Franconomicon interviews uncle Jess (English version)
To know Jesús Franco in person is a mystery, surely the most difficult to disclose for the francomaniac to understand his work. Uncle Jess greets you warmly, makes some jokes, and to every question he answers with a mix of half-blurred memories, learnt beforehand stories and vague remarks improvised right there on the spot; yet, at the same time, he studies the interviewer, eventually challenging you with his own questions. Soon one realizes that Franco doesn’t like to talk about his own films, specially the 20 plus year old ones, preferring instead to talk about other people’s films (he’s a movie encyclopedia), or the ones he plans to make. And also about music, and that he knows even better than cinema. I cannot remember clearly why we started talking about Miss Death, but he was already talking up the storm by the time I took my tape recorder.
Jesús Franco: …[Serge] Silberman hired me to make Miss Death, but the original idea of the film was mine. These two, Silberman and [Michel] Safra, who produced some of [Luis] Buñuel films, used to work on two movies at the same time, alternating between who the executive producer was; sometimes one, sometimes the other. Money-wise, Cartas Boca Arriba [aka Attack Of The Robots] was more important, as it was more expensive, but Silberman liked Miss Death more.
Was La casa de las mujeres perdidas another Jean Claude Carrière’s idea?
No, there’s a confusion about this. I invented the story and sent it to Jean Claude for writing a treatment, but he didn’t feel capable of doing it and sent it back. But it was not the exact story of the film, it was the same world, the same characters, but not the story.
Were you fond of Godard’s Alphaville? Cartas Boca Arriba portrayed some similarities…
Of course! Godard’s my favorite director ever. I’ve no problem admitting this. At least, not anymore.
And do you like everything he’s made so far? He has changed a lot since then.
That’s one the reasons I like him so much. I like open-minded, innovative people. His Histoire(s) du Cinema are fucking great, the Holy Bible of cinema.
You frequented the Paris Cinémathèque. Ever met Godard personally?
I did, but not in the Cinémathèque. I frequented the place to watch movies, not to chit-chat with anybody. Back then, there were the Capulade and the Café de Fleur, two cafés frequented by misfits and dissidents; that’s where I met not only Godard, whom I consider the most important director of his generation, but also [Jean-Pierre] Melville, another very inventive man, along with some less significant guys. But, do you know that the first thing Silberman asked me to shoot was a film to be signed by Max Ophüls’s son, Marcel? That cunning motherfucker knew Marcel was still very unskilled and expected me to make it for him, anonymously. ‘Bollocks to that!’, I told him. I was a beginner myself but I wasn’t going to do such a thing, no way. That film ended up being Peau de Banane [aka Banana Peel], with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jeanne Moreau.
I recently read an old interview where Truffaut spoke wonders
about Berlanga, but said nothing good about Bardem.
Sure, Truffaut was politically correct, highly literate and progressive ideas but was not a man of the left, was half … half baked or something. I always
liked a lot more Godard. People use to stick them all in one basket but they had nothing to do with each other, either ideologically or cinematically.
Those were pretty intense times for you. From France you came back to Spain to work with Orson Welles, no less…
Yes. I’ve always been on good terms with many great people [laughs]. But, as I’ve said lots of times before and I’ll keep saying in the future, it’s Juan Antonio Bardem the one I owe the most. He gave me a job as his assistant back when I was a nobody. I didn’t even have a permit to work, any shit like that. I think Juan Antonio liked me so much, above all, for political reasons. I was a Marxist, something that opened some doors for me and, of course, closed some others: there was no way the right-wing could stomach me.
That’s when you began being known as a famous iconoclast.
No, that’s when I began to be famous. Full stop. But, frankly, I prefer to be seen as an iconoclast than as a henchman of the regime.
Starting with your film Necronomicon, in 1968 you moved forward in your directorial style toward sheer abstraction. Were you possibly a bit fed up of orthodox cinema?
I never wanted to do orthodox cinema, but was either that or staying at home doing nothing. Initially Necronomicon was going to be a simpler thing than what it ended up being, but the Spanish censors read and reproved the script. Censorship was fucking inflexible back then. Those morons! “… there’s a problem with page 7, you’re not allowed to shoot the scene crossed out in red”… That shit. The German coproducer then suggested that I work on the film just with him and I said, yes, let’s go ahead. He gave me total freedom to do whatever I wanted within the confines of the story, and that meant mental liberation for me.
