What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood in the scripts of Ernesto Gastaldi?
Interview by Tim Lucas
When the Italian horror cinema is discussed in print, it is sometimes said that the 1950s belonged to Riccardo Freda, the 1960s to Mario Bava, the 1970s to Dario Argento, and the 1980s to Lucio Fulci. But there is another individual—rarely mentioned in such articles—whose seminal career has spanned all four decades and is still going strong.
Ernesto Gastaldi was born on September 10, 1934 in Graglia, Vercelli. He received his diploma in direction and screenwriting from the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in 1957. His graduate project, inspired by his fondness for the Mondadori giallo paperbacks, was La strada che porta lontano ("The Road to a Distant Door"), a strong candidate for the very first Italian thriller. (Another is Delitto al Luna Park ["Murder in Luna Park"], made the same year by director Renato Polselli, which had the distinction of being the first Italian thriller to achieve theatrical distribution.) Unlike anything else made in Italy at that time, the film was screened to great controversy, but it won the important approval of his teacher, Alessandro Blasetti. After two years of struggle, during which he served as a ghostwriter to Ugo Guerra and his future partner Luciano Martino, Gastaldi wrote a thriller for the stage entitled "A... come Assassino" ("A... for Assassin"), which won First Prize at the prestigious IDI Awards in 1959 and was produced onstage the following year.
Impressed by this award-winning production, and by the recent grosses of Dracula il vampiro (the Italian release of Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958), two producers approached Gastaldi with an interesting offer: could he use his affinity for thrillers to write something similar? He accepted, and in that twilight period between the commercial failure of Freda’s I vampiri (1957) and the worldwide success of Bava’s La maschera del demonio [BLACK SUNDAY, 1960], Gastaldi’s pen launched the Italian horror tradition of the 1960s with L’amante del vampiro, released in the United States as THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA. For the first time, Gastaldi was credited with his own screenplay.
It was in Gastaldi’s fertile imagination that many of the archetypal Italian horror scenaria were first conceived. In the following years, he wrote such classics of ’60s Gothic horror as WEREWOLF IN A GIRL’S DORMITORY, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE WHIP AND THE BODY, THE MURDER CLINIC and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, as well as ’70s Argento-influenced thrillers like TORSO, NEXT!, THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU and the remarkably titled WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD ON JENNIFER’S BODY? Gastaldi also signed some of the most important Italian films produced in other popular genres, including pepla (THE MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES), erotic thrillers (THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH), science fiction (AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK), crime thrillers (THE SICILIAN CONNECTION) and, of course, Spaghetti Westerns (MY NAME IS NOBODY). In 1966, he also became a director, making his debut with an outstanding giallo, LIBIDO (1966), which also marked the first screen appearance of actor Giancarlo Giannini.
With such a track record, Ernesto Gastaldi must be accorded long-overdue recognition as one of the chief architects of the Italian popular cinema. — (Tim Lucas)
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How did you first become interested in screenwriting?
I first dreamed of becoming a writer while working as a bank clerk in my home town of Bielli, in Northern Italy. It was there that I met an incredible young man named Peppo Sacchi. He and a group of his friends were filming stories with a little 16mm camera. In 1953, Peppo filmed the first Italian Western (Cowboy Story) and in 1954, it won the Agis Cup (Coppa Agis) at Montecatini, where they had, and still have, a festival for amateur filmmakers.
I didn’t know anything about cinema, so one night, Peppo explained everything to me as we sat in the principal park of my town—there was two meters of snow on the ground and it was 20° below zero, celsius! I joined his group, and proposed that we make a scandalous movie to attract the attention of the most important people of the Italian cinema. I took notes about action and the words that the actors would have to say; only afterwards did I discover that this was a script! We went to the festival and we had a very big success. Alessandro Blasetti, a famous Italian director, asked to me if I wished to enter the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Rome’s big movie school. "Yes, Maestro, of course!"
What was it was like to study at CSC? I’ve always heard stories about classes being allowed to observe filmings at Cinécittà, which is right next door.
As a school, CSC was too theoretical. Only Blasetti was able to teach on the set. We had studios, cameras, actors and actresses, but very little time to practice on actual sets. My graduation project was a film called La strada che porta lontano ("The Road to a Distant Door"). This was the first real Italian thriller, filmed in 1954!
That’s amazing. Does it still exist?
Yes, it still exists, but without sound. We filmed it MOS, and scored it with music from records every time we presented it. We also dubbed it every time, with the actors speaking from behind the screen! In 1954, we had no money for any kind of synchronized recording...
So your dreams of becoming a writer were soon replaced with dreams of becoming a screenwriter?
No! I thought of writing films as a way to earn enough money to survive while I wrote the Great Italian Novel! I started out as a screenwriter on many Italian comedies during my "black period."
I don’t understand the expression "black period."
I’m sorry—"black" is too Italian! You would say "ghost writer." I worked as a ghost-writer on more than twenty scripts for Ugo Guerra, the screenwriter who first introduced me to producers.
Which films were most important to you as a young man, and which films are most important to you now?
I was born in 1934, and I attended CSC from 1955 to 1957. The most important movies for me at that time were I vitelloni and La strada by Fellini. Now I like, very much, Kubrick’s films and Tarantino’s PULP FICTION.
Your autobiography, VOGLIO ENTRARE NEL CINEMA, contains very little reference to your early horror films. Do you personally dislike them?
Not at all. I like every script I ever wrote. I’m very happy that there is someone in the world who remembers them!
The first film to credit you by name was L’amante del vampiro [THE VAMPIRE AND THE BALLERINA, 1960]. This film was released shortly before Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio, and was made at roughly the same time. Freda’s I vampiri, made a few years earlier, was not a commercial success, and he blamed this on the fact that Italian audiences did not take the idea of an Italian horror film seriously. So it seems very unusual that Italian horror films were given a second chance. What happened to encourage you and others to make Italian horror films again?
I think it was the success of Dracula il vampiro, starring Christopher Lee, that prompted our producers. L’amante del vampiro was my first official script—I was unbelievably low-paid! I also worked on the film as the first assistant director.
Was the film your own idea, or did one of your fellow screenwriters come up with it?
I met the director Renato Polselli, who happened to be the fiancé of one of my schoolmates at CSC (schools can be useful!) and he had a primitive treatment called "L’amante del vampiro," but it was completely different from the movie. I wrote the script with Polselli simply to eat! I was really hungry in those days!
Aside from I vampiri, which very few people saw, there had been no Italian horror films, and horror films were banned in Italy for many, many years. Without an Italian horror film tradition to draw inspiration from, which films most inspired you—visually, thematically, et cetera?
I don’t know. In those days, whatever producers asked me to write, I wrote in a few days. I would write an entire script in less than a week, inventing both story and characters. I used to write after midnight, when my young sons were sleeping. I remember, some nights, I was frightened by my own scenes and had to stop. For me, the fun of being a screenwriter is to live your stories as others live their real lives. What scared me, I realized, would scare other people too.
As the film’s assistant director, you must have been on the set every day. Do you remember any interesting stories about the production?
Many funny things happened on the set of L’amante del vampiro. One night, the wife of the producer had to pee in the woods and she wiped herself with nettle leaves! She needed an ambulance... In the middle of one scene, the assistant producer summoned Walter Brandi by saying, "The vampire is wanted on the telephone..." There was also a big feud among the three principal actresses: each of them thought that she was the star of the film. Tina Gloriani said, "I’m the star, because I’m the heroine!" Helene Remy said, "No, I’m the star, because the producer was able to finance the film using my name!" And Maria Luisa Rolando said, "No, I’m the star, because I’m the lover of the vampire, and that’s the title of the movie!" Remy told her, "Okay, I’m the star of the movie and you are the star of the title..."
I worked with another, older assistant director named Franco Cirino. He was well-known to American producers when they came to shoot at Cinécittà. Our production was very cheap and the director asked for some skeletons, but there weren’t any to be had. The production manager proposed that we go to a cemetery and dig up some real ones! The producer had asked, very upset, "Do you know what skeletons cost?" Cirino answered, "So we’ll use the skeletons of poor people!"
We worked 18 hours a day, even on Christmas Eve. We worked day and night, because the castle had to be free the day after Christmas. The electricians used to sing, "Tutti abbiamo una casa, tutti abbiano una sposa!" ("All of us have a home, all of us have a wife!") Near midnight, the crew was still shooting and the manager arrived and showed us a bottle of Chianti. One of the crew men shouted, "Do you think you can buy us with a bottle of wine?" And then the manager pulled another bottle of Chianti out of his coat and the man said, "Okay, maybe with two!" Ah, the good old days...
