What follows are the first two chapters from my never-seen book about the making of the Italian space fantasy film STARCRASH. The book was written more than ten years ago. I decided not to come out with it for a number of complicated reasons. Eventually, it became the basis of the commentary tracks I provided for both the stateside Blu-ray release and also the new Japanese edition. As the film’s “Number One Professional Fan,” I probably know more about the making of STARCRASH than any human being alive, which may or may not be a good thing. (Rolls eyes, shoots self.) In honor of the film’s new release on Blu-ray in Japan, I’m allowing my readers at The Express to have an exclusive look at a substantial portion of the unpublished manuscript, in which you will gain a fleeting insight into the film’s turbulent production. It began in a hotel bar in Italy and continued for more than two years, as the filmmakers struggled with every imaginable disaster, finally producing what is alternately considered one of the most colorful and unique cinematic endeavors of the 1970s and one of the worst films ever made. MOREOVER, this small excerpt will give you a keen and detailed insight into the film’s director and his early career as a writer, journalist and director. I hope you are entertained and informed by our humble, lost endeavor.
GO FOR HYPERSPACE!
WAITING FOR NAT
Luigi sat at the bar, wondering what the hell he was doing here.
As a movie director and a film distributor in Italy, he’d been in bizarre situations before, but this one was truly surreal. Nannerini sat next to him, downing vodka and laying the reassurance on thick that everything was going to work out fine. But he was just as nervous as Luigi. Probably more. This deal would mean a lot of money for both of them, and so far they’d had a rough ride that had proven anything but fruitful. Nannerini had spent the last twenty years doing cloak-and-dagger deals in the film business and he knew when to jump in and swim for the gold or grab whatever you could and run like hell. He was a big, intimidating 60-year-old Italian native who looked tough like a Sicilian gangster and talked fast like a used car salesman. He was a hardened maverick who took the money, made a movie, and jumped ship in a big hurry, with as much of the cash still stuffed into his pockets as he could swim away with. He’d been working with another infamous fellow for many years, and the last few projects they’d put together had been uphill climbs against nearly impossible odds. And here he was with this wide-eyed young director, waiting to find out if they’d be involved in another one.
Luigi was well aware of the notorious reps these two guys had carved out for themselves in the film industry. He’d been warned by his contemporaries in no uncertain terms that he should steer clear of such shady circles. A few people had claimed that Nannerini himself was a straight-out crook and that Luigi would be wiser stepping in front of a speeding subway train than to do business with the guy.
But sometimes good business was where you found it.
Especially in Italy.
Here, a young filmmaker such as Luigi found himself lucky if anything was offered to him, much less the opportunity to make a big-budget adventure movie. Even with all his contacts, credits and relative fame in Rome, he still was very far from the dreams he’d had as a child: to make the magic of science fiction in the cinema and be praised the world over for his genius. He’d made three feature films, one of which was still playing in Roman theatres as a number one box-office attraction, but he would not see one dime of the film’s profits. His name was all over Italy on marquees and he was even the host of a popular TV show, but nobody really knew who he was internationally. He ran a successful independent movie distribution firm which had made him money and earned him respect . . . but the Bigger And Better Deal was eluding him.
He looked down into his drink and sighed:
“You know, I think this one’s gonna die, too. I’ve got a bad feeling.”
Nannerini said knocked back another shot. “Nat is a reasonable guy. I read the treatment—it’s fantastic!”
This wasn’t very reassuring to a guy who’d spent the past several months trying to get a science fiction movie off the ground, only to have the door slammed in his face by everyone he’d submitted it to—including the guy they were waiting for right now. Nannerini’s partner hated science fiction movies. He’d once screamed that he’d rather disembowel himself with a spoon than be involved in “such trash.” But something recently had changed his mind. Now, not only did he want to make a science fiction picture, but he wanted dinosaurs in it too! These people were crazy, there was no doubt about that. They were also probably crooks, Luigi knew that too.
But . . . sometimes good business was where you found it.
Nannerini put a hand on his shoulder. “You worry too much. This is a business, Luigi, and you have to go with what Nat wants to do. I’m telling you, he can get this movie made.”
But would he want to?
Luigi had only just met Nat Wachsberger in person. That was an hour ago in the lobby of the Roman Hilton. Wachsberger had turned out to be a short, rotund little fellow with liver spots, deep eyes and black hair shot through with streaks of gray. He was a splitting image of Peter Lorre—the sinister character actor who had portrayed so many villains in the horror films Luigi had loved as a child. That wasn’t a very good sign, was it? Nat was as charming as the devil himself as he took Luigi’s 70-page screen treatment from him and said he would meet the two of them later in the hotel bar, after he’d had a chance to read the thing in his room. Luigi had written the treatment in less than two weeks on invitation from this rather sinister-looking old man, with the following guidelines: it had to be bigger-than-life space opera with laser guns and plenty of giant scaly beasties tromping around, and it had to be in theatres yesterday. Luigi should have—and did—smell a rat in the house. But what did he have to lose? He was already somewhat wealthy from his ventures into film distribution, and all he really wanted was to get his feet wet as the director of an international film production that somebody across the ocean might actually see. The money wasn’t so important to him.
