“This is Softcore”: The History of Radley Metzger
Opening today, August 7, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center is This is Softcore: The Art Cinema Erotica of Radley Metzger, a survey of the director whose arty erotica more or less defined what in the ’70s was dubbed “porno chic.” On the occasion of this retrospective we are reposting, from our archives, this wide-ranging 1997 interview conducted by Steve Gallagher. Among the topics: Metzger’s days creating edited versions of European arthouse masterworks; the origins of his glamorous soft-core aesthetic; distribution in the ’60s and ’70s’ his hardcore work, including The Opening of Misty Beethoven, done under the name Henry Paris; and his later work documenting and researching alternative cancer therapies. Oh, and Sylvester Stallone nude. — Editor
Out of the blue, director Radley Metzger got a phone call recently from a distributor inquiring about the rights to Score, an erotic feature he completed in 1972. Bruce Pavlow at N.Y.-based Leisure Time Features remembers seeing the film years before: “I thought it was amazing,” he says. “I always wanted to do something with it. And Metzger is this legendary figure. He’s mentioned in Incredibly Strange Films.”
Metzger, and the company he founded with longtime partner Ava Leighton, Audubon Films, were pioneers in the production and distribution of erotic films in the late ’60s. His films are distinguished by their lavish design, witty screenplays, and a penchant for the unusual camera angle–often shooting off of reflective surfaces. But Metzger’s films also capture–as much as they contributed to–the emerging sexual revolution.
Filmmaker: I don’t know much about you. Tell me about yourself.
Radley Metzger: I went to CCNY and got my B.A. in dramatic arts. I started my Masters at Columbia, but that was interrupted by the Korean War. I went into the Air Force.
Filmmaker: You were a distributor. You had your company called Audubon Films. Were you a director first and then formed the company to distribute your work?
Metzger: I was actually a film editor first. Well, really a gofer first.
Filmmaker: What year are you talking about?
Metzger: We’re talking about the late ’50s. There was almost no feature production in New York. In fact, it was practically nil. Morris Engel started working at the time, but it was very rare. Being obsessive, like most people who want to get into the movie business, I jumped at the chance to work as a gofer on a feature film being made here in the East. I took a leave from college to do it. It was done by a director from Greece–it took place in Greece and the entire thing was shot up near Beacon, New York. It was called Guerrilla Girl.
Filmmaker: An independent film?
Metzger: Oh, yeah. Well, actually it was picked up by Twentieth Century Fox–for political reasons. It concerned the revolution in Greece right after the war in Greece. It was the first time they put down communism in Europe, kind of the first act in the Cold War. And so there were certain people who were interested in having an anti-Communist picture film released. Spyro Skouras was the head of Fox so they took this little independent film. It had a former movie star in it–Helmut Dantine. He had a name during the war from being in Mrs. Miniver. I was positively blown away to be on location and working with someone who was actually in Casablanca, (he was the guy Rick lets win at roulette). At this point in his career he was doing small independent films. When the film went into the editing room, I went with it and learned a lot. Funnily enough, I’ve seen the movie surface recently in a few video catalogues.
I worked for a while at whatever editing work there was–I did the censor cuts on Bitter Rice. After Open City, that was the most successful Italian film to be shown here. To get a wide release, they had to make a lot of eliminations that the Catholic Church demanded and I was hired to make them. A blessing for me because I got into the union–Local 771 of the IATSE. When I went into the Air Force and left the pilot training program, I got into the motion picture unit because I had a union card. We did propaganda films. When I got out of the service I returned to editing. The union got me some jobs–the best one being as an assistant at R.K.O. at their studios here in New York. One of my thrills was sneaking into the vaults and looking at the original negative of the shorts Stanley Kubrick had done for them. At the same time I started my first film. I had become good friends with the assistant director of Guerilla Girl, Bill Kyriakis, and together we tried to break that steel wall around independent film production.
We made a movie that–if we doubled the budget–it would have been a shoestring production. It was a labor of love and obsession. It had to be because this was before Tri-X film, so you had to rent a lot of light. And it was before light equipment, so if you wanted to move the camera, you neeeded a dolly that weighed more than this room. And the camera sounded like a meat grinder and required a blimp that was so heavy that carrying it gave me a back injury that I still have. It took us about nine months to shoot–we’d shoot, run out of money, and everyone would go to work and when we had enough money to continue, we’d start shooting again. It was one of those “everybody’s family and friends were in it” movies. Fortunately, there was work around at that time to help finance the movie. It’s when I got into dubbing. And it’s when I had one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I got a job on the English language version of Jean Renoir’s French Can-Can with Jean Gabin. And Renoir came to New York to supervise it and I got to be with him briefly. He said something in the cutting room one day that I never forget. He said that “there’s just one moment in a film that people remember, and that’s enough”. About that time I did a job for some friends of mine, Terry and Jack Curtis, on a horror film shot on Fire Island that’s become a genuine cult classic–The Flesh Eaters. I was the editor and I still get calls from people asking me about it. Anyway, we finally finished our film and we took it around to all the independent distributors and nobody wanted it. Nobody. Because it was–while it was created with lots of love–it wasn’t very commercial. It was about a Greek sailor who comes here to avenge the rape of his sister and we tried to show the clash of two cultures–what’s acceptable in one culture can make you a criminal in another.
Filmmaker: Like the mother from Denmark who left her baby outside the restaurant.
Metzger: You could say that, except that I have a feeling that if that baby’s father wasn’t a social activist in the East Village, that wouldn’t have happened. Anyway, we decided to release the film ourselves. We wanted desperately to get reviewed. But the only theater that would play the picture was the Cameo because they played Greek pictures. But they would only play if it was in Greek. That killed us. I don’t know where we got the energy, but we dubbed it into Greek and played the Cameo alternating Greek and English versions. We got a very nice review from Howard Thompson in The New York Times. He still reviews for the Times, does the television reviews in The Sunday Times.
Filmmaker: What was the title of the film?
