PORNOGRAPHER FOR HIRE
Toiling at day labor in the world of smut.
by Shaun Costello
In 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed Apostolic Socialist Preacher, increased the world-wide awareness of Kool Aid immeasurably, by moving his “People’s Temple” flock from the city of San Francisco to an obscure corner of Northwest Guyana, where he led them in a ritualistic mass suicide, leaving over nine hundred rotting, bloated corpses for the world’s Paparazzi to record for posterity. At Camp David, in rural Maryland, Egypt and Israel shook hands on a peace agreement while, in Lawrenceville Georgia, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine, was paralyzed by gun shots from an unknown assailant. In England, the birth of the world’s first test tube baby was recorded – conceived through In Vitro Fertilization. Before the year would end, Atlantic City would legalize gambling, the Love Canal would be declared a federal disaster, and Garfield the Cat would enter syndication. In the Spring of 1978 I got a call from Roy Seretsky, who had an office in New York’s Film Center Building where I also had space for years. I knew Roy only slightly, and he knew me mostly by reputation. He also knew of my association with Dibi (Robert ‘Dibi’ DiBernardo) and the Gambino crime family. I was considered a protected guy, which meant I was untouchable, a status I reveled in. Dibi, in deference to my friendship with the late John Liggio, had kept the status of “connected” from our relationship. Instead I was considered a “friend” of the family, and friends were protected, without the reciprocity that would be demanded of a “connected” guy, or an “associate”. An ideal situation.
A year before, I had met Roy during the shooting of ‘Fiona on Fire’, a movie I was reluctant to direct. Fiona was written and produced by Ken Schwartz, who owned a film editing facility a few floors above my office in the Film Center. Schwartz was an affable man who I had gotten to know through renting his editing rooms to do post production on Waterpower, a movie I had produced a year earlier. Ken couldn’t get over Waterpower – how well he thought it turned out, and how absurdly kinky it was. He mentioned to me more that once that, if he ever got the opportunity to produce a film of his own, I would be the only director he would consider. I had been directing adult films for six years, and had always written and produced my own projects, a situation that I was not anxious to change. Working with long-time collaborator, cameraman Bill Markle, I had always written and produced everything myself. But Ken was relentless, and suddenly the opportunity presented itself. He had written a script based on Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic “Laura” and, through Roy Seretsky, had come up with the
money to produce it. The idea of working with someone else’s material was unappealing to me, and I declined Ken’s offer. But sometimes a situation can dictate a change in direction. A film I was planning had been cancelled by its backers, who were restructuring and temporarily out of business, and I found myself unemployed. This, combined with Ken’s relentless pursuit and offers of a hefty director’s fee, changed my position. So I took the job and hated every minute of it. Although I was allowed to hire Markle as the Director of Photography, that hire was my limit. Ken had written a complicated screenplay, with tricky dialogue that even experienced actors would have trouble with, and he expected porn performers, who had difficulty with the simplest scripts, to deal with it. It was impossible. Not only had Ken written the script, but he would also do the casting, so that actors I didn’t know, who had little experience, and even less talent would show up on the set to wrangle with dialogue they had no hope of delivering in any believable way. And, as the film’s director, I was supposed to sort all of this out – make it happen. It was hopeless. Bill Markle did a great job, as always, giving the movie a professional look, but the performance of most of the cast was laughable. At the end of every shooting day, after begging Ken to
simplify the dialogue, I swore I’d never do anything like this again. Two or three times, during Fiona’s eight shooting days, Roy Seretsky would show up on the set, look around, and then quickly disappear. I had maybe one or two conversations with him, certainly nothing memorable. A year after we wrapped the set on Fiona, I was surprised to hear from him. Roy had one of the most unique jobs in show business. He scouted investment opportunities in theatrical and motion picture production for organized crime, particularly the Bonanno family. He had put together financial packages for many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, which had enjoyed a long and profitable Off-Broadway run, was wholly Bonanno funded, the arrangements made by Roy. Their biggest success was twenty percent ownership of “Cats”, which made them a fortune. On the film side, Roy was offered all or part of almost everything produced by Dino DeLaurentis. Roy had backers for a script that my old nemesis
