Interview: Ruggero Deodato

The main guest at this year’s Grossmann Film and Wine Festival (Ljutomer, Slovenia) was the great Italian director Ruggero Deodato. Last year Roger Corman and Brian Yuzna were there and interviews with them can be found at Beyond Hollywood. Now, exclusive to this site, comes a talk with the director of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, VIOLENT COPS, THE HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF THE PARK and many others.

In the following overview of his career, Deodato also reveals news about his most recent and upcoming projects.

Dejan Ognjanović: You have started your career back in the 1960s, and we are now in the XXI century. During the span of your career many things have changed. You began as an assistant director to some big names like Rosselini, Corbucci etc. and now, sadly, it seems that there are no such great directors in Italy. What happened to Italian cinema? What changes did you experience?

Ruggero Deodato: It is very easy for young directors to begin as assistants to such big directors. I made almost 60 movies as an assistant director. It is possible to get experience, to learn the craft, and craft is very important. At those times Italy was shooting about 500 movies each year. Later, many great directors died. The arrival of television was another blow. Before that, Italian cinema invented many genres, like the spaghetti western, like Decamereone, like police movies, for sale… Then, the numbers of movies made decreased gradually to about 50 a year.

The main reason is that now television gives a lot of money. Old producers have disappeared. Only those close to television remained. If I wrote a film now like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the producer would say: “This is not OK for television.” After that, what disappeared was the foreign sales. Many countries have disappeared because they had crises, like Japan, a big market. All Africa, Asia, South America, they all disappeared as buyers. Also, America has a lot of money, and it is impossible to compete with America. They are shooting the same movies as Deodato, Castellari etc. but with a budget, with starts, with special effects.

It is very difficult for me to sell a story now. I arranged my life by moving to television and commercials.

Back when you started your career, what ambition did you have? Did you want to make genre films, or art movies?

It is always better to make one commercial film. Then you are sure with your career, when you are famous, you can change, experiment. As for me, I decided that it is the best if I change every time: musical, crime film, drama, action, horror…

Do you mind when they call you a genre director, or exploitation director? Do you consider your movies to be exploitation?

When you do many movies in the same genre, it is not so easy to succeed. Like Romero, doing the same film over and over again. It is OK for him, for me it is difficult. I try to change. When I had my big success with CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I stopped my career for a few years. After that I came back with THE BARBARIANS. They were very good at box office. But soon after that Cannon Group fell down… So, I am not offended to be called genre director, I only hate when they call me “zombie director” or “cannibal director”. I am not a horror director: my real career is realistic movies. I love it. I started with comedy, and in my life, I am a comic. My greatest success with comedy is in my commercials.

The problem with comedies was that there was too big a competition: Dino Risi, Monicelli… But also, another problem with comedy is that it is all about the actor, not about the director. I want to be in command. The story is this: who gets more money, the actor or the director? If it is the actor, then the director gets little. So I decided to make films in which the director is the star, not the actor.

Why were you so preoccupied with realism? Why haven’t you ever made a movie about ghosts, zombies, monsters…?

I’ll tell you: my zodiac sign is Taurus. It means that my foot is firmly on the ground. This I like. I am passionate. I was born on May 7th, Rosselini was born on May 8th. My son is May 8th and my very best girlfriend on May 1st. So, Taurus is very important for me. I am like a Taurus: realistic, passionate, generous, sympathetic… Also, I want to be with a clear mind: I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs. Sometimes this is my problem.

That’s right, maybe you are too rational. The most famous Italian horror directors, like Dario Argento, they are very irrational, all about weird logic…

I am always realistic. Perhaps because of that I have problem to communicate with some colleagues, because my feet are always on the ground. I don’t need drugs: when I started, many people thought that I was taking drugs because of my strong temperament. They thought Deodato was on cocaine.

You were an assistant to Riccardo Freda whom you previously called a genius. Unlike Mario Bava, who at least now became very well known and respected among cinephiles, Freda still seems to be forgotten and not praised enough. What can you tell me about your work with him?

