“[They] only wanted to do it if we told the story in such a way that it was not just about a salacious story,” said executive producer Sheri Singer. “We realised that the story we wanted to tell was essentially about a young woman who made a choice.
“It may have been a choice that we wouldn't personally make, but she made it and she had that right.”
So as the film took shape, it became about more than the scandalous headlines that flew around the world in early 2014 when Miriam Weeks (who performed under the name Belle Knox) was outed by a classmate who recognised her in a movie.
From Straight A’s to XXX, is also a scathing indictment of skyrocketing college tuition prices - and it has a lot to say about the double standards of men who watch pornography and then shame the women who star in it.
Haley Pullos (General Hospital) plays Miriam, a bright, studious 18-year-old from the Pacific Northwest who grew up in an ultra-conservative, Catholic family. Her dream is to go to Duke and study pre-law. Just after she starts classes, her father, a doctor, is transferred to a new job that cuts his salary in half.
When her parents can no longer afford her $60000 (R790000) yearly tuition bill, Miriam looks at her options: Take out loans that will take her decades to repay or enrol in a work study programme or a minimum-wage job that will barely make a dent in her $4300 monthly payments. On a whim, she googles “how to be a porn star” and sees how much the profession pays.
No, really, that’s how it all started - at least, according to the real-life Miriam in a Rolling Stone profile from 2014. While Singer’s team tried to contact Miriam a number of times, they received no response. So Singer and the screenwriter, Anne-Marie Hess, relied heavily on details in the many interviews Miriam gave after her story went viral. (The movie includes a disclaimer that some elements have been fictionalised.)
From what Singer can tell, Miriam has no public online presence, so her current status remains a mystery.
The movie repeatedly emphasises that Miriam’s stressful financial situation was her motivation for signing on for the adult entertainment world, as she doesn't want to be crushed by loans when she graduates. “I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life!” she says after a disastrous meeting with Duke financial aid. “It’s like I’m in no-man’s land. My parents make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but not enough to actually pay for school. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
While Singer says they didn’t want to hit the audience over the head too heavily with the issue, it was an unavoidable theme. “The thing that has happened in this country is that if you’re a regular middle class family or parent, or even slightly upper middle class and raising kids, you can barely afford college,” Singer said.
Eventually, in the movie, Miriam starts making thousands of dollars, flying to Los Angeles to participate in pornography shoots over school breaks. In real life, Miriam also defended her choice of choosing pornography over a minimum wage job, especially because she found working in adult entertainment preferable.
“For people to tell me that doing porn and having sex, which I love, is more degrading than being a waitress and being somebody’s servant and picking up after somebody and being treated like a lesser, second-class citizen, that literally makes no sense,” she told the Duke student newspaper.
“To be perfectly honest, I felt more degraded in a minimum wage, blue-collar, low paying, service job than I ever did doing porn.”
The movie echoes this attitude when it switches gears and focuses on the aftermath, when Miriam’s secret is discovered by a fellow Duke student, who spills the news to a fraternity. Almost instantly, Miriam is harassed across campus, as commenters on anonymous school message boards tell her she deserves to get raped, or she should kill herself. Someone paints the word “slut” on her door and she receives death threats.
Instead of hiding as her story sparks fierce debate, Miriam goes on a media tour, talking about how her pornography career is empowering - and while people are criticising her, no one is saying a word about the male classmate who discovered her while watching a hardcore porn site. The movie shows real scenes of Miriam’s appearances on Piers Morgan’s CNN show and The View, spliced together with the movie version of Miriam defending herself: “Feminism is about having the right to act in any ways we choose.”
Although Duke is portrayed as supportive (“The way you choose to make a living, as long as it’s legal, it’s entirely your choice,” a counsellor says, ensuring she won’t get kicked out of school), Miriam also confronts a classmate who calls her a “psycho” and “skank”. “Wow, psycho and skank? Because that’s what women who speak their mind and make decisions about their own bodies are - right?” Miriam asks.
While these overarching themes may not change the minds of viewers who will just see this as a another guilty pleasure Lifetime original movie, Singer is pleased with the movie’s perspective, especially given that it had female executive producers, a female screenwriter, a female director (Vanessa Parise) and a female star.
That dynamic was important, especially given the subject matter, which included shooting some upsetting scenes.
“We were checking in regularly to see if Haley (who played Miriam) was okay,” Singer said, adding that Pullos excelled in the role.