Ken Schwartz had written and wanted to direct, a comedy/sex version of Dracula. The budget was huge, maybe $150,000, which was more money than had ever been spent on what would still have to be considered a porno movie. The script was hilarious, but the backers were nervous. Roy asked me to meet with him, along with some of the Colombo people. My part in this meeting would be to act as consultant in order to advise them on the profitability of the project. The meeting was held at Lanza’s Restaurant, on First Avenue and Twelfth Street. Roy, myself, and two of the Colombo people would participate. My good friend and sponsor John Liggio, a ranking member in the Colombo family, had died of lung cancer a few years before, and I recognized one of the Colombos from the funeral. He worked under John, and knew of our friendship, so the mood of the meeting was warm and friendly. They laid their cards on the table and I advised them as best I could. Ken Schwartz, who wrote the script and was lobbying to direct it, wanted to cast Jack Wrangler, a notoriously gay porno actor, famous for his live-in relationship with singer Margaret Whiting, as Dracula. Mafia members are born homophobes, and they were nervous about putting up the
biggest budget ever spent on a heterosexual porno movie (Dracula) starring a notoriously gay actor (Jack Wrangler). Wrangler had told Schwartz that if he got the part his good friend, famous Broadway wardrobe designer, William Ivey Long, would do the costumes. A stage-struck Schwartz was smitten with the idea of Long’s participation and, although I had no idea how that would add to the project’s profitability, I continued to listen. I heard them out and told them what I thought. Ken’s script was hilarious, and had real possibilities if correctly handled. I had met Wrangler a few times and liked him. I told them that Jack might make a very campy and funny Dracula. When asked if I would cast him I told them that, with a budget this big, it could be risky. I suggested that if the decision were mine I would cast Jamie Gillis as the moody vampire. On the Schwartz/directing issue I told them that he would probably be fine, but he should be closely watched. First time directors have a tendency to overshoot, and in 35MM that could lead to stock and lab overages that could be substantial. The meeting ended and we went our separate ways. I left the meeting hungry because the food at Lanza’s was awful. The place was kept open exclusively for meetings like this one, not for its cuisine.
A few days later Roy called. He asked me if, as a favor (a big word with these guys), I would take the job of assistant director on the picture in order to keep an eye on Schwartz. I declined. Having an obvious spy in the crew would only serve to make the first time director nervous. Roy had his back-up offer ready. He said that if I would direct the movie for a flat fee he would hire Gillis to play the lead, and I would have final say on all casting. This would mean a month in the city, and I had been training for a major dressage competition in Rhinebeck in a few weeks, so this was not an appealing idea. Also, it seemed like Fiona redux, which was an awful thought. But I knew that, if I said no, the Colombo’s would pressure the Gambinos, and I would get a call from Dibi suggesting I do this for the good of all concerned. So I caved. During pre-production it became obvious that the whole project was quickly becoming a mess, but there was one exception. Ken Schwartz, who had been kicked upstairs as Producer, and was becoming strangely
unstable, had hired a typist/PA on the production who caught my eye. He was a skinny, mousy guy with thick glasses, and a mid-western accent, who seemed to be an island of quietly assertive competence in the sea of chaos that this production was becoming. This was Mark Silverman, who would become my producer and friend for the duration of my tenure as a pornographer. The shooting of “Dracula Exotica” took over three weeks. I had a script supervisor and even an assistant. There was a production manager named Bill Milling, who I loathed on sight, and the biggest crew I had ever seen, much less worked with. Ken Schwartz spent most of his time going over sketches with William Ivey Long, the famous Broadway wardrobe designer, who took the job because he thought his friend Jack
Wrangler was going to play the lead. Long quit after a week. The first night of pre-production, Milling and I got into it over something. As the shouting got louder, and the tension approached the red line, Mark Silverman, who was the lowest ranking production assistant in the crew and had the title “typist”, walked right over to the shouting parties and said, “Hey, do either of you two assholes want coffee?” I was in love. With one line Mark was able to diffuse the argument, and even get a few laughs. My kind of guy.