Metzger: It’s called Dark Odyssey. In fact, I just made a video transfer from our fine grain master and I’m trying to work up the courage to look at it. We were able to book it into a few theaters around the country, but it didn’t do any business. In fact, and I don’t want to brag, but I think it still holds the record as the all time low gross in the theaters we played. I think when they wanted to paint or change the seats they’d play this film so they wouldn’t have to close the theater. I remember someone said to us. “Listen, you have these two sisters in the picture. Can’t you re-shoot that and have one of them in a brassiere?” I was never so offended in my life. We almost killed the guy. The thought of doing something like that for commercial purposes! We were very idealistic.
Filmmaker: What changed?
Metzger: What changed was the failure of the film. I decided there was another way of approaching the movie business. One of the companies we approached to distribute Dark Odyssey was Janus Films. They didn’t take the picture, but they hired me to do their editing. I did Antonioni’s L’Aventura, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and many Ingmar Bergman films. In fact the best compliment I ever had was when Bergman sent word back that I did a good job on a very difficult film (Through a Glass Darkly). Through them I heard about a little French film that was available called Mademoiselle Striptease. It had about a minute of bare breasts in it, but that was the equivalent of hard core pornography today.
Filmmaker: This is before, I Am Curious, Yellow…?
Metzger: Considerably before. To buy the film, I borrowed the money from Movielab. I owed them so much on Dark Odyssey I told them my only chance to pay them was to buy this picture, so they lent me the money. It turned out to be a good decision on their part because I stayed with them for 12 years. I bought the film, I made the trailer, and I dubbed the film into English.
Filmmaker: What was the film called?
Metzger: We called it The Nude Set. It was a French comedy about a young girl from the provinces who comes to Paris. It was a cute little film, but it had these few shots of nudity, which meant nothing in France, but here it was a sensation–this was before Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr. Teas. We opened the picture in Los Angeles and it was very successful. It was a French, what they would call a “boulevard film”–that is to say, a straight comedy. And based on that success, Ava Leighton, who hired me to do editing for Janus Films, went into business with me. We stayed partners for thirty years, until her death in 1987. We took the name Audubon which was the name of the Audubon Theater, first movie theater I ever went to–in Washington Heights (Malcolm X was shot in the Audubon Ballroom, which was above the theater).
Based on the success of The Nude Set, we bought another film called Les Collegiennes. It had a hint of lesbianism, so this time we shot some erotic inserts and changed the title to The Twilight Girls. We released that and it did really well at the box office. Based on our first two successes, I went to Europe to buy more films. The big companies weren’t interested in off-beat French films, they wanted big productions. I screened lots and lots of films and bought four; two with Elke Sommer, this was just before she went to Hollywood, one with Agnes Laurent, who had been in our first two films, and one that had a fascinating history–I Spit on Your Grave. One day, this really oddball guy comes into our office and wants to buy into I Spit on Your Grave because he was in love with the title. We told him “No,” but he insisted. Finally he went away, but some years later he took that title and used it for a horror film. I guess he really loved the title. The original was based on a scandalous book that appeared in France right after the war, by Joe Sullivan, supposedly about a light-skinned black man in the American South who passes for white to avenge the lynching of his brother. He does this by going to this small town and screwing all the white women. It was a big underground success. A few years later, it turned out that it wasn’t written by an American black, but by Boris Vian. He was a famous character after the war; he was an author, a poet, a drug addict, a jazz musician, an actor–all of those things–and this revelation make the book a huge success all over again. Eventually, they made a movie of the book, but no one in the States wanted to buy it because it contained so many errors. No one connected with the film had ever been to America; the story took place in Trenton, New Jersey, with palm trees all over because it was shot in Nice…Trenton was ten minutes from Canada. When they bought a newspaper, it was the “Daily Express” from England. No one ever thought it would play outside of France, so they didn’t care. It was a huge hit in France but when the American distributors saw it, they just laughed. So the film just laid around for years in spite of the fact that it had a great cast, Christian Marquand played the lead–he was opposite Brigitte Bardot from And God Created Woman–it was Claude Berri’s first film.
Filmmaker: As director?
Metzger: No, as an actor. The director was Michel Gast, but in spite of it being a terrific film, he made one more picture and never made another. He went into dubbing films into French for Fox. It was a shame, he was a very gifted guy. Well, I bought the picture. It was a very simple matter to cut out the ridiculous things. We did some optical blow-ups and dubbed the film with Southern accents to make the scenery make sense. The revisions were absolutely ABC for any filmmaker. Anyone who worked ten minutes in the editing room could have done it, but there were no editors who were distributors–except me. It was a lucky wedding of skills. We bought the picture for very little money and it created a sensation in drive-ins. Audubon Films was finally on the map.
Filmmaker: You released it as I Spit on Your Grave?
Metzger: As I Spit on Your Grave. Black people loved it, because it had a black hero who went to a strange town and came out triumphant in every situation–kind of like Crocodile Dundee. And white people weren’t threatened because the actor was white. Remember this was 1962.
Filmmaker: It was a light-enough skinned black man that he was perceived as white?
Metzger: Yes, like the DeRouchment film, Lost Boundaries with Mel Ferrer. That was a true story.
Filmmaker: These films played what kind of a circuit in the States?
Metzger: It was the time of the disintegration of the studio system and all circuits were in need of independent product. Art theaters in college towns and drive-ins. Our best territories were New England and the West Coast, but we played everywhere, because Ava Leighton was crackerjack at distribution. She had a good reputation and fought like a tiger to book the product. We were doing well, so I said let’s make our own picture. I had pretty much recovered from the failure of Dark Odyssey–although I don’t think you ever do–I had shot inserts for The Twilight Girls, and shot about 35 minutes for an import we called Soft Skin on Black Silk, so I thought it was time to put my damaged ego on the line once again. I said, “Let’s do something simple; a story about prostitutes. Three short stories; a streetwalker, a mid-level hooker, and a very high class call girl.” I went to Paris, having been there several times buying pictures, I knew some production people–the ones that worked on the Elke Sommer films, and I shot the streetwalker sequence. I used an anamorphic process. Bausch & Lomb had developed Cinemascope for Fox, but every country had their own version. I was very comfortable with the letterbox format, in fact it wasn’t until seven years later that I worked in straight widescreen–on The Lickerish Quartet.
Filmmaker: This is when? Like mid-’60s?
