlikelier one.
Not of Sean Dunster, a.k.a. Massive Damage, a.k.a. the Tattooed Terminator, a.k.a. Johnny D. Struction, the charismatic former wrestler. He’s just the trainer. Rather, LFC was created by Shaun Donnelly, the meek middle-aged man stalking Bronx Boxing with an HD camera, recording the action for the league’s DVDs and on-demand shows.
He taps the dressing room door with the politeness of a waterboy. “Kris, can we get you in training now?” he asks. It’s about all he’ll say that afternoon, but he has lots to think about. For instance, who will The Raven fight at LFC’s 19th event in Las Vegas in August? And how many of the 90 million satellite subscribers with access will tune in?
Following the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League), an off-channel Superbowl halftime show turned sport with 24 teams in four global regions, LFC is yet more scantily clad athleticism appealing to Joe Six-Pack’s base instincts. But unlike the ill-fated Lingerie Basketball and Bikini Hockey leagues, 7,000 Joes paid to watch the last LFC event live or at home, at about $20 a pop.
In little more than two years, Donnelly, a Sherwood Park TV producer and sole owner of Mind Engine Entertainment, has turned a titillating concept into a pay-per-view spectacle grossing more than $1.4 million annually. LFC has become so successful that Donnelly and a Hong Kong investment group took it public on the New York Stock Exchange in April. But who are investors getting into business with? As I was soon to discover, that’s a tough question to answer, since with Donnelly it can be hard to know where the truth ends and the fiction begins.
Donnelly was eight when he uncovered his dad’s Playboys in the alley trash. Though he was embarrassed enough to hide the nudies, he set about making a scrapbook of the models inside. His father eventually found the collage and told the kid, “If you would focus on your schooling even one-tenth as much as you put into this, you could really be something.”
Donnelly, now 47, tells me this story in the living room of his home, a sprawling Strathcona County bungalow surrounded by acres of snow. He’s lived in the home 20 minutes east of Edmonton for 18 years and in the community for almost 40. His working-class father chased work west, taking Donnelly and his two siblings from their birthplace of Toronto to Mississauga to Regina and, finally, Sherwood Park. While his dad’s tanker-truck company got rolling, his mom sold real estate. His siblings went into hospitality and accounting. But Donnelly? “I was always the creative one in the family,” he says.
He wrote fantasy novels in his adolescence, and claims to have landed, then botched, a book deal with New York’s Daw Books by the time he was 20. His dream publisher was Playboy, and he came pretty close, having penned some articles for Penthouse Forum. Unlike the short stories he submitted to literary magazines, for which he’d get $50 or a free subscription, Penthouse paid him up to $500 a story, which helped cover tuition for diplomas in advertising and broadcasting.
Donnelly is just about the last person you’d expect to do anything even vaguely pornographic. The walls and mantels of his living room display cascades of family portraits, including his elderly mother, who lives in his Las Vegas house all winter. He loves the city, he says, but more for the haute cuisine than the hot sin. He’s physically fit, but more like a youth hockey coach: He seems more likely to tell you to tuck in your jersey than to take it off.
His own clothes are plain and baggy. His receding brown hair, hardly combed. He speaks with a flat, unenthusiastic speech that somehow makes the topic of sex boring. Yet sex has directed the last decade of his career, including two television series, a movie satirizing adult film, and an educational documentary about the intimate lives of disabled people. He even applied for a CRTC licence in 2008 to launch Northern Peaks, a “Can-Con” porn channel idea that was soon abandoned. LFC, with its PG rating (a fact Donnelly wastes no time repeating), is, by comparison, his tamest credit. But it’s overtly sexual nonetheless.
Donnelly says it all began when Jason Danilak walked into his life in 2004.
Donnelly, then a self-employed marketer with mostly oil and gas clients, says he was approached by Danilak, an Edmonton adult film producer and director, to write and design mail-order brochures. “My first thought was, I’m not going to take them on,” he says about Danilak’s company, Real Productions. But, later that week, he caught the last five minutes of KinK, a sex-themed documentary series on Showcase. “I personally thought, ‘This is the worst show I’ve seen in my life.’ I’d look at the credits and there were like 150 people to make this horrible show. And I said to my wife, ‘Me and a friend could do a better show than this, just the two of us.’ It was right when [Real Productions] had contacted me, and I thought, ‘Their people are much more attractive. Maybe I’ll give them a TV show.’ If KinK can get on the air, so could we.”
