Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Director Must Direct Again! An exclusive interview with science-fiction, horror, and fantasy maestro, Luigi Cozzi.

In 2004, The American Cinematheque held a rare screening of STARCRASH (aka FEMALE SPACE INVADERS), Luigi Cozzi's legendary tip of the hat to STAR WARS, during its annual Fantasy, Horror, and Sci-Fi Festival. At the end of the introduction for the movie, the Cinematheque's Programming Director exclaimed, "Luigi Cozzi is a god!!" to which the crowd let out a roar of thunderous applause and cheer.

He was right. Luigi Cozzi is a cinematic god, much like the gods that populate his fantasy/sci-fi hybrids: over-the-top and spectacular beyond belief.
Responsible for spearheading Italian science-fiction, fantasy, and horror in Italy during the late '70s and early '80s, Cozzi turned out such wonderfully imaginative, Harryhausen-inspired movies like the above-mentioned 1978 masterpiece of sci-fi mayhem, which boasts a cast that includes David Hasselhoff, Bond-girl Caroline Munro (as the sexy "Stella Starr"), Christopher Plummer, Marjoe Gortner, and the late, great Joe Spinell (!!) as what else? The Darth Vader-like villain, Count Zarth Arn.

In 1980, Cozzi re-appropriated the Dracula lineage and influence used by Ridley Scott in ALIEN (the Italians aren't the only ones who "borrow" other people's ideas) and brought it down to earth (literally and figuratively) in the contagiously entertaining space pod invaders flick, CONTAMINATION:

In 1983, Cozzi would introduce to the world a new HERCULES that proved such a success that a sequel, THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES, naturally followed two years later. Both starred the only obvious successor to the Hercules mantle, the incredible Lou Ferrigno, who made a much more impressive, charismatic, and fitting half-god than Schwarzenegger's dead-on-arrival attempt 13 years earlier.

Responsible for some of the giallo genre's more formidable, critically acclaimed, and inventive entries during the '70s, Luigi Cozzi talks to Giallo is the Color of Death from his home in Rome about, what else? Giallo, of course, and his experience with it.
Giallo is the Color of Death: Can you describe what it was like to make giallos in Italy in the '70s? What was the general attitude when it came to movies that were not Bertolucci or Fellini or Antonioni?

Luigi Cozzi: Giallo movies have always been very badly considered by the critics here in Italy, even today. Till a few years ago, all of Dario Argento's movies had been considered crap by the same critics, who called him a schlock imitator of Hitchcock, or worse. But, take into consideration that Hitchcock also has always been very badly judged by our critics, so. . . . Simply, our movie critics are stupid and dumb.

GCD: Do you recall if there was a certain point of epiphany during that period of the '60s and '70s where you and your colleagues thought, "Oh, we're creating a new genre!" or did you feel like the giallo film genre was simply a continuation of the books and mystery/thriller stories of Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie,, that were popular in Italy at the time and on which the giallo film genre is based?

LC: When I was working with Dario early in the Seventies we were trying to create a new genre, to create an Italian way to the giallo style. Our inspirations were the American giallo (mystery) novels by writers like Cornell Woolrich, Fredric Brown, Raymond Chandler: we wanted to create something similar to their wonderful books here in the Italian movie world.

GCD: As an American, one of the things that interests me about the giallo is the way they influence the Canadian and American "slasher flicks" of the eighties, movies that were essential viewing if you wanted to know what everybody else was talking about in the schoolyard at that time. Of course, in the eighties, as a boy, I barely even knew about Italy, much less the giallo. But the reason why I now love to watch and write about the giallo much more than its pedestrian American cousin is because of the amount of style used to tell what is essentially a murder mystery. To me, the '60s and '70s giallo period is similar to the golden age of American film noir, where directors were using the camera, the set design, the wardrobe, etc., to both complete their vision and create a world that was visually unique. Where did the giallo's stylish aesthetic come from? Was it simply Mario Bava using his imagination and others following him, or was it something greater, maybe influenced by everything else that was happening in Italian Cinema with Fellini, et. al.?