Freda was in some ways similar to Bava in terms of technical stuff, but was more into fantasy. He was an intellectual, he received the French Academy award. I liked many directors I worked with, like Rosselini, like Corbucci, because he is a real director, but Freda – he was different. He was special. For him, the impossible was possible. He was not easy to communicate with because he was a genius. Maybe he was a bad man because of his temperament, but genius. I was afraid of him, while I was not afraid of other directors I worked with.

Do you feel that you learned something from him?

Yes, yes. One difference: he was very good in editing, I was not. I shoot and edit at the same time, but later in the editing I’m bored. After the shooting I give the material to the editor. But Freda was very involved in the editing process. He was very charismatic, like Rosselini.

You are usually associated with horror genre. What is your attitude to this genre and did you have a special liking to it before you became famous because of it?

No, I liked Edgar Allan Poe films, gothic films, like LA DANZA MACABRA which I shot with Margheriti. This gothic genre I liked, but the fantasy, the giallo, the zombie film – no!

One of your films that are very rarely mentioned when they talk about your opus is a film which I consider to be your second-best, after CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. I’m talking about VIOLENT COPS (aka LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN, 1975). Perhaps you have some other favorite…

CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is my favorite now, because I follow the audience, and they selected it. I saw it 40 times, and it’s never boring to me. Some of my other films are boring to me sometimes, but HOLOCAUST – no. As for VIOLENT COPS, it is also my second best for me.

It is strange that it did not have a sequel, although it has great characters and a great set-up for a series of films.

I wanted a sequel because I loved it when I was shooting it, and I was very happy with it when I finished it. But it was not my fault, but the actors’. It is a movie with my temperament, with my fingerprints on it. I loved to shoot it in my Rome. I love the film.

So, how did the actors affect not making another VIOLENT COPS?

The trouble is that we have two protagonists. And they both want to be stars. Do you remember the credit sequence of the film? They are riding on a bike, and one tries to cover the other. They did that all the time. Terrible vanity. Marc Porel is French, very strange, he died because of drugs. Ray Lovelock was very nice person. But, it didn’t work.

Can you tell me about shooting that spectacular motor-chase scene through the city at the beginning of the film?

Previously the production asked for Remy Julien, a famous stunt coordinator. But they did not agree about his fee, so he left. So they decided to take an Italian stunt coordinator. But when I saw the material, it was terrible! Because the cameras were too close to the action, and the actors are running with almost 100 miles per hour, it was only a blur. So I had to do it myself.

And you were the stunt coordinator? You organized those scenes?

Yes! Perhaps Remy Julien could do something, but this Italian – nothing. So I shot it with no preparation, no permits, no storyboards… I used the real traffic, without permission, with the actors.

No stuntmen?

No, sometimes the actors, sometimes the stuntmen. And all that in the middle of the city.

How many days of shooting did that scene take?

Four days. But it’s a long scene. Also, when the bandits arrive at the bank with their motor: it was all without permission.

Yes, but that energy is up there on the screen, you cannot fake it. Like you said, it has your imprint, your style.

Yes. Sometimes people say that I am lazy. But when I am with a camera, the energy arrives. As for my other movies, I also love THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD. It loses something on a small screen, but when you see it in a cinema, it is magnificent. One time I saw it in the Cinematheque in France, first CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and afterwards, THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD. It was a great success, great reviews, everyone congratulated me. It was the hardest movie to make of all that I shot. Everything was difficult: location, climate, shooting with the Indios…

Was there any real-life danger in those jungle films?

Yes, there were snakes. Lamberto Bava, my assistant, was bitten. The Indios were difficult because they didn’t have a dialect, no language to communicate with us.

So how did you explain to them what you wanted in a particular scene?

