Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

We’ve done with cinematic images what so many authors and historians have done with words-we have re-created a complex life-style that flourished before Christ and the Judea-Christian philosophy came into being.

Nevertheless, this film will have an X rating, correct?

Guccione: No, the film won’t have any rating at all. We’re not submitting it to the M.P.A., because they can only give it an “X,” and an X rating would be demeaning and unfair to Caligula. The conventional connotation is still the $100,000 made-in-a-motel epic, and that, next to Caligula, is like a street rumble next to the Second World War. The film has all the customary requirements and caveats for sexually explicit cinematic material. You’ll have to be 18 years or older to be able to see it. But it does not have an X rating-we’ve given it our own rating: an M.A., for mature audiences.

The film’s reputation for explicitness has already attracted a considerable amount of controversy, although it seems that much of the controversy also has to do with the film’s graphic violence. Do you think the controversy arises from the sex scenes or the violence?

Guccione: The fact that we have used celebrated movie personalities to make a film with sexually explicit passages is probably the source of the controversy. People talk about the violence, of course, but it’s easier and more sophisticated to say that you’re shocked by the violence rather than the sex.

Originally, reports about Caligula suggested that the movie would finally cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million. How accurate is that figure?

Guccione: The final cost of the film comes in at a little over $17.5 million. But if you take into consideration interest on money — which, for accounting purposes, is not only proper but necessary — it will come in at around $22 million. That’s quite a staggering sum to make an “obscene film.” That is why I say that if it was our intention to make an obscene film, we certainly wouldn’t have spent that kind of money. For that kind of money, I could have made over 200 porno films.

Rumor has it that you put up the entire amount yourself in cash. Is that true?

Guccione: Yes.

Is that the first time any one individual has put up that much money to bankroll a film?

Guccione: I believe so.

But weren’t you taking on an enormous gamble or-let me put it this way — an excessive, even reckless gamble?

Guccione: Perhaps, but no one else was prepared to help or to participate financially.

What about conventional film-funding sources or advances from territorial sales?

Guccione: No one wanted to know — not when they read the script, that is. Everyone had a problem with censorship.

So you’re in this all alone?

Guccione: Completely.

The critics’ reaction to Caligula has not been exactly kind. Does that bother you at all?

Guccione: Not really. I anticipated their reaction exactly and prepared for it, mentally as well as materially.

How do you prepare for such a thing materially?

Guccione: For one thing, you avoid the constant little masturbatory rituals of wining and dining them throughout the production; you keep them away from the set, away from the actors and the crew; you forbid anyone to talk to them, and you don’t circulate handouts, press releases, or production stills.

You’re talking about a complete press blackout. Isn’t that dangerous? Weren’t you fearful of being ignored completely?

Guccione: I didn’t think of it in those terms. As an editor and journalist myself, I knew that such an action would intrigue them, heighten their curiosity, and provoke them to chase every little bit of rumor and speculation that a film like Caligula, produced by a company like Penthouse, would generate. The tighter we clamped down on security, the more they wrote. Rumors — in some cases bordering on lunacy — were rampant. There was talk of bestiality, girls screwing horses and dogs, nonstop orgies involving hundreds of people, animals being slain on camera, children being sexually violated while their parents were present and looking on, et cetera, et cetera.

Didn’t that disturb you? Wasn’t that a way of encouraging or conditioning them to view the final product in an even more prejudicial light?

Guccione: Perhaps. I knew Caligula would generate a lot of controversy, and I didn’t want to lose the impetus it would ultimately cause at the box office. In other words, I wanted to save the real surprises for the right psychological moment.

Few of us can imagine a life and then build it to a point when the entire world recognizes, if not envies, it. The Bob Guccione Legacy reached that goal.

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