What can you tell me about Walter Brandi? He must have had a big success in this film, because he went on to play vampires in several other movies: L’ultima preda del vampiro [THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE], La strage dei vampiri [SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES], and so on before becoming a producer.
Walter died about a year ago, on May 28, 1996. I met him on the set of L’amante del vampiro and we became fast friends: he had a very sweet and ironical personality. Walter had success with many different kinds of film—adventure and horror, too—for 15 years. We remained friends to the end of his life. I saw him rich with a Ferrari, and so poor that he couldn’t pay his telephone bill, but he was always the same Walter.
I’m sorry to hear about his death. I hope it was in the old days that he had trouble paying his telephone bill...
Unfortunately, Walter died in very bad economic conditions. He had the help of his friends, but it wasn’t enough. I even directed and co-produced a movie for him in 1992—L’uovo del cuculo ("The Cuckoo’s Egg"), which we made in Bucharest—just to help him. He was co-producer. It made a good profit, but Walter had a very beautiful daughter addicted to heroin. She was arrested for robbery, and he had to pay some very expensive lawyers to help her. It was a tragedy.
Walter began to feel tired. He went to the hospital for a checkup on Friday the 24th, he phoned me on Sunday, and he died on Tuesday. The doctors said his blood had turned to water. I think he had leukemia. Walter was part of a production cooperative to which I belong, and we were talking about producing another film together. Walter used to come to my house almost every day, to drink some fresh juice and to talk about the movie we were planning, and other future projects... but he had no future at all.
He was a memorable vampire in L’amante del vampiro. His makeup was a return to the ugly vampire that hadn’t been seen much on the screen since the silent days. Can you describe how his makeup worked, how it was applied?
Walter’s mask was built on his face with a plaster mold and then realized in rubber latex. It was light brown in color. Inside the mask, there were tubes that he could inflate with a little handpump situated in one of his pockets. The mask was so complete that, for some scenes, another actor played the vampire—because Walter had caught the flu! There was a terrible flu going around that Christmas...
The film opens with a scene that was filmed at a waterfall that figures in a lot of classic Italian films, notably Le fatiche di Ercole [HERCULES, 1957]. Do you remember the location?
Yes, it was Veio’s Falls, close to Rome. Veio is a very ancient Etruscan town.
The "Castle of the Damned" also looks familiar to anyone who has seen more than a few Italian horror films. The spiral staircase in particular can be seen in Bava’s Operazione paura [KILL BABY KILL, 1966], for example. Do you remember the name of this castle and its location?
Of course I do! It was the Castello Borghese at Artena. Artena is a village near Rome, but so badly situated that they have a celebration on the one day each year when the sun touches the town square! Many films were shot there. It was very cold in the winter!
Was the disintegration scene really filmed on the roof? I would imagine that the wind up there might have interfered with controlling the effects.
Actually, yes. The disintegration was filmed on the castle roof, by stopping the camera and making little changes, stage-by-stage. We actually had to create the illusion of wind by standing around and waving newspapers!
The film contains some scenes that were obviously inspired by HORROR OF DRACULA, such as the girl waiting for the vampire to come to her room—and the camera panning toward her hand gripping the sheets. But it is more openly erotic. Some scenes are suggestive of nudity—but there isn’t any in the US print. Were any nude scenes filmed for the continental market?
I don’t know what was cut for the United States, but the movie was absolutely chaste. The most erotic scene showed Helene Remy licking her lips...
I don’t mean for this question to sound critical, but were all of the actresses in L’amante del vampiro professional? I’m not asking because of their ability, but because I don’t recall ever seeing their names in movies again, whereas Walter Brandi’s career flourished.
I went to school with Tina Gloriani at CSC, and she was the girlfriend of the director, Renato Polselli. She later married another man and disappeared. Helene Remy was a very famous French actress, who had made a lot of movies with big stars, but during this period, her career was nearing an end.
What can you tell me about Renato Polselli?
I lost contact with him, but I know he’s working in the editing field, supervising the Italian dubbing of American motion pictures. At the time I knew him, he was a man of greater ambition than talent.
I love Aldo Piga’s music for this film, which is such a swooping, barnstorming piece of work. Can you tell me how Italian directors for this kind of film selected their composers? Also, did they score the idea of the film, or the film itself? Piga’s score, for example, creates a pervasive mood rather than comments on specific scenes.
In those days, Italian composers were often called "noisers." They came in and added music, only because the silence would have been worse. For more important films, of course, composers had to read the script and meet the director. Sergio Leone, as you know, wanted to hear the music before he shot a single foot of film. For my film Notturno con grida, I met with an important composer and showed him the first rough cut. Four weeks later, he brought me the music and said, "I am especially proud of the theme for the love story." But there wasn’t any love story in it!
What about the ballet scene? Was the music for that scene recorded prior to the filming? Or did the dancers perform to silence?
Piga saw the ballet when it was edited together and then scored it.
Were you asked to write any of Walter Brandi’s later vampire films, like L’ultima preda del vampiro [THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE, 1960] or La strage dei vampiri [SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES, 1961]?
Your next major horror script was one of the cornerstones of Italian horror: L’orribile segreta dal Dott. Hichcock [THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, 1962], directed by Riccardo Freda. How did you become involved in this project?
I got involved by phone. In those days, many producers called me to write films for them.
The producers were Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati. Tell me about them.
Carpentieri was—and maybe still is, I don’t know—a nice man, shy and intelligent. Donati, on the other hand, was a very volatile man, always upset. I remember an episode: he got into an argument with someone who double-crossed him and he broke the guy’s left arm! Donati shouted, "If I ever see you again, I’ll break it again!" Unfortunately for the trickster, Donati bumped into him a month later at a soccer stadium. He had his arm in a cast, and Donati broke it again in front of 80,000 people!
Anyway, Carpentieri called and asked me to write an outline around a giallo story that he liked called Spectral. I wrote a treatment and called it Raptus. The story was different at first, because there wasn’t any necrophilia in it. I don’t remember now why I added this element later; perhaps one of the associates asked for something harder, more macabre.
The film was considered outrageous in the United States because it was about necrophilia, at a time when even normal, healthy sex was forbidden in horror films. Did you have a sense of breaking a taboo with this film?
No. When you have to write many horror films or thrillers, it’s important to keep finding new subject matter. Necrophilia was just one of them. Here in Italy, nobody was upset by this.
Were other directors considered, or perhaps hired, before Freda?
I don’t think so.
What are your memories of being on the film set? What do you remember about Freda? The cast members? The location?
I went twice to the set. Freda was shooting in an empty old villa in a very rich area of Rome, on the via Rubens. There was a wild green all around it, with actual family crypts. That first day, Freda asked my permission to cut 10 pages from my script. They were important pages, important to an understanding of the plot. He told me that he had to finish shooting in a few days—the whole movie was filmed in only three weeks! He didn’t have the time to film these pages, so I said, "Do whatever you want." So Freda cut the scenes in which my characters explained their motivations. The film became incomprehensible, but people loved it!
The American version lost another ten minutes, so all in all, it lost twenty pages of script!
I never knew that the American version was shorter than the English one, but the scenes that I’m talking about were never filmed at all!
And your second visit?
The second time I went to the villa, I didn’t speak to Freda, who was completely absorbed in his work. He was shooting with three cameras simultaneously—not shooting the same scenes from different angles, but shooting different scenes! I remember Barbara Steele walking around and around with candles through long, dark corridors...
Aside from the cutting of 10 pages from your script, did Freda change your story in any way?
No, he shot the other scenes exactly as I had written them.
The film has an excellent cast: Barbara Steele, Robert Flemyng, Harriet White Medin...
I read your long interview with Harriet White Medin. I didn’t know much about her. I only knew that she was chosen for Hichcock before Freda was chosen as director, because she was an "English" actress.
Harriet remembered Freda as being a bilious little tyrant who made it unpleasant to go to work, while Barbara Steele described him as a pleasant man who served her little cakes and tea on the set. What do you make of this discrepancy?
I think Harriet’s description of Freda is closer to the truth than Barbara’s. Freda was a very good director, but his career was not so good—for many reasons. Mostly money, but also the fact that he believed himself to be a genius such as the world had never seen!