It was June of 1977, and Star Wars had just conquered America. The film was on its way to becoming a bonafide pop culture phenomenon and was outgrossing even Steven Spielberg’s massive horror/adventure hit Jaws, which itself had outshined Coppola’s The Godfather in 1975 and proven that genre films were not just big business for Hollywood—but the biggest business EVER for Hollywood. As it had happened (and was still happening) with Jaws, there were now copycat Star Wars imitations in production or already in theatres all across the world. Movies with dinosaurs in them hadn’t been doing so badly either in recent years. Up until now, Wachsberger never would have given Cozzi the time of day.
Luigi ordered another drink and went back to worrying. He was short and oddly handsome, if a little round in the waist, with dark European features and a quiet, polite voice. He was well-traveled in his home country, self-educated and flirtatious with young ladies. He had survived in all walks of life by his instincts and was, by his own admission, one of the most obsessive science fiction geeks Italy had ever seen. He was thirty-two years old.
“Hey, Luigi,” Nannerini suddenly said, his voice catching on an excited note. “I think our worries are over.”
Luigi looked up to see Nat Wachsberger coming towards them with a big smile on his face and wide-open arms. Nannerini knew that smile. They were in business. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and let out a huge sigh of relief, as Nat embraced Luigi with a hearty laugh and a pat on the back.
“Wonderful!” he said. Then he said it again. And again and again. That was one of Nat’s trademarks when he was trying to make someone happy or close a deal.
The old man planted his hands on the young director’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes like a proud father.
“Ahh, Luigi Cozzi! We are going to make your picture! It will be the biggest hit I have ever produced! We will make millions together! And . . .”
He looked to the sky, as if studying an invisible marquee.
“ . . . I have the perfect title for you!”
What was he talking about? They already had a title. Empire Of The Stars. Luigi had come up with it a week ago, and Nat himself had officially “wonderfuled” the idea on the phone.
Luigi said this: “Umm . . . what title?”
Nat’s eyes lit up, and he pointed right at Luigi, as if to say, I give you . . .
Luigi looked away and scratched his head.
What the fuck?
There wasn’t a mention of any ‘star crash’ in his treatment. There wasn’t anything remotely resembling a ‘star crash’ in his treatment. But as he stood there gaping at Nat Wachsberger, who was now rubbing his hands together and seeing dollar signs, he realized that this was most likely a point on which the old man was unmovable. Perhaps it was some pre-sold title idea Nat had used on a deal he’d already done with someone to get some movie—any movie—off the ground. Perhaps the reality was that this sinister-looking old man needed someone to step in and actually make a film called STARCRASH now . . . and who better than Luigi, who had written such an imaginative adventure story, replete with giant monsters, buxom babes, laser swords and plenty of thundering explosions in the vacuum of space.
And who had no idea what kind of grim galactic odyssey he was about to sign on for.
In the opening scene of Luigi Cozzi’s 1982 fantasy adventure film Hercules, something called “Pandora’s Jar” explodes across an endless void, unleashing the flaming energies that give shape to our solar system—and finally Earth itself, where the first life-forms are of a supreme essence and land on the moon as gods. This sort of bizarre mix-and-match of mythological and scientific elements describes the Directorial Vision of Cozzi, and illustrates the freewheeling style with which he creates his scripts, books and films. It’s not that he isn’t aware of how this stuff actually goes in the myth and/or science tomes—he just likes it better his way. His way being much more colorful, broad and imaginative than many people are ready to give him credit for. There is never a dull moment in the Cozzi universe, and there is always something pretty to look at, even if it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Hercules goes on to throw everything else you can imagine into the mix: Flashy sets, superbabes in revealing costumes, a hidden fortress emerging from the mists of Hades, epic war sequences (stock footage) and even a couple of demon critters that look like slithering turds with glowing yellow eyes. Along the way, Hercules wrestles whole platoons of Greek soldiers, washes out a horse stable by rerouting a river with his bare hands, tosses a killer grizzly bear into outer space, swims across an ocean in seven days, grows to the size of Godzilla and cracks a mountain in half, creating the channel that separates Europe from Africa, and even jury-rigs a flying chariot by tying a rope to it’s nose, then attaching the other end to a big rock and hurling the damn thing as hard as he can. Oh, also, he fights robots.
Again, there’s never a dull moment around here.
Neither was there ever a dull moment in Luigi’s childhood, much of which was spent in movie houses in Madrid, Italy, soaking up fantasy and science fiction films—or at the local drugstore, pouring over the latest editions of his favorite pulp science fiction magazines. In the late forties and early fifties, the world was on the edge of an uneasy peace, and for the people of Europe it was a lot worse than most anywhere else as the aftershocks of Mussolini’s war atrocities resounded across the hemisphere and the slow process of rebuilding and re-educating the people continued amidst a flurry of international suspicion and paranoia. The threat of nuclear apocalypse was also on the tongues of many Italian citizens, while in the States a great deal of absurd propaganda kept this highly-destructive new technology shrouded in a veil of outrageous speculation. Predictably, the “atomic age” also led to a new renaissance in science fiction film, which began in America and soon spread all over the world.
