The controversial 1979 film will soon be premiering in a new 4K remaster, re-edited and incorporating “lost” takes to restore the film to Vidal’s and Brass’ intended vision.
1979’s Caligula was a film I had sadly overlooked for the majority of my life, it wasn’t until I was digging through the filmography of Tinto Brass thanks to a viewing of Salon Kitty, that I finally gave the film a chance I had passed over so many times in my video store days. Like most, the generic Penthouse film’s cover, emblazoned with a bloody coin made me curious — but I never rented it. I had heard it was a bit of a production nightmare, that combined with its “porn film” status kept me at bay. I will say once I fell down the Tinto Brass rabbit hole, my reluctance turned into more of a morbid curiosity and fascination with the film and what could have been.
Long story short, Penthouse as an entity had already funded such films as Chinatown, The Longest Yard and The Day of the Locust. Penthouse founder Bob Guccione had always wanted to make a film with mainstream Hollywood production values, that had a narrative which seamlessly employed explicit sex scenes throughout. Guccione had also decided the story of the notorious Roman Emperor Caligula seemed like a good fit for this approach. Gore Vidal was tapped to pen the script and Italian auteur Tinto Brass hired as director for the film which starred not only a young Malcolm McDowell, but Peter O’Toole, Teresa Ann Savoy and Helen Mirren. The film was one of the most expensive of its time clocking in at 20 million with elaborate surrealist sets and costumes by Danilo Donati.
At the conclusion of filming, Brass had reportedly shot enough footage to “make the original version of Ben-Hur about 50 times over” and when it came time to cull that raw material into the final product is when the trouble began. After Brass had edited about an hour of the film, he was locked out of the edit bay and his cut was completely disassembled. Guccione then hired a crew of editors and shot some spicier sex scenes to insert into the film, completely changing the tone form a dramatic tragedy into a garish spectacle which caused Vidal and Brass to disown the film. The film of course was negatively reviewed and it became an oddity on video store shelves where it languished for decades in Guccione’s inferior version.
When I caught up with the film what struck me most was there was so much potential on screen with all these great actors whose performances were all over the place in a film that had random sex scenes shoehorned in. The more I read the more it made sense about how that final product came to be, but it also made me curious as to what could have been. Well thanks to Thomas Negovan, we wont have to wonder much longer. After a long gestation he dropped the trailer for a new cut of Caligula title Caligula MMXX, using the Vidal script and the mountains of unused footage, now mastered in 4K to create a film closer to the tone of the original script and director’s intention.
For those like myself that have fallen down this rabbit hole, this is nothing short of a miracle and I immediately tracked down Tom from that trailer to pick his brain about the project and what we can expect from this new version of Caligula. If you’re curious about this project this is an interview you’re going to want to read, informative as it is heart breaking.
A lot of people have sort of written Caligula off as this porn film, what was the moment for you when you realized it was much more than that?
Thomas Negovan: When I was younger, even though I was a huge Malcolm McDowell fan I had no interest in the movie because of all the terrible things I’d heard about it – including Malcolm himself warning viewers away. I think conceptually I understood that it wasn’t intended to be this porn film, because I had read things where Malcolm said that he believed they’d made a good film but what was released was a complete betrayal. When I took the job, my expectations were extremely low and I thought I’d be just providing a service by helping more footage get out into the world, but as I started watching the raw takes, I was floored because the performances selected for the movie were never the best ones.
In the 1980 release, Malcolm just sort of flits about histrionically when in reality what he did on set was genuinely compelling. You see hints of it in the 1980 version, but there was a solid character arc developed and his instincts as an actor are visibly present. Once I saw those fragments, I understood what he meant, and devoted my focus to pulling back the curtain and showing what a truly brilliant performance he delivered on set back in 1976. I remember when I started to tell people, “No, you don’t understand… (still incredulous myself, as I said it…) this is a legitimately good movie.”
How did the project even begin, what sort of drove you to attempt to fix this film and what has that process entailed?
How did you gain access to the raw footage?
Thomas Negovan: A friend of mine works for Penthouse Global Licensing, it’s a division that handles the legacy materials. Penthouse has changed hands a number of times over the past decade, and it’s finally with a solid owner now. One of the things that was in the basket of rights and assets was Caligula. They weren’t quite sure what to do with it, and he asked me if I would take a look and tell him what I thought.
