LOS ANGELES—Monday evening saw one of those very rare events: An adult company, Penthouse Global Media, arranged for a screening of Mission: Caligula, a documentary by German filmmaker Alexander Tuschinski, for a mainstream audience at a mainstream theater, Regal Cinemas LA Live, as part of the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, which ends this Friday.
But while little in Mission: Caligula would raise any eyebrows sexually, the 40-minute presentation was meant as a preview of a project that Tuschinski expects will take at least two years to complete: A restoration of the now-classic film Caligula as it was conceived by its original director, the well-respected Tinto Brass, before then-Penthouse owner Bob Guccione took the project away from Brass, had it reedited with the addition of hardcore footage, and released it in theaters around the country in 1979.
"I think Caligula was one of the most seminal moments in the history of Penthouse," claimed Penthouse CEO Kelly Holland in the documentary. "It's an incredible piece of history, an incredible piece of Hollywood's history, actually, as well. This is the kind of film that could only have been done in the '70s, this outrageous crazy gonzo film of Tinto Brass, a phenomenal director. Tinto never felt that what hit the screen was his, and consequently he sued to have his name taken off of it, and in fact, you will not find a cut of Caligula, any version of Caligula anywhere that says 'directed by Tinto Brass.'"
Tuschinski heartily agreed with Holland's assessment, adding, "No version of Caligula bears even the slightest resemblance to what the original director Tinto Brass wanted. Tinto Brass in the 1970s was considered a very good arthouse filmmaker who had quite some critical success with his 1960s and '70s works, and he wanted to make Caligula a satire of power, a satirical statement of power with many shocking scenes, but the producer, Bob Guccione of Penthouse, had different plans. So Tinto Brass shot the film the way he wanted, but while he was in the midst of editing, he was suddenly dismissed and the producer had the film edited again from scratch using different takes, different shots, removing entire scenes, changing dialog, and adding the hardcore scenes he had shot without Tinto's knowledge."
The rift between Brass and Guccione was so intense that even today, Brass avoids talking about the situation, and in an interview in 2004, said that no matter what happens, he doesn't want to touch the film ever again; that it "would be like reheated soup; it's no good today."
But the main thrust of Mission: Caligula is Tuschinski's attempts to find the raw materials to recreate what he feels would be the version of Caligula that Brass wanted to release. In fact, Tuschinski wrote his bachelor's thesis on that very topic—and presented the roughly 100-page dissertation to Holland when she was attending a convention in Cannes, France.
"The more I talked to Alex, the more I understood that he knew more about this project than I even knew," Holland said, and essentially opened Penthouse's doors to Tuschinski to help the project along—but little did either of them know what that would lead to.
"He [Alex] just in passing happened to say, 'Well, you know that film warehouse where all the other reels are stored ...'" Holland recounted. "I said, 'What film warehouse?'"
Turns out that FriendFinder Networks, from whom Holland bought Penthouse about one year ago, had been paying rent on storage space in a Hollywood warehouse—a fact that Tuschinski had learned from a friend who was also interested in Caligula—but about which FriendFinder had failed to inform Holland.
"So they [FriendFinder] had been paying the warehouse bill for 20 or 25 years, but they stopped when they sold the company, and all of the assets in that warehouse were sitting there, the space was not being paid on, and the warehouse didn't know how to contact me because the sellers had failed to tell them that," Holland explained. "So we called the warehouse and said, 'Hi! My name's Kelly Holland and I own Penthouse. Do you own a warehouse space of mine?' And they said, 'Yes, and we're just about to shred 400 boxes of film reels.' 'Aaaagh! No, don't do it! We're on the way!' And literally, the next day, we went to this warehouse—Alex didn't know where it was, didn't know what the name of it was, only had heard that someone who had done a behind-the-scenes retrospective of Caligula had had access to that warehouse 15 years ago—and lo and behold, they take us up to the fifth floor, they walk us down a dusty little hallway, they unlock a door and open it, and inside that room were 400 boxes."
