Giulio Berruti was asking an age-old actor’s question: What’s my motivation? The hunky Italian star—6-foot-3, dreamy blue eyes, perfect stubble—was on the set of Gabriel’s Inferno, a pulpy romance movie shot in New York last winter. Why, he asked a group of women a few feet behind the monitor on the soundstage, is Gabriel so angry in this scene?
The women had ideas. Not because they were writers or directors or script supervisors. No, they were fans of the erotically charged novel being adapted for the screen, invited here by the film’s director, Tosca Musk, to share their insights about the relationship between a sweetly innocent graduate student and her (improbably gorgeous) Dante professor who harbors a dark secret.
For about half of the 30-day shoot of Gabriel’s Inferno, a coterie of five to 30 fans mingled on set, sitting next to Musk while she filmed, offering advice. They shared breakfast with Musk, tagged along to wardrobe fittings with the actors, and stepped in front of the camera as extras. Throughout filming, Musk would periodically turn to them and ask, “Is that how you pictured it?” or “What color shirt was he wearing?” The fans always had an answer. “It’s like having your own focus group on set,” Musk says.
The making of Gabriel’s Inferno wasn’t unusual for Musk. This is how she has run all of her film sets for the past three years. In 2017, Musk cofounded Passionflix, a Netflix-esque streaming platform and production company. Musk premieres her movies on Passionflix, and subscribers pay $5.99 a month to access them. The platform specializes in steamy, softcore adaptations of romance novels, the kinds of novels with shirtless buff men on the cover who are always talking about the “tightness in their pants,” the kinds that are “one-handed” reads, whose book descriptions say things, as Gabriel’s Inferno’s does, like: “He does like sex—the hotter and harder, the better.” The types of books, in other words, that many people read in secret.
Here on Musk’s movie set, the fans of the genre not only admit their love of the books, they also sit together parsing the intricacies of sexy scenes with the director: what the exact words of his love note were, whether his paramour would have teased him more sarcastically, whether a make-out scene was exactly as they imagined it. “You’re there to feed the fans, not to feed your own ego,” she says. It helps that Musk is a romance superfan herself. Before filming, she scours the scripts, assessing the accuracy of every sultry glance, thigh graze, and moan. She pores over the material “as a fan and as a woman,” she says, to ensure that everything she wants is in there: “a touch, a look, moments of consent.”
Giving fans exactly what they want has a name: fan service. In recent years, it’s mostly been talked about in the context of science fiction—an Easter egg in a Marvel movie, a running Star Wars gag, hints about a character’s sexuality. Indeed, fandom, and overt concessions to it, has helped make comic-book adaptations, in particular, the biggest genre of the day. It’s not exactly revered as a creative act, though. While fans kvell on Reddit and Twitter whenever they see their hopes play out on-screen, critics are quick to dismiss fan service as hackery, a kind of artistic compromise.
Musk doesn’t care. Romance is already treated as hackery, she says. Although romance books are the top-selling genre in the US, and although movies like 50 Shades of Grey make returns on investment to rival most entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the genre hides in the shadows of popular entertainment. Gabriel’s Inferno has much in common with 50 Shades—both are Twilight fanfic-turned-novels that hit the New York Times best-selling list; both tell the story of a young virgin who falls in love with an older man—but Musk doesn’t have the backing of a major studio. Her budgets never exceed $10 million. A-list actors are out of the question, as are most B- and C-listers. Movies have to be filmed quickly (most are shot in 15 weeks); sets can’t be too complicated, costumes too elaborate.
Part of the reason is that the industry doesn’t understand the commercial potential; romance fans—“because they’re women,” Musk says—are not taken seriously as a moneymaking force. Yet these fan bases are just as huge, rabid, and opinionated as any in comics. If Twilight fan fiction is the MCU, then Gabriel’s Inferno is its X-Men: a series with a fandom that spans millions who know exactly how they want the book to look on-screen. Some of the fans even make pilgrimages to Toronto to visit locations from the book. They visit the Royal Ontario Museum not to admire 6th-century Buddhist sculptures but to scope out the Victorian furniture exhibit, where Gabriel fantasized about having sex with Julia on one of its four-poster beds.
