Hooked on Sleaze
Making my bones in Pornography
In the cold months of winter, Manhattan apartments back in the early Seventies, as I’m sure they do today, resonated with the clanky noises that accompanied the warmth provided by the hot-water radiators that were the common source of heat in most buildings. The clank, clank, click-click-click, clank as the hot water replaced the cold in the pipes leading to the radiating units, followed by the phsssssssssssssssssssssssssssst, as the steam safety valves on the those units went into action protecting the tenants from the danger and inconvenience of exploding pipes. The ability to sleep through this racket was the sign of a true New Yorker. While tourists probably got little sleep terrified that the radiators in their midtown hotel rooms were about to burst, scalding them to death, the hardened veterans of Gotham simply slept through the noise, waiting for their clock radios to start their day. My building was no different, maybe even louder than most, but the clanking never bothered me, and I didn’t need an alarm clock. Each morning between 6 and 7, I would feel the annoying, but reassuring sensation of little teeth gently biting down on the tip of my nose. This was my cat Spiegel, demanding breakfast, and there was no escaping him. So I got up, fed the cat, made coffee, and jumped in the shower, the beginning of just another day in the life of a sex addict.
It was a cold five-block walk to the Lexington Avenue subway station at 23rd Street, where I took the Number Four train to Grand Central Station. Then the long walk down sour-smelling corridors to the Times Square Shuttle, which deposited me underneath what some people have called the cross roads of the world. The Times Square subway station was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was. The Deuce.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Men’s clothing, Army/Navy, cheap electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on “The Deuce”.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.
On the north side of the street, just about half way between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, squeezed between Modell’s Sporting Goods, and the Harem Adult Theater, was Sal’s book store. A small venue, about ten feet wide and twice again as deep, Sal’s adult retail emporium was divided into two worlds of trade – ‘over’, and ‘under’ the counter. Over the counter, Sal offered soft-core nudie magazines, erotic books, adult party favors, and 8MM adult-oriented movies, which mostly consisted of volleyball games in nudist parks. But if you knew the secret word, or could mention a name that might be familiar to the owner, or if Sal just happened to like your face, then the world of ‘under-the-counter’ would be made available to you. This included hard core pornographic magazines, movies, and party favors like decks of playing cards adorned with photos of teenage girls giving blowjobs, all of which were sold illegally. This establishment was what was known, in those days, as a Dirty Book Store. Sal lived just across the river, in Jersey City, and as a reward for being a good fella in his neighborhood, was given the store to run by the real owners, New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family, who would become the inspiration, three decades later, for the television series “The Sopranos”. But these were pre-Godfather days, and no one knew much about the Cosa-Nostra, so most people thought that Sal owned his own business. He had an assistant named Nick, who was a former New York City cop. The word was that Nick had been thrown off the Force for one thing or another but, whenever asked about it, he became surly and agitated, referring to New York’s finest as ungrateful scumbags. To the world at large, Sal’s book store was what it appeared to be, but to the street people of Times Square it was something else again – a message center and networking conduit between the street, and the men in the shadows who owned the street. Pornographers, would-be pimps, wannabe wise guys, and out-of-work actors who made money having sex in front of cameras all checked in regularly with Sal. These were mostly transients who lived in SRO’s, and had no phone of their own, so Sal put them in touch with each other. Nick, who spent most of his off-hours lurking in the labyrinth of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, trolling for teenage runaways from the Midwest, was a source of acting talent for most of New York’s adult film impresarios. When a film maker with some adult footage to sell, approached a theater, he got no further than the box office. The men who ran the theaters lived in the shadows. In order to reach them, you had to speak to Sal. Sal could arrange a meeting. The route from the street into the shadows could only be traveled through Sal. Sal was the conduit. Sal was the man.
By the winter of 1970, I had been acting, on and off, for about two years, in porn loops, which were ten minute sex shorts that had been called stag films in earlier days. I had quit my job as a magazine editor in 1969, and found myself hanging out in the balconies of sleazy adult theaters looking at images of naked women. I’m not sure what a sex addiction is exactly, but my attraction to pornography had certainly become an obsession. I was a willing victim of my own carnality, gladly spending too much time staring at lurid images projected on the screens of the sleazy venues I frequented. An evening of balcony time in one of Times Square’s porno houses wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Sal’s book store to see what was happening. Sal or Nick would be sitting behind the counter in the front of the store, greeting customers, and intimidating would-be shoplifters with an always-ready baseball bat that hung above the counter, next to the door.