If Harriet was hired before Freda, because she was an English type, was this also true of Barbara Steele and Robert Flemyng?
No. Carpentieri cast Barbara Steele because she had acted in another film of this genre previously, which had been successful. I don’t remember anything about Flemyng.
The choosing of the name "Hichcock" for the villain was obviously not accidental. Was it your idea? Why was the "T" omitted from the spelling?
Donati and Carpentieri were afraid that Alfred Hitchcock would be upset if they used the same spelling, so they decided to change a letter. Almost nobody in Italy noticed the difference!
In addition to using the great director’s name, the film contains some marvelous references to his works: the skull on the bed recalls the head on the bed in UNDER CAPRICORN, the poisoned glass of milk reminds us of SUSPICION, and the portrait of the previous Mrs. Hichcock is reminiscent of REBECCA (just as Harriet’s character recalls Mrs. Danvers). I think the movie is a wonderful hommage to Alfred Hichcock... but was it a conscious one?
Not completely. We all were i nfluenced by the films of Hitchcock, who was a Maestro di Maestri. You are right about Harriet’s character, though; I was definitely thinking of Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA!
In your wildest daydreams, have you wondered if Hitchcock ever saw the film? It’s certainly possible; he liked to screen other people’s thrillers on slow work days, and I doubt he could have resisted taking a peek a something called THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK!
No! I never dared to hope for so much!
In 1963, Freda directed a film called THE GHOST [Lo spettro], which some people have described as a "sequel" to THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK. It wasn’t really, but it featured another "Dr. Hichcock" (Elio Jotta), and Barbara Steele and Harriet Medin were back as the wife and housekeeper. Were you asked to write this film, whose script is credited to "Robert Davidson"? Have you seen it?
No, I’ve never seen it. I remember Luciano Martino telling me that Freda was filming another "Hichcock," but I had no copyright on this name, or indeed on this type of film. I didn’t give it another thought.
This reminds me of a funny story. In 1966, Vittorio Salerno and I wrote a Spaghetti Western called Mille dollari sul nero, which introduced a character named Sartana. We invented the name by changing a letter in the name of General Santana, who fought in the Mexican War. Afterwards, the name began to appear on a lot of other Italian movies inspired by our work. Two years ago, there was a big trial in Italy: two producers were suing each other over the right to use the name "Sartana" in their film titles! Vittorio and I went to the judge and proved that we, in fact, had originated the name! Then we made a present of it to both producers! They were very pleased, but neither of them was too happy about having to share it!
For the next several years, you collaborated on many important projects with Luciano Martino. How did the two of you join forces?
I first met Luciano in 1957 as a young screenwriter. We worked together as co-writers for three years, ghost-writing for our master Ugo Guerra, starting in 1960. He married Wandisa Guida [one of the stars of I vampiri], one of my schoolmates at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. In 1963, Luciano produced his first movie, I giganti di Roma, with 30 million lire given to him by his father as an advance on his inheritance. (This was in 1963! Today it would be, more or less, half a billion lire!) Luciano was afraid he might lose the money—as his father expected he would—so he asked me to write a solid story, full of emotion and rhetoric. I did this, somewhat inspired by a famous 19th century Italian book written by DeAmiciis, entitled CUORE ("Heart"). CUORE was about our Risorgimento [Italy’s great national revival in the mid-19th century]. I shifted an episode to Roman history, and copied some action from THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Instead of big guns, I had big catapults!
My first teacher, Rodolfo Sonego, used to say two things I never forgot: "If you can’t tell your story in a few words to a 4 year-old, your story is wrong," and "If you want to have a big success, you must copy the plot structures from fables." DeAmiciis did this, and I copied DeAmiciis. The movie was indeed a big success, Martino made a lot of money, and thus he embarked on his career as a producer.
Martino is listed as co-writer of I giganti di Roma. How did you collaborate?
I was the sole author of the script, but Luciano wanted his name to appear in the credits, as well. After that, I wrote a lot of films for Luciano and many times he shared credit as co-writer. Actually, we would speak about the story for one or two days, after which I wrote the first draft. Then he would read it and make his observations; if I agreed with him, I made the changes as indicated.
I giganti di Roma was directed by one of Italy’s most successful directors, Antonio Margheriti. What was your opinion of him?
Antonio was, and is, great with special effects, but not so good with actors.
I’ve always wondered what it was like for an Italian screenwriter to write a peplum film. Were these scripts difficult to write? Did they involve much research into history or mythology?
For us Italians, this kind of thing unfortunately represents about 4/5ths of our whole culture. I say "unfortunately" because, while it’s good to know one’s cultural roots, it’s stupid to know almost only that. For the last 40 years, I have read scientific books almost exclusively, to fill this incredible void in my education.
Later in 1963, you worked with Martino again on Lycanthropus [WEREWOLF IN A GIRL’S DORMITORY, 1963], directed by Paolo Heusch. For this project, and for most of your subsequent horror endeavors, the two of you adopted the pseudonyms "Julian Berry" and "Martin Hardy." Is there a story behind these names?
The origin of "Julian Berry" is funny. In 1957, I wrote my first science fiction novel and my publisher wanted an English name on the cover page. At the time, I was sharing a little apartment with an Anglo-Italian named Julian Birri, who worked as an advertising copy writer. As a joke, I used his name, because the book made sly uses of some advertising slogans he had conceived. Well, it so happened that he almost lost his job, because his boss wouldn’t believe that he wasn’t the real author!
"Martin Hardy" was another joke, because Luciano Martino was fat and robusto, but the name wasn’t my idea. In those days in Italy, it was mandatory to sign your films with an English name, because that’s the way the producers wanted it.
What do you think of Lycanthropus?
It was a good B&W horror film for its time. I like it, perhaps because it reminds me of my youth.
There may have been episodes of sadomasochism in earlier films, but La frusta e il corpo [WHAT!, 1963], which you wrote for Mario Bava, must be the first truly romantic S&M love story ever filmed. Your previous script was about necrophilia. What encouraged you to write horror films about such daring subjects?
Money. After the success of L’amante del vampiro and Lycanthropus, many producers called me, asking me to write other stories of this genre. I was young, newly married, and we had a baby crying for milk, so I wrote everything I was asked to write. Of course, I tried to write something new each time, and for this reason I wrote about vampires first, werewolves second, and then sadomasochism, necrophilia, sorcery, reincarnation, and so on.
The screenplay credit for La frusta e il corpo is divided between several people. How was it written?
The company that produced La frusta e il corpo was actually a consortium of friends. One of them was one of my screenwriting teachers, Ugo Guerra, who had been Luciano’s teacher as well. So, Ugo, Luciano and I spoke about this project, and I wrote it entirely by myself.
Mario Bava had no input?
Bava was chosen as director after the script was finished. I worked alone; I signed my contract on December 13, 1962, and delivered the script on January 31, 1963! Also, I had very few meetings with Bava because—while Mario was a really good director, his images were wonderful, his special effects were the best of their time, and he also had a gift for suspense—but he wasn’t at all interested in writing. Many Italian directors feel that they can make wonderful movies even from a bad script. I think they are wrong, but this is how it is. So I wrote the script for La frusta e il corpo completely on my own.
Did Bava remain faithful to your script, or did he change it in any way?
Bava didn’t make any changes in regard to the dialogue, plot, or characters. He changed some special effects described in the script, but he didn’t require my approval for this, nor anyone else’s, because he was a master of such things.
Was there any concern that the S&M angle would make the film difficult to sell to America, where horror films were considered entertainment for very young audiences?
In those days, the American market wasn’t so important for us. It was easy to earn back our investment with the Italian market only. Italy was producing more than 300 films per year! Today, unfortunately, that figure is closer to 60.
Mario Bava had never worked with you before. How did he become involved in this production?
I first met Mario Bava when he was shooting La battaglia di Maratona [THE GIANT OF MARATHON, 1959]. I was occasionally on the set because my friend Armando Govoni was working there, and I liked to watch the filming of special effects. Bava put a glass in front of the camera, completely covered by 12 black squares of paper. He removed the first square on the left and 30 soldiers formed a line on the top of the hill, exactly within this exposed square. Then Bava rewound the film, covered the first square and removed the second square of black paper; the same 30 soldiers formed another line on the top of the hill, but shifted 20 meters to the right. One after another, Bava uncovered and covered the glass, shifting the same thirty extras from one position to another, until he had a big army!
