FANTASTIC FEST 2023: CALIGULA: THE ULTIMATE CUT – A RED Carpet Q&A with Malcolm McDowell and Producer Thomas Negovan

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

When it comes to most quote, unquote “bad” films, performances or the film itself are sometimes reappraised over time. Malcolm McDowell is experiencing what no actor before him has however in this scenario. Not only is a film he’s spent his whole career stating was terrible, Caligula, getting a vast re-edit utilizing only alternate takes, but McDowell’s rumored “lost” performance as the mad Roman emperor, which was left on the cutting room floor four decades ago is being reinstated. Notoriously the original director Tinto Brass was locked out of the edit after production and plot was discarded altogether for new hardcore footage that was shot to insert into the film to appease its producer Bob Guccione, owner of Penthouse. It speaks volumes that the icon is not only speaking out on behalf of the edit, (he was able to, because the film was an indie film completed 40 some years before the strike date) but also attempting to set some of the controversies around the film straight himself. 

The new cut, dubbed Caligula: The Ultimate Cut, is the film filmgoers were promised and McDowell’s performance is indeed one of his best. (Read my Review here) I caught the film at its US Premiere in Austin, Texas at Fantastic Fest and I was lucky enough to not only chat with the star on the red carpet beforehand, but sat a row away from McDowell after the fact who sat through the entire film getting to see it again on the big screen for the first time. What was simply supposed to be a red carpet interview had Malcolm McDowell taking a much deserved victory lap with journalists and holding nothing back. There was an air of vindication from McDowell who was in top form, which probably has to do with in his own words when someone asked him later what he thought of the film – with a wry smile he said, “Well, Caligula is a proper film now.”

You stand on the verge of all of this, how does it feel to, to actually get to see what should have been a much better movie than it originally was?

Malcolm McDowell: It’s a little overwhelming. I really hated being connected with this film for so long, nearly half a century. And then random guy off the street, takes 90 hours of unlooked at negative, spends three years of his life putting it together, brilliantly, I might add; except for one or two spots. (Laughs)

I know the performance I gave, it was never seen. I know the performance Helen gave and it was never seen. I think she’s now in 45 minutes of the movie instead of 12 or whatever it was, because, you know, Guccione only put in all this porn. So of course most of the end scenes (from the film), I’d say the last 45 minutes or something like that, was never seen by me or the public. I’d even forgotten that I’d shot them, actually. When I first saw it, I went, “oh yeah, I wonder what happened to that”? So, I have a great debt to pay to this man (points at Thomas Negovan) who, I don’t think they paid him enough, to be honest.

The film is saved, I mean, how many actors can refind a performance after 47 years? That is the first time I would bet in movie history that’s ever happened. 

So you’re a fan of this new cut? 

Malcolm McDowell: Well, I watched it because I was called by someone I trust who said, “you better watch this!” I went “I really don’t want to”. He goes, “no, no, no, no, no, no! You don’t understand, this showed at Cannes and it was written about in the Guardian newspaper, very favorably, where they compare it to one of your best performances”. I went, that’s such nonsense, there they go again, idiot critics, you know, they don’t know.

They wouldn’t know an actor if they fell over him, but, that’s what actors think. Anyway. 

So, I watched it on my iPad and I thought, oh God, here we go again. You know? And the first half is roughly the same. I mean, it’s basically the same story. And, then I really started to see that they changed the music. I think the music is so much better. It’s fantastic. And also the look, even on an iPad!  I thought it was very dark when I first saw it. But, they lightened it up, it really looked sparkling, and you really saw Danilo Donati’s sets, you know, which are quite extraordinary.

Was there a particular moment rewatching the film when you realized this is a completely different film? 

Malcolm McDowell: I think when I said (gets in character of Caligula, pose and all), “take my horse to his own room!”  I mean, who would say a line like that? (laughs) Being in bed with your horse! There were a few things that made me laugh out loud. 

But, I can’t explain, what a sort of burden this thing was. I remember at the time, I managed to see the movie, and all the porn that was put in it at the expense of course, of other scenes. So it made no sense at all. But Guccione could care less about that, you know, it was a real terrible betrayal of certainly the actors. I’m sure that Gore Vidal felt the same way, but he kind of deserves what he got because, you know, he wouldn’t do any rewrites. He was calling me drunk three, four in the morning, you know, and I’m like, “hey, I’ve gotta be up in two hours to do this crap that you wrote!” 

He just was lazy about doing any rewrites. And so, of course, in the end, we had to survive. But, you know, it was impossible to survive the owner of the stuff inserting hardcore pornography and that you couldn’t get around, you know?

Thomas Negovan: I don’t wanna interrupt, but something that I think a lot of people don’t know is we had a year’s worth of scripts (for his project). There’s the Gore Vidal script, and then there’s the script when Tinto and Malcolm got involved, that you start to see a lot of things flipping and changing. 

Malcolm McDowell: One of the insults Tinto threw at Gore was if he doesn’t shut up, I’ll publish your script!

Thomas Negovan: Something that a lot of people don’t know is that Malcolm and a writer named Ted Whitehead contributed immensely to the narrative. 

Malcolm McDowell: He was a friend of mine who was a playwright in London, and I talked him into getting on a plane. Wasn’t that hard to come to Rome for a month, you know, stay at my villa, you know, and they’re gonna pay you. So it was great because he’d done this amazing play called Alpha, Beta with with Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts. 

The other interesting thing is, and I’ll say this with Tom here because it’s forgotten, is that Tinto Brass, who sadly is not well, he’s 90 years old. It’s a testament also to him because he was under so much pressure from Guccione and the money people, and he refused to cave in. He did the film that we always thought we were making, and he wouldn’t take Guccione’s suggestions, which were terrible anyway. And he was, by the way, I’ve never known a man so loathed as Guccione, even by his own children. And of course, he died in a trailer park, right? (Looks to Tom)

Thomas Negovan: Yes.

Malcolm McDowell: It’s called Karma. Karma. It’s a bitch. Right? 

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