It was during this time that Elle Luigi Cozzi would grow to manhood, gorging himself on this exciting new media. He was born into a working-class Italian family on September 7, 1947, and by the time he’d reached the age of five, was convinced that nothing else in the world was more important than aliens, flying saucers and atomic monsters. Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was the film that first knocked his lights out as a child—and from there he became obsessed with “that strange French writer” Jules Verne. What appealed to him was the wildly speculative nature of the work, and how the childishly ordinary could become extraordinary when placed in a fantasy framework. The very notion of a nuclear-powered underwater submarine was ludicrous at the time 20,000 Leagues was first published—yet now such things were not only possible, but the stuff of everyday life. More exciting still was the introduction of such technological marvels in a Victorian setting: a stylistic juxtaposing that would shape Luigi’s own early writings and firmly establish his style of storytelling in a highly imaginative and near-insane hyperspace of ideas, characters and setpieces. Many of Luigi’s stories are not just bigger-than-life—they’re bigger than fiction. In his universe, the mighty Hercules might be likely to battle giant robot dragons which breathe laser beams instead of fire. You might see golden chariots pulled by winged horses blowing past the crystal-steel spires of future Rome, circa 2077. You might even get a look into some bizarre reality where everyone is named after pop songs from the seventies and a laconic revolution boils just below the surface of a society that weeds out the weak from the strong by planting death traps in the nooks and crannies of every city on earth. Even as a child, Luigi knew that the only limits he would find in the creation of this wacky stuff was in his own imagination . . . and ultimately, in his own ambition.
Through the science fiction pulp novels and magazines he loved so much, Luigi taught himself how to read and write English, and he began his professional career in 1964, writing science fiction stories in the tradition of his heroes, then hawking them to publishers all over Italy. He quickly found that there wasn’t much of a market for what he wanted to do, but submitted the early chapters of a novel he was working on called Rainy Day Revolution No. 39 to Galaxy Magazine, a prestigious American publication edited by respected author Fredrik Pohl, who was famous for his innovative and imaginative riffs on corporate America in science fiction. Stepping in as an editor, Pohl shaped Luigi’s material into a hard-hitting short story, which won accolades as a brilliant political farce when finally published in Galaxy’s new sister magazine International Science Fiction. Though Luigi never finished the longer novel, Pohl’s short story version was eventually included in a collection from Doubleday Books in America.
Rainy Day Revolution Number 39 depicted an unusual future Rome, which is fused with an undercurrent of evil that keeps people on their toes, and an anything-goes sense of political absurdity and social injustice. The main character, Lester Aharddaysnight, is an expert at navigating the gauntlet of this strange new world, in which the entrance ramps to the underground subway systems are actually insidious deadfalls that only allow the most skilled survivalists to get on and off without being killed. Tent cities fill the cars themselves, populated by people who are unable to escape once they’ve boarded. Though rife with surreal lapses in logic, the scenario is nonetheless intriguing as a kind of hyperstylized future-fable dream sequence in the tradition of new wave science fiction authors such as Harlan Ellison. The tone of the piece became much darker after Pohl’s editing had colored it with the appropriate Yankee-slant, and he suggested a grim shock ending, too. It was an ironic twist that Luigi thought was very funny and went with.
This was the first time he had encountered an outside influence to help shape his art, and he was honored that a well-known and respected writer had taken such an interest in him. He was also happy with the international attention the story brought. He was in the real world now . . . and in the real world, you had to compromise to get what you wanted. You had to listen to—and learn from—what other people had to say. Collaborating with others was a valuable working method that might serve him well and bring him through many triumphs, particularly if he wanted to make movies.
During his adventures in publishing, Luigi also put in some hours at a small advertising firm in Madrid that specialized in 20-second television commercials. There, he began to learn the nuts-and-bolts of film production—from organizing a shoot to editing the final product, to creating “hard-sell” ad copy that would make a buyer pay attention to what you were trying to push. Inspired by his moderate success as a science fiction writer, agent and journalist, Luigi decided in 1968 to put the things he was learning about as a filmmaker to a use that would satisfy him as an artist.
He decided to make his first feature.
. . .
The end of the sixties was an exciting time and a dark time for independent producers who wanted to make science fiction and horror movies. Filmmaking, overall, was still a top-heavy and extremely exclusive racket if you wanted to really do it right. Very few people outside the studio systems had access to the equipment and the talent to create something that would be taken seriously by anyone. Low budget bottomfeeders like Ed Wood and Herschel Gordon Lewis—guys who grabbed the nearest camera, a couple of friends and yelled “action”—weren’t even blips on the radar screen in terms of craft. A typical H.G. movie relied on one or two cheap gimmicks to sell a two-hour exercise in padding.