Actually, We Are 18 Years Old is a less spoken about movie but it’s structure was very modern for the times.
I think it still is. And you haven’t seen it in it’s entirety.
No, you’ve seen a chopped off version. The original was 10 minutes longer and has never been shown. The justification of the character of the fugitive, Luis Pena, was cut. With the cuts they gave me he looks like a gangster and a bastard, and he was not. The guy asked the girls for help in good manners, because he has escaped from prison, and they face the dilemma of not knowing what to do. All three did very well. There they put scissors, and also the relationship between the angelic boyfriend of one of the girls, the youngest. And they also cut the final scene, which was more explicit, much clearer to the public.
It’s amazing how that film summarizes nearly everything you’ve done. A 50 year career compressed into one movie: resolutive women, acid sense of humour, film noir, monsters, psychological drama, cartoonish characters…
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a trailer of my whole career [laughs].
I suppose this wasn’t planned at all…
Of course not, but those were the things I had in my head since I was 10. I’ve never shared the idea that movies must tell the story of two people who meet, that they’re young, or old, have a house someplace, or have fallen out with their auntie or whoever… No; I’ve always refused that any of my movies will be like that. Actually, not one of them, and I’ve made more than 200, deals with such subjects. Back then all films were like that, and the public were puzzled by the fact that mine were not. Definitely not.
It had to hurt a lot of box office disaster that was TENEMOS 18 AÑOS …
Rather than box-office flop I was hurt because of the doublecross against me. If the movie wasn’t qualified as second B, which prevented the normal local premiere, it would have worked normally, the proof is that when I made the next, Labios rojos, that did not occur. I made Labios rojos as fast as I could because I was convinced that if a second film doesn’t work well, things would go much harder for me. And it had a mediocre reception but it was fine, because this time I hadn’t the entire board of bastards against me. The only one who defended me was Jose Luis Dibildos, which was my friend and liked the movie, he defended it as he could, but all the ministerial establishment was ready to fuck me, so it was helpless.
You’ve had to go through utter shit since day one thanks producers, censors, politicians… you name it. But, did you think anytime of calling it a day?
Quit cinema? Fuck no! Never. I’ve been in trouble plenty of times with motherfuckers of all sorts, but the fighting and the arguing just spurred me on to keep working. This ain’t an easy world, the struggle is continuous, but I’m a fighter and never accepted shit from anyone. The proof is that none of my 200 plus films have been made with funds from the Ministry of Culture nor any other governmental organization. No one else in Spain can say the same. So what happens? Well, not applying for a subvention allows me to tell them to fuck off when this or that person says they don’t like what I do. Look, I don’t consider myself a genius. I know I’ve made some so-so movies. But I always made them the way I wanted to.
This ethos of yours, obviously came with some consequences.
Yes. I had no choice but to leave Spain, something I never regretted. I wasn’t allowed to do my job. There were two films I was trying to do; years later I finally had the chance to make one of them, Obscene Mirror, but the truth is that it was much more virulent and cabrona back when I first planned it. And I fought tooth and nails for the other, Los Colgados, which was never made. They didn’t allow me to. It was based on a novel by a writer named Bruno Traven, which I liked for his harsh, uncompromising style; my french coproducer, who was pretty useless most of the time, had obtained the legal permission to turn it into a movie, but it was a trap from the very beginning. The Ministry didn’t say no at first, they just treated me paternalistically like I was a dumb kid. “Are you really willing to get yourself into this mess?”, shit like that. But in the end it was approved. I had the French and a Spanish coproducers, a cast already assembled… Everything seemed to be on the right track. Then, few days before start shooting, as scheduled, I received an official notification telling me, in general terms, to stick the movie up my arse. The powers that be decided to forbid it. Out of sheer anger, I decided to make another movie right away, one that wouldn’t bother those sonofabitches. “A vampire flick”, as I told the producers. I took them along to see [Terence Fisher’s] The Brides Of Dracula, they loved it, and that’s how I made Gritos En La Noche.
Which was a big success.