The show was Make Me a Porn Star, a series of 30-minute schlock about regular people’s forays into adult film, premiering with a sugar-sweet Regina girl starring in Real Productions’ Mini’s First Time. Although a deal with Showcase fell through, a British station loved it — and even asked him to dirty it up for their audience. He sold a gentler version to Starz in the U.S. “We just sold it again to Italy.”
The pair’s followup, Boy Nexxt Door, a mockumentary series following an aspiring adult filmmaker from his parent’s Alberta basement to the San Fernando Valley, aired for two seasons on Playboy TV. Donnelly’s father died shortly after, but not before his son could tell him, “Remember that scrapbook I made? Just research for my career.”
Jason Danilak gave Shaun Donnelly a TV career and Shaun Donnelly gave Jason Danilak a profile. “Make Me a Porn Star put us on the map,” Danilak tells me via email. “It was a free half-hour commercial every week. Made casting much easier as it gave us instant credibility.”
Before the shows, Danilak’s work could barely pass for a home movie. His first film, Alyse Johnson’s First Time, in 2001, was dimly lit and shot from practically voyeuristic angles. One of his latest, a glossy Blue Velvet parody starring A-list porn star Cytherea, was nominated for two AVN Awards — the Oscars of porn. Danilak also partnered on the Can-Con porn channel, but he’s since stopped producing in Canada.
Despite his rising star in the industry, Danilak is an elusive creature. His name appears in innumerable press releases and mainstream American publications, but he’s invisible online. A portrait is nowhere to be found. His Facebook photos are either promotional posters or headshots of models. When I request an in-person interview, he tells me he’s moved to L.A. When I suggest Skyping, he’s eight hours ahead in Budapest until June, with limited access to Internet or phone.
I want to know about the unlikely duo’s working relationship. “We each knew our role,” Danilak writes. “He never tried to tell me who I should cast or what I should shoot and I never made anything off-limits to his crew.” By crew, Danilak means Donnelly and a sound guy, because just like he told his wife, Sue, a civil servant, that fateful evening, he and a friend (plus two post-production editors) could do it on a shoestring. But for legitimacy, he added bogus credits like “Oliver Klozoff” (get it?) and Liam Donnelly — his infant son.
They also co-produced Tight, a mockumentary that starred five adult film actresses as themselves and earned a generous comparison to Spinal Tap in the New York Post. Donnelly sums it up in nine words: “The world’s only all-girl porn-star rock band.” His latest script, Knocked Undead, optioned to Hollywood B-movie company Red Shogun Pictures, he captures in just two: “Zombie MMA.”
“That tends to be how I think of things,” he says. “Take two of the most popular things in the world. Put them together.”
Our slogan is, ‘A little bit of MMA, a little bit of wrestling, a little bit of clothing,’” Donnelly says of the LFC as he checks on the lasagna baking in the kitchen.
In truth, it’s a little bit of MMA and clothing, and a lot of wrestling. The personas the fighters take, their clunky delivery, the buffoon coach Joel, who also played buffoon manager Joel in Tight, is homage to professional wrestling operatics. Though the dramatic scenes are scripted, Donnelly insists that what happens in the ring is real MMA, with one small difference: “We’re much more on-the-mat than stand-up striking.” For obvious reasons, LFC fighters are encouraged to get on the ground, and on each other, as quickly as possible.
Venues in Trinidad, Jamaica and Macau, China have offered to host bouts, which will begin airing live thanks to a fresh deal with Direct TV, America’s premier satellite provider. Donnelly is also shopping around Bootie Camp, a Big Brother-esque reality show that rooms fighters together and lets the drama unfold. “Our version of Ultimate Fighter,” he told me, referring to UFC’s documentary TV series on emerging MMA athletes.
Donnelly points out the growth of women’s MMA, which isn’t accidental but an attempt by industry heavyweights to rekindle interest in a sport that is waning in popularity. Once the world’s fastest growing sport, MMA’s pay-per-view purchases are nearly half what they were in 2010. In response, leagues are trying to appeal to women, who currently only make up 27 per cent of its audience, by making stars of athletes like Ronda Rousey.
