Meet Ruggero Deodato

The legendary director of Cannibal Holocaust discusses his career.

by Jennie Kermode

"When I made Cannibal Holocaust, I put a lot of work into the film," says Ruggero Deodato, "and then it went to sleep for 30 years. Then The Blair Witch Project came out and suddenly half the world's press was camped outside my house! I didn't know what had happened."

Talking to a director who has made more than 30 films, it's hard to believe he was ever overlooked in that way, but Ruggero is living proof that it's possible to have a successful career in film outside the mainstream system. Overlooked by the mainstream media for all that time, he nevertheless acquired a cult following and produced a varied and interesting body of work. The reason why The Blair Witch Project drew sudden attention to him is that it's based on the idea of found footage, a videotape recovered after the fact and revealing its makers' grisly fate - something Ruggero pioneered in Cannibal Holocaust, one of the original 'video nasties'. When we met in Glasgow last month I asked him what he thought of his imitators.

"I liked the idea behind The Blair Witch Project because it basically copied my idea, but as a film I didn't like it," he says. "There's a film called 15 Minutes, with Robert De Niro and Edward Burns, about two cops in New York, where killers film murders taking place, and I quite liked that. [Rec] and Cloverfield again used a similar idea but I didn't like them because they had real monsters in. If you watch Platoon and Cannibal Holocaust, the scene where they burn the village is copied almost exactly. Oliver Stone said he was a fan of Cannibal Holocaust."

Ruggero speaks of Stone with respect, adding that he likes Platoon because it was perhaps the first truly realistic film about the Vietnam War. Several of his own films have looked at the exploitation of indigenous peoples, with those people sometimes turning the tables. I ask if he intended Cannibal Holocaust to have a political message.

"Yes," he says, "but in that instance it's really about the media. At the time, when Cannibal Holocaust came out, the media were showing all sorts of horrors on the news, but when I made something based on reality they didn't like it."

This has clearly been a perennial issue with his work. It's one of the reasons why he doesn't want to be written off as 'just' a horror director.

"I make films that people call 'horror' because I want to make films about real things that happen in the world, and most real things aren't very nice. I started out as an assistant director to Roberto Rossellini - we made six films together. Everyone thinks I'm a great fan of horror but I've shot many different movies: love stories, comedies, television serials. But Cannibal Holocaust is the most famous! I do like that best because I make films for audiences and the audiences tell me that's their favourite, so I know I have done a good job. I also love The Last Cannibal World, which I shot in Malaysia where there's very thick jungle. I've also shot a lot of commercial films. I love the camera - I'm an artisan."

His visit is timed to coincide with a screening of another of his jungle-based films, Cut And Run, which some have referred to as 'Cannibal Holocaust II'.

"I didn't intend Cut And Run as a direct follow-up to Cannibal Holocaust," he says. "I just tried to make it a bit of everything. I tried to insert realistic things into it, like drugs being hidden inside babies so they could be carried across the border, and the theme of cult suicides - things that were happening in the news at the time. I don't like films with a fantasy element - if I make a horror film I want the horror to come from something realistic, not something made up. At the moment I'm writing a script based on the Meredith Kercher case, the young woman who was murdered in Perugia. It's a giallo based on those events."

So what is it that draws him to a particular film?

"The most important thing in the film is the story. Now young people want the camera to jump about constantly, but for me that's not important. As long as the acting is okay, it's the story that matters. My favourite directors are people like Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese, who make realistic films with strong stories."

His dedication to making those stories work is considerable. Cut And Run was apparently a particular problem because he had to work in two languages - Italian and English - but also with local tribespeople who didn't even share the language of gestures which is common to most westerners. He shows me the gestures he made, beckoning, holding his hand out for 'stop', waving his arms to get attention. Nothing worked, so he simply had to spend more time with them until they got used to what he was trying to communicate.

"I slept in the jungle when I made that film," he says, and one can easily believe it - though he's 70 now there's still something wiry and resilient about him. But his cast weren't keen to share the experience. "They were American actors so they had to be put up in expensive hotels and flown in and out each day, but I wanted to be prepared. When you are the director of a film you have to be everything to the actors - father, mother, lover, medic. And the actress, she always expects to be your lover."

In this case that meant turning down Lisa Blount, something which would shock many fans of the genre, but he was already involved with her co-star Valentina Forte. Just to make things more complicated, one of his actors, fortified with drink, approached him tearfully to tell him he was in love with Valentina. He shrugs, clearly still amused by the incident. "In Italy we don't worry so much about these things, but because he was American, everything had to be a big drama."

Given all of this, how did he feel about the way his films were treated by the censors? Lamberto Bava has told me that Italian censors can be very strict on horror, much more so than in most of Europe, and Cannibal Holocaust was banned in Britain for a long time.

"It was really the animal violence that was the problem with Cannibal Holocaust," he acknowledges. "Because of that, they couldn't help but ban it - without that, it might have passed uncut. But at the time I had to do something shocking to get noticed. I couldn't kill real people so the animals got killed, but all the animals were eaten, they didn't just die for the film.

"Is Ai No Corrida still banned in Britain?" he asks, referring to the famous Japanese film about an obsessive love affair that ends in violence.

I tell him that as far as I'm aware it's still not certificated, though it sometimes appears on a limited release (it will be showing at the BFI late next month).

"It's still banned in Italy as well," he confirms, "and it was that part of the law that led to me getting into trouble."

Despite this, he has clearly enjoyed his reputation as a maker of cannibal themed films - so what about his cameo as a cannibal in Hostel 2?

"I was laughing at myself," he smiles. "I thought it was a great gag. When I met Quentin Tarantino at the Venice Film Festival he said 'You have to do this part!' So I was having some fun."

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