Malcolm McDowell as Caligula. Thomas Negovan: 'What Malcolm did would be the equivalent of watching someone who had to prepare for any eventuality'
Producer Thomas Negovan has unearthed more than 90 hours of original camera negatives and audio to make a new edit for Caligula: The Ultimate Cut which was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival in its Classics strand. He believes that new footage of the likes of Malcolm McDowell as the emperor, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud now has some resemblance to the film that the actors believed they had been hired to make by Italian director Tinto Brass four decades previously.
Producer Thomas Negovan: 'The thing that really stood out was that it did not seem like there was a director on set directing the action'
The actors seemed to be more sanguine at the time with McDowell saying he was proud of the work he had accomplished, whereas Mirren is quoted as describing it as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals”. On the adult content McDowell responded in one interview: "That to me was an outrageous betrayal and quite unprecedented."
Negovan came on board three years ago after the new owners of Penthouse requested that a management company look at all the existing assets. “There was this room in their offices which was full of boxes and that were all labelled Caligula and inside were reels of film covered in dust. Nobody had opened them in decades. So they asked me if I would go and look them over, and to tell them if there was anything there that would be worth uncovering.
"I remember opening one of the boxes and being hit with the smell of vinegar with the film rotting. There was other material in the way of negatives that looked as if they had never been cut and had come straight out of the camera. And at that point I said, 'This looks significant'. I had never seen Caligula but I knew the story. I thought it would be criminal to close up these lockers again. That is how it started.”
Brass, who is 90, already has issued a statement to slam the new version of the film. “After numerous and fruitless negotiations that have followed over the years, first with the Penthouse and then with other unclear individuals, to edit the material that I shot and which had been found in the Penthouse archives, a version has been created on which I did not take part and which I am convinced will not reflect my artistic vision,” he said. He suggested that “audiences will therefore be misled by the arbitrary use of my name”.
Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren in Caligula. Thomas Negovan: 'As a lover of history it was an incredible anomaly and was an injustice that was wrought on the performers'
Negovan, who is now also working on a behind the scenes documentary to give context to the restoration, found that in some of the material he uncovered “there was an intimacy in seeing the actors go about their work that you could not have had unless you had been in the room. I was able to watch Malcolm McDowell try the lines in different ways and seeing him interact with John Gielgud - it was like so normal for them.”
He added: “The thing that really stood out was that it did not seem like there was a director on set directing the action. What Malcolm did would be the equivalent of watching someone who had to prepare for any eventuality. He was attempting to safeguard large amounts of ‘coverage’. The reason I came out of this being more of a Malcolm McDowell fan than I was before was because he was very visibly the person who was trying to cover for anything whereas Gielgud, Helen Mirren and Peter O’Toole were simply turning up to do a job. McDowell, it seemed, was almost like trying to save the film from itself.”
Negovan was determined to rescue McDowell’s performance for posterity. “He gave a performance the world never saw. The reason that happened is that Gore wrote the movie but then Tinto barred him from the set and Bob Guccione ended up hating everyone.”
Technically the restorers were able to iron out the glitches. “It became comical to look at a beautiful and pristine negative and then to look at the film itself, which was dirty. We were able to clean it with some specialist software. There were still moments where I wished we had had a cover shot that did this or that but now it has a plot you can actually follow. I am certain that thematically we are infinitely closer to what Brass had intended rather the Guccione release.”
Helen Mirren in Caligula, who described it as 'an irresistible mix of art and genitals'
Whether the 157-minute new cut will totally restore the film’s credibility remains to be discerned. It has a lot of barbs to surmount such as Variety’s verdict that the original was “a moral holocaust” while the late critic Roger Ebert opined it was “sickening, worthless trash”.
Negovan has what will probably NOT be the last word: “We were trying to bring together the best of what we had, but it was still a very strange movie. It becomes more than the sum of it parts. I cannot imagine any movie that has more myths surrounding it than Caligula. The vast majority of them are false but the truth is even stranger than people realise.”
Caligula - The Final Cut will have a theatrical release in the US, France and Germany in the autumn. Plans for other territories including the UK have not yet been finalised.