I was happy with the look of the dailies. If only Ken Schwartz could handle post-production, he’d have a huge hit on his hands. By the end of the first week of shooting Schwartz, who had been growing more unstable with each production day, had a nervous breakdown. It seems that earlier in the day, William Ivey Long, the wardrobe designer, who was disappointed at the absence of Jack Wrangler, quit the project, and Ken flipped out. I was in a screening with Bill Markle and Robbie Lutrell, the special effects designer, when Mark Silverman burst in. “We have a big problem”, he said. “Ken has flipped out, and Bill Milling is running around like a lunatic, making phone calls and telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s taking over the picture”. I told Mark to get Roy Seretsky on the phone. I told him not to give details, but that he should get over here right away. Ken was sitting behind his desk mumbling something and had become completely dysfunctional. I guess that being responsible for this sized budget had gotten to him. Anyway, Roy showed up and straightened Milling out, and we kept shooting. Ken gradually recovered his ability to speak and by the end of shooting seemed normal, but wasn’t. The responsibility for the huge budget had gotten to him, and the loss of his famous wardrobe designer was the last straw. He never seemed to recover his original enthusiasm for the project. Ultimately, Dracula Exotica was a real disappointment. The cast, particularly Jamie Gillis, Vanessa Del Rio, and Bobby Astyr were terrific. The sets were elaborate. The locations were lush and inventive. Ken’s script was funny. But the picture just never worked. Schwartz, who seemed to have lost all faith in the production, and in order to save a few shekels, hired Robby Lutrell, the special effects designer on the project, who had never edited anything in his life, to cut the picture. The dailies had great potential, but the finished picture was flat. Robby couldn’t cut sex, and he couldn’t cut comedy, a bad combination. Dracula Exotica could have been a breakthrough picture for all concerned but, because Ken cheaped out in post production, all that expensive footage, that took us all so many long shooting days to achieve, was wasted. If asked, I probably would have cut the film for nothing, and the result might have been quite different. But I wasn’t, and this time I swore, and stuck to it, never to work as a hired gun again.
I’m going to take a moment here to explain why adult movies with big budgets like Dracula Exotica were, from an investor’s point of view, pure folly. During the Seventies there were a finite number of first run adult movie houses in major cities, just as there were a finite number of second and third run (where the real profit was made) houses in the suburbs and rural areas. In 1978, the year I made Dracula Exotica, a Porn Feature made its reputation playing the big houses in NY and LA. This assured that picture of major play in the rest of the big cities. The biggest play date
was the Pussycat Theater in NYC. The Pussycat played the biggest pictures, not because of their quality, but because of the familial connection of the backers. Since the Pussycat was owned and operated by New York’s Bonanno crime family, it stood to reason that a Bonanno funded picture would be first choice, guaranteeing a nice profit for its investors. A full page rave review, written by Al Goldstein, would appear in Screw the week of the opening, with quotes galore, available for the print ads and one-sheets. Goldstein was on the Bonanno’s payroll, and did what he was told. If no Bonanno funded picture was available then a Gambino funded picture would play the house, followed by a Colombo funded picture, etc. The rule of thumb was that the first run houses in major cities made back the picture’s negative cost, and the second and third run houses in the hinterland made the profit. The same is true in television, where the network run makes back the production cost, and syndication makes the real profit.
The formula was: Dollar one of profit was reached at 2.5 X negative cost.
So a Movie like Dracula Exotica, which had a production cost of $150,000 and additional lab costs (internegative, and release prints) of $30,000 had a total negative cost of $180,000. This meant that it would not make dollar one of profit until it grossed $450,000. That’s a number that might take years to reach. The only reason that the budget was so big was to make Ken Schwartz feel good about himself. He convinced Roy Seretsky, who arranged the financing, that he could produce a “Breakthrough” movie that would make them all rich and Roy bought into Ken’s fantasy, a bad decision, from a purely business point of view.
