Shooting began in July 1976 on the back lot of the old Dino De Laurentos studios on Via Pontina, then moved for a planned 13 week stay at the Dear Studios in Rome for interiors. It became a runaway production. Gore Vidal and Tinto Brass clashed. Vidal withdrew from the project and Brass and Malcolm McDowell began rewriting the script.
August 1976. Filming continued. The scenes were getting more risqué with each new day. McDowell said,
“Peter O’Tool took it all in stride. I don’t know what was in those cigarettes, but he seemed quite filled with cheer. In fact, he said to John Gielgud, ‘What is a Knight of the Realm doing in a porno movie?’ John was a bit flustered and started to say, ‘Well, I didn’t think…’, and Peter cuts him off and shouts, ‘It’s a porno movie, John! You’re in a porno movie!’”
Helen Mirren, recalling her first day on the set, said,
“It was dark and I was driving to the location they had given me directions for, and saw all this light up ahead – all these giant lights, like a flying saucer was landing. And they had built this huge set, although you couldn’t see any of it from the outside, just this giant structure of unpainted lumber. So I walked into this beautiful, incredible set, filled with naked people – disabled people and deformed people; beautiful people; young people; and old people; all naked. And then I go to meet Peter O’Toole. And he was smoking dope like it was cigarettes. And he has all these sores all over his face, and tissue paper they have put on him to keep the oozing puss separated. We spoke for a moment, then I excused myself and walked outside and fell to my knees in the middle of the field and threw up. I was that frightened for what I had let myself in for, and knowing I’d have to go on this journey, which was like taking acid.”
Principal photography finally wrapped in early 1977. The budget had swollen to over $16,000,000 ($70 million today), and the spending was yet over. Then Brass and Guccione clashed. Law suits were filed and there were numerous court battles concerning the editing. The Italian court ruled that Brass could finish his “final cut” director’s edit. After that, Guccione could do whatever he liked with the film. But Brass dragged his feet throughout the remainder of 1976 and all of 1977. Finally, in 1979, Guccione paid Brass to leave the project. He finished the cutting himself, and also added hardcore footage which he had shot on the Caligula sets before they were torn down.
More court battles followed as Guccione tried to release the film. No distributor would touch it, so he rented out movie theaters, city-by-city, and opened the movie himself. The film was confiscated by police and obscenity charges were filed. Guccione considered all this to be free publicity as he slowly and deliberately targeted one city after another throughout 1980 and ’81. He continued to win in court, which continued to be covered in the press … and that brought more free publicity.
Caligula would become one of the top grossing films for both 1980 and 1981.
Even as the Caligula editing wars dragged on, Guccione and Kathy Keeton, who together had a passion for science, launched Omni, a magazine devoted to science and science fiction.
Also during the year, Guccione was named “Publisher of the Year” by the Atlantic Coast Independent Distributors Association.
Viva magazine folded, but Penthouse reached its peak at 4.7 million copies sold. Regarding the success of Penthouse magazine, Guccione said,
“We followed the philosophy of voyeurism – to see her as if she doesn’t know she’s being seen. That was the sexy part. That was the part that none of our competition understood.”
Guccione, flush with cash despite the continuing costs over Caligula, started investing in a serious art collection with works by Dali, Picasso and Matisse, among others. He also turned his New York City connecting townhouses into his “palace,” making it one of the largest mansions in New York. With profits continuing to roll in, he also bought an estate in Staatsburg, New York.
But money can’t buy everything. Even after Caligula was finally completed and ready for release, U.S. customs officials seized the footage when Guccione attempted to bring it into the U.S. Its planned 1979 release was postponed and Guccione embarked on two years of legal battles as he slowly released the movie, one city and one country at a time.
Upon its release in the U.S., Roger Ebert called Caligula:
“sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash.”
The hype was so great that people went in droves to see the film. Cast member Helen Mirren described Caligula as:
“an irresistible mix of art and genitals.”
Even with all the trouble over Caligula, Guccione had boundless energy and limitless ideas. In March, he formed a partnership Robert Bussard and turned over, as he later recalled, some $400,000 in startup funds to develop a nuclear fusion plant which he believed would solve the world’s energy problems. By his own account, Guccione spent close to $17,000,000 on the project. It would never see completion.