AND YET . . . there was a genius to what these people were attempting.
It was something renegade, outlaw. The beginning of a new cinema where anyone could do it for any reason at all. A cinema that would spiral away into the current day-and-age of modern digital video and offline editing—where the nuts and bolts are far less complicated, and not only do more people have an opportunity to make films, but the art of it is far less hampered by the technical process. It’s a renaissance that owes much of its existence to what these guys were doing in the late sixties. And what they were doing, really, was demystifying the process. Weird “sex pictures” such as Ed Wood’s bizarre Orgy Of The Dead pushed the envelope of what you could get away with in a drive-in movie theatre. Somewhat gory independent monster shockers such as The Flesh Eaters were starting to surface from nowhere, the product of dedicated fans who really wanted to see quality in this stuff. And Romero was shooting Night Of The Living Dead, which would soon change the face of horror films forever.
But while Romero had many advantages on his first feature—a decade of solid commercial film production experience, access to an entire studio’s worth of filmmaking gear, and a highly-motivated support team of real professionals—Luigi Cozzi would have much less to work with.
He envisioned a full-length feature film version of the famous science fiction short story The Tunnel Under The World, which had been written by his mentor Fredrik Pohl in 1954. The story involves a man who lives within a strange alternate reality where every day is the same as the day before it, except for one element: the ads on television and in print media are always different. One morning he snaps to what is going on and discovers that he is just one pawn in a marketing experiment run by an intergalactic advertising firm, and that he is surrounded by robots masquerading as his friends and family. He learns too much, and the aliens in charge of the experiment have him assassinated. The cycle ends as we see the corporate advertising overlords looming above the whole town, which is a microscopic miniature contained in a Petri dish!
Luigi got five of his friends together—guys like him who had some working knowledge of film production—and in just five weeks they forced the movie into existence with little more than a few bucks, a few feet of film and a few tons of raw determination. To facilitate their efforts, each member of the company pooled their money to buy Kodak stock and rent some gear. That was almost all they were able to afford, relying on a sort of French new wave style of flowing camera movements, fast editing, surreal imagery and narration to move the story along rather than elaborate visual effects or even nifty things like sets and actors. The cast was minimal, and Luigi shot two-thirds of the film during daylight hours on practical outdoor locations which required little in the way of lighting. The director of photography was the son of an experienced professional, whose equipment he was allowed to borrow, so long as it never interfered with paying jobs. The shoot itself lasted just four days, often finding the cast and crew on locations without permits, working hours and hours without a break . . . and sometimes even arriving to find that some critical piece of gear—or even the film itself—had been left back at someone’s house!
For the final sequence, Luigi did a deal with a local priest to shoot in the belltower of his church, where an assassin would fire a bullet into the heart of the protagonist. A terrific setup was arranged, with the camera shooting right over the gunman’s shoulder as he lined-up his target. But without permits or crowd control on the street below, the shot became a nightmare to get in the can because every time the actor would fall down, pretending to be shot by a sniper, bystanders would rush over and try to help him.
From his mark, the actor would scream:
“Leave me alone, I’m supposed to be dead!”
From the belltower, Luigi would scream:
“Get away from him, you idiots, we’re making a movie!”
And from inside the church:
“Boys, please! This is a house of GOD!”
The Tunnel Under The World was a frustrating experience for Luigi, though he was able to finally finish the movie. It turned out to be his own on-the-job film school, and yet still holds up remarkably well today as a bizarre science-fiction oddity, touching on issues relating to politics, religion and humanity in a disarmingly mature way for such a young and inexperienced group of filmmakers. While the simplistic style of the film limited its commercial options in a market that was becoming less and less tolerant of such experiments, Tunnel was shown around a bit in Italy in 1970 and was well-received by a few critics. Luigi was eager to attempt the same sort of wild idea on a much higher budget, and maybe even try some cool special effects, too . . . but it would have to wait awhile.
Two months after The Tunnel Under The World was released, he received his draft notice from the Italian armed forces.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for he was able to pick his assignment to Rome—the film capital of Italy. After his discharge in 1971, Luigi took a job writing music and film reviews for Ciao 2001, a local “alternative” newspaper, and he soon found himself hanging out with the likes of Mick Jagger and Jimmi Hendrix, interviewing them as they passed through town on European tours. He traveled the country over the next few months and met many new people, but always returned to Rome, where he knew his real destiny awaited, figuring that if he plugged away as a writer for long enough, something was bound to happen to him.
It would happen far sooner than he’d anticipated.
That summer, a new Italian-made horror film opened in town—a film which was reputed to be quite stylish, intelligent and frightening. A connoisseur of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Luigi knew that the director of this strange new movie was an up-and-coming young hotshot whose family had connections in the film industry, and who had scripted Once Upon A Time In The West for Leone. He wasn’t sure what to think when he paid his money and sat down in the theatre to watch this young impresario’s freshman effort . . . but when the images hit the screen, Luigi knew that this was not just any movie; it was a whole new revolution in cinema being born right before his eyes.
