LOS ANGELES — Last month, German filmmaker Alexander Tuschinski showed off his new documentary, "Mission: Caligula," which gave a snapshot of his plans for a new cut of “Caligula.”
Tuschinski, who screened the documentary at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, is working with Penthouse Global Media, the rights holder of the 1970s-era “Caligula,” to produce the new cut, which will include re-editing the film following the original style and structure as original director Tinto Brass filmed it in the 1970s.
Brass, an avantgarde filmmaker with a unique style, wanted the film to be provocative political satire. But he was dismissed during editing by producer Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, who wanted it a drama with lots of depictions of porn.
For years, the raw footage of “Caligula” was presumed lost, making proper reconstruction of the film impossible. But, Tuschinski found more than 400 boxes containing 100 hours of 35mm film, as well as 10,000 production stills and many versions of the soundtrack.
The new cut also will have a new score, and Tuschinski said he’ll preserve the first 84 minutes of the film based on Brass’ original workprint.
Tuschinski recently sat down with XBIZ to discuss his interest in Brass’ films and his plans on restoring Brass’s original vision of “Caligula" in this Q&A interview.
XBIZ: Tell me about director Tinto Brass, whose legacy spans more than 24 feature film? He’s 84 years old, still living in Italy, and you’ve actually traveled over to visit him.
Tuschinksi: He’s a very kind person. I got to meet him in 2011. You know I wrote my bachelor thesis about his ideas for “Caligula” and about reconstructing [the movie]. I wrote it in English with the hopes that he might see it one day.
I got Tinto’s phone number from a friend of [“Caligula” actor] Malcolm MacDowell, and after I got a hold of him I sent my thesis via email.
Later, I visited him in Italy. So, for a few years I traveled to him quite regularly, and we talked about all sorts of things.
And I showed him parts of my films, which for me was very exciting because I consider him one of the big influences of my visual style. Not necessarily on the stories I tell in my films but the visuals. To show him the film was very exciting. Then in 2013 I had done these preliminary edits of “Caligula,” which was just based on DVD and bonus footage that had been released up to a certain point.
And so I edited a rough approximation of what [Brass] might have wanted, just using those released versions, using still frames where there was no dialogue left … just still frames and subtitles.
And I showed that to him, and we sat there for a few hours, which was remarkable.
He commented a lot on it, and it was pretty encouraging. He liked what he saw.
XBIZ: One thing that’s recognizable about Tinto Brass’ impressionistic filmmaking style is his pans and zooms, using three cameras at once and his use of mirrors often. I can instantly see how one could find magnetic attraction for that type of style.
Tuschinksi: I've been very interested into Tinto’s earliest films, particularly those from the 1960s. He has always made his films very experimental and put in a lot of interesting cinematography and style.
His style, for the most part, is to just let the actors do their scene. They are followed by multiple cameras while doing a close up, while doing a total view, and they pan and zoom, and basically the scene is played out.
It's probably easier to say I got really drawn to these early films because I believe his style is incredibly elegant and that it resonates with me.
There are countless ways you can edit the film when you have multiple cameras filming at once. I mean some directors they just shoot the first part of a scene and amass the shots, and they shoot a close up and so on and you cannot really edit much differently.
But with him you have massive shots from different angles, you have close-ups from different angles, and basically he shot about 100 hours of raw footage for “Caligula.”
XBIZ: Tinto was pretty well known as one of Europe's masters of softcore eroticism just like Russ Meyers was in the U.S. Does that sound about right?
Tuschinksi: That is interesting, because I think he got that reputation after “Caligula.” Before “Caligula,” his films were provocative sometimes and extreme sometimes, but they could probably be described as “mainstream experimental,” certainly not "erotic films.".
He did all these relatively small underground films where he had full creative control, and they were very well respected. I don't know how big they were internationally, but they were respected by critics.
He did a film called “Salon Kitty” that was actually a political film. It was about a true story at a brothel in Nazi Germany where the Nazis enlisted prostitutes to serve agents and he made it very sexual because that's the nature of the story.
Opinions are divided if that one is still entirely a representative film of his early style, but it's certainly his best known internationally.
XBIZ: Was “Salon Kitty” the catalyst for “Caligula.” Did Guccione watch “Salon Kitty” and say, “I want Tinto Brass” to direct the film?