Metzger: This was 1962. By then there were a lot of low-budget films being made in New York, but by going to Europe I was able to afford a level of technician and crew that would have been totally unavailable here. Had I done them here, they would have looked like everybody else’s. Those early films had a “look” unlike anyone else’s eroticism of the period. And the film was indeed erotic; soft love scenes, nudity and a masturbation scene in front of a mirror–which hadn’t been done before. That was my insurance. I couldn’t risk another Dark Odyssey, in spite of the nice reviews. We dropped the middle sequence and the following year I went to Munich and made the call girl sequence. I brought all the footage back to New York and did the post production here. I was always grateful that I came to directing from the editing room because I could shoot quickly and never be distracted by the fear that the footage wouldn’t go together. About that time Ava picked up a New York exploitation film for distribution and we were going to call it The Dirty Girls, but at the last minute I took that title for my film because I thought it was more commercial. When The Dirty Girls was released it was a big hit, but the “dirty” label stuck to my films for a few years.
Filmmaker: You said that the first film you picked up caused a sensation because it had a little bit of nudity and here we are a couple of years later? A few years later? And your talking about masturbation scenes…
Metzger: We did push the envelope. The theater owners often did get into trouble when they played the pictures. We had a number of lawsuits, but never lost one. But you have to remember, the times they were a-changing; Kennedy was assassinated three days before our first day of shooting The Dirty Girls, the Beatles were coming and Playboy was showing up in your dentist’s office. The old establishment was crumbling. Up until this time, the morality of society was established by vice cops. A guy who spent his life busting hookers in a bus terminal was the judge of motion picture content. Well, the courts began to rule against the vice cop in favor of the filmmaker. When I was in the Air Force, we did a lot of competitive drilling between the squadrons. They taught us that if you wanted to look like you were in one perfect line–like the West Point cadets–in your peripheral vision, you had to feel that you were slightly ahead of the guy on your right. If you felt you were ahead of him, you were in a perfect line. If I wanted to be daring in 1965, I had to be a little ahead of what was daring in 1964. My late brother, Paul, once told me that if you have a speed limit of 35 mph and you go 40, you’re five miles over the speed limit. If you have a speed limit of 70 mph and you go 75, you’re going much much faster but you’re still only five miles ahead of the speed limit. We always stayed just five miles ahead. We didn’t go 70 in a 35 zone.
Filmmaker: Right, you’re not really going to be ticketed until you’re 10 or 15 miles over.
Metzger: Right, but we did have our share of trouble. The Twilight Girls, which I bought before I made pictures–we had censorship at that time, and to show a film in New York you had to have a New York State Seal on every print. It was censorship and a money making scheme for the state, and they said, “You have to cut many scenes out”. We said “No, we wouldn’t do that.” I think it was my City College counter-culture orientation. I said they were discriminating because we were a small company and The Twilight Girls was a very small picture. If it were a big film, they’d have let it go. So we sued them. We sued the New York State Censor Board. And we won. And they appealed it. It went all the way up to Albany, to the New York Supreme Court, and they lost the appeal. So the picture was shown uncut. About six months after that they disbanded the New York Censor Board and Ava and I were very proud of ourselves that we make that contribution to freedom on the screen. Many years later, an exhibitor took one of our imports, The Libertine, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and won.
Filmmaker: So you had this film that you made, the prostitute film–
Metzger: Called The Dirty Girls.
Filmmaker: Which was released and it was a big success.
Metzger: Yes, a big success for an independent company.
Filmmaker: What would have been the budget on The Dirty Girls?
Metzger: I think the budget was–with me as writer, director, producer, editor–and no overheads–the cutting room was in the office–I think about $35-40,000 at that time.
Filmmaker: And you were returned what in distribution?
Metzger: That film must have taken in close to $100,000. Which again was a great deal of money in those times. And we’re talking “net,” not “gross” as they do today. We only talked about the money we kept after all expenses. And we were lucky because if you have a successful film, and then two years later you have another successful film, and then two years later you have another successful film, it won’t mean as much to you financially in terms of getting working capital.
We were lucky to be able to get them back to back, so the funds accumulated. And every picture we did we spent more money on. My second film was on lesbianism, also made in Munich, called The Alley Cats. Which was again very, very successful based on the fact that we were still five miles ahead of the speed limit. And then we decided to make a really gigantic step–terrifying to me. We decided to do a picture in color. Because color, at that time, was very expensive. In fact you never, ever made color dailies. Maybe one shot a day you’d print in color. But that was it. You never saw your picture in color until the answer print. In fact, if you had two takes, you’d put one of them in color and somehow that was never the take you used, so we always had black and white work prints.
I felt really insecure about the story. I didn’t really understand story construction. I was never trained as a writer. I needed a structure, I had to have a skeleton, something. So, I said, we’ll take an old story that’s been done and dress it up in modern terms. So I took one of the most often performed stories–in fact I think there are only about three or four basic stories ever done, and one of them is “Carmen”–the harlot who creates the downfall of a respectable man. It was done in 1915 as A Fool There Was with Theda Bara, and it’s been done ever since, some variation of a “Carmen” story. So we took “Carmen.” I had heard that it was inexpensive to shoot in Yugoslavia. So I went and examined the area. They were very eager to get dollars. This was in the state of Slovenia, which never got involved in any of the recent trouble.
I wanted to get something colorful so we worked in a town called Piran. It was absolutely gorgeous. It was in the Sunday Times Travel section a couple of months ago. I looked at that article and wept. I took the crew from Alley Cats, my second picture, and we went down to Yugoslavia and shot the exteriors. I had to have a mythical country and I found it exciting to be able to create something that was totally unreal, something unrealistic on a real matrix. Then we did the interiors in Munich, and did the post-production here in New York.
We made pictures the way Italians made them, which was to shoot silent, and post sync the sound track, because everybody articulated English. Just as in Italy they articulate Italian. It’s a terrific way to work because you can work very quickly. And you can put a lot on the screen. I’m not sure that it’s something that I’d do today, but at the time it was a way to put together a picture on a limited budget. Particularly, I was fortunate that I had a certain amount of dubbing skills. I never told this story before, but when we went to Piran to interview some girls to be extras, I was in this little office and a girl would come in, I’d interview her, she’d go out, 15-20 minutes later another girl would come in, I’d interview her, she’d go out, 10 minutes later another one would come in etc. I thought, “What’s keeping all these people? Why can’t they just come in one after the other?” It turned out that they only had one dress, and they were passing it one to the other–that’s how poor the country was at the time.