The film followed the fairly traditional Italian murder whodunit formula—or giallo (an Italian word which literally means “yellow”)—centering around a gruesome slaying in an art gallery, and a young man who becomes caught up in the psychopath’s deranged agenda. But what made it so intelligent and frightening was not necessarily the story or the characters, but the contemporary nature of the storytelling itself. The camera was always moving. The soundtrack was full and pounding. Murders were filmed from the victim’s perspectives in jarring point-of-view shots—like Hitchcock, only with a European flavor that was wholly original—and the undertow of the film was genuinely, hair-raisingly scary. Also, the level of on onscreen violence was over-the-top for its day—something almost voyeuristic. Nothing quite like it had been seen before in Italy . . . or, really, anywhere.
It was one of the best movies he’d ever seen.
As the credits rolled up the screen, one thought raced through Luigi’s mind: He must track down this hot new talent in film and pick his brain, make friends with him . . . and interview him for Ciao 2001! The movie was anything but a box office smash, though it had received a decent international release. The reviews were mostly lukewarm, and no one had yet thought to seek the director out. Luigi knew it would be the coupe of his entire writing career if he could be the first to get an interview with this fellow, who was obviously a genius and destined for greatness very soon.
As usual, his instincts were correct—and in more ways than one. Not only would he score a coupe for his career as a journalist, but also for his future as a filmmaker.
Within a day, he’d tracked down the director of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, who indeed turned out to be one hell of a character, as wild and animated and moody as the flashy horror film he had made.
His name was Dario Argento.
. . .
Nowadays, of course, the words “shocking,” “innovative,” and “legendary” are synonymous with the name of Argento, who has become one of the most famous and controversial international film directors in the world. His body of stylish thrillers—each one essentially a reworking of the same themes and stories, some of them brilliant, others less than spectacular—has been examined by hundreds of film historians in as many different forums. What is less known is that, from the very beginning of his career, Argento had a friend and protégé by the name of Luigi Cozzi. It was an association that began instantly after they met one another at Dario’s production office in downtown Rome.
This Argento fellow was definitely someone to watch. He was a highly contradictory personality—at once shy and humble, yet fiercely proud of his vision and defensive-as-hell if you challenged him on something. He was theatrical and obsessive, filled with stories about his early childhood and growing up with a father in the film business. Dario had seen The Tunnel Under The World and had understood its genius, but was perplexed by Luigi’s lack of progress as a filmmaker in the intervening years. As the two of them whiled away the afternoon in his office, which was plastered with scribblings and script pages for his new movie—another giallo experiment which would eventually be called Cat O’ Nine Tails—Dario often hit Luigi with a brazen bit of wisdom, encouraging him to leave journalism behind and come into the film business for real.
It was inspiring to become friends with someone who shared the same kinds of passions. Beyond his obsessions with onscreen violence, Dario was a fearless, outgoing producer as well as director and writer. There was much Luigi could learn from him. They were each guests in one another’s homes regularly over the next year, talking endlessly about film and literature. As Dario filmed his next movie, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, an idea began to take shape between the two of them. This idea would later blossom into a screenplay called Four Flies On Grey Velvet. After Cat O Nine Tails opened to tremendous business in Europe and some decent ticket sales in the States, the name Argento went suddenly on the rise . . . and in 1972, Four Flies went into production with Luigi as its first assistant director.
This was another important life experience. It taught Luigi how things worked on a real movie shoot. It taught him how to deal with varied and disparate personalities. It taught him to nod his head and lie through his teeth when things were uncomfortable. Luigi was in charge of a huge crew, all of whom were quite eager to throw in and give a hundred and ten percent. This was quite a change from the maddening four-day nightmare of getting Tunnel in the can—where you were lucky if anyone showed up at all, much less give it their best shot—but Dario was a loud and demanding director, insisting on crazy camera setups and rushing things forward with a maniac’s vision for perfection-in-chaos. He would play bizarre jokes on his cast and crew, goading them on to do their best. But still, Luigi watched everything his mentor did, taking notes on what he would and would not attempt later when he finally had a movie of his own to command. Some terrific setups were achieved on Four Flies, several of which were directed by Luigi himself on second unit shoots, including an epic slow-motion car crash set to a slow romantic orchestral swell which depicted the death of the maniac at the film’s climax.
While Dario was indeed a “shouter” when it came to his overall vision, he still understood the collaborative nature of filmmaking and was ultimately very impressed with Luigi. When Four Flies became an even bigger hit than Cat had been, Dario decided he would pay his buddy back by throwing him some work on a TV movie he was producing, which became Luigi’s first solo directorial effort. The Next-Door Neighbor was a zero-budget horror potboiler which did little more than whet Luigi’s appetite for helming a real movie, but Dario was pleased with the results and the ratings were good.
During this time they began hashing out a treatment together for a wild and gory World War II version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which Dario would produce and Luigi would direct. Paramount Pictures had leased the screen rights to Hammer Films, a prestigious and very notorious London-based production company devoted exclusively to the making of “classy” science fiction and horror pictures, so it became necessary to fly to England and meet with Michael Carerras, the CEO in charge of production.