When I was approached by Cal Young, that same year, to make a picture with Dom Cataldo’s money, I was careful about how I approached it. This was Cal’s first attempt at a “better” movie, and I liked both of these guys, and wanted them to do well. Also I had a piece of it. So I designed the production to maximize profitability. I came up with a great title (Afternoon Delights), wrote a screenplay that revealed itself in vignettes (more bang for the buck), shot the movie in 16MM, specifically designed to be blown-up to a 35MM internegative, and limited the 35MM release print run to ten (you rarely needed more). Dom Cataldo was a highly ranked sub-boss in the Colombo family with gambling operations in Brooklyn and Queens, so opening Afternoon Delights at the Pussycat was assured. That would mean that the two pictures would have pretty much the same play dates throughout their runs.
Let’s compare them: THE TALE OF THE TAKE:
DRACULA EXOTICA: “The Heavyweight Champ and disappointment to its backers”
Negative cost $180,000
Dollar one of profit reached at $450,000.
Gross revenues (as of ‘83) $550,000. (I know this number because Seretsky, who was pissed at Ken Schwartz, told me)
Profit: $100,000. or 56% of its negative cost.
AFTERNOON DELIGHTS: “The Lightweight Challenger, and little known cash cow”
Negative cost $60,000 (production cost $40,000…blow up and print run $20,000)
Dollar one of profit reached at $150,000.
Gross revenues (as of ‘83) $500,000.
Profit $350,000. or 580% of its negative cost.
Which investment would you rather have made? The moral to this story is that, back in 1978, as long as you were connected, spending more than $60,000 on an adult movie was pure folly. Other than freakishly profitable blockbusters like, Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and some others, most adult movies made the same money, provided they were ‘Family’ financed, and looked good. The pictures I made for Reuben Sturman a few years later were made with video in mind somewhere down the road, so they had to appeal to a wider audience, namely couples. Sturman wanted a “Look”, was willing to pay for it, and it was money well spent. He had the foresight to understand where the business was going. At this point the ‘Families’ were coming to the conclusion that there was more money in heroin and cocaine than in porn, which was basically the end of them.
© 2014 Shaun Costello
THE THIRD HAND
by Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the “Seventies” manuscript:
Sex, Gangsters, and Deception in the time of ‘Groovy’
By the middle of 1974, my time was pretty evenly divided between CBS Sports, and Star Distributors, the porn unit of the Gambino Crime Family. Out in Hunterdon County, my girlfriend Jane had quickly outgrown my birthday gift to her the previous year, a little chestnut gelding called Applejack. She was an athletic and natural rider, and wound up buying an open jumper who nobody except Jane seemed able to ride. She called him Bojangles and did wonders with him. I tried riding him only once, and was so terrified by the experience that I almost quit riding altogether. I sold little Applejack to a local teenager, and started riding school horses during lessons, which never lasts long. Show Barns make their money on lessons and on selling expensive horses to horseless riding students like me. After a few weeks of taking lessons on their school horses the sales routine began. “Shaun, what can I say? You’ve outgrown the school horses, and if you’re really serious about riding then it’s time to find you a nice thoroughbred.” Essentially they were saying, “Either you’re going to own an expensive, fine tuned jumping machine, or you’re going to remain a horseless slob, looked down upon by all concerned.” So within a few weeks, not wanting to remain a horseless slob, I forked over the money for a stunning bay thoroughbred gelding who I called Dawn Patrol. The problem was that Dawn Patrol was a five year old and only a year off the track, so he was completely green. This meant that I could only ride him under professional supervision, which wound up costing quite a bit of money. If I wanted to go hacking with Jane off in the woods and fields I had to rent a school horse from the barn, while my difficult-to-ride thoroughbred remained in his stall eating me out of house and home. I was now in way over my head.
August passed into September, and my porn production output continued at a frantic pace while I still spent weekends trying not to look foolish attempting to ride my fine tuned jumping machine, and watching Jane tear over Jump courses on her
chestnut monster with the reckless abandon of the fine rider she had become. She had risen to a full level above me, but I was happy with our situation. My life seemed to work. I was maxed-out, but as long no surprises came my way I could manage this level of activity. It was at this point that my mother called to tell me she was getting re-married.
