Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

But the real problems, the day-to-day battle of the egos, the petty squabbles, the temperaments, the ever increasing budget, fell on the shoulders of Franco Rossellini.

Wasn’t Franco your co-producer?

Guccione: Yes, but he was more than that. Franco Rossellini is a man of unusual talent and great charm. He’s the nephew of the late Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. Roberto, along with Fellini, De Sica, and others, created the Italian motion-picture industry out of the rubble of World War II. Franco’s father, Renzo, is one of the most celebrated musician-composers in Europe. A very talented family. But Franco’s art lies somewhere beyond the applied variety … more like a Diaghilev than a Nijinsky… a ringmaster with an impeccable nose for public taste. Franco was the line producer on Caligula. He assembled most of the players, artists, and craftsmen, handled the money, and effectively ran the day-to-day operations of the company. Franco is not a producer in the Dino De Laurenti is tradition. Dino is a super professional. He thinks and acts with computerlike logic, a machine creating art. Franco is a window dresser: fussy, temperamental, but very insightful, creating clever relationships with the right alchemy of people and talent and then dealing with them as one deals with a classroom full of unruly, temperamental, and spoiled children. He does this, among other things, extremely well.

Let’s return to the genesis of the movie. How did you get involved in making this particular picture? You had never made a movie up to that point, right?

Guccione: Well, the Penthouse organization had never produced a film from scratch, although we had been involved in other people’s films by way of investment.

What kind of films?

Guccione: We were the single largest investor in such films as Chinatown, The Longest Yard, and The Day of the Locust. And, as you know, two of those — Chinatown and The Longest Yard — made a lot of money. The Day of the Locust did not. But just making money on our investment and being peripherally associated with filmmaking was not terribly satisfying to a creative organization. I really wanted to make my own kind of film, a film that would be memorable, one that I felt could be as new and as significant and as revolutionary to motion pictures as Penthouse has become to magazine publishing. So, with that intent, I sought and obtained both Franco’s and Gore’s agreement to weld scenes of explicit sexuality and violence to an otherwise establishmentarian project — i.e., big stars, big budget, et cetera, et cetera.

But here, it seems to me, an interesting problem begins to surface. Some people have said: look, here’s Bob Guccione, a guy who, despite the fact that he really doesn’t have to anymore, continues to take pictures for his own magazine. So wouldn’t you have the same situation if Bob Guccione went into movie production? Wouldn’t it just be out of the question for him to let everybody else take the pictures? Wouldn’t he, at some point or other, want to get involved in the visual part of it, visuals being his strength?

Guccione: I never thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right.

You ultimately did get very deeply involved, perhaps more involved than you had meant to be in the beginning. But how much of that was by design, and how much of it was by accident?

Guccione: Good question. I never intended to involve myself, certainly not in the actual shooting, until I saw the way Brass had mishandled and brutalized the film’s sexuality. No matter what instructions I gave him, no matter how many times we discussed a scene and agreed on its interpretation, Brass would go out of his way to do the opposite. When I was in Rome and present at the studio, he would work within the parameters we had originally agreed. The minute I left Rome or even turned my back, he would go thundering off on his own.

You mean you had moments of real doubt?

Guccione: Oh, yes, I had moments of real doubt, plenty of them! Hell, we’d look at the rushes and realize that we were talking about one kind of movie and Brass was shooting another. Let me tell you how ridiculous it got. When it came to casting certain senators and noblemen, he would deliberately recruit them from a pool of ex-convicts, thieves, and political anarchists that he happened to keep in touch with. That was his sense of humor.

The Penthouse Pets were kept in the background and, whenever possible, out of sight. If Franco and I hadn’t appeared on the set from time to time, our girls would have been lost forever. It was not uncommon for Brass to have the girls costumed, made up, and on location at five-thirty in the morning and then have them stand around all day in the bitter cold, only to be sent home at midnight without spending a single minute before the cameras. Whenever possible, he would use old women — fat, ugly, and wrinkled old women — to play the kind of sensual roles we had provided the Pets for. He thought that was funny, too.

What about the sets? Wasn’t there some kind of a problem between Brass and Danilo Donati?

Guccione: Danilo is a major talent. If he is difficult and temperamental, you learn to live with it. That’s part of the price you pay for his art, and by the best industry standards, his art is unique. Danilo Donati is the real star of Caligula. He not only designed the sets, but he did the costumes, jewelry, hair styles, wigs, and makeup. Next to him, Brass is a crude and uncomprehending lout.

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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