Carmen, Baby became the most successful film I ever made from the point of view of grosses. Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it Carmen, “in modern undress”, and that quote was picked up in every review in the country. When Variety listed the all-time grosses, Carmen, Baby was listed ahead of The Wizard of Oz. Can you believe that? Of course, they were talking about grosses, not admissions. The Wizard of Oz cost 30 cents to see, Carmen, Baby cost over $3.00. It shows how misleading grosses can be. Carmen, Baby got a reputation for being one of the sexiest movies ever made in spite of the fact that it had no nudity. People thought I sexed up the Prosper Mérimée story when actually, I had eliminated most of the sex scenes in the original story–they were confusing it with the Bizet opera. Bizet changed the story considerably; he invented characters, cut out others–it’s completely different–but that was the only reference people had. The Rita Hayworth film and the French version with Vivian Romance were pretty faithful to the original. During the preparation of Carmen, Baby–that was my partner’s title–originally we called it Carmen 13 because it was the 13th version of Carmen. I read a review in Variety that struck a chord in me so I went up to Copenhagen and went to a tiny suburban town in the middle of winter–there were no cabs and I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life there–and I saw the film that was going to change not only my company’s life but the course of independent film distribution in America. It was I, A Woman with Essy Persson. We made an offer, but the producer already had one so we had to wait. They finally called me in New York and accepted our offer. When Ava screened the film she said she wanted to subtitle in addition to dubbing it. She believed it was more of an art film than an exploitation film–and was she ever right!
Filmmaker: Was this a sex change film?
Metzger: No, on the contrary, it was probably the first feminist erotic film released in the ’60s and it pushed a buttom with every woman in America. And Ava changed distribution for foreign films in the U.S. She played circuits and theaters that had never dreamed of playing an art or erotic film. And it wound up making $4 million (the director, Mac Ahlberg is in Hollywood now, he shot The Brady Bunch feature). The Danes hated us because they didn’t have a percentage–the last time they did that–but it skyrocketed the price of Danish movies after that. Actually, the film as originally made was very confusing, flashbacks that lost the audience. As an editor, I was able to re-edit the picture before we released it so it was easier for audiences to follow the story. I thought of myself as a bit of a purist, (I had seen the entire collection at MOMA while I was in high school), so when it came time to dub the film into English, I invited the star, Essy Persson, to Paris where we were doing the recording. By that time we had finished Carmen, Baby and the fellow who wrote it with me was an American who lived in Paris, one of those fellows who took his discharge from WWII and never went back to the States. He said there was a new book published in Paris about two young girls who have an affair in a French boarding school.
It was Therese and Isabelle by Violette Leduc. I brought the book to Essy during the recording and she was excited by the idea of playing Therese, who was in reality, Violette Leduc herself. She was actually a little embarrassed by the success of I, A Woman because of the strong sex scenes and wanted to do something very difficult. And so did I. After three exploitation films, The Dirty Girls, The Alley Cats and Carmen, Baby, I was ready for something more serious. This was a story of loneliness and I think loneliness is a quality filmmakers know a lot about. We thought about doing the film in color, but decided against it–and a good thing, too. Had we done the film in color it would never have been completed because half way through the shooting, Essy broke her foot and we had to stop for four weeks. When we resumed, the seasons had changed and the leaves were off the trees and we never would have been able to match the shots. As it was, when we started again, most of the crew had changed. Only the German camera crew with whom I worked on all of my previous films and who I brought to Paris, were able to stay.
It was like beginning a whole new movie. At the start, I had to block Essy’s scenes either sitting down or moving very little. We did the post-production in Paris, in two versions, French and English. Actually, the French version is the dubbed version because we shot the film in English. When the film opened, it did a lot for my reputation. For the first time, I was beginning to be taken seriously. Ava and I had made a pact; never to do anything twice–no sequels, no “sons of..”. I loved the idea because it made every film a completely new challenge, which is very exciting. So for the next project I went to an entirely new environment–Rome. And I decided to do the Alexandre Dumas fils story, “The Lady of the Camillas.” Most people were familiar with the Garbo film, but that was adapted from the play Dumas wrote after the huge success of his novel. I went to the novel as the source. It was a very lavish production. I was lucky to get Enrico Sabbatini as art director. He is the best. You went out of the theater whistling the sets and costumes.
This was the first film I made without my German camera team. I used Ennio Guanieri, who right after that did the DeSica film, The Garden of the Finzi Cantinis. I had a very good crew and felt very much at home in Italy–as most people do. So, I did another film there, and that was probably the most personal thing I’ve done–The Lickerish Quartet. It was all done in this castle, which was actually a restaurant and hotel. We did everything but one sequence there. It was the ideal working formula for a director; I was able to go to the location with the writer and actually write each scene exactly where I wanted to film it. Some months later, we went back and shot the film exactly where it was written. The integration between script and location was perfect. And Sabbatini did another wonderful job as art director. Only one sequence was a set that he designed and had built–and that was another thrill for me. After the location in the Abruzzi Mountains, we went for three days to Cinecitta, the famous studios in Rome that Mussolini built–where Fellini made all his pictures. We shot there for three days. It was the same crew as Camille 2000 except the cameraman. I went back to my original camera team, from Germany.
Filmmaker: The studio shoot was the library scene. It really stands out in the film. You go through an antique bookcase and you’re in this [ultra modern library]-
Metzger: If you’re interested in where that came from, I had seen a television show in France with Maurice Chevalier and Dihann Carrol–beautiful, beautiful girl. She sang a song called “I Think I’m Going Out of My Head.” They had these large-scale ink blots behind her. And I said, “That would be a great set”. The ink blots became the blown-up dictionary pages in the library. That’s where that concept came from.
Filmmaker: You just said that the distribution company couldn’t afford to take a risk on more arty fare. Was this film a stab at more critical consideration of your work?