For “come”, I said “Ga, ga, ga!” The first time I would say “come” and make a motion with my hand, but no result. They come only when I say “Ga, ga, ga!” And when I want them to run, I only say it fast: “Ga-ga-ga!” It was a great experience on a location very far away from the civilization.

What was your reason for going to those difficult places? As you know, many directors later imitated your films, but they shot them in the woods around Rome.

I hate when the director goes to the big city, to the studio, with everything around him: night clubs, women, beaches… I hate that. First, I want to shoot where the crew does not disturb me. If you shoot in Las Vegas, you can never have the people. I want to get up in the morning, early, to set up the scene. In the city you waste time in the traffic and everything. As for my jungle movies, it was difficult to arrive to the location, but once we were there, the conditions were perfect to shoot a movie.

You never considered the dangers?

No, never. The risk is my life.

What is your approach to the actors? Do you scream at them, or are you gentle?

When the actor says that something is impossible, I come and say: “OK; let’s try and see if it is impossible. If it is possible for me, it is possible for you.” The same with driving a plane. “You cannot drive? Let me try!” Or with the stuntmen: I show them that it is possible.

Did you have trouble with some actors who refused to do something you told them to do? Especially in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, where they have to do some difficult scenes, with animal violence, the turtle scene…

There was no trouble with that because the Colombian guild did everything. And we explained everything to the blond actor, from Vermont, and it was OK. Some American actors had trouble with that, but later they thanked me, like Gabriel Yorke.

At the beginning of the uncut DVD version of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST it says something along those lines: “This film is a document of a bygone era of irresponsible movies that we hope will never return again.” Do you think that your film is irresponsible?

We live in different times now. This movie would be impossible to do now, with animal scenes etc. For me that was all normal. I live in a small country house, close to the animals, to the farm people. It’s very easy.

But how do you justify those scenes? Why did you need animal violence in the film?

Because the Oriental market wanted that. Japan, and all Orient wanted that. The producer said: “You must do something like this because they want it.”

Did you have any kind of statement to make, or message to convey with that film? Did you have a deeper meaning besides entertainment with that story?

You know the last words of the film: “I wonder who the real cannibals are.” That is the message. I hate the colonizer, I hate when they killed the Indios, I hate the Spanish for killing the Incas.

OK, but since your main characters are filmmakers, what exactly are you saying about film as a medium and filming as a process?

It is a criticism of the journalists who go to shoot the scoop, and when there is no scoop, they make one.

So, does that mean that your film is a criticism of Mondo-movies?

This is a nice question, because I love the mondo films. I loved them. I love Jacopetti, the director, but now I realize that my film is a criticism of mondo.

But it was not intended as that?

No, I only wanted a change, a different story: a film that would look like a mondo film, but with actors, with effects, with a story – not documentary. But now I know that it is a criticism of mondo. Now I’m afraid to meet Jacopetti (laughter).

And what about the use of documentary footage of actual people being killed? How do you justify those execution and war scenes in your film?

They are there for the reality of the film, for realism. I bought that material in London. I selected this material after I finished the movie.

Is there some especially interesting story about the reception of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?

All the critics went after the animal-violence scenes. But things were different then. Nowadays, when one’s grandfather dies, a mother says: “Don’t go and look at your grandfather; remember him as he was alive.” Before, a mother would say: “Your grandfather died. Go to see him for the last time.” Before, when you went to the country, you could see the pigs slaughtered, blood and guts, it was in the open. Now, it is too terrible, everyone is frightened of blood and guts. All is different now. To die is a part of life, so why hide it?

I understand it, but I still wonder. I asked some young people what was more frightening to them: to see on the Internet the Islamist extremists cut off the head of a young American soldier, or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST? And they say: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST!

That is because you are a better director than the Iraqi who shot that video!

I don’t know. I was afraid when I saw it. Four persons with black masks on their faces, in tunics, it was strong, like Tarantino movies, so I don’t understand why is CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST stronger for them.

There is some kind of magic captured there, because many have tried to imitate CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but no one could come close.

