Eccentric mavericks have never exactly been in short supply on the Italian film scene but even in that colourful milieu, OVIDEO G. ASSONITIS stands out. Born of Greek stock in Egypt, 18/01/43, he became involved in film distribution after his family relocated to Italy. When the kind of films he wanted to distribute weren’t available, he started producing them himself. When he couldn’t find satisfactory scripts, he started writing his own. And when the directors he hired weren’t up to scratch… you guessed it. The runaway success of his first (co)directed feature Beyond The Door (currently available in a beautiful BD edition from Arrow) ruffled the feathers of Tinsel Town’s big wigs, resulting in a long running legal case. His fingerprints are on films that represented the best of some genres and changed the course of others. He was behind a couple of the “video nasties”, fired a Hollywood A-lister and saw more of the real Emmanuelle than he probably wanted to. And he’s still going strong, preparing to shoot his latest effort in Maui when we caught up with him.
First things first, Ovidio… I know that you were born in the great commercial centre of Alexandria, also that your father was involved in film distribution. Presumably these things impacted on your choice of career…
When my family lived in Alexandria we were not involved with the film industry. My father was an entrepreneur in the cotton trade, though he did bring writers and film makers over to Alexandria as part of his efforts to promote Italian culture. We moved to Italy when I was 14 years old and my father became the general manager for international relations at a major film producers’ association. Every day at lunch and dinner, I heard a lot of things about the making of movies, something to which I was definitely attracted. Later, I become a film distributor in South East Asia, opening offices all over that part of the world. My partners and I released more than a thousand movies over ten years. At a time when I was having difficulties finding the right pictures for that market I started producing them myself.
As a producer and distributor you were collaborating with people like AIP and the Shaw Brothers…
AIP was an independent distributor in the United States, one of my strongest connections over there. Nicholson and Arkoff released a lot of my movies and in the process we became great friends. I worked with the son of one of the Shaw Brothers, who was running the company then, also with people like Prince Yukolo Anusom, the brother of the King of Thailand who became one of my business partners.
A movie you produced that did very well in Far Eastern markets was Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River, an important film which transformed the flagging Mondo genre into the highly successful and controversial Italian cannibal film cycle…
My inspiration for that one was definitely A Man Called Horse and also my connections in Thailand, where we shot the movie. It’s a country I knew very well and visiting the small villages in the forests, I discovered some very cinematic elements that could be combined interestingly in a movie. That’s how I decided to write and produce The Man From Deep River. Umberto Lenzi was the kind of director who could understand what I wanted to achieve, though I had to correct some of his more commercial instincts. But collaborating with him was nice, he was a very hard worker… although a little bit crazy!
You’re noted for your forceful personality, I was wondering how you found dealing with such similarly forceful types as Lenzi, Lucio Fulci (who was in the frame to direct Beyond The Door and helped out on the direction of David Keith’s The Curse, which you produced in 1987)… and yes, James Cameron. How were disagreements with these guys resolved?
Very simple. They had to back down… (Laughs)… because I never give up!
OK. Another of your early productions, Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die, is considered one of the classics of the giallo genre…
I was involved in conceiving the mystery story for that film, beyond that my contribution was mainly financial. I was not a “hands on” producer for that one.
When I spoke to Aldo Lado he said that the thing about the killer being somebody who impersonated a priest rather than an actual priest was tacked on under pressure from censors and the Catholic church…
I don’t remember anything about. That sounds like a “post mortem” explanation…
You did have a killer priest in a film you later directed, Madhouse…
Were you aware that Madhouse and Man From Deep River were both banned on home video during a crazy UK moral panic in the early ’80s?
Not really. I knew that those pictures had the potential to generate controversy. They were part of a tendency in horror movies that was going on at that time but they were original works… in fact I think there was that over reaction to them because they were ahead of their time.
Well, they’re now legally available in the UK, which kind of supports your argument. The female lead in Madhouse was Trish Everly, a very good looking woman and she gives a strong performance but she didn’t do much after that. What happened to her?