The find was simply monumental. Although to this day, not everything in the boxes has been cataloged, some of the contents included all the raw footage Brass had shot using four film cameras, different versions of the screenplay, 10,000 behind-the-scenes photos, hours of audio reels, books on costumes, props, makeup—in short, nearly everything and anything one could want regarding the film.
"It was the entire history of the making of Caligula sitting there, about to go to the dumpster," Holland said, adding, "It'll be a bit of an archeological process, in a way, of recreating all of the elements and marrying them into all the places that they need to be."
"Caligula, in the way that Tinto Brass wanted it, will be a very surprising film for many," Tuschinski added. "It features funny scenes, it features shocking scenes, it features graphic violence, it features satirical scenes, it features even slapstick-like scenes. It's such a surprising film that you never know what will happen next. ... When the film is released according to Tinto's intentions, it will be perceived very differently. I think it will be perceived as one of the very important, provocative films from the 1970s with a strong message against the nature of power, against the abuse of power, against what power can do to people. It will be a satire, it will be a drama—it has everything in it, and in my opinion, it will be among the great provocative works of Passolini of the '70s, of Fellini of the '70s, and I think Tinto's whole work as a director will be regarded in a different light by many people who are just casually interested in him and have only viewed the Caligula that Guccione's editors made."
It was that version, according to Holland, that renown film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert described as "the worst film they'd ever seen in their lives, and the only movie they ever walked out on."
But before work could begin to restore Caligula to Tinto Brass' original vision, Holland had to figure out how to pay for it.
"We realized there were hundreds of hours of film, all needing to be transferred to 4K, and that's the world we live in today, very different from the world we were living in 35 years ago, so we were looking for a great partner or some great partners who could come on board with us, who respect the truly iconic nature of this film, and help up recreate Tinto's visualization," she said. "It's going to take some time, a lot of effort, a lot of people to support Alex in that editing process as well, to restore this film and bring it back and premier it around the world as the movie that it was intended to be. For me, an extraordinary project requires that you stand at the front of the road, you put your foot out and you take that first step."
Holland indicated, however, that she does have a "white knight" who'll provide much of the funds needed, and who also is connected to a "huge distribution company that's going to do the restoration on it so they're going to take all the distribution rights on that, including the remake rights, and the play."
"Yes; wouldn't it be great to be broadcasting a black-and-white cut of the film maybe on a backdrop on the stage?" she chuckled. "Or maybe do it in a kind of 180-degree environment."
In any case, Holland expects that once completed, the Brass version of Caligula will be shown around the world, and Tuschinski expects that those audiences will be very surprised.
"It's a very different film," he stressed, "and when I talk to people, a lot of times, they have the misconception, when they watch Caligula, that it's a Tinto Brass film plus some hardcore pornography. But unless you show all these differences, it's hard to actually see it's two different films. Some scenes are similar, but the dialog has been changed.
"When I looked at Tinto's rough cut, it made me realize that his cut was also pretty sexual, actually," Tuschinski added, "but the way he used the sexuality, it took some thinking, because Tinto is a serious artist and he puts a lot of thought into his films, and seeing his cut of the first 84 minutes, which is still a rough cut, I kind of realized he uses sex in a way—he uses shots that appear pornographic in a setting that is not arousing at all. Pornography is usually meant to arouse through the sexual act, so he's showing some very explicit shots for like two seconds and then he cuts to something very different, and I think he wanted to do some experiment about bringing pornographic visual language into a film that is not pornographic."
But there's another aspect to releasing a reworked Caligula in the Age of Trump.
"I also think it's interesting at this point in time, particularly in the culture here, that this is about power gone mad," Holland said. "Not actually power gone mad perhaps, but incredibly narcissistic power that continues to push its limits, because no-one pushes back, no one around that power pushes back. I mean, the parallels between where we are politically right now are extraordinary. So I think to redo the cut with Tinto's vision of it as satire and a statement on fascism and the politics of power would be quite amazing to do it now."
One thing's for certain: When Tuschinski's/Brass' version of Caligula is released, it'll be the talk of the art world—and possibly the political world—around the globe.
Pictured, l-r: Kelly Holland, Alexander Tuschinski, Timothy Driver, Samantha "Sam" Phillips