Metzger: I think it was something I just wanted to do. It certainly had its erotic components, but it was just very heartfelt. It was more personal. It came from Dark Odyssey days. Whenever we screened the picture, the film looked different for different audiences. I didn’t understand this, there’s nothing more permanent than film. Once it’s developed, it cannot change. And yet, depending on the audiences, the film would actually change. The actor’s timing would change, the performances would change. Depending on who was in the theater at the time. The feeling, the electricity. And I wanted to try to kind of get that across. When we have a piece of film that is never the same, it’s different every time you run it. And again it had met the qualifications of Audubon Film. Namely, it only had four people in it. So that you could do a lot with four people. We never had the pictures bigger than our budgets. Everything was integrated.
Filmmaker: Was it commercially successful?
Metzger: Yes. It didn’t have the success of the others but it worked well enough. We were very lucky to get a quote from Andy Warhol, who was a big fan. He gave us a quote which we used in the papers and it attracted a lot of people. In fact, we got some really great quotes. And at that period in the 70’s, people were really, really quote freaks. If you got a quote, you’d get an audience. If you didn’t get a quote, you didn’t get the audience. It was almost like the Broadway theaters today. If you didn’t get The Times, you were pretty much out of luck with an art film.
At that time, film was very much in the theatrical tradition. Films were reviewed like plays–the day after they opened–and I often felt that the films lost something when they got reviewed the same day they opened. It became a television/radio kind of marketing, people could go and discover a picture without knowing anything about it. You had to wait until the next day for reviews. Your hardcore audience was able to go and say I’m going to decide myself. And a lot of people made a point of going to pictures opening day because they didn’t want to be influenced by reviews. Of course all that was lost when they started to review on opening day. I still think it’s a great loss. I think it changed the mentality of the audience.
Filmmaker: That was true of subculture as well as the mainstream?
Filmmaker: Was it unusual for a film like Carmen, Baby or Lickerish Quartet to be reviewed in the mainstream media?
Metzger: No. We played the best circuits and the better art theater circuits. We also had a very good press rep who was able to organize these things very successfully.
Filmmaker: So Score came on the heels of Lickerish Quartet?
Metzger: No. I decided to do a picture in Yugoslavia. I saw Richard Nixon’s daughter opening an orphanage and the concept of his daughter appearing on television with these poor children and being so magnificent and so wonderful and so magnanimous during the Vietnam War, it sort of struck a note. I said “This is a subject.” And so I found the life of somebody who typified this hypocrisy. There was only one book on this woman’s life, one book. I searched everywhere and I found a copy at the Strand bookstore, called Woman with a Whip and it was the life of Eva Peron.
So I went to Yugoslavia and we again created a mythical country which I enjoyed doing, and found a very good team–did you ever hear of Hardy Kruger, the actor? He was very popular after the War. His daughter played Eva Peron. But we changed the names. We didn’t use Eva Peron’s name and we didn’t use the name of any country. It was all mythical. We had to create a country, costumes and uniforms–it was exciting, we called it Little Mother. That picture didn’t do as well as the others because people weren’t really interested in the life of a woman who rose to be the most famous woman in her country. So after that–
Filmmaker: Was there sexplotation in that as well though? Did she sleep her way to the top?
Metzger: There were a couple of sex scenes. But certainly we weren’t five miles ahead of the speed limit on that one. Before we did Little Mother there was a play we saw that opened up at the Martinique theater on 32nd Street on the heels of really a ground breaking play called Oh Calcutta, which was was the Jazz Singer of full frontal nudity in the theater. That was the play that started it all. And on those heels somebody wrote a play, a kind of a Noël Coward-ish story of two couples in a little apartment in Queens who play bisexual games of seduction. It had five people in the cast.
Filmmaker: Out of whom was–
Metzger: Sylvester Stallone. Who wasn’t too effective. Well, he was effective as a Queens repairman. We talked to the author to get the rights, and not a lot came of it, so we went out and made Little Mother. But after Little Mother I said “Let’s go back and do something light.” We went back to Score and got the rights and I got the same crew as Little Mother which was the same as Fiddler on the Roof–except the cameraman. We used a Yugoslavian cameraman–second best cameraman in Yugoslavia. We wanted to shoot in the South of France because who wants to see sex in Queens?
Filmmaker: It looks like Nice or Cannes–
Metzger: That’s what we wanted, but we couldn’t afford it. Because France was very expensive. So we went to the Dalmatian coast, south of Zagreb, and I remember everything was brown and green. The whole country. So we brought colorful props and costumes. We took the leading lady from the play. We tried to get the leading man, but he was in 1776 at the time and he didn’t want to leave it, so we cast it with other people just using the leading lady. I might add that the production manager, Branko Lustig, on these pictures, the original Fiddler on the Roof, Little Mother and Score–was a remarkable man. He had been in a concentration camp as a child and he was probably the most creative production manager I have ever worked with. He could arrange anything. And in recent years he worked on Winds of War and produced Schindler’s List.
So we went to the South of Yugoslavia and we had a four-week shooting schedule. It was a comedy and I wanted something very highly lit. Nothing dreary. We got to use every light in Yugoslavia at the time. We couldn’t do it in four weeks–it took nine weeks. It all takes place in this one house. But they kept throwing us out of the house because it was rented to some important guy in the government. And when they said “Out,” it was a Yugoslavian out, it was not a negotiable out. So there were actually three different houses in that picture. That’s why it looks like such a big house. But again, I would certainly recommend if someone were to go into directing film, that they should start as a film editor because you are able to take crises like that and deal with them, knowing how to put it all together when you’re finished.
Filmmaker: The film starts off with this voice-over: “Once upon a future time, in a lush little land of plenty in the enviable state of affluence, bordering on decadence…” It’s a great opening monologue. What is it that attracts you to the mythical aspect of locations?
Metzger: I think you answered it. You used the word mythical. I think that–
Filmmaker: It becomes symbolic rather than real?