“Hey, look at this. Look who’s here. Shaunie boy, Hollywood’s finest. Lookin’ good”.
“Hi Sal. How’s business?”
“You don’t see me complaining. Hey, I saw you in something the other night. It starts out with you and some young brunette playing strip poker. Then when she gets naked, she goes down on you. What a piece-a-tail. I never saw her before”.
“Sounds like every loop I’ve been in Sal”.
“Hey kid, you know a guy named Smitty? Skinny Jamaican guy? Talks funny?”
“Anyway, he’s looking for some people. I told him about you. He’ll be here around Ten. You should meet this guy”.
He was there around Ten, and so was I, and this is how I first met Smitty, an illiterate Jamaican street hustler who dabbled in the production of porn loops, and needed a hand putting it all together. Smitty had no known address. He had no phone. If you wanted to reach out to Smitty, you called Sal. No one knew how he came up with the money, but he did, and frequently – enough to pay four or five actors, a cameraman, and a shooting location for the day’s work. After a few of Smitty’s productions, it became obvious that he was involved in something beyond either his experience or his ability. So, seeing an opportunity, I volunteered to help him out. I told him that I would direct his loops, find the actors, hire the cameraman, and arrange for an apartment for the day, and that he would not have to pay me anything extra – just the hundred dollars he was already paying me as an actor. All he had to do was show up with the money to pay everyone. Smitty jumped at the chance, and we began an arrangement that lasted about six months, during which time I learned, on an admittedly primitive level, the basics of film making.
My phone would ring. “Hey Shun, we make films – you got girls?” So I would call my friends Herb (later known as Harry Reems), and Fred Lincoln, and then of course Nick, at Sal’s book store, to see if he had any recent luck at the Port Authority. There was always a cameraman available who, for one of Smitty’s crisp hundred dollar bills, would show up with a camera and some lights. An apartment was easily arranged, since the owner would get to watch the day’s activities, and might even offer to participate, if needed.
At the end of the day, Smitty would pay each participant a hundred bucks, and walk away with four loops, each one shot on a four hundred foot roll of 16 millimeter film. In order to guarantee that the footage was camera original, Smitty’s customer would buy the rolls of film unprocessed. This meant that all of the editing involved in creating a little story for each loop had to be done while shooting. A wide shot had to be followed by a close up. Reaction takes of faces, cutaway shots to keep the flow moving, all had to be done in a certain order. I would sit down and make shot lists for each loop. These shot lists, though primitive, were the precursors to the system I would create a few years later, when I was mass producing One-Day-Wonders. After about six months of making Smitty’s loops, I felt that I was ready to take the next step, but I wasn’t sure what that step would be.
I wanted to make a feature length film, but had no idea where to start. I had neither the experience nor the financing necessary to attempt such an improbable endeavor. Other than directing Smitty’s porn loops, my film experience was strictly limited to what I saw from my seat in the balcony. I had divided my movie-watching evenly, between the Elgin Cinema on Eighth Avenue, where I was mesmerized by the films of Welles, Bunuel, Godard, Hawkes, and Fellini – the decaying and cavernous movie palaces of 42nd Street, where you could see three action flicks for a buck – and the adult film houses of Times Square, where I soothed my sex addiction. I didn’t just watch movies, I devoured them, and the films I liked, I saw repeatedly – over and over; thinking them through, dissecting them, analyzing them, taking them apart and putting them back together again. Why did that scene end in a close-up? How did they make the blood seem so real? Why is the angle of the camera so low? What makes a director choose one lens over another? Why does the same shot look so different from the first row than it does from the back of the theater? How could I, with no experience and no money, make a movie? There must be a way.