LC: Our giallo aestethic came partly from Raymond Chandler and, most of all, from writer Cornell Woolrich: he was the greatest of all mystery writers, he had already done wonderfully what we were trying to do again. Only, he had done it in the printed page, and now we wanted to recreate the same effect and the same noir atmosphere on the silver screen. In trying to do so, we came to create a new style: the giallo style, which we invented, also partly taking it from Sergio Leone (you know, Dario had just worked with him, so was very fresh in his Leone inspiration. . .).

GCD: What do you think of the giallo genre now, especially the neo-giallos of the late '80s and '90s? How would you compare them to the giallos of the '60s and '70s?

LC: Giallos of the '60s, giallos of the '70s, giallos of the '80s...well, they're obviously different because there's evolution during the years. Evolution in the society, evolution in the morality, evolution in the cinema, evolution in the audience. . . so everything changes and, hopefully, improves (but not always). The Italian giallos of the first half of the '60s (mostly Bava) are born out of the American giallos noir movies, while in the final part of the '60s Dario Argento turns into a movie the book The Screaming Mimi, by Fredric Brown using a style which updates THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945), by Robert Siodmak. . . and in doing so, Dario creates a new way of making giallo and it's a real leap forward. . . a major leap forward into terror.

Incidentally, this is the real story of how this all began:

Bernardo Bertolucci (THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972)) worked with Dario Argento on writing Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), which, please note: has an archetypal giallo plot: the hero (Charles Bronson) keeps wondering till the end why the farm in the desert is so important and why everybody is fighting and killing trying to take possession of it? We also wonder all through the movie who are the two characters in the flash back. . . who is the killer and who is the victim? (Another typical giallo twist).

Anyway, Dario and Bertolucci became friends and, after the writing for Leone was finished, Bertolucci proposed to Dario to write together another movie, a real giallo movie that Bertolucci wanted to try to direct personally. Dario said yes and so Bertolucci brought him the Italian giallo book edition of Fredric Brown's novel, The Screaming Mimi, saying that he wanted to use that book, uncredited, as a basis for his new giallo movie. So Dario read the book, loved it and decided that he too wanted to try to become a director adapting it for the screen. So he did not say anything to Bertolucci but wrote all by himself a brand new, "original" script using, uncredited, the Brown book as a basis and then started offering his brand new script to many producers in town. When Bertolucci heard this, the big fight between him and Dario started, lasting even today, because Bertolucci felt cheated. But in the meanwhile, Dario had found help from his father, a small independent producer, and together had succeeded in finding a distributor to finance them, Titanus. So THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) was made and a new cinematic giallo age was born, because Dario was excellent as a director and made a wonderful and very scary movie. . .

This is how the giallo revolution of the late Sixties started. Then giallo movies kept evolving, that's natural. Dario himself evolved all through the '70s, the '80s, and the '90s. . . while his giallo style became an international mark.

GCD: Can you talk about how the same actors seem to pop up throughout the giallo genre. How were they chosen?

LC: The actors from the giallos were mostly from stage or from Italian Spaghetti Westerns. Think of George Hilton. I used him in my THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN (1975). He was very famous as a Western Clint Eastwood-like hero. It cost a lot to hire him for a western movie. But outside of western movies, he was very cheap because he was famous only with a beard, a cowboy hat, and a gun. In modern clothes he was considered less than nothing at the box office. So I got him very cheap for my KILLER--I think he got less than 10,000 for just three working days--while if you wanted him for a western you had to pay him at least 100,000 dollars.

Sergio Martino used George Hilton in giallos a lot, too, also because George had married his sister or his cousin, I don't remember well, so they were somehow related.

Also, other giallos actors were mostly people from Spaghetti Westerns trying to find a new audience, considering that the westerns were dying at the box office while the giallos were exploding.