Metzger: Well, in retrospect, I think I work better as far away from reality as possible. I think that there are people who do realistic films. I tend to gravitate toward make-believe. For instance, in Score there’s a scene where people dress up as something they aren’t. I think I was trying to capture the note of non-reality where you can’t be injured, can’t be offended and can’t be hurt. The audience will be taken care of–there won’t be any injuries. You can easily give yourself to that.
Filmmaker: There’s also something in the opening monologue that indicates there’s some type of rationale for doing that. Something to do with defying the status quo. We’re in the peaceful city of Leisure where “people loved and loved some more,” but it had “nothing to do with the archaic notion of romantic love, which was the subject of more than a few cautionary tales among the people.”
Metzger: I think one of the things I tried to do with all the pictures was say that if you’re going to do something that isn’t exactly approved of, it’s okay. No guilt. In retrospect, I don’t think filmmakers should talk about their pictures, I don’t think that’s their job. The picture’s the picture. I think that talking about it is for other people. I always feel a little self-conscious talking about them. But, having said that, I think dealing with loneliness–that ran through a lot of my films, probably because I was an early latch-key child and the other element, as I said, is the alleviation of guilt. The sex that’s done in Score is a kind of sex that’s free of judgement, free of feeling bad. If you’re going to have a homosexual episode in your life, it’s not something that should ruin your life. It’s not something that should weigh you down for many, many years. It’s okay. And that’s really the kind of feeling we tried to get.
I think that’s what attracted us to the play. We were very faithful to the play and Jerry Douglas, the author, deserves much credit for the success of the film. Someone said there’s a young actor, Cal Culver, in a gay porno you should look at. So, I went down to see this thing called The Boys in the Sand, I thought it was terrible. As it turned out, in the gay porno world, this again was Citizen Kane. They had never had a picture in color with young, good looking people. I don’t know what gay porn was like before this but apparently, it was pretty dreadful. Unfortunately, when Score was finished, it didn’t do a lot of business at first. It was steady, but it never was the explosion that some of the other pictures were because hard core pornography had come in. X-rated films. We saw it coming. Somebody imported a picture called Sexual Freedom in Denmark. And it actually showed people fucking. Once I saw that I said, “It’s over. Who’s going to care about a lot of–”
Filmmaker: Soft-core, traditional–
Metzger: Preamble, love play and foreplay…who will care? There it is. With all the elegance and the nine weeks of shooting and all the light in Yugoslavia, it couldn’t really compete with what some guy could do for $20 in his basement as long as it had erections and cum shots. So after Score, we again bought a book–a very, very daring book–something that came on the heels of Story of O and was called L’Image. It’s about a couple who have a beautiful slave. And it had the Audubon quality; three people were in it.
We shot the interiors here and the exteriors in Paris, exactly where they were written in the book. Wherever it took place, we shot it, and we were able to get a beautiful photographic fabric. After the shoot, the U.S. Customs called us up and said, “How did you import this sexy film?” We said, “No we didn’t, we shot it here.” They said, “You can’t fool us, it was shot in Paris.” I said, “No, just the exteriors.” But we were proud of the fact that it was seamless, that you couldn’t tell what was shot where. It had an audience when it opened, but it was not pornographic, so it was hard to compete with hard core. Today it has a strong cult following
Filmmaker: In your films people have a lot of free time, they’re extremely decadent without the moral repercussions–
Metzger: Are films were always referred to as “elegant.” We didn’t start out to be elegant. I was taught in college that the reason comedies are about rich people is because you shouldn’t have to worry about how they make a living. And if you want them to be really funny, I’m not talking about Paddy Chayefsky funny, but if you want people at leisure, they have to have resources. They can’t worry about where the next dollar is coming from. We kind of took that, and tended to do pictures about substantially wealthy people.
Filmmaker: You had based your market on breaking sexual taboos–
Metzger: Right, but suddenly nobody cared about that. The rules changed. We resisted X-rated movies. We felt we were way above that sort of thing. We resisted for a while, but finally we succumbed and decided to do an X-rated feature.
Filmmaker: You basically dealt with standard sexual practices like prostitution and lesbianism. We should talk about Score a little bit. Had there been bisexual films before Score?
Metzger: No, that was unique. Certainly male homosexuality had not been touched and filmed, and that kind of swapping was again a little bit ahead of what people were used to seeing. But a large audience was really rushing to the new Jazz Singer which was The Devil and Miss Jones, and films like that which came out like that at the time, and which were really impressive because people without film backgrounds were making pornography and doing a good job with it. I was really taken aback because these guys’ first movies looked better than my first movie and their second movies looked better than my second movie. So I sat with Ava and we said, “Well, maybe we just have to do it, just to put the company financially back on keel.” But I said, “We can’t use our names, we’ll go to jail.” And also at that time, I had a small reputation for doing a certain kind of thing, and I said, “I don’t want to fool people and have them think they’re going to see one thing when they’re going to see something completely different.” I didn’t think that was fair.
So I took another name and in six days we shot this X-rated movie called The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, and again it was about rich people and used all the elements we’d always worked with. I had at that time done about 12-13 features and nobody in the X-rated field had done features before, so a little bit like my earlier films, when we finished it, nobody had seen anything quite like it. Nobody had done an X-rated adult movie with that many years of experience. So the film actually did a tremendous amount of business in the X-rated field. In fact, I begged the Hollywood Reporte” not to use my name when they talked about it. I said that you’ll ruin our company, you’ll ruin everything, please don’t say Radley Metzger, just use the name Henry Paris. He was really nice and he didn’t. And the ironic thing was that Henry Paris became better known than my name ever was. We did five of them and one of the five seemed to be a breakthrough. We had no idea that we were making a breakthrough film. We were approached by a tax shelter group and they said that they wanted to put some money into a film that was sure to make some money. There was a reputation that tax shelters didn’t care if they made money. They just went into it for the tax break. They wanted to show that they could make money with a tax shelter. So we adapted a book that they owned called Naked Came The Stranger. I don’t know if you know the history of that book. You could do a book on that. It was written by someone, supposedly Penelope Ashe, who went around publicizing this book about a woman on Long Island who discovers her husband is cheating, and she decides to get even with him by sleeping with all the people in their community. I think it was supposedly set in. It was on the bestseller list for six months. It turned out it was written by eight Newsday reporters. Each one wrote a chapter on the hottest thing they could think of. Based on the six months on the bestseller list, we did an X-rated version of it. Not quite as accurate as it could have been to the book, we did three episodes, three affairs that the girl has. The picture did well.