Big as fuck. An awesome success. From then on I was only asked to make horror movies. That’s why I say that not being allowed to film Los Colgados ultimately determined the rest of my career.
But why have you never retaken the film?
Because my aim is to make it as it is. It’s a great, harsh story, one of Traven’s most virulent. I’m adamant to make it regardless of my age. But ask any director, they’ll all tell you about the many films they have in the closet, waiting. On a certain occasion Buñuel told me that the unexpected success of El Fantasma De La Libertad brought him the chance to work on 4 or 5 movies he had written years before and nobody ever backed him to make. It’s absolutely necessary never to give up.
It’s a question of knowing how to get around the producers, isn’t it?
No, no. Producers don’t know shit about nothing. They’re fucking clueless and really don’t care.
Who do you consider the most professional and capable you’ve ever worked with?
Samuel Arkoff and Roger Corman’s team. Definitely. Those were people who really knew about cinema, how to sort out problems, see the potential of a proposed new project and give you enough space to work. Corman helped me immeasurably when I was making Venus In Furs and Justine de Sade, two films with high production values; both rank among the most expensive I’ve ever made. I struck up a good friendship with one of his assistants, Steve Previn, production manager and brother of [composer] André Previn. Steve was a really cool guy and gave me a hand plenty of times. Corman aside, the best producer I’ve ever had was Artur Brauner, whom I worked with on Vampyros Lesbos, She Killed In Ecstasy and many others. [Jess puts out his cigarette, which he has barely smoked, and fires up a new one; I’m off guard and Jess shoots out a question of his own.] Have you seen my latest movie, La Cripta De Las Mujeres Malditas?
Yes. I saw it in Paris, during the retrospective on your career held last year by the Cinémathèque.
And what’s your take?
You mean it in a pejorative, or positive sense?
For me, it was an experiment in anti-cinema. The film charges against all the usual cinematic elements: script, photography, lightning…
That’s right. Fuck it all to hell.
And there are some mirrors set up to show that no filming crew is present. Not even you; like as if the film was being made spontaneously by its actual characters.
Aha, the same principle as in Sex Is Crazy, in which you can perfectly see the director reflected in the mirrors. That was tongue-in-cheek, while in this new movie is done very seriously, taking it to the extreme. It makes me happy you’ve understood my movie so well; most people don’t, because it revolves around a pretty complex idea. Another movie of mine I think you would like is Vampire Junction. And my next one, which I’ll make within five minutes or two months, I don’t know. Not later than two months, though. I want to go over the top with it.
Even more than with La Cripta…?
Much more! It’s about an erotic showgirl whose act is her making love to herself. Gradually she begins to fall in love with herself, gets jealous and eventually commits murder. On herself. Ain’t it cool? I want to count with Fata Morgana and Carmes Montes to make it, though it’s gonna be difficult ‘cos they’ve fallen out with each other. I really like Fata Morgana; in some scenes she’s as compelling as Soledad Miranda.
You’ve always had a knack for finding and directing actresses. Soledad, Lina Romay, Fata Morgana…
Yes, just like George Cukor [laughs]. That’s because I love women passionately. They’re smarter, braver and more sensitive than us men. We are all a bunch of chickens and assholes. Lina and I started up together 30-something years ago and our life together has always been great.
Tell me your favourites
Soledad, Lina, Fata Morgana and perhaps Diana Lorys, who was superb in Nightmares Come At Night.
Let’s talk a bit about the Marquis de Sade.
I discovered his works back when I was a child. His books were forbidden but on sale at the second-hand bookstores in San Bernardo St.
Along the years you’ve adapted Sade’s stories on several occasions. What did you find so attractive? I don’t think it is sex.
Sex is for me the less interesting part; furthermore, he treated sex in a not-that-serious way. Sure, Sade would laugh his ass out if he could hear what people think about him. No, I loved the writing itself, that was much like [Octave] Mirbau’s. His was a literature that was somehow excessive but also sharp and gutsy. The man was a genius. From among the films I’ve made based on one of his stories, my favorite one is Eugenie de Franval, with Soledad Miranda. The film depicts a very authentic and “sadian” relationship, and both Soledad and Paul Muller are splendid in their roles.
And what’s you take on the adaptations made by others? Pasolini’s Saló, fo example.