It is true. Even for me it would be impossible to shoot another CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

After that you continued making films with very strong scenes of violence. Do you have any personal interest in such material or was it only because the producers asked you to make such films?

Now when I look at THE HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF THE PARK, it looks very modern to me, maybe more modern than the Kubrick movie, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The idea is strong: the rich against the poor, it is a modern story now.

Yes, but all the violence, and rape, and blood… Somehow, in your movies those scenes have a special impact that is lacking in those of many of your colleagues, where all you get is a special effect, with no impact.

That is because I am realistic. I hate the special effects. I want to show less, but to affect you on the mental level. I don’t like gore.

Talking about other horror directors in Italy, have you ever met Dario Argento? What do you think of his movies?

I do not have a good agreement with him. We are different. I like some of his films, but we mostly stay away. Maybe he hates me, but I don’t know why. Once when he met me, he crossed to the other side of the street. We are different. I am extrovert, he is more introvert. I talk, I am open, but he is more secluded, more like… like a snake.

Do you know Pupi Avati and his horror films?

I like his films, but only his comedies. I think they are his best films. I haven’t seen his horror films. I don’t like fantasy.

But maybe you should see his HOUSE WITH THE WINDOWS THAT LAUGHED, it’s done very realistically.

Perhaps I will do that now. But I think comedies, that is the real Pupi Avati, that is him.

In terms of horror, which Italian directors would you prefer? Including the dead, like Mario Bava.

I haven’t seen Bava’s films. Only DIABOLIK. I saw something by Margheriti because I shot a few films with him, I saw Freda, but… (pause) As for other horror films, I like THE SHINING, THE OTHERS, THE ORPHANAGE… I like this type of horror, elegant. No gore.

And what about films which borrowed the documentary approach from you, like REC?

I saw REC because I was in the jury at Sitges. It is a copy of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. I don’t like it because of the zombies. But I like it because the zombies, you see them, and yet you don’t see them. The idea is nice, but… I don’t know.

Let’s go back to your films: in OFF BALANCE (aka PHANTOM OF DEATH) you worked with some pretty big names, like Donald Pleasence, Michael York, etc. What were they like to work with?

Michael York is a nice person and a nice actor, but Donald Pleasence is a genius. When I shot his scenes, on the set, they seemed OK, I don’t know, but nothing special. When I got to see the rushes, it was something special. Perfect.

How do you rate OFF BALANCE now? What do you think of it?

I saw it recently again, and I like it: some parts look like an “A” production. But it seemed too long in the final part. Also, I like Edwige Fenech as a person, but she is wrong for that part. It was not my fault, the producer wanted her. I had some fight about the cut, but in the end it was OK.

Did you have final cut in your films?

No, in this film no. But in the others, yes.

In the 1990s you completely stopped making feature films for cinema, and moved to TV. What happened?

With BARBARIANS I came to the top. It was a mix of fantasy, comedy, action, adventure… But the crisis of the Cannon Group came, and nothing big happened with it. Later I had a TV series from a Spanish writer and a fantastic cast, Irene Papas, Ernest Borgnine, Martin Balsam, many fantastic actors, fantastic work. But it was never shown in Italy. The producer died, they sent it to Berlusconi, he put it in the bag, I don’t know why… Later I shot another series for TV, I RAGAZZI DEL MURETTO, a big success…

Didn’t you get any serious offers to shoot a movie for cinemas?

No, because things changed. The old producers died, and the new ones only wanted things for television. I wrote many stories, but nobody bought them. I also changed things in my life, I changed my wife, all kinds of things happened to me in the 1990s. I fell in love with a woman who changed my life. I entered the year 2000 as a new man. Now I have a 7-years old daughter.

Does it mean that you have abandoned moviemaking?

