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By Stuart Urban

As a junior film-maker from 1972 (when I was thirteen) until 1974 my short films had been shown at Cannes and on TV stations around the world such as PBS in America. They already resided in Britain’s National Film Archive, the latter fact making me feel somewhat ancient at eighteen. Towards December 1976, I had completed my school studies and won a scholarship to Oxford University where I would be going to read Modern History (at Balliol College). I therefore had about nine months to kill and thought that it would be quite sensible to acquire some proper experience in the real movie world.

Only trouble was, how to get it.

Before I had even left school, I had been knocking on film-business doors. My outlandish background as (probably) the world’s youngest film-maker at that time did at least let some doors open, but I was impatient at being seen as a curiosity item and not having found a job.

Then I got an appointment with Don Getz in his small Wardour Street office. Don was a quasi-mythical figure on the London film scene (Soho’s Wardour Street being its business hub). With his loud check jacket, huge cigar/stomach, and broad American drawl, Don was a known wheeler-dealer and dealer in film rights. Puffing smoke, he looked at my not inconsiderable CV (OK, three shorts) and said there was nothing he could do for me.

Unless I spoke Italian.

Mentally he already had me out the door, but I was able to grin, stand my ground, and declare that I did speak it. For a few years there was a Neapolitan nanny in my home, big-breasted and beautiful, named Bruna. She had started me on that fine language, and I had studied it further at school and on holiday in Italy. I knew the language well enough to pass for Italian, at least for the first few minutes of a conversation!

Don said that that Tinto Brass and his Italian editing team were coming to Twickenham Studios (a small studio near my parents’ own London suburb) in early January and would be requiring an interpreter and third assistant editor. The film was Caligula and I had read all about it.

I was over the moon at being signed up on a very reasonable wage to start right after Christmas.

There were some illogical aspects. I could not quite figure why the film’s financier-producer, Bob Guccione, wanted the editing to take place in London rather than Rome, nor indeed why Tinto Brass acquiesced. Perhaps the film historians and aficionados worked this out in the light of later events (piecing together dates from the Caligula sites, it seems Bob went to Rome for a spot of his own directing on pickups and reshoots while Tinto toiled away in Twickenham).

My first mission was like a scene out of Fellini or indeed Tinto Brass’s own later erotic oeuvre. I was dispatched to a seedy address in West London to collect the initial week’s cash expenses for Tinto and wife Tinta (yes). Said seedy address was a photography studio that appeared to be owned by Penthouse. Here I stood for quite some time as seven or eight stunning girls clutching little bags of lingerie waited to be auditioned (or worse) by the invisible photographer through the door beyond. I was too shy to speak to the girls (women to me, a mere teen). They in any case stood in statuesque silence. Eventually I was given the cash envelope, for which I signed. The princely sum of $1,500 covered far more than even the most indulgent seven days in London’s Hyde Park Hotel would cost in those days.

Shepherding the Brasses and their three editing crew (a woman and two short blokes) from Heathrow airport to their quarters in London’s Belgravia, I felt privileged and excited.

Mission #2 concerned the Prevost and its extraction from British customs. In these antiquated days actual cutting was normally done on a Moviola upright machine or Picsync (its British equivalent) whereby the film and its sound tracks were viewed on a tiny screen, roped together in tandem for manual winding or by use of a small motor. Viewings were done in a theatre from a projector, but it is much more convenient to watch assemblies of scenes or reels in one’s own cutting room on an automated basis and larger screen. Hence the Prevost or Steenbeck.

This being a big-budget movie, Tinto had got his own Prevost editing table flown in from Rome. This massive flatbed affair was a precursor of the Steenbeck, which was a much more user-friendly, compact device.

The Prevost monster was about eight to ten feet wide and five to six feet deep, and weighed about as much as a Mini car. British Customs and Excise inspectors could not fathom its use and did not accept that it could be a film-editing device rather than a specialized Italian motor vehicle—perhaps the Prevost was in reality a tractor? Hence they considered it liable to farm duties or whatever. After days of pleading, I was able to extract the clearances for the Prevost from the airport warehouse and thus editing could start on the movie.

During the course of the first week, as film-picture rushes got sunc up to 35mm mag tape, I watched agape from the projection booth as reel after reel of flesh unspooled in the viewing theatre for Tinto’s delectation/deliberation. Word got around the studio and very soon other technicians were crowding into the projection booth, elbowing me aside to take turns in sneaking an illicit glimpse through the projection port at the hours and hours of free erotica. I remember hardened men and women of the British film industry giggling or marching off, disgusted. These were the raw rushes, you understand. Every once in a while, a British actor would emerge on screen from the quivering flesh and spout some dialogue. This gave the lie to claims by John Gielgud and others that they had no idea what was going on. The shots they featured in were sometimes too obscene for the final cut.