Utter crap. I loath Pasolini. There’s some good moments here and there, but the general context of the movie… Screw it. And Cy Enfield’s [De Sade]… What a pile of shit! I nearly finished it myself. I was asked to, but the project lacked any consistency from the very beginning. Quite strange, because Enfield was a good director; Zulu, for example, is a movie that I like. In my opinion, the only director who really got anywhere close was Klaus Kinski. Paganini which was an irregular and crazy film but had many superb things.
You always got along well with each other.
He was a truly brilliant guy! Very intelligent and with a great sense of humor. The problem was that people usually got off on the wrong foot with him. Those poor little Italian producers thought he was an asshole because on this or that occasion he fucked them up forcing them to stop halfway through the shooting of a movie. As an actor he wasn’t always at his best, but he could be fabulous when he felt like it. Remember my adaptation of Justine? You cannot do it better than Klaus.
And what about that group of left-wing, intellectual erotic filmmakers of the era like José Benazeraf, Alain Robbe-Grillet…?
Come on, man! Don’t put them in the same box! Benazeraf was what the Frenchs call a marchand de soupe, a fraud. He was technically capable but had no real talent. Robbe-Grillet, on the other hand, was pretty smart and a very, very good writer.
In your films there are things that sometimes recall Robbe-Grillet’s.
I think so too. I’ve never tried to deny or get rid of the influences I received from different authors. Why should I? All great writers in history took from others. Shakespeare did. But that’s not theft, it’s influence, and if there’s something of your own you can add, that’s the icing on the cake.
The main difference is in that Robbe-Grillet’s cinema was intellectual and pedantic but with a popular touch, while you make popular cinema with occasional intellectual or pedantic touches.
Well… I don’t think my films are pedantic. But I’m certain that plenty of things have been said about me, but never that I’m a bonehead. I think that’s evident. People can like or dislike my cinema, that depends on their tastes; but there’s no stupidities in it. I’m gonna tell you a secret… I have some bloody great music by Friedrich Gulda to use in a film. He was the composer of the title music of Necronomicón, an absolutely wonderful pianist from Vienna who sadly passed away some years ago. Before he died he sent me a letter giving me the rights on some pieces of his music from the era on which he played the piano and conducted a weird symphonic jazz orchestra. I want to use part of this music in the film I was referring you about; a concertino in four parts. Wanna hear it?
Linita! Could you play the Gulda? [Lina Romay shows up and starts searching through a huge pile of CD’s loosely resting on some shelves; eventually she gives up, accuses Franco of being messy and leaves the room]. I also have an hour of music by Iron Maiden to use. They offered it to me when we met in London.
Whoa. How the heck did you met Iron Maiden?
[Laughs] Isn’t it great? It was by sheer chance. Back then they were living in the outskirts of London. I got to know them through Derek Parsons, a wonderful film editor I worked with in my Count Dracula. We all got along very well. We talked a lot about music and, finally, they said that if I wanted to use that stuff of them, I was free to do it. Well, to be precise they gave away their songs to [producer] Tomás Lesoeur, initially for a planned remake of The Awful Dr. Orloff.
By the way, I want to ask about the music library you used in the 70’s especially on labels like Musique Pour L’Image, and composers such as Daniel Janin, Jean-Bernard Raiteux, Jean Claude Pierric … how that worked?
It was music that I knew before, not that it was looking for a tent like to Benichou, who knew him as a guitarist as well.
Hey, what a voluminous script you have there: El Hombre Que No Estuvo Allí. What is it about?
What is it about? It’s an abstraction, like Necronomicon. What was Necronomicon about? Lina and I finished this not long ago, still haven’t shown it to anyone. It won’t be an expensive film to do. For this type of productions I have an American producer, Kevin Collins, and a French one, Lesoeur. This script is among my weirdests, in the vein of Sex Is Crazy; I think Kevin will like it more than Lesoeur, who’s a bit of a more primitive person.
I’ve read some of your scripts, such as the El Castillo Rojo and A través del espejo, which reads more than like a novel.
El Castillo Rojo was never finished. I started to shoot at the end of another movie but never could finish it. Partly was shot in a residential area of Calpe by Ricardo Boffil, a fucking great site. I played there the villain. And screenwriting as a novel is something I often do. Nobody has to tell me how I should write a screenplay, that pisses me off.