Filmmaker: It was a cinematic breakthrough for what reason?
Metzger: It wasn’t a cinematic breakthrough; the one that seemed to break through was the next one. The next film was just going to be another Henry Paris film. I didn’t know that it was going to be the picture that would have a first-run in Washington D.C. for seven years. It was just one of those pictures that caught on. It was called The Opening of Misty Beethoven. What it was, was a version of the “Pygmalion” story–and it was fairly accurate to the original Pygmalion. I didn’t chart it on a drawing board but we did pretty much every episode. Instead of teaching the girl how to speak the professor taught her how to make love. Based on the success of the first two X-rated films, we went on location, we went to Italy, we went to Paris, we went to Long Island and we went to Deal, New Jersey. It was a very elaborate production. Again, nobody had seen such a production that was X-rated. People have asked, “How were the Henry Paris films different from other X-rated films of the time?” There was a quality the other adult films didn’t have, they said basically, as I was used to doing foreplay and soft eroticism, I just did the same thing, but continued the action to the hard core. People just generally did the hard core; they didn’t do the preparation, they didn’t do the foreplay, the didn’t do the story values. And so the Henry Paris films looked very different.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you why after you made Score, and the market started to change, and you were faced with the growth of the porno industry–It seems like you had more than a couple of choices there and I’m wondering why you didn’t use your success as a director at that point to broker a career in the larger mainstream industry. You decided in fact to adapt to compete with porno.
Metzger: I wonder too. I think in retrospect it probably was a mistake, but I think at the time it was because it was easy and I think that the human psyche, or at least my psyche tends to gravitate toward repeating what you’ve done. If you have a way of working, and you have a success doing certain things–you go back and repeat. And since X-rated was the fad of the time, we went back and applied everything we knew to the adult field.
Filmmaker: They co-opted your market so you simply adapted?
Metzger: Probably. Ava put all her skills into changing the distribution of adult films. Because we broke through and played a lot of theaters that would never play hard core films. We also made cool versions, that is to say non-pornographic versions of all these pictures. When we shot them, it was almost like shooting two features, because you needed a lot of scenes and sequences that wouldn’t be in the adult version. I must say that your question is very perceptive, nobody’s ever asked me that before. I think in retrospect it was a crossroads, I suppose–
Filmmaker: I don’t mean to imply that the mainstream is an ideal that one should aspire to. I think any road is viable as long as you’re happy doing what you’re doing.
Metzger: There was an aspect that was enjoyable–total freedom. I could really do whatever I wanted. I was very grateful. We shot them in Super-16 which was practically an unknown format at the time and that gave me a freedom on the set which I’d never had before. Shooting 35mm is a heavy medium. This is before Steadicams, and you feel the weight during the course of a shooting day. In Super-16 you’re able to get maybe 50% more set ups per day, which is a real blessing. Subsequent to the Henry Paris films I did a kind of change of pace, again doing something different, I did a fourth re-make of one of the original old art house movies, The Cat and the Canary. It was a play in 1926. It was made into a brilliant silent movie. Brilliant. A masterpiece, directed by Paul Leni. It was made again as a sound film called The Cat Creeps, which is actually a lost film, there are no prints or negatives. In 1939 they used it as a Bob Hope vehicle. It then lay dormant for 25 years because the author didn’t trust Hollywood. He thought he’d been cheated. After he died we got the rights and went to England and made it with a really nice cast.
Filmmaker: Who was in the cast?
Metzger: Carol Lynley, Edward Fox, Daniel Massey, Dame Wendy Hiller (who funnily enough was the original Eliza Doolittle), Wilfred Hyde White, Michael Callen, Honor Blackman and Olyvia Hussey.
Filmmaker: This was what year?
Metzger: The late ’70s. It had a theatrical release which did just fair, but based on the cast and the story, it actually supported me the last ten years on the ancillary rights, and it did very well world wide.
Filmmaker: When you started directing films for Audubon, did Audubon stop acquiring other films for distribution? Or was it still picking up and dubbing and changing other films?
Metzger: Yes. We always looked for good films. If we were lucky enough to see one, we’d go after it. A case in point was an Italian film, La Matriarca. I called it The Libertine, (I got the title from an old Jean Shepard joke). A relly delightful film with a great cast; Jean-Louis Trintignant, the French actor, and Catherine Spaak. Her father was the great French screen writer who did Diabolique and her uncle was the French ambassador to Belgium. It was what I called a kinky film for the whole family. It’s about a young widow who discovers her late husband’s secret apartment complete with private film with all her best friends carrying on with him. She sets out to duplicate all his activities–with very funny results. It was highly stylized and very sophisticated. It was a little on the sluggish side, so I brightened it up with some judicious editing. Like I, A Woman, the film was most successful here in the States. In other territories they’d release the original versions which were never as good. They had post-synched The Libertine in English is Rome before we bought the film, but we weren’t happy with it, so it was re-done here in New York. At that time, there was a pool of terrific vocal actors here. Hal Linden, for instance, synched The Libertine. He was also “the bullfighter” in Carmen, Baby.
Filmmaker: What was the peak of Audubon? You started making sophisticated pornos, and it seems like–
Metzger: Well, the pornos we did over a period of two years. It wasn’t extended. The distribution went on and on, but I was only involved for 24 months. We did them back to back.
Filmmaker: So The Cat and the Canary—
Metzger: That was the mystery film I did. British producer Richard Gordon produced it.
Filmmaker: So that’s finally a stab for the mainstream?
Metzger: That was very mainstream. Quartet Films had it. They were a substantial art distributor. They had Breaker Morant.
Filmmaker: Was that a director-for-hire job?
Metzger: No, no, no. We independently produced it. With a British company. Technically it was a British film.
Filmmaker: Why didn’t Audubon distribute it?