So it’s no surprise that Donnelly has been told that LFC sets women’s MMA behind 20 years. He says he’d like to set it back even further, to before it even existed, on account of how violent it is. His retort does nothing to legitimize the women athletes in a sport already steeped in misogyny, and Maximum Fighting Championship’s Mark Pavelich, for one, thinks it’s “beyond stupid.”
“If this garbage becomes publicly traded,” says the Edmonton-based league’s president, “there is something massively wrong with my sport.” There are many talented female fighters, he explains, and Alberta Venture should write about them instead of this “junk.
But this “junk” has attracted hundreds of women looking for a shot at fame. The company’s YouTube page is a stream of webcam videos from around the world by buxom, barely dressed women auditioning for Bootie Camp. The next event alone has 18 women on the match card.
Fighter Michelle “Scrapper” Blanchard is the world’s first two-sport lingerie athlete, having played for the L.A. Riderettes in the Lady Arena Football League (another casualty of the lingerie sport bubble). She joined the LFC shortly after it started in 2013 and has since become its president, meaning she recruits and provides input into their costumes and personas. She fights too, portraying a bossy character in the vein of WWE’s real-life owner/wrestler Vince McMahon.
But do not dismiss her athleticism. Blanchard is trained in kickboxing, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu, and she fights in other MMA circuits in the L.A. area. “I definitely make more for an LFC show,” she says. Lingerie fighters make between $500 and $1,000 a match. The conventional fighters are lucky to earn half that, even if they go pro. “I have friends who are in the UFC, and it’s hard to make a living.”
As host of MMA industry web series The Hooks, Blanchard hears plenty of criticism of her LFC affiliation. She acknowledges that the sports-bra wearing fighters are more respected than lace-bra wearing ones, but, she says, “One’s going to pay me and, with the other one, I can’t feed my kids.”
There are other reasons fighters come to the LFC. To Kris Blackwell, daughter of a karate instructor, student of Muay Thai and possessor of a powerful right hook, it’s an empowering and fun way to bare her aggressive soul. For Serina Kyle, a 23-year-old caretaker for cognitively disabled adults, it’s all about the travel.
Kyle looks more like a ring girl than a ring fighter. Tendencies to giggle on the cage mat earned her the nickname “Honey Punch” from Donnelly. “Serina Kyle,” on the other hand, she came up with herself to protect her identity. “I didn’t tell any of my family because they’re super Christian,” she says. The first time she fought, in 2013, Kyle told them she’d won a trip to Vegas. Even though she returned with a torn MCL, it felt like she’d won a vacation. “It’s the best thing ever,” she says. “That’s what I’ve wanted to do with my life.” At $475, the pay was better than she’d expected, but it was the airfare, hotel and pampering she loved. “Shaun spoils us like crazy. He’s such a nice guy.”
Blanchard echoes this, though she was wary of him at first. “Like, what’s this creepy guy going to do with this stuff?” she says, laughing. But once she got to speaking with him, she found him to be very serious though an unlikely head of an erotic sport. “He’s not anything like a hound for that stuff,” says Jeff Brown, his best friend since college. “He lives a pretty normal life.”
By the time the lasagna has cooled, the school bus has dropped off Liam and Sue is pulling into the driveway. I pack up my notes, thank him for his time, pet his dog and get in my car. Unfortunately, I make a wrong turn off his driveway and stick my wheels in a snowbank, requiring the entire family — plus the neighbour boys summoned from across the field — to dig and push me out.
Then I make another wrong turn, into an Internet rabbit hole that throws everything he’d just told me into doubt.
I first suspected Donnelly was actually Danilak after asking him for the porn producer’s contact for a comment. He offered me a Telus email address familiar to me: It was his. Our first few correspondences were from the vague email, though he’d soon switch to using one with an official LFC address.
The Telus address appears on Real Productions audition forms with a checklist of what sexual positions applicants would consider, as well as in Real Productions’ policy statement and casting calls on forums by user “Jason D.” When Northern Peaks made a splash, countless articles labelled Donnelly as Real Productions’ president, “miscredits” Donnelly had warned me about from the start. But five years later, a press release published on Adult Industry News identified Danilak as president of “Real Productions & Mind Engine Entertainment.”
And then there was his Facebook page void of any personal photos. It did, however, state he graduated from Grant MacEwan College’s advertising program in 1992, the same year as Donnelly. MacEwan only has records of one of those students, and it’s not Danilak.