Greeting them in the lush offices of Hammer Films, Carerras turned out to be wild and outspoken, full of dirty jokes and off-color stories about the film business—and it was painfully apparent that he was only interested in Argento, the hot new director sitting in front of him. Luigi might have been invisible.
“So what’s this about a Frankenstein picture?” he finally said, more than an hour into the meeting. “Somebody told me you guys had a project like that.”
Luigi rolled his eyes. They had sent him a whole package weeks earlier—with art and a treatmen and even storyboards—and they had been assured by someone that there was real interest in the project. It was becoming quite clear to Luigi that the only reason they were taking this meeting was that Carerras wanted to score Dario to direct some other movie. This was very ironic, he thought, because Dario was hardly opening his mouth at all during the meeting. Luigi had a much better command of English and they had agreed that he would make the pitch and Dario would back up his plays.
“Well, yes,” Luigi said, sensing a train wreck. “We got this script for Frankenstein. A big remake set during the Nazi Germany period and—”
“Sorry, I’ve got to stop you there, gentlemen. I don’t think Frankenstein is something we want to bugger with right now. We just made a few of those pictures and they’ve all bloody flopped. What else have you got?”
What else? Is this guy kidding?
Luigi and Dario had put months into their presentation—not to mention all the time they’d spent writing the treatment—and this guy was just knocking it off like ash at the end of a cigar!
They shook hands with Carreras and, after a few more days of getting the runaround, went back to Italy, defeated. Argento’s father eventually stepped in to negotiate a deal, but it was already dead-on-arrival and nobody at Hammer was taking the project seriously.
It was a heartbreaking demonstration of how things really worked in studio film politics and the terribly cavalier attitude with which these “higher-up” people regarded the creative process and was Luigi’s first exposure to such cruel realities.
It would not, by any means, be his last.
. . .
Luigi finally got a chance to helm his first theatrical feature in 1975. He was already busy collaborating with Dario Argento on the screenplay for a non-horror project called The Five Days Of Milan, and was juggling three or four other scripts for various producers when Argento introduced his friend to a feisty young man named Giuseppe Tortorelli, who was putting together a low-budget giallo thriller. It was to be a quick, very cheap shoot . . . but with Luigi Cozzi at the helm, the project would become something a little more intelligent than the average splatter film, featuring an excellent deconstruction of the standard formula.
Though he disliked the loud and obnoxious Tortorelli, who seemed arrogant in his macho posturings about sex and violence in the movies, Luigi let him have his way with the ugly rape sequence he insisted upon, figuring he could always denounce the film later if it became a failure. The Spider (or The Killer Must Strike Again, as it was released internationally) was completed in just three weeks, and was a difficult experience for Luigi—far more than his previous two efforts with Dario had been. He was faced with one crisis after another on the film, shooting from the hip and deploying much of what he had learned on Four Flies and The Next-Door Neighbor. There were problems with the actors, the sets, the locations. There were fistfights among the non-Union crew members, none of whom were getting paid much. But Luigi pressed ahead, always staying one step ahead of the mayhem and reassuring himself that it was only a matter of time before such nonsense was behind him forever. He was beginning to feel trapped within some kind of sleazy underclass of filmmaking that he had no real desire to make a stake in. It was almost as if he had become a phantom filmmaker—someone who worked on the edge and put in his time, but who was never seen or recognized for his talents. On The Spider, he developed a penchant for backing away from trouble. When Tortorelli would scream at him, he would ignore the guy or cave in to his demands. When violence was threatened, he would simply walk away. He was a peaceful little fellow, after all. He wanted to start making films that would reflect that peace. And he wanted to be known for it.
. . .
During this time, Luigi immersed himself in the swinging Roman nightlife, attending parties and making many new contacts in the film business. One of them was a secretary in the office of The Italian Association Of Movie Critics. She knew of Luigi’s interest in staging a festival of his favorite science fiction films and bugged her boss about it for weeks. They weren’t interested. She persisted daily, explaining that such a festival would be popular with young audiences. They weren’t interested. She even got Luigi to present a formal proposal, which he did quite elegantly, suggesting a seven-day program with a different film each evening. Such a thing had never been attempted in Rome before, and was likely to be quite successful.
They still weren’t interested.
Finally, one day, after having had quite enough of his secretary’s ramblings about big bug movies and flying saucer flicks, the boss threw up his hands and said:
“Okay, fuck off already! I’ll give you a seven day slot and that’s it!”
The Italian Association Of Movie Critics sponsored a year-long retrospective program at a beautiful theatre called The Planetario—which really was a planetarium that had been converted to show movies. It was a huge theatre, and perfect for the kinds of crowds Maria and Luigi anticipated, but the dates her boss had allotted for the festival were off-season days which had traditionally been the worst ever in terms of audience attendance.
They wrote Luigi off early.