GCD: The dubbing of all those films I think is great, not just with how they match the lips, but also by being truthful to the story. By that I mean that what the characters are saying and talking about completely agrees with the story's narrative. The dialogue that is being dubbed isn't just done carelessly, so the story can quickly move to the "juicy" parts making the movie more marketable in America and other countries. Rather, there's a lot of thought put into the translation. By comparison, think of the Kung Fu films of the '70s, where the audience knows that some of the ridiculous things that come out of the characters' mouths in English are not the same things they're saying in Mandarin. I know I'm comparing apples to oranges, but the giallo could have easily fallen into that trap, especially if distributors/producers were just eager to make a quick buck. How were the scripts translated and who translated them from the original Italian to English? Or were most written in English? If so, how did Mario Bava and any other director who didn't speak English work with such scripts?

LC: All giallos scripts were written in Italian, then they were translated by a Roman translator and afterwards the movies were shot in English, all actors saying their lines in English. Very bad English, I say, because the actors didn't speak that language but just repeated the sound of their lines without understanding the words. But it didn't matter, because afterward all these movies were dubbed by others in a more correct English. Most movies were dubbed in Rome by American and English people living here, while a few movies (the most expensive and important ones) were dubbed in New York City by Americans.

As a matter of fact, at that time almost no one knew English here in Italy. I remember that when we shot FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), Dario Argento himself didn't know English and so I had to act as a translator for him when he needed to talk to leading American actor Michael Brandon.

GCD: I saw FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again recently with a husband and wife friends of mine who hadn't been properly introduced to the genre, much less to any one specific movie. I thought it was a great choice for a first-time audience since all the basic elements of the genre are there, without it being too graphically overboard, where it could easily be dismissed as, "oh, a horror movie" or "a slasher," or something very reductive like that. It also is just one of the best examples of the genre, and a fantastic movie in general. Of course, the whole scientific idea about images being recorded in the eye's retina is pretty fantastic, in the best sense of the word: it completely fits with this almost cartoonish universe created by the movie and the genre itself. I know Argento had already begun using science to explain the killings (the XXY chromosome theory in CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971)). Scientific and psychological explanations recur in giallos in general, usually either explaining the killer's actions or helping the authorities find the killer, which makes me think of all the CSI shows that are currently playing on our TV sets in the U.S. Those are mini-giallos, if you ask me. Why do you think such scientific/psychological explanations/theories played such an important part in the genre?
LC: The eye idea in FOUR FLIES dates back to a Jules Verne novel I read long time ago. It was an idea brought by me to Dario and he loved it. In the Verne novel, they could see the face of the killer in the eye of the dead victim. But Dario wanted something less easy, so we thought up four crosses seen in the eye, because the killer had at her neck a cross jewel and when moving, it became four. At this point I suggested: "We have the title of the movie, which is four flies and which doesn't mean anything...why don't we have four flies in the eye, with the killer having at her neck a fly jewel?" Dario loved this's there in the movie.

At that time, Dario was trying to put into his giallo movies the most up-to-date scientific discoveries, in order to give the giallo movies a new look. The eye idea was suggested also by an article I read in a newspaper, telling that in Germany the police was experimenting to see if they could see the killer's face in the eye of his dead victim. I cut that news from the paper and brought it to Dario's attention. He loved the clipping and so accepted as almost real the old Jules Verne idea.

GCD: How much of the story for FOUR FLIES came from you?

LC: There's a lot of me in the story of FOUR FLIES. I contributed much to that movie. Dario had the main idea and I added most of the plot twists and situations, getting them from books that Dario loved and urged me to use. For instance, the character of GOD(frey), played by Bud Spencer, and his dialogues do come straight out of the book The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown, the same book that Dario had previously used as a basis for his BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Arrosio, the private eye and his dialogues come from the science fiction book Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The beginning with the fly is the beginning with the fly from Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister novel. . . . The killing of the maid in the closed garden is the equal to the killing of the young girl closed inside the cemetery in the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. . . and on.