So Musk is going all in on fan service. It was a fan who, in an Instagram post, originally suggested Berruti for the part of Gabriel; Musk cast him 24 hours later. Fans review trailers and other marketing materials. During the filming of Gabriel’s Inferno, one fan turned to the script supervisor and joked, “If this dialog is not exactly how it is in the book, the fans are going to tell you.” He told her that they already had; earlier in the shoot, a fan let him know that two words were out of order. To get as much of the 506-page book into the movie—which is what every fan’s dreams are made of—Musk has given it a five-and-half-hour runtime. She’s splitting the film into three parts; part one just came out, on May 29.
In other words, on top of making movies in a genre that’s already culturally sidelined, Musk is bringing to it a process—the constant and considerate involvement of fans—that’s regarded by critics and many moviegoers as superficial and unartistic. Not only does she think this is the right strategy. She thinks it’s the only way to make romance work.
Tosca Musk grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, with two older brothers: Kimbal and Elon (yes, that Elon). Their mother was loving; their father, members of the family have said, was abusive. In a 2019 book, their mother, Maye, paints a grim picture of her marriage, saying the kids witnessed instances of violence. Sometimes, Maye writes, Elon would pound at his dad’s legs to get him to stop. The “only hope” Maye had, she tells me now, “was these romance books.” (Errol Musk, who has publicly denied he was abusive, did not respond to a request for comment; neither did Elon. Tosca and Kimbal say they were too young to remember the abuse.)
For years, Maye escaped into fantasy worlds where men didn’t abuse women, where men were caring and chivalrous and gentle. When Tosca was 5, Maye divorced her husband. The family struggled financially, while Maye worked as a dietician and model. Although Tosca eventually got sick of eating peanut butter sandwiches, she learned an important lesson: that a single woman, even in sexist South Africa, could succeed in both motherhood and a career as long as she worked hard and demanded respect.
Tosca began to share in her mom’s escapism. They would watch romance films together; she remembers one time, when she was around 12, sitting on the couch together, watching a romance and eating ice cream. When Tosca was 14, Elon moved to Canada to pursue his interests in computing. Tosca wanted to follow him there, but her mother, who was pursuing a PhD in South Africa, wouldn’t allow it. (Elon was living with his dad at the time; he had moved in with him two years after the divorce, something he told Rolling Stone he now regrets. Maye asked that I not interview Elon for this piece. “Elon is adorable,” she says, “but he’s so busy.”)
At 15, Tosca rebelled. Still desperate to leave South Africa and live with Elon in Canada, she gave her mother little choice. While Maye was away—visiting Elon in Canada, in fact—Tosca made a deal to sell the family’s home, the car, and the furniture. When Maye returned, Tosca told her, “We might as well go now.” Instead of being furious with her daughter, Maye heard Tosca out and relented. Maye agreed to sign the paperwork, and they both moved to Toronto, with Kimbal following shortly thereafter. Maye says the family “did struggle, but it was only struggling financially—luckily we were in good health.”
Tosca has a way of getting what she wants, of bending the world around her to shape her desires—but she seems to do it without hostility. “Our family was an intense family,” Kimbal says. “Tosca was always a gentler person who reminded us to be a little more empathetic.” That’s the way she would eventually act on her film sets too, says Maye, who visits sets whenever she can.
When she was 17, Tosca bought a video camera with money saved up from an after-school job. She “had a true obsession with recording real life” and did it constantly, Kimbal says. “It was a bit bizarre.” But he got used to it. What worried him more was that his sister wanted to enter the movie business. “I did not think it was a healthy place for her,” he says. “It’s a very sexist industry.” He knew that he couldn’t stop her. “No one ever said that my potential was less than my brothers’ potential just because I’m a woman,” Tosca says.
After Tosca graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1997, she worked for the Canadian entertainment company Alliance for a few years, and then she moved to Hollywood and took a job as a segment producer for TV Guide and as director of development for Magnolia Films. But she still wasn’t doing what she really wanted to be doing, which was directing. As she had so many other times in her life, Tosca took control. At 26, Tosca wrote and directed her first feature, Puzzled; Elon signed on as an executive producer. The film was never released in theaters, but it was hers.