Bava was invited to direct La frusta e il corpo by Ugo Guerra. They were good friends. I remember Ugo saying, "Mario can be both photographer and director; that is convenient for us." I’m sorry, but these things tend to happen at random, without a divine inspiration.
What inspired you to write La frusta e il corpo? (And please don’t say "the money"!) Some reviewers noticed a strong Bronte influence in the story, which I can also see.
I’m not sure, but the producers (Ugo Guerra and Elio Scardamaglia) showed me an Italian print of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM before I started writing it: "Give us something like this," they said. You know, in those happy times for Italian cinema, it could happen that a producer called you and said, "Look, my wife bought a wonderful bag made of crocodile skin... Why don’t you write a nice script about crocodiles?"
The film’s setting is so strange and the names are so unusual—"Nevenka" is a wonderful name.
Four months before I wrote this film, I wrote a very good treatment with Ugo Guerra titled "La Spia" ("The Spies"). It was probably the best thriller machine I ever invented, but it was never filmed! It was set in Eastern Europe and the lead character was named Nevenka; I liked this name. On other occasions, I have used the names "Sheena" or "Eileen" for evil women, for no particular reason.
The movie never tells us what the year is, or where the story is taking place. Did you have an intended time and place in mind, as you wrote the script?
La frusta e il corpo was set in the 19th century, but Bava (or maybe it was the producers, I don’t remember) preferred to be unspecific. Someone said, "No time, no place, no problem about the kind of castles, dresses, etc."
I have seen a copy of your contract for this film. It contained a different title and listed different actors in the major roles. Did Bava re-cast the film after joining the production as director? (Bava had worked with Christopher Lee once before.)
No. Christopher Lee wasn’t free when the project started. Afterwards, he became free and his name helped the producers to secure a good "Minimo Garantito" [ie., minimum guarantee] from the distributors. Maybe Bava helped them to contact him.
Can you remember any interesting stories about the production? The actors?
No. I never visited the set of La frusta e il corpo. I was busing writing the next ones.
"The next ones?"
Yes, at the time, I used to write many scripts contemporaneously.
Do you remember the film’s budget, or the length of its production schedule?
I think it was less than 150 million lire—in today’s terms, about two billion lire. The length of the production schedule was six weeks, plus one for special effects.
As I understand it, this film had two earlier titles. The first, which appears on your contract, was Spectral—recycling the original unused title for Hichcock. Harriet Medin remembered making it under the title La lama nel corpo—a title that was later used on another of your films, which was directed by Elio Scardamaglia and released in the US as THE MURDER CLINIC.
I don’t remember that title being proposed for this movie. The only connection with La frusta e il corpo was Scardamaglia, who was affiliated with Vox Film and Leone Film (no relation to Sergio Leone...), which produced La frustra. He was the producer, not the director, of La lama nel corpo, which was in fact directed by Lionello DeFelice. I don’t remember why DeFelice’s name didn’t appear in the credits.
Where was La frusta e il corpo filmed? I’ve seen the same villa used in oth er horror films of this period, including some of yours.
Some scenes were filmed in studios, other near Anzio and the villa was near Rome. Some villas were practically studios at the time.
You had worked with many other directors at this point in your career. How do you feel Bava compared with other directors?
In the horror genre, Bava was best. The second best was Freda, the third was Margheriti. All three of them were more concerned with images than with characters and stories!
Bava had established a recognizable name at this time, with La maschera del demonio and other films. Why was he asked to use the pseudonym "John M. Old"? (He once said that the producers asked him to pick "an old American name.") Was it because American films were more commercially successful in Italy, or because of the scandalous nature of the subject matter?
Everyone at that time was obliged to have an English pseudonym. Italian producers were absolutely sure that English names were the best way to ensure the success of this kind of movie. I once wrote a very good thriller script located in Rome and all the producers said to me, "In Rome, it’s so unbelievable... We’ll set it in London." Bava had to play along like the rest of us. His real name wasn’t acceptable to Italian distributors.
La frusta e il corpo was charged with obscenity upon its release. (Apparently a man saw the film in a cinema, was offended, and sued the production company.) I know that the charges were dropped, but what do you remember of this episode? Do you remember Bava’s reaction?
Yes! He laughed—we all laughed! Two years later, I directed my first film—Libido—and the censor declared it "Forbidden to Teenagers" because in one scene, my wife Mara Maryl stood in front of a Rubens painting and said, "Però che culoni dipingevano una volta!" ["What big asses people used to paint!"] That’s what the times were like!
I have heard many stories about La frusta e il corpo being censored in Italy, perhaps as a result of the obscenity charge. But was this true? With the exception of an American TV print that removed all of the flogging scenes, and the British version NIGHT IS THE PHANTOM (also heavily cut), every copy of the film I’ve seen has been complete.
There were some problems with the censors, but no cuts were made, with the exception of maybe 8-12 frames in one of the whipping scenes. In Italy, the movie was prohibited to teenagers.
La frusta e il corpo was surely one of Bava’s most beautiful films. Why did you never work together again?
It just worked out that way. As I said, Bava wasn’t very interested in the script or the screenwriter.
In 1963, you also wrote one of my favorite peplum films, Alberto De Martino’s Perseo l’Invincible [THE MEDUSA AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES, 1963].
I had previously written another movie for Alberto De Martino—Akiko—but it was during my "black" period and I couldn’t sign; Ugo Guerra did. Perseo l’Invincible was a story of mine. I wrote only the treatment, but the producer, Emo Bistolfi, listed me as one of the screenwriters. And then he died. When Bistolfi died, our Tax Service began to persecute me, demanding that I prove to them somehow that I didn’t write the script. I told them, "I couldn’t have written the script, because I have no contract," etc. This persecution has lasted to this very day, because my name is there on the screen, among the other suspects who didn’t pay their taxes!
The special effects for that film were done by Carlo Rambaldi, who created the robotic Medusa, and Eugenio Bava, who did the matte paintings. Did you ever meet them?
I remember being in the production office and meeting a young man who created special effects, but at the time, Rambaldi’s name was unknown to me. I don’t remember meeting Eugenio Bava.
Let’s move on to La cripta e l’incubo [TERROR IN THE CRYPT, 1963], based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s "Carmilla." Did you know the story, or was it proposed to you?
Tonino Valerii, a former classmate of mine at CSC, had the idea initially, and together we wrote the first treatment on a summer night, sitting on the terrace of my little penthouse.
"Carmilla" was later filmed by Roger Vadim, and as a series of three "Karnstein" movies by England’s Hammer Films (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, TWINS OF EVIL). Have you seen these other versions? How do you rate your film compared to the others?
I’ve seen only the Vadim version, which was very different from La cripta e l’incubo. Almost no relation. I don’t remember the two films well enough to compare them.
What do you remember of director Camillo Mastrocinque? How was his work distinct from that of Bava, Freda or Margheriti?
Mastrocinque was a director of meager talent. He directed a lot of comic films in which the leading actor was also the leading man on the set. When he directed La cripta e l’incubo, he was embarrassed. The producers asked Margheriti to help him, but I don’t know that he did.
When I last watched the film, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the props at Castle Karnstein (like the shield with the "K") were left over from Walter Brandi’s "Count Karnassy" of L’ultima preda del vampiro! Perhaps it was filmed at the same castle?
I don’t know. I visited the set only once; it wasn’t Castello Borghese, but another castle whose name I can’t remember. [The location was a castello in the town of Balsorano. —Ed.]
Another of your early horror films was Il mostro dell’opera (1964), about a vampire haunting an Italian opera company. It’s okay, but not as good as it might have been with Walter Brandi in the vampire role.
I worked very little on Il mostro dell’opera. I’m not sure, but I think I wrote only the treatment. I think I also read the script and made some corrections. I was frankly surprised to find my name on credits.
The film looks like it belongs to an earlier period than the production date suggests.
That is correct. The filming began in 1961, but the producers ran out of money. They weren’t able to continue until 1964!
And then you reunited with Margheriti and Barbara Steele on I lunghi capelli della morte [THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH, 1965].
Tonino Valerii tried to direct that film, but the producer didn’t want him because, at that time, he hadn’t directed any movies. Antonio was called when the script was finished, and we met only once, so that I could explain some details to him. He didn’t change the script and I never went to the set.