She’s the ex-wife of one of the Everly Brothers, so she was not short of money. After Madhouse I never heard from her anymore...
Like Fulci and Enzo Castellari you had great success in The States with a movie that ran into problems over its perceived similarities to a previous film… obviously I’m talking about Beyond The Door.
The world of horror movies was always something that attracted me and what really changed my vision of how to make them was Rosemary’s Baby. Films like that one and The Exorcist were bringing the horror into our houses, into our daily lives by representing something the audience knows very well. They’re both films about sick people and everybody at some point has some experience of illness, of family members with cancer or something like that.
Warners sued you over perceived similarities to Friedkin’s film of The Exorcist but you said at the time you hadn’t even seen that film… did you ever watch it?
No, but I read the book. We started shooting our film when theirs was still in post production. I read the book on a plane flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong on a very stormy night with a lot of turbulence, which seemed very appropriate. All the passengers were screaming and I was reading about The Devil. I thought this was a perfect project for me to shoot and as soon as I got back to the office I called the publisher to ask about the film rights, which of course had been sold to Warners, who were about to make their movie. So I said OK, I want to do something similar but original, something about the demons that are part of every one of us. Beyond The Door is about those demons we don’t like to acknowledge but we see lurking inside us, parts of ourselves that cause us to do irrational and selfish things, not out of love for ourselves but out of fear. No matter how hard we try to ignore our demons they are always there, bubbling up from under the lid that we try to keep on them. It wasn’t just reading a book that convinced me to produce a horror movie along these lines. The preparation for Beyond The Door was a very extensive intellectual exercise. It was both less and more than just “ripping off” The Exorcist. Every movie is influenced by movies that came before it and you could argue that The Exorcist is a “rip-off” of Rosemary’s Baby. We weren’t motivated to just make a cheap imitation of a famous movie, there was a lot of thought behind Beyond The Door and we hired one of the most important special effects artists, Wally Gentleman (who was Doug Trumbull’s right hand man on 2001) so we could make a good movie… all of this while confined to a $300,000 budget against $10 million for The Exorcist!
The case that Warners brought against you was one of “infringing visual copyright”…
Yeah, they charged me with infringing something that doesn’t even exist! Warner thought that they could intimidate this Italian producer, this small company, considering that the judge had confiscated $20 million dollars from us, pending the trial. Of course they didn’t know me because like I said, I never back down. It took me three years fighting them and I spent three times the cost of our negative on lawyers. In the end I met with them. I was in LA and I drove to Burbank, knocked on the office door of the number 2 man at Warners and I told him: “You have to stop, because you’re going to lose. You’re claiming $20 million from us but I’m going to take you for $100 million! So just stop!” We arrived at a compromise. He asked for two things, firstly that I shouldn’t do a sequel to Beyond The Door, because they were very worried about that, also that I should sign a deal with them to make three movies. They saw the return on my budget compared to what they had done with The Exorcist and they were so impressed that they wanted me to work with them.
That return on your budget had something to do with the amazing marketing for Beyond The Door, with gimmicks worthy of William Castle… the whole “Sensurround” bit and actors planted in the audience who were supposed to be having heart attacks because it was so scary!
The marketing was very smart and the sound was very important because when we had preview screenings for American audiences, they were screaming during the scene where Juliet Mills’ head turns around but it was a different story in Italy. Italian audiences are always very sarcastic and when Juliet’s head was rotating, they started laughing. I know I had to stop this laughing and I had heard that Universal were going to use this thing Sensurround on Earthquake so I flew from Rome to LA and asked them if I could borrow the sound technology. They showed me around this huge laboratory that looked like something out off NASA but of course they weren’t going to lend me the sound system until they had exhibited their picture first and then maybe, who knows. But we had the idea and we came up with a very basic concept which, instead of using 40w of sound, had thousands of watts at front and back of the theatre and the combining of these two low frequencies built a sound that covered the laughs of the Italians.