Kimbal’s fears for Tosca weren’t misplaced. The movie industry was a man’s world—in the early 2000s, 92 percent of directors, 83 percent of executive producers, and 78 percent of producers of the top 250 Hollywood films were male. Instead of making the movies she wanted to make, for the next decade Tosca was stuck producing slasher flicks and thrillers, the types of movies in which women were raped and killed, not where women asserted themselves and got the guy. The fantasy world she had escaped into as a child, of women creating their own destinies, was not what she was helping bring to the screen. The movies may have had female actors, but they were mostly made for a male audience.
In the 15 years after Puzzled, she worked on more than two dozen movies, but only a handful of them were romance films. Executives told her that the movies she wanted to make were “not intellectual,” she says, that they were “porn for women.” The same executives would go out and make movies like Fast & Furious 8.
The movie industry was too focused on what men wanted, she thought, the camera lingering on a woman’s buttocks, peering into cleavage, even when the scene had nothing to do with sex. Musk wanted to show the world through a woman’s gaze. Often male screenwriters skip over scenes that matter to women—like discussions about consent, Musk says. A male screenwriter might write that a man “grabs and kisses” a woman, implying the woman just accepts it. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no, she doesn’t,’” Musk says. “She leans in, raises her head, and looks into his eyes and then at his lips.’ That’s a woman saying, ‘I want something.’”
By the mid 2010s, Musk “was tired of making movies where the woman was abused or diseased or assaulted,” Maye says. “She wanted movies where the woman was strong and confident.” She got her shot in 2015, when she was hired to direct and coproduce the rom-com A Kind of Magic for TV. It was there that she connected with Jina Panebianco, whose friend, Joany Kane, had an idea for a streaming romance novel service that she dubbed Passionflix, a kind of “Netflix for women.” Kane had already bought the Passionflix domain, created the landing page, and filled it with images both benign (a stock photo of smiling women) and raunchy (a women being straddled by a sexy shirtless man on the couch). Passionflix, Kane declared, would focus on “erotic romance” featuring “empowered women who embrace their sexuality.”
In May 2017, Musk, Kane, and Panebianco launched Passionflix at a romance novel conference. In front of thousands of romance fans, they declared that Passionflix would allow fans to be heavily involved in the filmmaking process, from casting to premieres. The pitch worked. Three thousand women at the conference paid $100 to become founding members, who are “treated as royalty” on set, according to one member I talked to. Musk drummed up $4.75 million in venture capital, even obtaining some from one of the TV greats: Norman Lear, whose wife, Lyn, reads romances. Kimbal invested as well, serving as a “friendly adviser” for the business.
Later that year, Musk released her first Passionflix film, Hollywood Dirt, which she produced and directed. It’s an adaptation of Alessandra Torre’s book of the same name, about a slutty male actor who falls in love with a small-town actress who succeeds in reforming him. Naturally, she staged the premiere at a romance book festival in Cannes, France. After the film was over, Tosca received a standing ovation. Maye, who was standing next to Tosca, wrapped her arm around her daughter as they both cried.
By this time, Tosca was a single mother, just as her own mother has been. But unlike Maye, she’d chosen the path from the beginning. She had her kids through IVF. Maye even helped choose the sperm donor. Tosca relegated romance to the page and the screen. In life, she was much more practical.
Romance novels are the porn of the book world. They’re widely popular, but fans tend to be reticent about their love of the genre. They don’t cosplay like comics fans; some of them don’t even like to read in public. That’s why e-readers were such a boon to the industry: Nobody was able to see what you were reading. (Musk is trying to change that; she sells Passionflix T-shirts and hoodies.)
The writing, especially the plotting, leaves something to be desired—though that’s become something of a source of pride. The Romance Writers of America proudly lists the formula on its website: “a central love story” with “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Is formula a bad thing? Depending on whom you ask, there are only three to seven story plots in the world. Also, it’s hard to come up with a Marvel plot that doesn’t feature a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
The difference, of course, is sex: both the sex in the books and the sex of the people reading and writing them. 50 Shades was derided as “mommy porn,” and some have called Gabriel’s Inferno “thinking women’s porn.” In point of fact, many romance novels have very little sex in them. Gabriel and Julia don’t have sex until the last few pages of the book. While 50 Shades is famously kinky—whips, butt plugs, BDSM—it is hardly porn.