The thing that people always remember when they see this film today, is the finale in which the hero is placed inside a large wicker figure that is set ablaze. A similar contraption appeared in the end of a British film called THE WICKER MAN, written by Anthony Shaffer. The film’s director once told me that Shaffer (who also wrote SLEUTH) was a great fan of horror movies and probably saw your film. What do you think of the similarity?
I can’t really say. I didn’t know Anthony Shaffer and I never saw this film you are describing.
So your ending... Was it inspired by the shock ending of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, when we see that Barbara Steele’s character has been trapped in the Iron Maiden?
Yes, of course! THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM had a big influence on Italian horror films. Everybody borrowed from it.
Aside from the ghost-writing that you did for Ugo Guerra, did you ever write a screenplay and not receive credit?
Yes, many times.
Well, La decima vittima [THE 10TH VICTIM, 1965] for Carlo Ponti.
Really! [The script is credited to Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni, Ennio Flaiano and director Elio Petri.] What was the story behind that?
I had long been trying to persuade Italian producers to make a science fiction film. Mrs. Jone Tuzi, Carlo Ponti’s manager, knew of my ideas and called me when Ponti was disappointed by a SF script written by Ettore Scola, Elio Petri and some other very important Italian screenwriters. By chance, two years earlier, Ugo Guerra and I worked on a script of the Robert Sheckley tale "The Seventh Victim." We asked Sheckley for the rights, and he told us we could have them for free if we filmed his story exactly as it was written. Jone Tuzi introduced me to Ponti, who told me that I must type all my script changes on blue paper. I came back a week later with a script that was completely blue except the front page! Ponti laughed. He liked my script, but asked me not to tell anyone that I was the author, because he planned to avoid arguing with the director by telling him that the rewrite had been done by a famous American screenwriter. I agreed and started to work for Ponti. My draft was satirical, because at that time, there was no science fiction genre in Italy. Ponti sold the movie to the United States [Joseph E. Levine] using my script only, but he lost interest in the project after the sale. Petri filmed a mixture of my script, which was satirical, and the one he worked on, which wasn’t—what a pity!
In the mid-1960s, you began to focus more intently on your original interest: thrillers. Is there a biographical explanation for your interest in thrillers? Something about your own life, or your own philosophy of life, that explains your attraction to them?
No, I just like them, especially the thrillers made by Hitchcock. I like Agatha Christie too, and of course Edgar Allan Poe. I like thrillers when the plots are perfect, air-tight, without any writers’ (or directors’) tricks. When I started to write scripts as a "ghost," I wrote many Italian comedies, signed by famous screenwriters, but when I wrote my first thrillers, everybody said they were wonderful, perfect! So many producers asked for thrillers, and I wrote, I wrote. Five minutes ago, a producer from Genoa rang me up and asked me to write another thriller, based on an Italian novel that came out three months ago!
In 1959, you wrote an award-winning thriller for the stage called A... come assassino ("A... for "Assassin"). It was filmed in 1966, but you didn’t write the screenplay. Why not? It would seem to me that most of the work was already done.
My play A... come assassino won the IDI Award in 1959. It was staged for the first time by a good theatre company lead by Silvio Spaccesi in 1960. I sold the drama to the director Angelo Dorigo, through Walter Brandi (who produced), and he assigned someone else to write the script... which was almost identical to my play!
That must have been Roberto Natale—who also wrote TERROR CREATURES FROM THE GRAVE and KILL BABY KILL.
Maybe this man was called Natale, I don’t know. I like A... come assassino, I think it’s a good example of a thriller for theater.
There is something here I would like to understand better. Mario Bava is often said to have invented the "giallo" film with La ragazza che sappeva troppo [EVIL EYE, 1962] and Sei donne per l’assassino [BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, 1964]. Would you agree? I ask because your play "A... come Assassino" was written much earlier, and the film version certainly belongs to the giallo form. Also, La lama nel corpo and your films with Sergio Martino are in the best gialli tradition. I would like to better understand the origins of the giallo as a film genre, where it came from.
I wrote "A... come Assassino" in the fall of 1958, but it was a play. Maybe Bava was the first director to make Italian thrillers for the movies. "Giallo" (Italian for "yellow") refers to the yellow covers of the famous thriller books published by Mondadori, which first appeared in the 1930s. There were many giallo authors in Italy. I wrote four or five gialli while I was attending CSC—all under English pseudonyms, of course. I used to locate my stories in New York, and I had a map with the names of streets, coffee shops, restaurants, theaters, and so on, to put my characters into the truest world possible. The first time I went to NYC with my wife, she didn’t believe it was my first trip, because I would say, "Look, behind this corner there is..." and there it was!
Which reminds me: Sometimes an Italian thriller will claim to be based on a work of fiction by an American writer no one has ever heard of. For example, the credits of La lama nel corpo claim that the script was based on a novel called "The Knife in the Body" by Robert Williams. Does such a novel exist, or was it possibly a short story published in one of the giallo magazines? Or was it just a false attempt on someone’s part to make the film appear more literary?
There actually was a short novel with this title, written by an Italian writer—Lionello DeFelice, I suppose. But I changed almost everything, as often happens when you have to adapt a novel for the screen.
How do you construct your thrillers? Do you begin with a crime, or do you start at the end and work towards the beginning? What do you think is the formula of a successful thriller?
I don’t think there is a "formula," otherwise I would have copyrighted it! When I write something—scripts, novels, tales of any genre—I usually start with a very little idea, a few characters, and a situation that gets the ball rolling. Then it’s very easy, because my characters tell me what they are doing. If I try to force them, they stop and shout back at me, "I would never do that!" Very easy. Thrillers are special because I never know who the murderer is until he reveals himself near the end. My work is to fine-tune the story as I reread it, deciding what is possible, what is true. (I don’t place too much trust in my characters...)
The first film to emerge in this cycle of thrillers was Libido (1966), which was also your directorial debut.
It was a very little film, made because of a bet between Luciano Martino and his partner, Mino Loy. Martino believed that, to be a good director, one must be above all a good storyteller. Loy, on the other hand, maintained that it was more important for a film director to have a perfect knowledge of technique. I was there, by chance... I’d never directed a movie in my life and I had a beautiful wife at home who aspired to be an actress... so I proposed myself, to prove who was right. I filmed Libido in 18 days: I also wrote the script, did the art direction, designed the wardrobe, worked as my own production manager and editor. The film was a commercial success; it’s cost was incredibly low—only 26,000,000 lire—and it was sold for $25,000 in America alone! [The film was sold to the United States, but never released.] So Luciano won the bet.
My company, Nucleo Film, made a lot of money because I was in this business at 50%. Libido was filmed in the Villa Manzolin, along the Cassia Road. The city has now completely consumed this area, where my daughter lives today with her three children.
Did you notice that the principal male character in Libido is played by Giancarlo Giannini? It was his first film. The distributor, in 1965, said to me, "You chose this boy with a face like an idiot, so you’ll have to change his stupid Italian name to John Charlie Johns!"
The direction of Libido is shared by you and Vittorio Salerno. Who was he?
Vittorio Salerno was the brother of Enrico Maria Salerno, a famous Italian actor who died a few months ago. He was really important at the time. I met Vittorio in 1963, when I was not yet a well-known screenwriter, and he was still hoping to become a director. We became friends and worked together on a project of mine called "The End of Eternity" (the same title as a book by Isaac Asimov, but there was no other relation). It was an anthology of four science-fiction stories; one of them was very similar to BACK TO THE FUTURE.
Vittorio told me that he could get his famous brother to act in the movie if we directed it together. I accepted. Enrico Maria was most enthusiastic about one of the tales, "Hitler’s Son." Ultimately, this project fell victim to the ignorance of Italian producers who, at this time, still didn’t know what science fiction was. Giuliano Gemma (the highest-paid Italian actor at that time) even proposed to play the starring role for free! But the producers said, "No."
Then the producers offered to let me direct this thriller. Vittorio and I wrote the script (which was based on an idea by Mara Maryl, my wife), and we offered the character eventually played by Luciano Pigozzi to Enrico Maria Salerno. Enrico knew that this film was really going to be made, and that it would make his brother a director before him, so he proposed to play the character as a monster—blind in one eye, with a hook on his right hand! I accepted, just to pull his leg, but I called Luciano Pigozzi. In this new situation, Vittorio was useless, but I shared the director’s credit with him all the same.
Luciano Pigozzi is one of the great faces in the popular Italian cinema, and he’s very good in everything he does. He’s appeared in a lot of your films, as early as Lycanthopus, usually under his screen name "Alan Collins."