With limited financial backing from the Association and with advertising sponsorship from various publications Luigi was still chummy with, including Nova Magazine, he organized a program which became one of the most successful events in Italian film history at that time, with over two hundred thousand tickets sold over three months. The enthusiasm and marketing savvy Luigi put into the endeavor was remarkable. He never let an opportunity slip by. He used closed-circuit television monitors wired to cameras inside the theaters to bring the action right out to the box-office, showing potential patrons what they were missing on the screen. He created lavish newspaper ad spreads and plastered the town with posters. While rummaging through a back room of The Planetario, he stumbled across an unused 70 millimeter projection system which had been stored and forgotten. Restoring the system, Luigi used it to show 2001: A Space Odyssey in an awe-inspiring “Cinerama” presentation that would play on and off at the Planetario for over a year. And he brought out films that many younger people in Rome had never seen before—at least not in a movie theatre. Creature From The Black Lagoon, Enemy From Space, Forbidden Planet . . . all the classics were represented each night, and Luigi himself introduced most of the screenings personally, adding his own brand of showmanship to the mix.
The Planetario show was so wildly successful that the Association decided to continue with the concept and do a new “creature feature” program once a month. Luigi also suggested that they take the show on the road, and they did, booking the films into theatres in Torino, Florence and Madrid, where Luigi made a triumphant return home to his parents as a successful writer and film promoter.
In each theatre it played, Luigi’s program was a smash hit.
Cable and home video had not yet cornered the revival market, and the novelty of such an exciting festival was not lost on the Italians—who craved American entertainment and whose youth population adored horror and science fiction films. Soon, Luigi had learned enough about movie distributors and had made enough money from his own part in the traveling festival that he was able to circumvent the red tape and actually purchase exclusive exhibition rights to certain pictures outright for his own purposes. The Italian system was set up in such a way in the early seventies that many films could be bought and booked into theatres by virtually anyone if they had enough money for the rental fees, the print costs and the advertising budget. There were several main offices that handled all the films coming into Italy, and the distribution services were offered cheaply. With a mere one thousand American dollars, he bought the rights to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, on condition that he only strike five release prints. Those five prints traveled the country, playing in art houses and mainstream theatre chains. Luigi promoted the films vigorously and found he had a genuine knack for this stuff, partnering with a local dentist who also happened to like science fiction films and creating a successful distribution company. While hammering away at his own writing and directing career, Luigi continued to buy Italian movie rights, building a huge library of classic titles he’d loved as a kid, including Day Of The Triffids, Destination: Moon, The Thing From Another World, The Cat People, Son Of Kong, Invaders From Mars, The Quatermass Experiment, Lord Of The Flies, The Day The Earth Caught Fire and The Body Snatchers.
. . .
In 1976, Luigi directed an ill-fated comedy feature called The Nude Portrait, which was another poverty-row experiment that left him cold . . . but he kept his momentum strong by continuing with the revival film distribution business. Ironically, it was doing a hell of a lot better for him than any of the movies he’d personally directed.
Just one month after finishing his duties on Portrait, a fast-talking exploitation producer/director named Ovidio Assonitis called Luigi and asked him if he’d be interested in distributing a horror film he’d made called Beyond The Door, which was an low-budget take on The Exorcist with one or two scary moments. Luigi thought the film was crap, but soon sussed out that Assonitis was looking for someone else to direct a romantic drama for his production company because he himself was very busy with a large-scale monster-from-the-deep thriller called Tentacles. Here was a chance for Luigi to do something quite different than what he had been up to before in the horror/suspense and science fiction genres. It would be his first stab at straight drama, and a slick-looking feature in spite of its limited budget. It would also be the first in a series of deals he would get into with nefarious producers who shook your hand at the negotiating table, while the other held a six-inch stiletto blade behind their backs with cruel intentions.
The contract appeared to be fairly straight forward at first glance: Luigi would be paid an agreed-upon salary to write and direct the feature, and he would also receive a few percentage points of the film’s profits if it did well past the break-even mark. Luigi was paid half his salary up front. The rest would be deferred until delivery of the final film. With his blinders on, Luigi signed, and quickly rewrote Sonia Molteni’s screenplay, bringing it more in line with his own personal vision. His plucky, terminally-ill heroine was called Stella in the final draft because it was an elegant, sexy name that he liked a lot, and which also reminded him of the science fiction super-babes he’d admired in his favorite pulp stories. He enthusiastically agreed to cast the venerable character actor Richard Johnson as a washed-up pianist who is inspired by Stella’s love to be great again. (Assonitis had also cast him in Beyond the Door.) And Luigi recruited Roberto D’Ettorre to photograph the film, a skilled industry pro who would ensure that the picture looked like a million bucks.