This matrimonial announcement immediately put Jane into wedding-present mode. So, with our gift perfectly wrapped, we jumped on the Metroliner and headed to Washington DC, where the event was to take place. Both the ceremony and the reception were to be held at the townhouse of Michael Gill, a close friend of my mother’s new victim, and a man who had made a
lifetime career out of being the nephew of Mamie Eisenhower. He was one of those Washington political parasites who lived on the perks when his party was in power. The republicans still held the Whitehouse so Michael Gill was on the dole. It was never made clear to me exactly what Gill did, but from the look of him, I was certain that not all of it was legal.
The ceremony was to be presided over by a Seventh Circuit Appellate Judge, and attended by a collection of Washington’s best and worst characters. My mother’s new husband had owned restaurants in the Washington area for years, and seemed well liked. Bob Dole was there, as was Dick Cheney, Ed Musky, and what seemed like every lobbyist in the capital.
On the other side of the reception was a delegation of boys from the Bonnano family in New York, some of whom looked familiar. What an amazing gathering. Some of them had gone to law school to learn how to defend criminals, and some of them had attended “The University of the Streets” to learn the subtle nuances of the import/export business, but all of them were gangsters. I hadn’t seen this many republicans in one room since the televised coverage of the 1972 Convention.
I introduced Jane to the happy couple, who really did seem like a happy couple, and who in turn, introduced us to our host. Michael Gill took Jane in tow, “Young lady, before the ceremony begins, let me introduce you to our guests”, and off they went. While Jane was glad-handing the guest list, I decided to explore Gill’s house. The main floor contained the cavernous living room, its walls decorated with many photographs of Ike and Mamie, and where the wedding guests were milling about. Just down the hall was an equally large formal dining room with more photographs of the Eisenhowers, a chefs kitchen where the caterers were busy
prepping the banquet, and various and sundry pantries and storage cabinets. The floors above contained bedroom after bedroom, each one with walls covered with more Ike and Mamie pictures, that seem to go on forever. Next to the kitchen was a door that led to the stairway to the basement. I decided that Gill’s basement might be worth exploring, and I was right.
Michael Gill’s secret subterranean playground was a wood paneled wonderland of adult entertainment. A screening room, with couches instead of chairs, where guests could watch adult films while stretching out together in total comfort. The next room was decorated in a kind of cruise ship motif, with port-holes painted on the walls, round life-preservers hanging everywhere, and deck chairs for the comfort of the ship’s passengers. In the
center of the room was the biggest hot tub I had ever seen, accommodating maybe ten to twelve wet revelers at one time. As in the previous room, there was a large movie screen, and through one of the port-holes I noticed an 16MM movie projector.
The shelves in the projection room contained 16MM prints of feature films, all pornographic. As I went through the titles I was horrified to find several little movies that I had made for Sid Levine the previous year, and I was in about half of them. So Michael Gill had seen me in action. But how could he have gotten his hands on theatrical films that I had made for the DeCavalcante crime family? Then I remembered the boys from the Bonnano family who were upstairs for the wedding. The wedding! I made a bee-line for the stairway and arrived just in time. Jane was furious whispering, “Where have you been? Everybody’s been waiting for you.” I just said, “Don’t ask.”