Tuschinksi: Guccione watched “Salon Kitty” for a few minutes from what I’ve heard, and then he decided that's the director needed. There were other directors approached about “Caligula,” but I'm not very certain who they were.
XBIZ: Brass also did like drama and comedy as well, right?
Tuschinksi: He did a western in the 1960s, and he also did comedy.
XBIZ: Have you restored other Brass films?
Tuschinksi: There was a retrospective of his films in Los Angeles in 2012. And so they wanted to screen some of his films and he gave me copies that were more or less completed, and I assembled the most complete ones from those. That was pretty nice.
XBIZ: So how did you meet Kelly Holland, Penthouse’s owner, and what were your intentions with selling your ideas?
Tuschinksi: It’s a very funny story. So, basically, Tinto's reaction to my reconstruction encouraged me to try this project to restore “Caligula.”
But I thought it would be strange to approach a huge company like Penthouse by myself. Penthouse, of course, owned the film and all of its rights.
I thought it would probably be the case that my message would go to one department, and I would never hear from Penthouse again.
I sent the email to the main penthouse email address and the next day I got a response.
Kelly asked me if I would like to meet her in Cannes at a tradeshow in a few weeks. So, I thought this was incredible.
So, I booked a ticket, and I flew over to Cannes and she and I hit it off pretty instantly. I showed Kelly my thesis of “Caligula,” which is a bound book 100 pages thick. That apparently impressed her.
A meeting that I thought would go on for 10 minutes actually went for an hour or even more. It just felt as a meeting among friends.
Later, I traveled over to Los Angeles and I stayed at her ranch in a guestroom while hunting for the lost “Caligula” archives.
XBIZ: Tell me what exactly needs to be done with “Caligula”?
Tuschinksi: Tinto’s ideas for the movie were very different from any released version. Any version of the film you find today is based on the cut that was done by the producer’s editors without consulting Tinto’s ideas.
There is a misconception that the producers only changed “Caligula” by adding hardcore fare. This is incorrect. Tinto would have used different takes, shots, edited more elegantly, would have used entirely different music. Entire subplots, dialogues and scenes were changed or deleted.
So, actually, all the 35mm film in the archive has to be scanned and digitized so it can be used for editing. It has to be cataloged because we have negative film and positive film. Of course if you have the negative and positive of one scene, you want to go to the negative because that's the higher quality.
And the soundtrack you have all these audio reels that need to be digitized. Tinto wanted the soundtrack more archaic, with lots of percussion.
But there's a lot of more archaic-sounding music pieces in the archive. So hopefully there's enough music there.
It's actually pretty remarkable that so much of “Caligula” survives because it was released in the 1970s at a time before DVD extras and all that. So very few companies hold onto films except the final negative that's edited.
There's a lot in the archives that are in very good shape; some parts seem damaged. But I would say overall it's remained in remarkable condition.
XBIZ: What's your feeling about the commercial viability of the new “Caligula” cut that will be less explicit from the original version?
Tuschinksi: I think the viability is very strong thing because so many people remember or heard of “Caligula.” The movie has quasi-mythological standing and will have mainstream appeal.
I think those who are interested in adult film will be very interested to see a different take on “Caligula.” Film historians are going to be interested. I think the possibilities of this project are huge.
There has never been this totally different version of a film waiting to be discovered. I believe people will watch it.
XBIZ: Any details about a timeline or is there any budget or anything like that going on right now.
Tuschinksi: From what they heard it's all still in motion right now. I cannot say much about that at this moment. It's in motion.
XBIZ: Tell me about your own filmmaking? What is it like?
Tuschinksi: I enjoy filming different kinds of genres. My feature films are the ones that get screened at most international film festivals and that have received most recognition.
Most of my films I would say are “anarchist's satire” — I like to make films that are funny and unpredictable, sometimes having pretty deep and sometimes even pretty dark messages hidden underneath the funny surface.
One of my big inspirations is German film director Hugo Niebeling, who was famous in the 1960s and 1970s particularly for his experimental and music films. He died in 2016, and he and I were very good friends.
My most recent film is called “Timeless,” which was a big adventure. There were American and European actors in it, and I shot it in Germany.
Pictured: Penthouse owner Kelly Holland and German filmmaker Alexander Tuschinski