Try laughing that off! You’ve had some real star names in your films… Richard Johnson and Juliet Mills in Beyond The Door… Henry Fonda, John Huston and Shelley Winters in Tentacles…
Juliet Mills was perfect for the role, she came from this great British acting background. Richard Johnson was the same, from Shakespearian theatre. I liked Richard and he became a very good friend, worked for me in more than one movie. Working with them was great. I always want my actors to be totally involved in the picture, intellectually involved and giving to it the maximin of their experience and talent. They were not just “actors for hire”, they were really behind the story and we worked as a team. John Huston was in Tentacles mostly because he swapped roles with Henry Fonda, who had a heart attack and couldn’t play for us as long as we’d planned. John Huston was an amazing person who became my best friend and worked for me in another movie. I wanted him to direct a movie based on a famous novel for me but of course he died. Glenn Ford was another who played not just for money, these guys had to approve and believe in the story.
All of those were solid pros but in Beyond The Door you also had those two kids in very strange roles… jive-talking and swearing… was it difficult getting good performances out of them?
There have been children in many of my movies and you have to treat working with them like working with animals. They can be extremely good when they are just acting spontaneously but very bad when they start thinking about what they are doing. It’s the same with animals. When they act spontaneously they are very good but when they’ve been trained to do something, they might or might not do it well. Children can be really good, the trick is in choosing the right ones. The girl in Beyond The Door… the Italian Susan Strasberg… they way she talked in the movie was exactly the way she talked in real life. The boy was a very strange American boy who went to school with my son, an overseas student in Rome. I only met him because he was a friend of my son, a strange kid who would sit there silently for hours, which made me think he would be good for our movie. Neither of them had any previous acting experience.
That boy, David Colin Jr., appeared again in Mario Bava’s film Shock, which was even released in America as Beyond The Door 2. Given all the legal problems you’d had with Warners, I was wondering if anybody involved in Shock had had to settle with you.
Not, they just helped themselves to that and I didn’t even chase them. I don’t think it was the film’s producers, it was the American distributor of that picture who did it, taking maxim advantage of the title and logo of my picture.
I guess that illustrates just how successful your picture had been. Several writers are credited on Beyond The Door, one of whom is The Incredible Melting Man himself, Alex Rebar…
Alex Rebar was an American dubbing artist, he dubbed movies from Italian into English and I met him when I was working as a distributor in the Far East. As a matter of fact I originally cast him to play the Richard Johnson role but our schedules clashed and I went ahead without him. In the end his contributions to the film were very limited.
Beyond The Door has a great score from Franco Micalizzi and so many other great composers have scored your pictures. Morricone, Ortolani, Cipriani…
I’ve always believed that music is one of the most important elements of a movie. Alongside the acting and the photography, the music is as important as the plot, so I always want to hear the composition that I’ll be using in my movie before shooting the movie itself. I’ve always done that, that’s what happened with Morricone on Who Saw Her Die…
That’s a beautiful score!
It is. In the case of Beyond The Door, Micalizzi, had worked for me in my previous picture which was a tremendous success, a tear jerker called The Last Snows Of Spring. His music for that was a big success on the hit parade for many weeks all over the world. I asked him to have the main composition ready before I shot Beyond The Door and he asked me what I wanted. I had been thinking and thinking about what the theme should be, the language of that music and when I was in Paris, I had heard Barry White…
Who needs Sensurround when you’ve got Barry White?
Whether it was coming from a concert stage or a recording studio or even a telephone conversation I had with him, Barry White’s voice is unlike anything else in popular music. There is something truly profound about that basso… it rumbles! It’s not his voice but the way that he used it. This is what I told Micalizzi about the kind of music I wanted… I wanted to hear the voice of The Devil! That’s how we came up with the theme Bargain With The Devil and he recorded it before I made the the movie, I listened to that music before shooting many of the scenes because it was so very inspirational.
That music plays as Gabriele Lavia and Juliet Mills walk around in San Francisco, having all sorts of weird experiences. I believe that you shot these scenes guerrilla style, without any permits… masquerading as Italian tourists! Was that difficult?