I’m a good friend of Pigozzi. He lived in Manila for 10 years, but he came back last year. I chose Pigozzi for Libido for two reasons. First of all, he had the right face. Secondly, he was well-known to Luciano Martino, who was co-producing with Mino Loy and me.
Sometimes Pigozzi appears only in very small roles for you. Do you regard his presence as a "good luck charm"?
Maybe Luciano Martino does, unless they argue about a contract or something like that. When I wrote those old films, I was usually paid to write before the actors, or even the director, were chosen. So it happened that Pigozzi acted many scripts of mine without my suggestion.
Your next thriller was Il dolce corpo di Deborah (1968), also for Martino and Loy. You share script credit with Lucio Fulci.
I don’t remember why Fulci’s name is on the credits. I asked Luciano Martino about it, and he doesn’t remember either!
What’s interesting to me is that Fulci contributed to another script, written at roughly the same time, that was made into a Riccardo Freda film called A doppia faccia [DOUBLE FACE, 1969]. Both movies were about people who were haunted by songs associated with dead lovers. Can you explain how these two films came to share these plot elements?
It’s possible that Deborah originated with an outline or treatment by Fulci. Fulci was a very good director, but he was also a bungler. He earned a lot of money in his life, but he was always scrambling for more. He used to sell the same idea, two or three times, to different producers. A doppia faccia was filmed a year later than Deborah.
Did you ever work with Fulci again?
We worked together many times on thriller stories, but none were ever filmed, for various reasons. One of his films, Sette note in nero [THE PSYCHIC, 1980] was based on an idea of mine, but I did not write the script.
We spoke for the last time a couple of years ago, and during the course of our chat, I came up with a pretty good thriller idea. "Personal Hell" was the title. We published the story in a Florentine newspaper to protect it against thieves, but it was never made. Fulci was not in good health, and he was in terrible financial straits. Three months after my story was published, Walter Brandi and I found ourselves in his neighborhood and we decided to visit him. We went in, and the doorman told us that Lucio had sold his apartment furniture and disappeared... but the furniture had not been his to sell—it was owned by the man whose flat Lucio was renting! A short time later, I read in the newspaper that he died. After Fulci’s death, I met another screenwriter who told me that Fulci had tried to involve him in a project called "Personal Inferno"... yes, it was my story!
Your most successful thrillers of the 1970s were directed by Sergio Martino, the brother of Luciano Martino. You were there first, but I suppose the success of Dario Argento’s L’uccello dalle piume del cristallo [US: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, 1970] helped to make the Martino thrillers possible.
Argento’s thrillers are very different from yours, because your scripts are always so ironical and well-planned. You never include lapses of logic or false information. It’s a pity that you never wrote for Argento—what a great thriller that would have been!
I’ve never met Dario Argento. When Goffredo Lombardo of Titanus produced Argento’s first film, he told me: "Look, this movie opens with a great idea of mine!," and he proceeded to act out two hands writing a note on an old typewriter: "I must remember to kill someone... at 9:00 pm." I laughed—but Lombardo was dead serious!
When I saw the film, I thought it was well-made, but I dislike thrillers when they are based on tricks. In THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, there is a witness who says for a hour, "It seems to me that I forgot an important detail..." At the end, he remembers what he has forgotten: he saw a woman trying to kill a man, not a man trying to kill a woman, as he’s been testifying through the whole film! So I never really cared too much for Argento’s movies.
One of the most striking things about the Martino thrillers was their titles: Tutti i colori del buio ["All the Colors of Darkness," THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU!], I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale ["The Corpses Bear Traces of Carnal Violence," TORSO], etc. I once read somewhere that you took the title of Tutti i colori nel buio from a story in the Italian science fiction magazine URANIA, written by "Lloyd Biggle." You aren’t "Lloyd Biggle," are you?
No, I didn’t write that story; I just took the title. However, I did once write a story for URANIA called "Iperbole infinità" ["Infinite Hyperbole"], which I signed as "Julian Berry."
Are there any interesting stories behind any of the other Martino titles?
I don’t know; the other titles were all chosen by Luciano Martino or Carlo Ponti. It was the style of the time to use long titles exploiting beautiful women, because sex and violence were the key ingredients: Libido, Il dolce corpo di Deborah, Cosi’ dolce... cosi’ perversa [SO SWEET, SO PERVERSE], etc. This sort of title attracted people, and still does.
There aren’t any screenwriting credits at all in DAY OF THE MANIAC, the English-language version of Tutti i colore nel buio. As prolific as you are, the mind boggles at what screen credits we don’t know about!
I wrote another thriller for Sergio Martino you didn’t mention: Il tuo vizio e’ una stanza chiusa ed io solo ne ho la chiave ("Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key")...
GENTLY BEFORE SHE DIES?
Yes. I wrote that script alone and I have a contract to prove it!
On Italian prints of Tutti i colore nel buio, you share screenplay credit with Santiago Moncada. Moncada wrote some wonderful thrillers, including Bava’s Il rosso segno della follia [HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, 1969] and Juan Antonio Bardem’s THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (1971). Did you really write with Moncada, or is this another instance of co-production quota appeasement?
All of the thrillers I wrote, I wrote alone. The other names you find among the credits were put there only for co-production reasons. Sometimes, producers had a few pages of a story, written by people whom they had asked for ideas. It was always a weak idea, so I usually changed it completely while writing the treatment and script. The producers often asked me if I had a problem with these first collaborators also being credited, and I always answered "No." In those days, contracts were by "forfeit" without any percentage, so I accepted. Now I know I was wrong, because many television stations are starting to pay for the use of films.
Almost all of the Martino thrillers starred Edwige Fenech, who was, and still is, a very beautiful woman. She made quite an impression in these movies. It was rumored that she had a romantic relationship with Luciano Martino.
There was a deep and long relationship between them. Luciano was married at the time, but his marriage was unhappy. He had an affair with Edwige for ten years. Edwige wanted to marry Luciano, but he didn’t want to marry her. Luciano was, and is, a Southerner (from Naples) and he liked being Edwige’s lover—most Italian people envied him!—but he didn’t want to be her husband, because then most Italian people would have regarded him as a cuckold. When their relationship ended, Luciano suffered a lot. Edwige fell in love almost immediately with a young doctor, and some months later with the Duke Luca di Montezemolo, who was related to the Agnelli family. Of course, Italian people gossiped that Edwige had become the lover of Gianni Agnelli—the owner of Fiat!
I don’t know Edwige very well. She’s great, but somehow unattractive to me; I never understood why. She’s played roles in a lot of my scripts, but I’ve spoken with her maybe three times. On these thrillers, my work was only with Luciano, and sometimes with Sergio, when he asked for little changes. But when the script was good for Luciano and me, it was good for everybody.
George Hilton was usually the male lead in these films, but he’s not a very interesting leading man. Why did he appear in them so often? Was there an attempt to use the same actors again and again, to identify the films as a series?
George Hilton is a cousin of Luciano Martino. At that time, if a film made money, Roman producers liked to make the same type of picture again with the same cast. There is a saying: "Squadra che vince non si tocca!"—in other words, "If the team wins, don’t change it!" This is the principal reason; nobody was regarding the films as a series.
Is George Hilton his real name, or is it Giorgio Martino or something like that?
I think George Hilton is his real name, because he always introduces himself that way.
One of the Martino thrillers that you wrote—La coda dello scorpione [THE CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL]—stars George Hilton, but not Fenech. Why wasn’t she cast in the film?
I think Edwige was acting in a sex-comedy at the time it was being made.
How would you rate the Martino thrillers?
I haven’t seen them in twenty years, but I remember that I was never quite satisfied by them, because I didn’t like the actors very much and the production level was often inadequate. But I knew that Martino had to obey the market laws and couldn’t spend too much money. More to my liking was Il dolce corpo di Deborah with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Carroll Baker, maybe because it was my first thriller after the very small Libido; I also liked the two actors. At the time that film was made, I was teaching the art of screenwriting to Sergio Martino, but he eventually became a production manager, and finally a director.
When I was watching Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh [NEXT! aka BLADE OF THE RIPPER] the other night, I couldn’t help wondering if the part of Edwige’s girlfriend was written with your wife Mara in mind, because the actress played the role like a dizzy blonde, much like the character Mara created in Libido. Was this your intention?