If anyone knew the truth, it would be Brown, the best man at Donnelly’s wedding, right? “I’ve heard people say that,” he says, laughing. “It’s an intriguing possibility. I haven’t met someone named Jason.” But such mischief would be consistent with Donnelly’s sense of humour. “I could see Shaun doing it just for the laughs,” he says. “So I guess it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Did it even matter if he used two names? After all, the line between documentary and pornography was so blurred on his shows that even Donnelly would say it makes him a de facto porn producer. Who cares if there were two — or 10 –made up names? But, then again, shouldn’t the women of LFC deserve to know their boss’s repertoire before entering business with him? And the future investors in the company, shouldn’t they have confidence in what its CEO says? It is hard to trust a man who spins fictions about himself.
Finally, after weeks of searching for a collaborator willing to comment, I heard from Brad Hunka, an editor who tried futilely to erase his name from Make Me a Porn Star’s credits. “He was pretty sloppy about it,” he told me. “He’d signed some emails ‘Jason,’ from Shaun. And I was like, ‘What the hell’s the deal with this? Sometimes it’s Jason, sometimes it’s Shaun.’
He said, ‘Oh ya, I go by Jason for my porn stuff and Shaun for my legit things.’
“A second former colleague also confirmed they were the same person, but I never positively identified Danilak and Donnelly as one in the same.
The closest I got was from a video tweeted from a Las Vegas strip club by adult film actor Seth Gambler: “Hey, I’m here shooting Blue Velvet triple X,” says the clean-cut actor, his boyish face taking up the whole screen. “Here’s everybody” — he turns the lens towards the set for a panoramic tour — “Here’s Eric John, hanging out. Here’s Tasha Reign, say hello.”
“Hiii,” squeaks the Barbie-like actor.
“And there is Curtis, the camera man, and Jason, the director man.”
The blurry video pans on a balding white man in dark clothes, standing over a table, script in hand. His build is broad but he’s facing away. Just as he turns in Gamble’s direction, an extra from the other side of the room yells unintelligibly and the camera swings toward him. “And here’s a drunk guy screaming at the bar.”
There was another clue from that set, this one from Lisan Jutras, a Canadian journalist reporting on women in porn for Maisonneuve, who interviewed the director, Danilak, and captured the slightest glimpse of his personal life. “He and his wife, who live in Alberta,” she wrote, “have a nine-year-old son.” That would be Liam’s age in 2013.
This, I think, had to be why Donnelly, or anyone in the adult film industry, would assume a second identity — to protect the integrity of their loved ones. I wrestle with whatever damage I might cause as I dial his phone. Donnelly, having just dropped off his boy at swimming, listening patiently as he
drives, allowing me lay out each exhibit. Then I ask my first question: Are you Jason Danilak?
“No,” he says, flatly and firmly.
His excuses are neither tidy nor probable, but he has one for everything: his and Danilak’s comparable family life (“There’s a lot of things we have in common.”); their shared email address (“There’s a lady that runs that side of things, and she forwards it to me if it’s something I should know about”); why it’s on audition forms (“It was a different approach to casting because of the brand behind it”); their identical education on Facebook (“He doesn’t do any social media. I set up his Facebook to market Tight … that’s when I copied over my information”); and Brad Hunka’s claims (“He’s mistaken, obviously”).
Donnelly isn’t the least bit agitated and coolly tells me that he doesn’t care whether people think he’s Danilak or any other pornographer. “It’s not like I do kid shows,” he says. “I’ve never hidden that I do adult content. I don’t want to take credit for someone else’s work.”
I’m unprepared for such a denial. My subsequent questions have to do with things he won’t admit, like what he gains from having split personalities and to what extent his friends and family know. If Jeff Brown’s confusion is any indication, it’s not much.
Brown does, however, offer some insight into why a regular guy like Donnelly might become a pornographer. Speaking from industry experience, Brown says porn is a good way to establish oneself as a filmmaker, bypassing the guild queues and deferential dues of the industry, to get filmmaking experience people will actually watch. “He really wants to go into movies, do the directing thing,” Brown says. “That’s been his goal all along.”
If that’s true, and if Donnelly is Danilak, then it worked. If not, then I have just one last question about his elusive partner: Is Jason Danilak even his real name?
“No, of course not,” responds Donnelly. “I don’t know anyone who produces porn who uses their real names.”