GCD: Like one of your alien pods in CONTAMINATION, my mind is about to explode just trying to imagine two creative minds like you and Argento talking about giallo ideas! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall! Can you describe what it's like sitting with Argento and talking to him about a story or idea?

LC: I loved working with Dario on FOUR FLIES. We were young and very ambitious, and he was trying to do his best movie ever. There was a lot of enthusiasm. We were trying to do things never done before...

GCD: What did you learn from Argento in terms of making a great giallo?

LC: Dario is my master when it comes to the giallo. All I know about screenwriting and movie making I've learned it from him. He was a friend but also the best of all teachers.

GCD: Did you get to interact with Mimsy Farmer during the filming of FOUR FLIES? If so, what was it like working with her?

LC: On 4 FLIES, Dario and Mimsy Farmer didn't get along too well: she had married an important highbrow Italian writer and so considered bad the very movie she was making with us, considering it just a commercial movie, kind of "B" stuff. She said she only liked cultural and art movies, not giallo. Dario resented this and so they started not talking too much to each other. So, I often acted as a kind of "ambassador" from Dario to Mimsy telling her what Dario wanted and telling Dario what Mimsy answered me. Crazy thing.

GCD: In the '90s, you worked with Argento again as second unit director for the George Romero collaboration, TWO EVIL EYES (1990), and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996). How was that experience compared to working with him in the '70s?

LC: Movie-making in the Seventies was very different from movie-making in the end of the Eighties, mid Nineties. In the Seventies, we were young and wanted to conquer the world. From the the late Eighties on, Dario just wanted to defend what he already had and would have liked to have shot more psychological and dramatic movies than just giallos, but distributors didn't let him do them. They just wanted only giallos from Dario.

Also, there had been high hopes for TWO EVIL EYES, but it turned out to be a box office disaster. TRAUMA also didn't do too well in the theaters and this all worried Dario, making it long and difficult to find proper financing for STENDHAL, which initially was intended to be shot in the U.S. with an American actress (Bridget Fonda). In any case, the great enthusiasm of the Seventies had gone. And that too made the difference, I think.

GCD: In PHENOMENA (1985), you are credited for its "Special Optical Effects." Did you work on all its special effects, or were there some in particular that you helped out on?

LC: I worked a lot on PHENOMENA/CREEPERS. I did some second unit shooting with some minor actors plus most of its visual effects & live insects scenes. I did all the macrophotography with the real flies and worms, I did all the shots with the flies attacking the college, I did the optical tricks of the giant fly swarm and also did the cartoon animation of the fly (Jennifer following the fly to the country house where the killer lived) and the firefly too (Jennifer finding the glove thanks to the firefly). I also did the ending with the swarm crossing the moon and the million flies attacking the gnome killer. Lot of stuff I did on this movie.

GCD: Was there any interaction with Donald Pleasance and/or Jennifer Connelly? If so, what were they like, especially Jennifer since she was such a young actress then.

LC: I knew Donald Pleasance but never crossed his path on PHENOMENA. Jennifer, I directed her on the firefly scene (because there was no firefly on the set, the insect was optically added later, so I had to tell her what to do and how to react). I also crossed paths with Jennifer while shooting the videoclip for the main song theme. She was a joy to work with, fantastic girl.

GCD: Despite the fact that in the eighties you would make movies that were family oriented (I'm remembering sitting in a neighborhood theatre as a young boy of 12/13, with mouth open and the pop-corn missing its mark as I watched your HERCULES double-feature and thinking, "These are the most incredible movies I have ever seen." I still think they're pretty amazing, by the way!). Despite those kid-friendly movies, you are responsible for what I think is one of the giallo genre's most realistically ruthless entries, THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN (THE DARK IS DEATH'S FRIEND). Of course, it has a plot that brings to mind Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), but where there's a certain "civilized" formality that the characters of that movie observe, the men in KILLER have none of those "graces," but rather, are uncharismatic characters, especially the intense Antoine Saint-John, who plays the titular killer. The movie is very well regarded, especially for its masterful storytelling, helped along by the strong editing and narrative. It's also one of the few giallos where the identity of the killer is not the mystery. What was your intention with this giallo, since it feels very different from most any other giallo? It was released in 1975, so where you, at that point, interested in showing a different side of the giallo? Can you talk about why and how you got involved in the making of the movie.