No, I only have greater responsibility now as a director. I feel obliged to shoot one film for children. But then, two years ago, my old friend Andre Cobb came and asked: “Why don’t you shoot another CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?” So I wrote it, and now I want to shoot a strong, realistic movie, because I want my daughter to know that her father is someone important, not only for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST but for some other movie. I’ll leave one movie for my daughter.

What is the story of the new CANNIBAL movie that you planned to make? What is its plot?

It starts when the owner of one TV company watches a piece of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST on television. He has an idee fixe to make another movie like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. He organizes one expedition to do that. After they leave the jungle, they come to the metropolis, but they come to the favellas where he finds the real story of cannibals. In the jungle they see Indios with some civilization. But they find the most terrible things in the city, in favellas. It is a very strong story. But the producers only want to shoot in Ottawa, in Montreal, which I don’t like.

Does it also have scenes of strong violence?

Oh, yes, very many, but right now I would rather not talk about it. I have another story in my mind that I want to make. Its title is THE DAY AFTER HALLOWEEN. It is a real story. Now they have a trial based on that crime. I changed it a bit, but cannot reveal much. It is a whodunit.

Can you tell me something about the project ITALIAN MASTERS OF HORROR?

It is produced by Lamberto Bava, I have one story, one is by Bava, one by Sergio Stivaletti and one by the brothers Simonetti. Mine is called NATAS. It is backward from Satan. In this story two young girls murder their friend. Later in the jail they discover that they have a Satanic… problem. It will be realistic, but with Satanic overtones. It will be a feature film, for cinemas. As it seems now, mine and Lamberto’s are going to the cinemas, while the other two may go to TV. I will be shooting in Torino. If everything goes as planned, I will shoot it this year. In September I should sign the contract. The script is ready, the budget is ready. We may have some English actors, too.

It is so great to hear that you are coming back to filmmaking, and to horror genre.

Sure thing. In the past three years I travelled to many festivals – today I received invitation to be in the jury of the Strasbourg film festival – and now I have a better idea about what goes around my name. People expect more films from me.

Are you happy with your career so far?

Yes, I’m very happy. I changed, I travelled, I had adventures… Next year it will be 50 years of me working in the film business. I am 70 years old: I do not know if I look it, but inside, I feel much younger.

You obviously like to travel. What was your most pleasant experience travelling?

Africa. I love Africa. First is Africa, second is South America.

So, you liked it in spite of the jungles, insects, snakes…?

Sure. In the jungle I come like that (clapping both hands), and the snakes go “whooosh”, disappear. All people follow me. Only once it happened that I touched leaves of some tree, and my hand was immediately swollen. But mosquitos: they don’t touch me! They attack other people, but not me. For example, near the Amazon river there is a microbe which can enter you through your ass and do big damage inside. Me, I went water skiing there, and nothing happened. When I arrive there, all the people have diarrhea, fever, all kinds of trouble. I only take a glass of their water, and immediately I am acclimatized.

And what do you think about travelling around the world on various festivals and meeting your fans, or other movie directors who like your work?

People are very curious, but I have no trouble communicating. It is strange. For example, last year in Sitges, 2.000 people were laughing because me and Castellari did one sketch and the audience was laughing. Now they are calling me to give lectures to young film students. And I want to talk to them about artistic movies, not just entertainment. This is their first experience of film, and when you do not have money it is better to learn that. When you don’t have the budget it is important to learn how to use an idea, how to make it work.

What are your impressions of this festival, of Ljutomer and Slovenia?

I like the country. I have a country farm in Italy, and it is similar to this region. I like this union of countryside and the festival. I like the quiet. The wine is a problem for me because I don’t drink too much. But I bought some wine here because my wife would love it. It is a good idea to join film and wine. And you are a good interviewer. My English is very bad, Spanish and French is much easier for me, but English – no. I hope my real personality is not lost in this interview that we did in English language.

Rugero Deodata (left) makes an appearance in Eli Roth's Hostel II.

Rugero Deodata (left) makes an appearance in Eli Roth's Hostel II.