The ceremony passed without a hitch, my sisters cried, and the reception began. Michael Gill hadn’t taken his eyes off Jane since we arrived, and it was making her uncomfortable. Gill, who’s constantly filling my glass, was telling me a series of bizarre stories about the sexual capabilities of his insatiable, nymphomaniac girlfriend. She was a mousy little thing, who I’m sure no one at the reception suspected of having a third hand located in her vagina, yet Gill maintained that this was the case. Now I knew that he recognized me from the movies. Why else would he be constantly whispering in my ear about his girlfriend’s sexual exploits? If he knew, did his pal who was in the midst of marrying my mother also know? Did Cheney? Dole? Musky? Just how many members of the United States Senate had watched, in the comfy confines of Michael Gill’s underground pleasure chamber, the movies I had made for the Mob? Gill was still relentlessly whispering. “I guarantee you young man, the slippery grasp, the velvety fingers, your zorch will be the happiest little guy on planet Earth.” Zorch? I hadn’t heard that word since I was twelve. At this point Gill decided that I should meet his pal Dick Cheney who, for the past few months, had been running Gerry Ford’s transition team, working just under his buddy Don Rumsfeld. “Dick, I’d like you meet the bride’s son Shaun. He’s a film maker you know.” Cheney turned with an outstretched hand, “A real pleasure Shaun. They make quite a handsome couple. A film maker, huh. Not a member of the press are you?” “No sir, not at all.” Cheney was sizing me up. “What kind of films do you make?” He was peering at me over the top of his glasses. “Golf sir, my last film was about the British Open.” Cheney smiled, “Golf. That’s the ticket. The great American common denominator. Everybody loves golf. Did you know that President Ford is quite an accomplished golfer? Plays with the pros all the time.”
So here we were at my mother’s wedding reception. Michael Gill was standing between Bob Dole, who was endlessly telling great jokes, and Dick Cheney, who was explaining how his friend Gerry Ford would save the GOP from ruin; and in between Dole’s Jokes and Cheney’s explanations, Gill was whispering in my ear about how it would feel when his girlfriend got that third hand in her vagina around my zorch. The only improvement that I could see on the theatricality of this moment might be the addition of a little acid, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The reception began to wind down and, before I could tell Jane about Gill’s subterranean amusement park, he was already telling her about his new gazillion gallon hot tub which, he proudly told her, was big enough for the whole neighborhood. He was having an intimate get together after the reception ended. Just a few couples would be there. Fun, open-minded couples, and we were invited. How could I have been so stupid? Gill was selling me on the sexual talents of his mousy girlfriend, while my mother was saying “I do”, in order to get his hands on Jane. This was truly hilarious. So my mother and her new hubby went over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and Jane and I took the short walk to Union Station, leaving Michael Gill and his three-handed girlfriend to swim laps in their hot tub.
Back in New York, I had stopped by Sid’s office to pick up a couple of checks from Star, and their office had a different feel. The young guys who did the grunt work, carrying boxes of film cans from one floor to the next, were all wearing suits. Normally these guys wore tee shirts, so I asked them what was going on. Paulie, who was the youngest, and always joking around, seemed strangely serious. “We’re in the banking business now”, he said. “Got to look good.” The banking business?
So I took Star’s checks down to the Franklin National Bank, like I always did, and a change had been made. The Franklin sign above the building had been replaced by one that read European American Bank. Inside all seemed as usual, with the exception ofsome of the bank’s personnel. Sitting at desks formerly occupied by the branch’s officers were employees of Star Distributors, wearing suits and looking a bit out of place. Charlie, the manager who had worked for Franklin, was still there and greeted me. “Hi Shaun, what have you got today?” “Just a few checks, Charlie.” He smiled. “No problem. Come on in the back.” As we walked toward the back of the bank, some of the “officers” winked or gave me the high-sign. In the bank’s back room four long tables had been set up, and they were covered with cash in various denominations, some of it stacked, and some of it just in piles. There were five or six men, all wearing suits, and all recognizable to me as employees of Star, sitting at the tables, counting the money, and putting the cash in large corrugated cardboard boxes. I gave the checks to Charlie, who reached into one of the boxes and handed me an enormous stack of freshly laundered hundred dollar bills. “Things are going to be easier from now on”, he said while counting out the last of my cash. It took a few of these odd transactions before the scandal hit the papers.
The Sicilian Mafia, fronted by an Italian businessman named Michele Sindona, had bought out the failing Franklin National Bank, renaming it EAB. The administration of the bank’s branches was to be the responsibility of New York’s Gambino crime family, along with the DeCavalcantes. So that’s what happened. I wondered why they didn’t just call it the Mafia National Bank and get it over with, but of course I never suggested this idea to the boys. So the European American Bank went about doing business with most of its employees bearing a strange resemblance to the cast of Mean Streets.
© 2011 Shaun Costello