LC: My intention with the KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN, which was made in 1973, was to try a different way of making giallo, with the killer immediately known to the audience. Of course it was also a tribute to Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954). I got involved with this movie while I was in Milano writing with Dario his new movie, THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN (1973). A Milan producer approached Dario while we were there and offered him to make a new giallo there. Dario refused but said that I, his assistant and co-writer, could make it, so he introduced me to these producers, said that I was their man, and they were convinced and hired me. Thus THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN was born, thanks to Dario.

GCD: What was it like directing and working with giallo regular and Italian film favorite George Hilton on THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN?

LC: George Hilton did not consider much of my KILLER movie because he worked on it just for three days, if I recall correctly, so for him it was close to nothing. Actually I had written his role calculating that it could be shot just in 3 days in order to get a known (and expensive) actor, but writing it in the way that his scenes were scattered all through the whole movie: beginning, middle section, end. As a matter of fact, if you used Hilton for a week or two, he did cost a lot, but when only for three days he was just a kind of special guest star and didn't cost very much. Do you get my point? So I did succeed in getting Hilton at a very cheap price. . . and he didn't really like movies where he was being paid so cheap. . . 'though he accepted them.

GCD: Can you go into detail about the attempt to collaborate with frequent giallo soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone?

LC: I had him under contract for my later STARCRASH and HERCULES but couldn't find an agreement with him about how these soundtracks had to be, so he left and I hired other musicians who were willing to follow my input. Morricone wanted to work with no input from me, he wanted to create music all by his own, while I had very precise ideas about how the music in my STARCRASH and HERCULES had to be.

GCD: I've read that science-fiction and fantasy had always been your passion. Your earliest childhood attempts at movies illustrate that. Did you see an opportunity to use what you loved from science-fiction and fantasy and incorporate it into the giallo genre? If so, what elements did you incorporate and how did you incorporate them?

LC: With FOUR FLIES, as a writer, I incorporated into the giallo genre sci-fi favorites of mine like Robert Sheckley and Jules Verne. Plus the eye ray machinery I invented. Plus the final slow motion car crash at the end of the movie. The car crash was an idea of mine: a ballet of death with crystals all over. It's the logical of the science fiction film. . . daring and experimental.
GCD: When you moved away from the giallo genre in the late '70s and early '80s to concentrate on fantasy and science fiction films like the HERCULES movies, CONTAMINATION, and of course, STARCRASH, did you think you were done with giallo or was it ever your thought to come back to it?

LC: I always just wanted to do sci-fi and fantasy. I liked giallo, weird, noir, and horror, sure, but my true passions are sci-fi and fantasy. That's what I just wanted to do.

GCD: I think American movie thrillers of the late '80s and early '90s also owe a great debt to the giallo as well. BASIC INSTINCT comes to mind. Do you see the influence of the giallo when watching an American box-office hit like BASIC INSTINCT?
LC: Basic Instinct I like: and I agree with you, it's kinda of big Italian giallo movie made with a lot of Hollywood bucks and with international stars. . .

GCD: Are you working on anything now? Is there anything in the horizon for you, whether sci-fi, fantasy, giallo, whatever? I know Argento will be releasing his new giallo, GIALLO. Did you have any part in that?

Dario is releasing his GIALLO movie early next month. His next project is a remake of one of his famous masterpieces IN 3-D.

Since 2001 I've just been working here at the Museum and at the shop, plus writing and taking care of the Profondo Rosso books. That's it.

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