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Why are these novels considered so salacious? In part it’s because they foreground female desire and pleasure. There’s something radical in having female desire be a main theme. The books show women lusting after men, even objectifying them, with detailed descriptions of pectorals and abs and jaw lines, the bulges in men’s khakis. It’s a world where women’s sexual pleasure and needs come first. In Gabriel’s Inferno, before Julia and Gabriel have penetrative sex for the first time, he goes down on her, and she has an orgasm.
It’s easy to be critical of romance novels (I’ve been critical of 50 Shades for promoting regressive gender roles). But readers are smarter than we give them credit for. According to cultural theorist Janice Radway, readers of romance novels are not just passively enjoying these stories. They’re actively participating in fantasies where “female values of love and personal interaction” end up triumphing over “male values of competition and public achievement.” Readers stuck in unsatisfying marriages can engage in a form of “mild protest,” Radway says, by reading bodice rippers. In that way, reading romance is like watching porn: both media allow people to escape into a fantasy sexual world that always has a happy ending. In porn it’s a money shot; in romance it’s cunnilingus and commitment.
To date, Musk and Passionflix have produced 13 full-length feature adaptations and two short films they call “quickies.” These movies are sexy but not pornographic, because “women are more interested in two people’s hands touching” than watching genitals, Musk says. Movies that rate the highest on Passionflix “Barometer of Naughtiness” have the most nudity, but even those only show butts and boobs. More important than nudity is showing “a woman can have pleasure” during sex, Musk says.
Around 30 other romance films, licensed from studios, round out the platform’s streaming catalog. It’s paltry compared to Netflix’s 4,000 titles, but “Passionflix makes you feel like you’re part of a community,” Connie Lemoine, a fan and Passionflix “founding member,” says. “I can watch a movie on Netflix all day long and not feel connected to it.” Another fan, Lauren Hopkins, tells me that she used to be more embarrassed about her interest in romance novels, but Musk is “a fan who wants to see these movies come to life just as much as we do,” she says. (However, when she told a male coworker that she had a walk-on role in Gabriel’s Inferno, he Googled it, saw that it was categorized as erotica, and asked her accusingly, “So, what were you doing in that movie?”)
Film critics tend to ignore Musk’s movies. Instead, reviews appear on blogs and in Amazon comments, where romance fans judge their fidelity to the novels. (“The casting was so spot on it’s as though they walked right off of the pages of the book!” reads one five-star review of The Will on Amazon). They are a notch above a Hallmark movie and on par with 50 Shades of Grey. The acting is good, the actors are hot, and the plots deliver; don’t ask about the cinematography. Even though fans aren’t exclusively celebratory in their assessments, they usually end their reviews on a note of gratitude—here’s a company listening to them and making faithful adaptations of their favorite books.
Musk admits that pleasing fans isn’t always easy. “It’s a blessing and a curse, in a way, for people to be so enthusiastic over characters and books,” she says. She can’t satisfy everybody. Sometimes fights break out on the Facebook group, and Musk jumps in as a peacemaker—as she had to do so many times with her brothers growing up. Fans have been so demanding that Maye, who used to run Passionflix’s Instagram, stepped down after having to reply to comments like, “When I saw the movie his hair wasn’t as curly as I pictured it.” “It just wore me down,” Maye says. These days, Maye mostly interacts with fans in person, during set visits and premieres.
Still, Musk wouldn’t trade her fans for anything. She’s always known firsthand that romance wasn’t just frivolous—that it means a great deal to its legions of consumers. It gives them hope and escape, fills them with lust, and provides them with a world where consent is taken seriously. Men ask women what they want, and respect their answers. In a way, so does Musk’s filmmaking: She asks fans what they want, what they desire, and she respects their answers. And every so often, she goes back and asks again, just to be sure their needs were met.
Back on the set of Gabriel’s Inferno, at the end of another long day of filming, Berruti and the actress who plays Julia, Melanie Zanetti, didn’t decamp to their trailers. They had an important constituency they needed to check in with first. It wasn’t investors or directors or publicists. It was the dozen or so fans, and Berruti and Zanetti wanted to know if their performances were living up to the pictures in their heads. It was perfect, one fan said, so amazing that it made her cry. Berruti thanked the fans for their support. Then he whisked Zanetti into his arms, dipped her back, and planted a kiss. The fans erupted in applause.
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