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