While the rushes were very exciting, I could already see that it would be difficult for Tinto to assemble a commercially releasable movie and still include the most spectacular or eye-catching material. I questioned the loyal editing team, and they took the view that Tinto was making a major political and artistic statement that would subvert capitalist thinking. They seemed not to hear the dull murmurings and rumblings as representatives of Guccione came to screen the rushes and assemblies of scenes. I ventured to say that there might be trouble, as I had seen Don Getz depart ashen-faced from one particularly saucy session. A lot of money had been invested, and even if Penthouse was planning a pure porno version, it would not be possible to recoup the rumoured $17 million cost from adult cinemas alone (this being prior to video of course).

The editors, you have to understand, were Red Brigades sympathizers—Brigatiste. The Red Brigades were the leftwing terror group locked in a struggle with a corrupt, rightwing government that was itself riddled by connections with the Mafia, clandestine Masonic order P2, and dubious Vatican financial organs. These years were the height of terrorist violence and state repression/provocation, and the Brass entourage felt themselves to be firmly in the rebel camp. This view informed their work on the movie, without doubt. But revolutionary socialism did not stop the editors from residing in a grand house in one of London’s poshest streets, Eaton Terrace (try as I might, I could not correct their pronunciation of “Ayaton Terr-achay”). Why, some objects such as books were even expropriated by the Brigatiste in the name of wealth redistribution or workers’ re-education. Some liberated books were thrust into my hands. I have to confess that two history volumes from the house accompanied me through Oxford studies, to my eternal shame. I still mean to return them but somehow can never recall the house number.

Anyhow, the flesh-fest continued on the Prevost screen or Twickenham’s preview theatre. My fondest memories of corrupting but brilliant images were: the long tracking shot in which about one hundred of Rome’s finest prostitutes bent over, naked, and each one in turn ran her forefinger between her legs as the camera dollied past; the African slave waggling his huge greased penis as it shone under Silvano Ippoliti’s golden lighting; an automated spanking machine which thrashed the proffered buttocks of yet more hapless Roman prostitutes. I do not recall seeing any of these images in the version of Caligula I caught on its UK theatrical release. Perhaps they made it to a bootleg or porno version?

As January turned into February, I had the honour to meet Malcolm McDowell, who seemed to be very close, creatively, to Tinto. He turned up to see if he could help. The material was not shaping up fast in any sense, as I recall. In his WW2 flying jacket, Malcolm seemed to be still the youthful rebel of If...., cocking a snook at the conventional capitalist film biz. (In actual fact the jacket went perfectly with the WW2-era Nissen-style huts in which the Prevost monster was kennelled.) I cannot help thinking that this dashing rebel image was, in part, why Tinto cast Malcolm. And whereas I cannot claim to have had any kind of dialogue with Tinto, Malcolm was very communicative and collaborative on the short visits he made. The Italians basically expected me to coil rolls of film and translate. Malcolm was different.

The rumours that I heard at the time were that Guccione was issuing instructions to Brass to turn in a film that would be palatable to cinema owners and local authorities and thereby allow Penthouse a chance to recoup. There was never any sense, in the ten or so weeks that I was there, that this was going to happen.

Tension inevitably mounted.

One bitterly cold morning in early March, I arrived at Twickenham to find the Prevost monster sitting in the snow. It had been unceremoniously heaved out of its kennel. The doors to the cutting room were securely locked. It was, indeed, a management lockout. We were all fired. Thus endeth the lesson of Tinto, Tinta and the Brigatiste film editors.

Seeking my own escape, I flew off to a kibbutz. Then, in Berlin, I fitted in another film-crew experience before commencing studies at Balliol College.

Some 17 years later, as a director of what would become BBC 2’s most successful drama series of the decade (Our Friends in the North), I came to cast Malcolm McDowell as a London gangster-pornographer, bringing him back to British film-making for the first time since the 1970s. We enjoyed catching up on our old experiences (though I am not sure he had actually remembered me at all). Malcolm had some excellent stories, of course, such as the time that poor Helen Mirren ran crying from a screening theatre after witnessing a gynecological exposure that Tinto had promised would not happen. Rather more chillingly, there were stories of organized crime and retribution in the fallout from the movie which he had heard of, but as nobody can vouch if they are true, they cannot be repeated.

Looking back now, I remain grateful to the late, big Don Getz in his colourful jacket and my nanny Bruna from Naples for giving me a suitably exciting entry into the world of professional film-making.

Copyright © 2004 by Stuart Urban.
(All rights reserved. No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.)

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