Metzger: It wasn’t really our kind of film we couldn’t have done it justice, a commercial mystery film, even one as elaborate as that. Castle Hill Productions had ancillary rights and they did a tremendous job selling to pay TV and cable. Richard Gordon sold it in almost every country in the world. It was the fifth largest grossing film in Italy for that year. So it did well worldwide for us.
Filmmaker: What’s happened in the years between?
Metzger: I did a feature for the Playboy Channel, but then what happened was that my partner of 30 years developed cancer and after a long illness passed away in the late ’80s and I did an assessment of the medical profession and discovered that there were better ways to treat illness than the traditional western protocols and wrote and produced a series of videos on alternative health care; one on alternative cancer treatment, and a five-part series on homeopathy with Dr Andre Weil. Research and production on that took a number of years. We went all over Los Angeles, San Francisco, Nevada, Arizona, a laboratory in Lyon, France and we went to London to interview the Queen’s personal physician because the Royal Family had been homeopathic patients since Queen Victoria. Because of my relationship with Ava, and a close-up exposure to illness, I felt that in the 1990s, people needed more information on an intelligent approach to health and disease–that they needed to know about alleviating guilt. That was my emphasis. Until I was approached by the producer Julian Schlossberg for another Cat and the Canary. Together, we recently acquired the rights to a play in a similar vein. We’ve updated it and I just finished the script.
Filmmaker: How did the revival of Score come about this particular year?
Metzger: Well, I simply got a call from somebody who asked if the film was free. They wanted to put it into the Cinema Village. Quite independent of that, the N.Y. Lesbian and Gay Film Festival called and asked for Score. It really just happened. It’s curious because you don’t think in terms of the passage of time. You don’t think of it in units of time. It’s curious to have a film that’s 25 years old that’s requested today.
Filmmaker: It still plays very well.
Metzger: I guess that we were forward thinking. A lot of the credit has to go to the author.
Filmmaker: I think that Score still plays well; it’s funny, it’s sharp, witty.
Metzger: Everybody involved brought a great deal of experience to it. Not just me. What happened was, on Score I showed up and I didn’t have my ususal German crew. We had this Yugoslavian cameraman who was, as I said, the second best cameraman in all the country. I said “Who’s the operating camera?” And they said “What?” And I said “Who’s operating the camera?” He said, “Well I’ll do that. I do the lighting and the camera operating in Yugoslavia.” And I said, “Well wait a minute, while we’re rehearsing the actors you’re lighting, so when you finish your lighting, we’ll have to start all over while you learn the moves.” I said, “I don’t think we’re ever going to finish this picture that way.” I said, “I tell you what, to get through it I’ll operate the camera.” So I got a childhood wish. It was strange, but something I could do well. Sometimes on a tough shot when we’re doing a picture they’ll say “We don’t know exactly what you want, why don’t you do it.” So I would.
So I got to operate the entire film, which was…I’d never done that before. Or since. But it’s an exciting way to work, where you work it out with the actors and then you actually shoot it. We did it in nine weeks. It would have taken 109 weeks if I hadn’t been the operator.
Filmmaker: Despite the fact that you’ve directed a number of films, it sounds like you still consider yourself primarily an editor at heart.
Metzger: I didn’t know that came through, but we are what we started as.
Filmmaker: You seem to credit your skill at editing with a lot of success with being able to both reshape other people’s films and to be able to create the films you decided to direct economically, and to match shots from building to building etc.–
Metzger: Well we were able to give the film a look that most independent films don’t have. Because you can’t get more integrated with a film than having the director as the editor. So there was never any bridge there. There was never any gulf. It was a unity, a clear line as to how the scene would eventually play. Even when it’s written you know how it’s going to look. I don’t think–on any film I ever worked on–I ever had to re-shoot anything because of the editing or screen direction. I think that editing is somehow equivalent to grammar. If you write in English, how well do you know the language? What is your vocabulary? That’s what I think editing is, your vocabulary and a certain grammatical structure. That gulf between the conception and the execution has a lot to do with the communication between the director and the editor. However, editing styles change, just as language does.
Filmmaker: You edited trailers for a number of years. So in the case of your features, which came first, the trailer or the feature?
Metzger: It’s funny you should say that. I hadn’t thought about this in a lot of years. But when I first started, when I went to Europe all by myself, I said “My God, am I going to put anything together that’s acceptable?” I thought, I know what I’m going to do, I’m never going to make a shot that I couldn’t use in the trailer. And I think that rule gave the scenes an intrinsic movement. An intrinsic life. It sounds kind of boorish as I say it, but it does create a sense of life that you require of every shot. When you get a scene you say well, what can they do to make it a little more interesting —
Filmmaker: “for the trailer.”
Metzger: Not that they did that, but just to qualify, you would give it somehow…you’d give the actor a little bit of business they wouldn’t have ordinarily had, or you give the camera a bit of movement. With Score, it was a play, and there’s nothing more deadly than a play to try to translate into film, so we did everything possible so you didn’t feel it was a play. Funny aside–people I knew at the time still say to me, “Hey you’re the guy who didn’t use Stallone in Score.”
Filmmaker: Did you have an option to use him?
Metzger: We never asked. The director of the play who was the author wasn’t that enthusiastic and while he was appropriate for Queens, I didn’t think he’d lend himself to Yugoslavia. I must say he did a picture with full-frontal nudity about that time, about the time we did Score, it was released after Rocky, and nobody went to see it. It was called the Italian Stallion. I never saw it. But to see Sylvester Stallone nude, you’d think somebody would have gone to see it.
Filmmaker: He wasn’t a name then.
Metzger: No, no, I’m talking about after Rocky.
Filmmaker: Oh after Rocky.
Metzger: Nobody showed up.
Filmmaker: I know the pictures showed up in magazines.
Metzger: Maybe he bought them up because I don’t see it on any video lists.
Filmmaker: I don’t think that full frontal dicks have ever sold movies.
Metzger: You’d think Rocky’s would have. He was beyond a superstar at the time.
Filmmaker: Wasn’t Jan-Michael Vincent the first star to do full frontal nudity in film?
Metzger: Yeah, in Buster and Billie.
Filmmaker: I remember specifically going to see this movie because this teen idol was going to be nude.
Metzger: But still when people aren’t going to show up, there’s nothing you can do to make them.