When I looked at the materials, I felt like I had walked into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the time, I wasn’t sure what was all there, but it turned out to be all the original camera negatives, all the location audio, and mountains of documentation and paperwork, including nearly 11,000 gorgeous and fascinating photographs taken behind the scenes by Mario Tursi. I told them that all of this was historically significant, and that it was worth their time to make sure it was preserved. They asked me to help put that into motion.
I know the project was announced some time ago, what was behind the delay?
Thomas Negovan: There are a couple facets to this, one is that it was important to read and listen to every interview we could find with the principal creators both about this specific film, but also their method of creating. I read all the Gore Vidal autobiographies, for example, and Tinto’s early films. I studied Bob Guccione to understand his process and his relationship to art and marketing, I must have read thirty books on sexually-themed cinema in the 1970s.
I also studied Caligula as a historical figure, I wanted to understand the world I was stepping into as though I was a well-prepared producer intimate with the subject matter and who had close relationships with the creators. It also took a long time to watch over ninety hours of footage so many times, and the ways that the footage was shot made fitting everything together really complicated so it was like a puzzle- the performances rarely lined up, and the movie was shot by three cameras all next to each other, so there were no alternate angles to cut to. It took a long time, and I have to credit my editor Aaron with having the patience to do the heavy lifting in sorting the footage and showing me what our options were.
I found the trailer impressive in that you state that you’re using almost all alternative takes, what was the most surprising thing you’ve encountered in this process?
Thomas Negovan: It was clear that no one who edited this back in 1980 was really looking for a sensitive performance, I think there were just too many hands in the mix and none of them were really given creative liberty. Most importantly, none of them had the intimacy with the movie that Tinto did, and Bob Guccione I think only knew what he wanted in the broadest sense. So I can’t fault any of the editors back then, I think it was just a mess from day one. The pleasant surprise was that at the very least, a performance that we found was as good as what was seen in 1980, but in nearly every case there was a superior take.
For Malcolm, especially. It didn’t appear that he was getting any direction on set, so he was trying a lot of different things, and what they used wasn’t what I would have chosen. I know I said it earlier, and I also know that if I were him the last thing in the world that I’d ever want to think about was the movie Caligula, but he really did a spectacular job navigating the complete mess of egos on set and built a really compelling character. There are takes of his in this that match or exceed anything I’ve ever seen him do, he was in his prime and it shows. I was a fan before, I’m even more so now.
How do you feel about the editing process after coming into a project like this, they say a film is made in the edit and I think you’re probably very aware of that at this point?
Thomas Negovan: I’ve heard that, and this experience drove that point home. I think that if Tinto had made his version back in 1976, it would be as well-known as Salon Kitty. I think that Bob’s edit failed as a narrative film but succeeded as a spectacle, that’s why we are still talking about it four decades later. But I think that there was an opportunity for an edit in which the performers are respected, and that’s the one that we put together.
I viewed my role as having a time machine and being an arbitrator between the three unreasonable egos clashing over the bleeding corpse of this film, I took the best of what everyone offered and applied it, so it’s definitely their film, but it’s the film that would have been made if they’d found a way to work together and pull in the same direction.
You’re also adding CGI, what is sort of the barometer when making these kinds of decisions that maybe you might be going in too much of your own directions rather than the original filmmakers?
Thomas Negovan: I was very clear with myself that this was not my movie. I didn’t write it, I didn’t direct it, I wasn’t there. My task was to facilitate the visions of the original departments as if it were a smooth production. So the only thing we did was use technology to bring out the best of what could have happened in 1976.
On the CGI you ask about: Danilo Donati was brilliant, and a complete nut job. He made sets for the movie that weren’t in the script, including ones they didn’t even shoot on. They were expensive and lavish, and hundreds of people slaved away on tiny details like using a feather to paint styrofoam to look like marble. But in addition to his crazy visions of a nearly-psychedelic Rome, there were a lot of problems with cash flow and the set decorators were still painting while the performers were rehearsing. In the final moments, curtains were hung and plywood walls assembled and painted so they could film. Those are the places where we digitally extended the sets: it was always in keeping with Donati’s designs, and only to finish what he himself would have done if he had just a few more weeks.