The road from the improbable to the possible has many twists and turns, and depends, in order to reach a successful destination, on circumstance, and sometimes – just plain luck. I needed to create a movie that, because of its genre, would guarantee a safe return on its investment, and because of its careful construction, would cost almost nothing to make. Porn was cheap to produce, but theatrical distribution of feature length sex films was in its infancy, and the legal problems involved made it dangerous. Cheap Horror/Splatter movies might cost a bit more, but there was no guarantee that a buyer could be found for the finished product. I began to think about combining the two, sex and violence – it worked for James Bond. And I needed the money to make it happen.
In 1970 the courts, in an effort to clarify their position on obscenity, ruled that material that was found to contain redeeming social value could not be found to be legally obscene. This meant that, a film that contained hard core sex scenes, could be exhibited theatrically as long as that film also contained a story that could be construed as having redeeming social value. The Genie was out of the bottle.
The war in Vietnam had become an all-pervasive element in the American experience, but no one had yet released a movie that featured the war as central to its plot. Putting a series of sex scenes together would be relatively easy, even for a novice like me, but justifying those scenes with a story line that would give the film redeeming social value would be tricky. So I began an outline about a deranged Vietnam Vet, who brings his war home with him and goes on a rape and murder spree. There would be rape, so there would be sex, and our hero’s war-induced psychosis would legally justify that sex. Because he had raped and murdered, he would have to be sacrificed on the altar of morality, and blow his brains out in the final reel. I now felt that I had an idea for a sex film that could be safely distributed theatrically.
I had a childhood friend who had become fascinated by what I was doing. He was bored. His marriage was on the rocks, and he was susceptible to the distraction that my involvement in pornography provided for him. We had discussed my Vietnam Vet on a rape and murder spree idea, and he loved it. Then, quite unexpectedly, he got a check in the mail. If I could do this project for five thousand dollars, he would put up the money.
So I began the process of budgeting “Forced Entry”, my first feature. I knew the existing talent pool for porn films from my days directing loops for Smitty, so finding actors would not be a problem. Talent wise, a shooting day on a feature would probably cost the same as a day of shooting loops. The cast would be about the same size, maybe even smaller, since I planned to shoot the necessary footage in two days. The crew however, would need to be larger. I would need a cameraman, a sound recordist, and someone to help carry equipment from one shooting location to the next. Our helper wound up being the film’s backer. Location fees could be avoided by persuading friends and family to let me shoot scenes in their apartments for free. I would need to feed the cast and crew for the two shooting days, but that would be minimal.
I then called Eastman Kodak to find out the cost of 16 millimeter raw stock. Each 400 foot roll of 16MM stock ran approximately ten minutes, so a seventy minute movie that was shot at a ratio on two to one (How I came up with this ratio is still a mystery to me) would require the purchase of 14 rolls of film. I now had to figure out the cost of post-production, which was beyond my experience, but somehow I marched forward with an over-confidence that, even now, amazes me. I had met Frank and Vinnie at A-1 Film Labs through Simon Nuchtern at August Films, who pretended to be a legitimate film maker, but whose rent was paid from porn revenues. A-1 gave me a reasonable price on developing my 14 rolls of camera original and providing a matching work-print. This work print was needed in order to edit the picture, and would be matched back to the camera original once the editing process was completed. I would need stock footage of Vietnam, which was readily available for a price, and music which I intended to steal. When I put all of the numbers together I found that, if I was careful, I could complete the film within a budget of five thousand dollars.
There was never any doubt about casting the part of our deranged hero. My friend Harry Reams was involved in early discussions about the film’s plot, and gave me solid input about how the character should be played. He was excited about the opportunity, and his enthusiasm became contagious. Jutta David would play Harry’s first victim, and actually had the only non-violent sex scene in the film. Laura Cannon, who had been pounding the pavement, looking for acting opportunities, was perfect as Harry’s second victim. Laura’s scene, even now, 38 years later, is still talked about as being so realistic that it’s difficult to sit through. I now had the makings of a good cast, and began looking for a cameraman.
