Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

Of course there are script changes, but they are the same sort of changes that would have been made in any event, whether he continued to be associated with the film or not. Once a director gets his hands on a screenplay, there are many ways that he can interpret movements, events, activities, and attitudes on the part of the characters, because he uses images instead of words. Very often you can excise three or four pages of dialogue with a look, a gesture, or a single movement of the camera. And that, finally, is what motion picture direction is all about. It’s the director who really makes the film, not the author.

Didn’t Vidal later accuse you of making it pornographic?

Guccione: (Laughing) Actually, we had to remove a lot of the material that Gore had originally written into the script, so the film is now somewhat more sensual than the original version. In fact, just to give you one example, in the beginning — other than between Caligula and his sister, Drusilla — there were practically no heterosexual scenes at all. Every sex scene Vidal wrote was homosexual in content.

That would raise the question, of course, of whether Vidal thought that homosexual activity was that pervasive in the Roman Empire, to the exclusion of everything else. Did you ever discuss that with him?

Guccione: No, but knowing Gore, his answer would have been that homosexuality was the province of the aristocracy and that it was the plebian society that engaged in heterosexuality.

You say that prior to its release Gore Vidal had not seen the movie, and yet among his comments — and I’ll just quote you a few of them — is one that the movie’s sex scenes are a “Copenhagen sex show,” and that several of the sets, as he described it, resembled “the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. 11 And in one widely noted comment on American television, he said, “Caligula — that’s a Latin word meaning ‘turkey.’ 11 Yet you say that he had never seen the finished product.

“We’d look at the rushes and realize that we were talking about one kind of movie and Brass was shooting another.”

Guccione: Let me take it a step further. Despite all his cries and protestations, Gore had never seen a single frame of the film. The trouble really began when Gore gave an interview to Time magazine. We had just signed Tinto Brass as director and Gore, with perfect Vidalian timing, told the reporter, in effect, that directors were really parasites living off the backs of authors and that the true author of the film should be the literary author, not the director, and that the director need only follow the simple stage directions as provided by the author of the screenplay.

You can imagine the result. Tinto — a megalomaniac in his own right — blew his stack and threw Vidal out of the studio. I was upset for Gore, and yet, in the face of that ill-timed interview, I could understand Tinto’s sense of outrage. I didn’t want to take sides, but I had no choice. Gore’s work was basically done, and Tinto’s was about to begin. When you appoint a director, it’s not unlike appointing the captain of a ship. Once the ship sets sail, the captain becomes its final and irrevocable authority. It’s the law of the sea.

But at the same time, you must have had a sense that Vidal, given the enormity of his accomplishments to date, might have been fundamentally correct.

Guccione: Not really. You’re tending to compare apples and oranges. Certainly, between the two, Vidal was by far the more prodigious talent. But the making of a motion picture is a collective effort, involving the input of a great number of artists and craftsmen and a great number of specialized talents. You need everything from choreographers to carpenters, from hairstylists to plumbers, from electricians and makeup artists and actors and cooks to architects, lawyers, accountants, voice coaches, dialogue directors, photographers, grips, set designers, and numberless others, equally important cogs in the creative wheel. And for one man to think that a film can be almost exclusively his work is a mistake. It’s a team effort, and like every team, you need a captain. In the case of a motion picture, the captain, once again, is the director. If you don’t like what he does, you remove him.

Was the critical problem, as Vidal later charged, that Brass was extensively revising his script as he went along?

Guccione: No.

Not true?

Guccione: No, not in the sense Vidal meant it. Tinto made revisions as he went along because it was necessary to the visual flow of the film. When a screenplay is reduced to a shooting script, certain changes inevitably take place. And no author in the world, no matter who he is or how important he is, can say, when he submits a screenplay to a director, that the screenplay must remain inviolate. It simply doesn’t apply, because each of them sees the action from a different vantage point: the author sees it verbally; the director sees it visually. And since a motion picture is a visual rather than a verbal experience, guess who wins — it’s like the difference between television and radio. Although the two entertainment media are not that dissimilar, there are vast changes and differences in bringing the work to the public.

Still, at that point, you seemed to be acting more as a referee than a producer.

Guccione: You’re absolutely right. What was happening was not my idea of how a movie should be made, nor was it my idea of the producer’s role.

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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