It was very easy. Sometimes we asked for and received permits to shoot in public places sometimes we didn’t have time to ask so we just went ahead and shot the scene but all the interiors were shot in a studio in Italy. We had to be very careful to keep all the stylistic elements consistent so we brought everything we could back from the States to make the room look like an American apartment.
On several of your films you’ve co-directed with Roberto D’Ettore Piazzoli and I wonder how you typically divide the work between you. Is one guy doing the set-ups while the other directs the actors, or whatever?
Beyond The Door was the first picture which I directed or co-directed. I had a lot of experience in editing, especially the pictures that I was releasing in the Far East, recutting them for different markets. This editing experience also helped me in writing stories and conceiving the pictures I wanted to make. Roberto D’Ettore had worked as my DP and directing together, we didn’t really share out the work. It was more about pooling our different experiences to support each other and make the best movie possible. Of course his camera experience was greater than mine at the time and my experience with editing and conceiving stories was greater than his. I did deal more with the actors, mostly because I could speak English and he couldn’t.
You co-wrote and produced the 1976 film Laure aka Forever Emmanuelle, supposedly directed by Emmanuelle Arsan herself… which I doubt. What was the real story behind that picture?
First of all you have to know that the person who wrote Emmanuelle was not Emmanuelle Arsan…
It was her husband, wasn’t it?
Exactly. Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane. He was an officer of UNESCO but he had these strange ideas about sex, he was like a theoretical philosopher of “the new sexuality”. He wasn’t a porno guy, but he considered porn as part of a normal life. I knew him very well, he used to live in Rome and Paris. He was a person of great intelligence, very highly cultured, but he wrote Emmanuelle and had this great success with it. Now one day, I was sitting in front of the President of 20th Century Fox in LA and he was reading the box office takings and he just was screaming, saying hey, look at the figures for Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle… he said that I should do something like that and I told him that I knew the guy who wrote Emmanuelle. He was very excited by this and proposed we do a movie in Italy with Louis-Jacques directing, of course under the name Emmanuelle Arsan and also have her as one of the leads. I asked Louis-Jacques about this and he jumped at the chance.
We started putting the elements together and then had the bizarre idea to have Linda Lovelace acting in the movie. I thought that to put somebody with one of the most famous names in the world, particularly in the United States, in a normal, well directed picture with production values would sell the picture and give her more quality, representing her the way she really was. So I asked my assistant to find where she was and a couple of weeks later he found her living in Arizona, almost retired. So we hired her and flew her over to Rome for a meeting with Louis-Jacques. I told everybody to treat her like a lady rather than the Porn Star she used to be, to forget about Deep Throat, to treat her like a normal actress and everybody was willing to do that but throughout the meeting Linda sat with a bodyguard who was also her boyfriend…
Was that Chuck Traynor?
It was an American – Italian guy and she wouldn’t talk directly to us, we had to talk to the bodyguard so it was a funny situation where we were asking him the question, he was asking her the same question, she was answering to him then he was telling us the answer.
Like Chinese whispers…
Yeah. Then she said: “I will never shoot this scene the way that it’s been written. I will never appear naked in the movie”.
Yeah, she said that it was absolutely against her morality. Like I say, you could write a book about every movie I’ve ever made. There were so many problems with Linda but we had a commitment with Fox to have her name on the marquee so we called in the actress Annie Belle to do the nude scenes and changed Linda’s role to one in which she kept her clothes on. Then we went to the Philippines to shoot the movie and immediately there were more problems. In the first scene we shot, Linda was walking in a corridor and she had to stop and say some lines but she refused because there was a statue behind her, a copy of the Venus De Milo statue and she said she would never appear in a scene next to a naked woman! That was it, no matter what the deal with Fox was, I fired her. Going back to Emmanuelle Arsan, of course she didn’t really direct the movie, that was Roberto D’Ettore Piazzoli, who loved photographing naked women. Then some stills were released to a magazine which published some really unflattering shots of Emmanuelle Arsan. I had to sue them because they also ran an interview with me that never actually happened! Anyway, Emmanuelle Arsan came to me and said she didn’t want her name attached to the movie anymore and in the end we publicised it with a picture of her, saying she wrote it but that it was directed by “Anonymous”.