It’s not a revisionist history, it’s respectful of the performers and the audience to take the parts that look like a high school play and make it match the parts of the set that were completed as Donati envisioned. For the transition to Capri, we drew the shoreline as it looked from the real Tiberius’s villa; in other scenes, Donati painted elaborate backdrops and would never have just hung a pink curtain to represent a landscape, so we were keeping in line with both the rest of this film, but also the set designs he’d made for other films. I am a fan of Danilo Donati, and wanted the audience to see what he intended for them to see.
The film was famously taken from its original director, have you been in contact with the Brass family at all? I know there was talks of a re-edit while he was still alive?
Thomas Negovan: The very first email I sent after accepting the job was to reach out to Tinto and ask him to be involved. I tried reaching him a number of ways — including fax — and was told over a year later that they’d been received by his wife but dismissed. I was in contact with her after that, she was open to the idea but I had been told — and later learned from a documentary on him — that he had dementia. I asked if I could speak directly with Tinto, and the answer was no, so that’s where that stalled; I couldn’t encourage the rights holder to send money to someone who couldn’t get on a phone call. I suspect that it’s partially his health, but also likely that it’s just a terrible sore spot for everyone involved.
The biggest thing that I learned in this process was how absolutely horrible everyone had been to each other on the original production, and that nearly everyone I’ve spoken to viewed anyone bringing Caligula into their eyesight with decades of venom and misery. I was excited to reach out to people before I understood how traumatic it had been for them. After multiple emails, for example,I left a voice message on Malcolm’s manager’s phone stressing to him that everyone who’d wronged Malcolm was dead and that this was a production Malcolm could be involved in and have input in, but I never got a response. The more I got into turning over the rocks of what the original production had been like, I don’t blame Tinto or Malcolm one bit. I did get some valuable insights from people who were on the set, but not the principal actors or creatives.
For us on the sidelines, this is an exciting old movie, but for the people involved there were real, human experiences that were in nearly all cases extremely and brutally unpleasant. I think that people like Helen Mirren and Peter O’Toole knew what they were stepping into and just treated it like a gig, but for Tinto and Malcolm, who really put their soul into it, they were tied to the mast of the ship while someone else drove them into a hailstorm, what happened to them is pretty unforgivable. I don’t expect either of them to want to revisit it, but for the rest of us I’ve done my best to honor and preserve these fragments and weave them together into a strange, beautiful film.
What kind of release do you have planned for the final film? Will folks have a chance to see this in a theater?
Does Severin have the disc rights? I know they’ve been teasing it on their twitter feed.
Thomas Negovan: No rights have been assigned, I am personally a fan of Severin’s output and own many of their discs but have never spoken with anyone from the company. We do have a couple things nearing closure and I hope that the premiere date will be announced soon. The intention is to show at festivals and then a limited theatrical run before physical media, I think this is a movie that will be a fantastic big-screen spectacle that will be fun to watch in a crowd. It’s just as bizarre as the original with its anachronistic inventions and wild, colorful mayhem, and yes, the scene everyone asks me about is still included, but it all works because there is a strong narrative present now, with setups and payoffs.
One example: at Tiberius’s funeral (spoiler, Tiberius dies) Caligula says to Drusilla, “It’s just like my dream…” but we don’t know what that means. In our version, you get to see that dream, it’s a nightmare that prefaces Caligula waking up and saying “He’s going to kill me!” For some reason, Tinto never filmed it, but we recreated it as an opening sequence animated by Dave McKean that follows the script. It’s in keeping with the 1970s aesthetic, and sets up the movie so that we know from the first moment why Caligula is shocked when he wakes up, and why he’s so nervous when Tiberius summons him to Capri… that’s just one of a great many narrative moments.
Another one that comes to mind is a conversation between Caesonia (Helen Mirren) and Caligula, in which it’s revealed that he’s not some twitchy madman at all, there’s a clear arc where Caligula moves from being a scared young man to a man with infinite power- but no discipline with which to wield it. As Gore Vidal said, he wanted to pose the idea that frustrated children eventually break their toys, so what would happen if those toys were the people of Rome? By the end, you actually feel badly for Caligula, there’s a real Joseph Campbell moment at the end where Caligula touches the stations of office in the Senate and gets a tear in his eye. He knows his story is finished. We were able to lay the film out in a way that’s metaphysical in that sense.
Huge thanks to Thomas Negovan for sharing so much insight into this ambitious project, and for answering our questions!