I don’t really remember. Mara and I made a deal when we married: she would act only if I was the director, and I would direct only if she was the female lead. I have turned down a lot of offers because of that pact, and Mara once refused an offer from Roger Vadim to star in one of his films, after Brigitte Bardot left him. DeLaurentiis even offered Mara a signed contract that left her free to write-in the amount of the money she wished. But Mara said "No." A month later, Vadim cast Catherine Deneuve!
Tell me about another thriller you wrote for Sergio Martino called Morte sospetta di una minorene (1975)? It was never released in America, and took a different direction than your earlier Martino thrillers—more plot and dialogue, less violence and nudity. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to "tame" the more extreme elements of the earlier thrillers?
No. Carlo Ponti, the producer, trusted me and accepted the script as I wished to write it. I’m more interested in plot than in the extreme elements. Usually, producers asked for extreme elements, hoping they would make a film more profitable, and as a screenwriter, I did as I was asked.
Do you have any anecdotes about the Martino thrillers?
I once saw one of these movies as it was being edited. I saw a villain jump into a car, point his gun against the belly of the driver, and say, "Drive, or I’ll blow your brains out!" I laughed, and Luciano told me that was the correct line. Of course it was—but the gun should have been pointed a little higher..!
Another time, a script had an overcomplicated plot and Luciano asked to me to write a scene to clarify matters. I invented a character named "Martinez" and wrote a scene in which this Martinez was always asking for explanations. The other characters answered him by saying, "Martinez ma non capisci mai un cazzo, è così..." ("Martinez, you don’t understand anything, now read my lips....")!
You wrote another thriller starring Fenech and Hilton—Perche quella strano gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer [WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD ON JENNIFER’S BODY?]—but it was unique in being directed by Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carmineo) rather than Sergio Martino. Was Martino supposed to direct it?
No. After I had written La decima vittima for Ponti, he asked me to write this thriller.
You had worked earlier with Carnimeo on the Sartana films. Did you have anything to do with choosing him as the film's director?
No. Carmineo was also an old classmate from movie school. After I had written the script, Ponti called him in to direct it.
What was your opinion of Carmineo as a director? Perche quella strano gocce... was the only thriller he ever directed, and I think he did a fine job.
Giuliano Carmineo is a very good director, but he never had any luck. It wasn’t that he deliberately avoided anything, it’s just that no one ever asked him to direct another thriller.
He managed to make some good, amusing Westerns, because after Sergio Leone’s Westerns, all the producers in Rome wanted Westerns. I remember trying to convince Ponti, Rizzoli, Lombardo and lots of other producers to finance my own version of BACK TO THE FUTURE. They listened to me carefully, and at the end, they always said: "Good idea, but now, why don’t you write another wonderful Western like Arizona Colt? I’ll pay you twice as much—anything you want!"
You wrote a number of "Spaghetti Westerns" in the ’60s and ’70s. With your background, how did you get involved in these?
As I mentioned earlier, Peppo Sacchi and I made the first real Italian Western, Cowboy Story, back in 1954. When I started writing professionally, I used to say to Ugo Guerra, Rodolfo Sonego, and other screenwriters, and also to producers: "Why we don’t make a Western?" Everybody laughed, because Italians could copy everything except Westerns! Suddenly, just before Sergio Leone made his first Western, an Italian Western (with an American title) was shown in our theaters. People liked it, probably because no one realized that it wasn’t American! And then, after Per un pugno di dollari [A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, 1964], all Italian producers began to make Westerns. I think my first Western script was Arizona Colt, starring Giuliano Gemma under the pseudonym "Montgomery Wood."
Did these films require much historical research?
No research was necessary! Like everyone else in the world, I had seen thousands of American Westerns. I simply had to copy the atmosphere: if American Westerns had been fake, I would have been fake too! Only when I started to work with Sergio Leone did I begin to read history books about the Old West, to see original photographs from the Civil War, and so on; only then did I discover that the real West was completely different to the way it was portrayed in American movies! After that, I began to inject more reality and fewer stereotypes into my Western scripts.
I’ve never asked this question of anyone who was active in making such films, but what do you think of the phrase itself?
"Spaghetti Western?" I think it’s the correct name for the Italian Westerns that copied the ones from America, trying to be similar; but I think it’s wrong to apply this name to the Italian Westerns that changed the way movies were made about the Old West. After Leone’s movies, American Westerns changed a lot, became more realistic.
You scripted a couple of Westerns that Sergio Leone produced: Un genio, due compari, un pollo (1975), directed by Damiano Damiani, and Mio nome e Nessuro [MY NAME IS NOBODY, also 1975], directed by your old friend Tonino Valerii. Only the latter film was released in America.
It may have been the first movie that was filmed precisely as I had written it. Tonino Valerii was afraid of being criticized by Sergio, so he filmed my pages—shot-by-shot—exactly as they were written!
Considering his past legacy of work, was it a great thrill for you to see your character of Jack Beauregard played by Henry Fonda?
Of course, I had a great emotion to see Henry Fonda saying my lines! For my generation, he was the best! Unfortunately, though, I never met him. Terence Hill (Mario Girotti) told me that Fonda was a quiet man, very nice and helpful, who told Tonino Valerii to direct him as though he was an unknown actor. I like MY NAME IS NOBODY very much, except for one sequence added by Leone, which I thought was unnecessary.
Which scene displeased you?
There is a vulgar, useless scene in which Terence Hill sings a stupid popular song in a street of the village. Leone added the scene only to make clear that this film wasn’t one of the important serious films he had directed, because it was beginning to look every day, more and more, like it was going to be a very good Western indeed—maybe even better that his Westerns! And he couldn’t bear it! After awhile, he began to change his strategy, telling people that he had been the real director!
I realize this is an enormous question, but could you talk a bit about your personal and professional relationship with Leone?
When I met Sergio for the first time, I was a conceited ass and I butted horns with him almost immediately. He used to humiliate people. Arguing about a scene of mine, he said to me, "Questa è una scena da serie C!" ("This is a scene from a low-budget movie!") I had a formidable strong voice, and I shouted, "Tu chi credi di essere? In serie A c’è Fellini, tu sei in serie B e ancora non hai vinto il campionato!" ("Who do you think you are? Fellini is in the front rank, while you are playing in the minor leagues and have yet to win your first championship!") I stormed out, slamming the door. Twenty days later, Sergio phoned me, as though we had left each other only the day before, saying that maybe I wasn’t completely wrong about that scene.
I loved Sergio and I miss him enormously. He was an uncultured genius, a son-of-a-bitch, but I loved him. I worked with him very well, feeling that we were building something good together. It was a very exciting feeling. I refused to continue writing C’era una volta l'America [ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA], because he wanted our collaboration to be like a marriage, without any free time for a personal life, but we remained friends. Sergio was a big son-of-a-bitch, but he was also a genius, and I’ll always prefer a son-of-a-bitch genius to a nice mediocrity.
Wait a minute: You’re telling me that you also worked on ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA? [The screenplay is credited to Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli and Franco Ferrini.]
I wrote the original treatment. Things went this way: while I was writing Un genio, due compari, un pollo with Sergio, he gave me a little book to read, a thriller. This became the core of the movie. I liked this book very, very much; it was the autobiography of a very old mob killer, who retired in the early 1930s. Two weeks later, Sergio introduced me to a quiet old man with blue eyes, who looked rather like Frank Sinatra looks today. He was the author of the book, which was co-written by his wife. He told us that he killed 29 people in the late 1920s in New York, always using a razor. He asked if we thought he was a bad person; we didn’t answer. He explained that he killed only other gangsters, who understood the ground rules; he had contempt for murderers who would kill women and children, or anybody, for as little as 100 dollars. He received $25,000 for every murder—and I’m talking about 1920’s dollars!
His book told the story of how, in those days, he had called the police to rescue one of his dearest friends, who was being driven mad by syphilis, in an effort to prevent him from committing suicide during a planned robbery. But the Police killed his friend and his comrades. The killer fled New York and went to Florida, where he married a young teacher and had many sons. He lived his whole life without troubles, until one morning when the phone rang: it was the Mafia. Someone told him that he had to come back to New York to repay his old debt. The old killer had to obey. He returned to NY and the Mafia ordered to him to kill a United States Senator. They needed to avoid political suspects about this murder, so the old mob killer would be a good "alibi." The old killer killed the senator, but afterwards he escaped and pretended to kill himself by driving his car into Hudson River.