What sort of a person was Emanuelle Arsan? Was she comfortable with being this erotic icon created by her husband?
The first time we visited Louis-Jacques ’s apartment in Rome, he opened the door and right in front of us, in the lobby to his apartment, there was a big photo of his wife, naked, with her legs wide open. My wife didn’t want to go in and I had to convince her, c’mon, were doing a business deal here. But everything was like this, the whole apartment was full of photos of his wife in, let’s say, the most incredible artistic positions.
Wow! In 1979 you produced Giulio Paradiso’s The Visitor… that’s another wild movie. What can you tell us about that one?
Again, that would fill a book in itself, like most of the films I’ve directed or produced for other people. There are so many interesting things that happened on that movie, some of them positive, some of them negative. Like most of my movies, it was ahead of its time. I’d like to remake The Visitor, bringing in elements of gaming and virtual reality that we didn’t have at the time. It was an interesting movie, but much more interesting in its conception that what actually ended up on the screen. The same is true of Tentacles, which had a really good script that was compromised by the distributor’s vision. But come on, I know you’re dying to ask me about James Cameron and Piranha 2…
Well, now you mention it… in fact before you signed Cameron to direct that picture, I believe you were going with Rob Bottin.
Exactly. Piranha 2 was not my idea. After I’d settled with Warners over Beyond The Door, they asked me if I would produce a script they were interested in but they didn’t trust the producer… it was the same producer from the first Piranha. They said they’d shoot it if I’d take over. So I read the scripts which was very bad and I told them I’d executive produce if I was allowed to change the story which was really stupid, beyond any credibility. They did insist on me keeping those piranhas, flying out of the sea, which was absolutely irrational but that’s what I signed up for. Immediately I was looking for a director who’d be good with special FX. Knowing very well the work of Rob Bottin, I approached him and he was very happy about directing the movie. About a week after we signed an agreement he came asking me to release him because he’d just got an offer from Universal to pay him a million dollars a year to supervise effects on some of their films and I couldn’t stand in his way. He recommended James Cameron so I went to see him while he was some shooting second unit stuff on Escape From New York. I asked him to direct Piranha 2 and he was jumping like crazy, very happy to do it. That’s how we started to know each other. I like Jim a lot because I understood that he had a great vision. The problem was that he did not know how to make his visions happen, especially in a film whose budget was so limited considering the amount of special effects that Warners wanted to keep from the original script. I have thousands of stories to tell but I’m not going to tell them now, but basically Jim failed in what he was supposed to do. I didn’t want to fire him but I had to after 10 days because at that point we were 9 days behind schedule.When the picture was finished we had to shoot the FX scenes all over again and try to make them work. We spent a lot of time in labs trying to make it happen and have hundreds of flying piranhas attacking, not just one or two on wires and stopping in the middle of the shots. That’s what Jim did. I asked him to stay next to me and help wherever it was needed. I allowed him to shoot all the underwater scenes in the Cayman islands and he got some great shots but only when he didn’t have to deal with special effects. I admire Jim for flying from LA to Rome without any money and staying here for two months. Of course I put him in hotels and gave him whatever he needed. I admire that he is so stubborn but he is a very difficult character. When I was directing the movie he wanted to take part in the editing and although he didn’t have the right to do it, I said fine, but after a week the editor came to me and said: “Hey, I’m very happy to work with James because you will pay me for one year!” He had edited it, Jim had taken it and changed things around but after three days it was right back to what the first editor had already done. He was too inexperienced. I wanted Jim to gain experience but the editor didn’t want him in the editing room any more because he was wasting so much time. I told him that we’d look at the scenes in my office and he could have his say. That’s where the idea of The Terminator came up, based on a book that I bought called Formula Man, by an Italian writer…
Do you remember the name of the writer?