Luigi found that straight drama without all the hassles he’d gone through on The Nude Portrait was more fun and easy-going to shoot than the semi-elaborate horror stuff he’d done; he directed the film in just four weeks on location in Paris, coming in on time and under budget. It was the first movie he’d ever made for an international audience, with English-speaking actors in the lead roles . . . though, ultimately, the film would never be released in theatres outside of Europe. This was a sad irony, since the film would have to be dubbed into Italian for presentation on Luigi’s home turf and many of the performances would be compromised in the process. Still, Johnson’s fine turn as the composer and the romantic interplay, combined with a poetically tragic ending featuring a concert performed for his younger lover as she slowly dies on stage next to the orchestra, made Dedicated To A Star a compelling work of “serious” film.
Finally, Luigi was happy with what he had done.
He was not happy when the check for the second half of his salary bounced.
. . .
In late 1976, Ovidio Assonitis released Beyond The Door and Tentacles, utilizing a new American presentation scheme called Sensurround, which was a series of early-model subwoofers and amplifiers that were placed in theatres to add to the impact of a stereo soundtrack. The system had been developed by Universal Pictures for the disaster movie Earthquake and Assonitis had aped the idea to the letter, ever the cutthroat exploitation genius. As Luigi had suspected, both films turned out to be misshapen cinematic abortions which could use all the help they could get in the enhancement department, but Assonitis had rolled with it and proven that even a really awful movie could generate tremendous word-of-mouth with the use of such gimmickry. Rather than pay him in cash for Dedicated To A Star, Assonitis offered Luigi a complete Sensurround system to use in conjunction with his own film distribution ventures. Intimidated by the outspoken producer, Luigi reluctantly agreed.
He wasn’t sorry later.
The major studios of the United States were only partially represented by the same firm Luigi got most of his revival prints from. What he was interested in now was getting some first-run films, and he began negotiations with the Italian branch of Universal Pictures to do just that. They had refused to release both Douglas Trumbull’s outer space science fiction epic Silent Running and a rather ridiculous killer snake movie, which was called Ssssss. They just didn’t think the pictures were marketable in Italy. Luigi thought otherwise, and offered them thirty thousand dollars each for the right to distribute the films, which they gladly accepted.
Luigi had spent his money shrewdly. He knew something that apparently Italian Universal had overlooked. Ssssss had been produced in 1972 by Daryll Zanuck and Richard Brown—who had since gone down in history as the makers of Jaws, the biggest monster movie in the history of monster movies. Luigi was sitting on a potential commercial goldmine. He changed the title of their earlier film to Kobra and created an exploitive ad campaign that screamed:
“A NEW HORROR THRILLER FROM THE MAKERS OF JAWS!”
To top it off, he deployed the Sensurround system to enhance the slithering snaky sound effects the film was loaded with . . . and he laughed all the way to the bank. Kobra was number one at the Italian box office for two months and made nearly three million dollars for Luigi. Silent Running was less successful, but with Sensurround enhancing Trumbull’s startling outer space sequences, the picture certainly didn’t lose money. Not at a pissant rental price of thirty grand anyway.
Universal Pictures was, of course, royally pissed off.
Luigi got used to their angry phone calls, and it was obvious he would not be able to pull a fast one like this again. But it had at least been an honest fast one. They’d sold him the picture. It was his to exploit as he wished while the terms of his lease were in effect. It was their own damn fault that they hadn’t been more saavy about what was sitting in their film vaults. Needless to say, Luigi wasn’t allowed to do business with Italian Universal ever again.
Luigi also used the Sensurround equipment in his revival runs, which kept on playing to sold out crowds every month. Striking a special print of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers with a magnetic sound stripe that interfaced with the special sound gear, Luigi engineered a crafty and involving presentation. It was set up in such a way so that his audiences would expect the same old flat, crackly monaural sound of the 50’s when they sat down to view the film . . . but at certain key moments, Luigi would hit the Sensurround switch, and a 360-degree whirligig of shouting voices and otherworldly noise would envelop the theatre, synching perfectly with the original sound in the picture! It was a gamble that paid off. Invasion Of the Body Snatchers sold five thousand tickets, and by the letter of his agreement with the Planetario, more than half of the proceeds were his. Luigi was hailed as a genius by the media and applauded by his contemporaries. He was becoming a genuine celebrity. He was even asked to be the host of local “creature feature” program that ran on Italian television, introducing his favorite science-fiction and horror movies. It was such a ratings success that he was invited to appear in a series of half-hour retrospectives on genre films as a host. Fifty-five episodes were aired between 1976 and 1977, while he was hard at work on his first three movies. Plus, his film distribution ventures had made him somewhat wealthy, and there was always a hunger for the older film revivals. He pledged to put the money he was making back into a film production of his own one day . . . but it always seemed like a vicious cycle where the cash was constantly re-routed back into getting more films promoted. He never was able to keep quite enough capital to back a whole feature. Also, he knew the cardinal rule of filmmaking, which each and every one of his mentors had drilled into him:
Never—but NEVER—finance a movie with your own money!
The Phantom Director he would remain . . . until someone, somewhere, went crazy enough to take a chance on his ideas. Or until one of these stupid little nothing movies he was directing actually made a name for him. Was that so much to ask?
He held his breath and waited.