How much time do you usually spend writing a script? And how much do you like the process of writing?
It depends. This one, I made it in two months. Writing is something I really enjoy, but actually there’s no process in cinema I don’t like. This includes editing, which is essential work and maybe the hardest. I learnt a lot about editing from Orson Welles, a master in the matter who could perfectly spend three full years editing a film, changing this and that, never happy with the results. I used to be with him in the editing room, watching him work and picking up bits and pieces of film from the floor. That motherfucker was incredibly good: three days after having a sequence finished, perfect in my opinion, he would show it to me again rearranged to even better results. Orson said that movies are ductile. That’s perfectly legit to stretch, cut, shrink the celluloid, to play with that physical item that is a piece of film.
Many of your movies show a clear influence of Welles, regarding lightning and framing.
His was a classic expressionist lightning, nothing new. Watch Campanadas A Medianoche [aka Chimes At Midnight], that’s enough proof. Do you know that there are only incandescent lights on that movie? No more than some voltaic arches and screens. That’s what gives the film a lightning so special.
In the El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher you did that kind of light.
Exactly, expressionist lighting. Also I got there I as an operator, and worked like a bastard, but overall the photo of my films is almost all mine.
Now, thanks to DVD’s, we can really appreciate the photography of many your films.
In the past I’ve been treated very badly by the goddamn Spanish laboratories, the worst in the world. It didn’t matter how good the original photography was, ‘cos they would ruin it anyway. Not being the owner of the negatives, I’ve been fucked up by the labs plenty of times. But, yeah, that’s right, DVD’s are great. Have you seen the latest remastered version of M, by Fritz Lang? It’s 100 times better than the version we knew. The lightning, the direction, the cast… Amazing. And [Coppola’s] The Conversation. I saw it again on DVD and still is a superb film.
And the nowadays cinema, what do you see that you liked?
I really like the French, as Pitof, a mad genius. And I see many TV series, such as Jerry Bruckheimer’s, which are all great.
What do you think of Michael Bay?
He is a modern Cecil B. DeMille, with awesome special effects and everything, but little interesting guts for me. I also like Tarantino, not Robert Rodriguez, who is nearly as good. Lynch is a director who I like sometimes but think he’s very uneven. Sometimes he has awesome findings, sometimes goes like cheap. The same with Tinto Brass, at first I was interested, but he went useless.
I’m going to ask you for some lost titles or at least surrounded by some confusion. Lascivia, does it exist?
Yes, it was finished.
Sida, La Peste Del Siglo XX
We run out of money. Never finished.
Explain me all that mess with El Hombre que Mató a Menguele and Gente del Río…
I started to make a movie called River People (Gente del Río), in which a retired Mengele appeared, played by a great Howard Vernon. But the producer wanted to give more importance to the character of Mengele, but in the fashion of a tacky Andrea Bianchi’s action flick. But I didn’t want to ruin character, which is a sinister and sordid guy, you have to give him another treatment, not like the bitch in the corner. So I eventually quit the project. Gente del Rio was a film about fishermen who live in a village in Central America and know that Mengele is living there but no one dares to approach him. Then a group of fishermen try to hunt him. And the film is the struggle to get that bastard killed. And they succeed. It was based on people I met in Brazil, former Nazis living like gods in some big villas, and I wanted to show the clash between those nazis and the humble people of the river. But I didn’t finish it, because it wasn’t good enough and I didn’t want that film to show up somewhere on video. Almost all the material I did with the Italians went that way, they fucked with me a thousand times, everything went wrong and that’s why I’ve never admitted that as my work.
That was the same case as Justine Lady Lujuria, the Joe D’Amato recut?
No, but D’Amato, as far as it goes, was a professional guy and very nice person. But this film was made at the time of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. But then when I did the first cut I wasn’t satisfied so I quit. Lina was terrific, but the movie was very poorly managed.
Has anything changed for you after receiving the Spanish Academy’s honorific Goya award? Are you having more job offers now?
I’ve never had offers from anybody. Nothing has changed, it never does. This is the way it always has been. I do what I do, at my own expenses and risks. If someone likes it, fine; if not, I don’t give a shit.