He was a physician as a matter of fact. His name escapes me right now but the inspiration for Terminator came from this book. Jim was asking me what we were going to work on next and he proposed a Terminator-like story but I told him: “Jim, I want to do your third movie with you, not your second, because when you have learned enough you will surely become a great director”. So once when I was in LA, I was going to meet the chairman of Orion Pictures and I saw Jim coming out of his office so asked the chairman, who was a good friend of mine, what Jim was doing there and he said well, they were going to release a picture that he would direct, called The Terminator, which was basically that story. The chairman said that they had seen Piranha 2 and liked it, not knowing that I had actually directed it. I didn’t say anything to put him down and he made The Terminator. Since then he’s written a lot of inaccurate things about our relationship but I’ve kept quiet about it because I don’t want to embarrass him. But every time he made a new movie I’d send him a message saying “You need to improve” and his answer was always “Fuck you!” When I saw Titanic, which I really liked, I sent him a message saying: “You’re improving but you still need to do better” and again he replied “Fuck you!” So this was our relationship. One day I called him because I read something he said that was not true and said: “Hey Jim, we’ve got white hairs now, we’re getting older. You’re much more famous than I am, you’ve made a lot of money and I’m making much less money, we should stop doing this stuff. We spent more than one year together and I admire you for many reasons. I had to do what I had to do because it’s a business but we should stop doing this, let’s meet and have a drink… of course you should pay because you have so much more money than me!” He said I was right and we should meet but after an hour he called me and said: “No Ovidio, I don’t want to meet you, because you are such a convincing person, you will convince me that I am wrong and you are right!”
I heard that Cameron released an alternative cut of Piranha 2 in certain markets, though I’ve never seen it. Is that true?
Absolutely not. He doesn’t have the rights and I would sue him if he did. That just never happened, anyway. I directed Piranha 2 and I could have put my name on it but I kept his on there because I didn’t want to embarrass him, I wanted to help his career.
Can you tell us something about the part you played in the ongoing saga of Cannon Films at the end of the ‘80s?
How long have you got? (Laughs) It’s a long story… I was approached by one of the people who acquired Cannon Films from the cousins Golan and Globus, his partner was the very important financier Giancarlo Parretti who had financed some of my pictures. He said they’d just acquired a major company and requested my help after discovering the critical financial situation that Golan and Globus had left it in. I said I didn’t want to be part of it unless we could sort out the company and we employed a very important lawyer to do that. We split Cannon into two new companies, one which I ran as chairman and which would produce pictures with budgets of lower than ten million dollars and the other, run by Alan Ladd Jr. doing films with budgets beyond ten million. I had a plan and the first policy I wanted to introduce was to move away from the pictures Golan and Globus did which were all about action with machine guns and helicopters. I wanted to try what New Line had done, gradually introducing more quality into their productions. I wanted to make Scent Of Woman with this new company but in the end they did that with Universal because the budget was over ten million. When Parretti decided to buy MGM, that was the beginning of the end and I got out just before everything collapsed. But in that period, it was little more than a year, I made ten movies with good box office receipts, well in excess of the costs of these movies.
A couple of times I’ve asked you about things and you’ve said: “How long have you got?”… “You could write a book”. Do you in fact have any plans to write your memoirs?
After death! You can write them for me after I’ve gone…
Well, we’ve made a good start today. What are you working on now?
Well, you haven’t asked me the question that everybody else asks, i.e. among the pictures I’ve shot, which is the one that I like the most?
And the answer to that question is?
I don’t like any of them! The one I like is always the next one and principal photography for the next one will begin in Maui in Hawaii, where I’m flying out to tomorrow. It’s called The Disappearing Girl, it’s a very strong story about love and life and death. The leads are two teenagers, one American and one Italian. The really interesting thing is that the director of this picture will be a 15 year old girl, a very famous Youtuber and author named Iris Ferrari. I’m never satisfied with my films but I’m sure this one is going to be very good and a tremendous box office success.
We’ll be looking out for that and wish you well with it. Thanks for your time, Ovidio.
Beyond The Door is available in a spanking Arrow BD edition from all good retailers or directly from Arrow.