My treatment began this way: An old killer is escaping, followed by police cars, and falls into the river. The camera follows him as he plummets underwater, leaving him as he drowns to dwell on the wrecks lining the river bottom: modern sportscars slowly dissolve into antiquities. When the camera emerges from the river, we are back in the New York of the 1930s. My story was very similar to what you see onscreen, but with an important difference: the killer’s friend really did die in 1930, and the Senator was a stranger to our killer. If you watch the film closely, you can catch many scenes that are correct in the context of my original plot, but which are wrong in the context of the movie’s plot: the film begins with many people killed by the Mafia, who were trying to kill DeNiro, but in the movie plot that is completely absurd. The killer’s friend, a little Mafia boss, saved DeNiro while he was pretending to be dead! Why then, do they try to kill him immediately afterwards? Also, is it plausible that a U.S. Senator is a gangster who everyone thinks died 50 years ago?
Leone didn’t know how to finish the film. He ended up using a close-up of DeNiro, smoking opium—a shot that was filmed to be used in the middle of the movie!
At the time of Sergio’s death, I was writing another film with him called Un Posto che solo Mary conosce ("A Place That Only Mary Knows").
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA reminds me that the biggest cinematic trend to emerge in Italy after the Westerns were the crime pictures of the ’70s and ’80s. You also wrote a number of these. Can you tell me a bit about the characteristics of Italian crime/action pictures, as opposed to American crime/action pictures? Also, which of your own crime pictures were most successful in your opinion, and why?
I liked very much Milano trema: la Polizia vuole giustizia [VIOLENT PROFESSIONALS, 1973], directed by Sergio Martino. We were living in bad times in the 1970s, because of terrorism. I wrote that script for free. My idea. The first draft was somewhat more political, but Goffredo Lombardo of Titanus refused to distribute it. Luciano Martino was also afraid of it and proposed to me that I share his risk, accepting to be paid only with a percentage. I accepted. I’ve never made more money than with Milano trema! In that film, and afterwards in many others, we put violence and irony together. Real fear trying to smile.
I saw something like that in PULP FICTION—Tarantino is a master! I think irony is a very Italian way of coping with a rough reality.
In 1981, you returned to directing with a very unusual project. A sequel-of-sorts to Libido...
Yes. "Notturno con grida" (Nocturne of Screams), again with Mara Maryl and Luciano Pigozzi!
This film was never released in America. How did you continue the story? How did Pigozzi’s character survive being pushed into the sea?
Oh, it wasn’t an exact continuation of Libido! It was just a joke to use some of the same actors and the same characters. We used some scenes from Libido as flashbacks, but we used them as flashbacks to a different story. The story was similar, yet at the same time, completely new. If you remember Libido, all the characters died! Christian (Giannini) fell off the cliff, as did Pigozzi; Eileen (Dominique Boschero) was shot by Brigitte (Mara), and Brigitte, we can presume, died while tied on the bed in the mirrored room!
I’ve heard that the filming of Notturno con grida was made possible by an Italian law called "Articolo 28." Could you explain this?
"Articolo 28" was a part of an old Cinema Law that allowed cooperatives of authors to produce small films with public money. There was a committee that read scripts and decided "Yes" or "No." If they said "Yes," you had to go to a bank and explain your budget. Another committee decided how much money you would be given. If the films turned out to be flops, they were given to the CSC and the filmmakers were no longer indebted. Ninety to one hundred per cent of these films made no money, but Notturno con grida was sold to all world markets and repaid its debt.
Also, I noticed that many of your family members worked on this film, behind the scenes.
To lower the budget, it helps to have workers that don’t need to be paid: wives, sons, brothers, sisters, parents, friends...
Were all of your children educated in cinema?
None of my sons were educated in cinema. Unfortunately, one of them died in 1989 when he was 23 years old. Amarilli, my daughter, has three children, but she is interested in fashion and furniture and helps me sometimes. Sciltian, my youngest son, is now 22 and studying political science. (When he was 11, he played a character in THE END OF ETERNITY.)
According to your filmography, it seems that you wrote no screenplays between 1990 and 1993. Were you concentrating on writing books during this period?
Yes, but not by choice. There was, and still is, a deep crisis in our "non-artistic" Italian cinema. During that period, I spent my summers in the United States, learning English and travelling. I wrote a book about my travels, but my publisher [Mondadori] said that there were too many books about the United States being published during in that period, so it never came out. In 1990 and 1991, I worked on L’uovo del cuculo, not only as screenwriter, but also as director and producer. I filmed it in Bucarest in November 1992.
The Italian cinema is suffering at the moment, but why is it suffering?
In 1978, when my dear friend Peppo Sacchi won his trial in Brussels against the public television monopoly, I said that our cinema was coming to an end. We never had a very strong industry; our producers were better gamblers than businessmen. At this time, an incredible number of TV stations started showing films without paying for them. We were flooded with free movies, and of course, no one will spend money on what they can have for free.
After a few years, after all the Italian movies had been shown on television, many of the stations failed and a private monopoly was formed by Berlusconi. Then there began a race between the public and private monopolies to buy up all the American films, soap operas and sitcoms. This left our production rate near zero. Our films were no longer being dubbed in the US; instead, we dubbed all of your productions. There used to be a tax on dubbing, so that the money earned in Italy by American distributors also had to be spent here. Our government was corrupted—I don’t know by whom (your guess is as good as mine)—and this dubbing tax eventually disappeared, along with the rules. We used to make 300 films per year, but this diminished to only 60 or 70 per year, most of them Articolo 28s... usually shit. The great old producers died or retired, and the new ones didn’t like to take risks, going to public or private television with their projects and asking for money. If someone gave them, for instance, 3 million lire, they made a film for 2.5 million. They didn’t care about the quality.
In the late 1980s, there was an attempt by Berlusconi’s TV to destroy independent producers. Berlusconi started to pay people three times, four times, even ten times more than the usual rate. No one else could compete. (Salerno and I were paid a billion lire for a script about Stradivarius!) Then he left Rome and the Italian cinema; I don’t know why. Maybe we’ll find out in the near future, because there is a big trial coming up against him, involving dirty money and other such things.
What is it like today for professionals like yourself, trying to make movies in Italy?
Today, it’s very difficult to sell scripts in Italy, and when you do sell them, the money is ridiculous. Because of this, I am trying to enter the American market. You don’t have anything like Articolo 28 in America yet, but there is a new law that grants money to filmmakers, partially free. Whereas my colleagues and I were once paid as much as two billion lire for our projects, it’s now difficult to find even 600-700,000 lire to film anything.
Ernesto, you have written in almost every possible kind of film genre—horror, historical costume drama, thriller, Western, crime/action, etc. Which genre is the most difficult to write, and why?
None is more difficult than another. All stories are about men and women: all the rest is scenography. If you dress your characters in Stetsons and guns, you have a Western; if you put them in peplums, you have an historical drama; if you tell a story about secrets, you have a thriller; if you show the nightmares of your characters, you have a horror film, and so on. The differences are made by the people you work with. Some directors, producers and actors are exciting, others are boring.
As one of Italy’s outstanding screenwriters of horror films, what are your opinions of the genre’s current condition?
I don’t like modern horror films. Too much blood, too many special effects, bad taste and an almost complete lack of plot. I think they are very similar to pornos.
You’ve been active in writing all kinds of movies from the 1950s to the 1990s. As the millennium looms closer, what kind of things are you most interested in writing now, in 1997?
I’m writing a very serious, boring book about young people: as I see them. In terms of scripts, I have written a comedy—a kind of fairy tale—but nobody wants to produce it. My most recent work, which will begin shooting in May, is called CRIME VS. CRIME. The director will be Aldo Florio, an old friend of mine who helped me 40 years ago, when I first came to Rome. The best-known movie he directed was Una vita venduta (1976).
Thinking about your question, it’s funny... I have always told producers what I would like to write, and they have always paid me to write something—anything—else. I fought during the ’60s and ’70s to convince them to make science fiction films, and they paid me to write about vampires, werewolves and serial killers. Looking back, I see that I’ve written only a small number of movies according to my own ideas: I giganti di Roma, Libido, Il dolce corpo di Deborah, Milano trema, Cin... Cin... Cianuro!, La pupa del gangster, Il Mio nome e Nessuno, Stradivari and a few others. In my opinion, the best scripts I wrote were never filmed.home versione italiana (ridotta) torna alle "Interviste"