I had met Joel Shapiro through Simon Nuchtern at August Films. He had just graduated from NYU Film School, and was shooting loops for Simon to break-in his new French ‘Éclair’ NPR 16MM camera which, in those days, was the work horse of the documentary cameraman. Joel was an intense guy who was open to ideas, and unafraid to try almost anything. He was a walking encyclopedia on American and European cinema, and I was a good listener. Joel told me that he would provide a sound recordist, and they understood that there would be no overtime. They would work until they dropped which, with a budget this small, was unfortunate but necessary. We needed to shoot all of the footage in just two days, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, and in Forest Hills, out in the borough of Queens.
It was now time to determine the weaponry with which our psychopathic hero would terrorize the unsuspecting women of Gotham. He would frighten with a gun, but kill with a knife. A 38 caliber revolver, with its barrel partially blocked so that it could only fire blanks, was readily available from Center Firearms, the main supplier of guns to movies that were shot in New York City. Although he would carry the revolver with him throughout his rape and murder spree, he would use it only once, on himself in the final reel. A cutaway knife, a theatrical device used on stages for centuries, was also available for rent from Center Firearms. When pressed forward, in a stabbing motion, the blade would retract into the handle, and when the knife was pulled back the blade, which worked on a spring inside the handle, would reappear. A simple device, but combined with the dramatic elements of a screaming victim, and gushing blood, the effect could be startlingly realistic. Our troubled hero would, for reasons of photographic theatricality, kill with both a slashing, and a stabbing motion, and each method of mayhem would require its own technical solution. I spent many hours going over the death scenes with Harry, and the solution seemed simple. From a local hardware store I bought a turkey baster, which had a rubber bulb that I detached. I ran some catheter through the hole in the bulb, and secured it with gaffers tape. The bulb would be filled with Stein’s color corrected stage blood. (yes, there really is such a thing) If Harry could hide the bulb in his hand, and gently squeeze as he ran the blade across the throat of his victim, the blood should appear to be gushing from that victim’s slashed throat. Because of the obvious mess the stage blood would make, we did not rehearse the blood rig. We went over the choreography involved in each death scene, but Harry waited for the first actual camera take to squeeze the bulb. And it worked on the very first take. So much for Jutta David. For Laura Cannon, I needed Harry to stab, in a forward motion. The blade in the cutaway knife would retract and reappear with the forward and backward motion, but the problem of gushing blood was quite different. It seemed to me that if, after stabbing forward, Harry would squeeze his trusty bulb hard as he pulled out the knife, then the stage blood would shoot forward and bounce back off Laura’s skin, appearing as though it was gushing from the stab wound. Again, it worked on the first take. The Gods of blood rigs, and of risk takers were smiling on me. None of this gimmickry would be have been believable however, without the amazing performance of Laura Cannon, who was so involved with realistically dying, that she remained motionless, in a pool of Stein’s Sage Blood, for five minutes after the scene was completed, scaring the daylights out of the crew. After two, very long, exhausting shooting days, all of the shots on my list were accomplished, without the sound of a single complaint from cast or crew about the impossible schedule. It was, as they say, a wrap.
Post production, an area at which I had no experience, proved much more difficult, and dragged on for many months. I had rented a 16MM stand-up Moviola editing machine, and sat in front of it looking at the footage I had created, but had no idea how to put it all together. For the sake of my friend, who put up the money, and didn’t know I was pretending, I pretended. My only experience had been directing Smitty’s loops, and now I had to deal with cutting scenes of sound and picture together, into an order that made some kind of sense. I became frustrated and distracted, and looked for any excuse to absent myself from the editing room, the cost of which was adding dollars to the budget every month that the process dragged on. My friend’s wife was nagging at him to somehow get his money back, and our life-long friendship was now in jeopardy. I had become involved in another project, a docucomedy called “LOOPS”, with Bill Markle, an experienced cameraman and editor. I learned enough about editing in a few months with Bill to complete Forced Entry. We screened it for an independent producer named Gerry Intrator, who offered us $6,500. This was three hundred dollars more than my friend had invested so, although we had made no profit, at least we had suffered no loss. We shook hands with Intrator, and I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was time to move on.
But I had done it. I had made my first movie. I had no idea what I was doing, but for $6,200 I had written, produced, and directed a movie that, 38 years later, is still freaking people out.
© 2009 Shaun Costello