In The Land Of Franco- Jess Franco On Severin [2021-06-15]
One of the most prolific, versatile, compellingly distinct, and at points artily creative directors to appearing from euro-exploitation was Jess Franco. Between the 1950s and the 2010’s, he directed over 200 films- with these running the gamut of genre cinema-going from black and white gothic horror, exotic horror, Women In Prison films, surreal and dread tinged softcore, jungle adventures, Zombie films, cannibal pictures, and slashers. In recent years many Franco films have received reissues- one of the more extra focused and classy reissues of Franco’s work has been Severin, to date they released nineteen of his films, with more planned this year. We tracked down one of Severin’s co-owners David Gregory(who has also interviewed Jess many times) to discuss the labels Franco releases.
M[m]: What do you see as the appeal in Jess Franco’s films, and the constantly growing interest in his work? And what was your first personal introduction to Franco’s world, and what did you think?
David My first introduction was Bloody Moon when I was about 10 years old. Severin co-founder Carl Daft and I watched a double feature of tapes we'd badgered my Dad into renting - Bloody Moon and Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Among the most important afternoons of film watching ever for us. We pretended to play chess while we watched in case Mum walked in we could feign disinterest but the reality was that we knew we were watching two very special movies. Of course, Moon is hardly a typical Franco. It wasn't until much, much later when I watched Eugenie and Justine preparing to interview the great man for the Blue Underground DVDs that I started to become fascinated with him as a cinematic master. I'd seen many of his movies in the intervening years but seeing those two, newly scanned from their original negatives in their correct aspect ratios was when the penny finally dropped that here was a filmmaker with a vision worth exploring further. And like many who get that particular addiction I wanted to go deeper and deeper. For me, the fact that his life was shooting was fascinating enough -- the fact that he and his partner Lina Romay were filmmaking junkies, utterly committed to continually shooting, no matter what means they had at their disposal, was beautiful. And the more you watch and learn, the more you see that their approach was unique in that it wasn't so much the end product that motivated them, it was the act of shooting. And then you start to view the films from a whole new perspective in terms of what they chose to make. Sometimes they were given parameters, which came with a bit more money, not a lot, but often you can tell when Jess was making someone else's movie rather than what was purely his. And his entire filmography is like a career in jazz music but the music is a conglomeration of his obsessions -- naked flesh, stunning locations, cinematic genres and themes, literary too, a lot of De Sade but also pulp and fumetti, humour, and, yes, music all twisted into one another to form a vast, hypnotic filmography.
M[m]: You mention Bloody Moon - it’s a favourite of mine too, as Franco gives a very fun euro-cheese take on the slasher genre. Am I correct in thinking that Bloody Moon & Faceless were Franco’s only take on the slasher genre? And why do you think he did no more?
David Jess didn’t make more slashers because he simply didn’t like them. Had he been approached as a director for hire I’m sure he would have as he did with cannibal and zombie movies, which he also hated. Faceless was more Eyes Without A Face than a slasher I’d say. But again a job for hire.
M[m]: Severin’s releasing of Franco titles goes back to when the label started in 2006 with the DVD release of two 1980 titles Macumba Sexual & Mansion Of The Living Dead. Please talk about how/ why these first releases came about?. And was the focus on the 80’s deliberate, or were these titles that came available?
David I'd already worked on numerous Blue Underground discs -- I was with BU for the first 5-6 years before forming Severin, and in fact, I still do something in the special features for most of their releases -- so had interviewed Jess a few times by 2006. While on one of those trips to Spain I met the people from Mercury films who had the rights to all the Golden Films era movies which had never been released outside of Spain and were barely released there either. The elements were in immaculate condition due to the fact that they'd barely been touched since running through the camera. I picked the four Golden films with the most exploitable titles: Macumba, Mansion of the Living Dead, Sexual Story of O and Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle, and off we went.
M[m]: You talk about interviewing Franco- what was your impression of him in person, and how many times did you interview him?
David I interviewed him across 10 or 12 different sessions for over 35 different discs. Shot him in Torremolinos, London, Paris and then the last few at their final home in Malaga. Also accompanied he and Lina when he was brought as a guest to Fantastic Fest in Austin, where he received a lifetime achievement award, a trip they loved and the last time I saw them together. I visited Jess one more time after that in Malaga and he was very frail and it was pretty clear he wouldn’t be with us much longer sadly. But almost every session before that after the lengthy interviews we’d go out for dinner and talk more. I thoroughly enjoyed their company. They were always full of stories and humour. I admired them very much. Their life was movies, with a healthy sprinkling of music and food. I still have the fantastic fest poster inscribed to me by them in my living room as well as a Gilbert & George art exhibition poster, which I bought at the Malaga art gallery the last time I went to visit Jess. It carries a lot of resonance for me. I miss those sessions/visits. Jess was among my favourite interviewees from hundreds that I've done over the years. An amazing fountain of anecdotes and knowledge from a life spent making movies, mostly on his own terms. Incredible when you think of all the films he made, many concurrently, dating back decades, that you could drop the title and he would open up and share so many details on that specific movie. A truly unique cinematic artist and a wonderful person. Loved them both
M[m]: So far you’ve put out nineteen Franco titles on Severin- of those what have been the more difficult films to restore/ create new prints from? And could you please discuss the label's general restoration process?
David Shining Sex was the most difficult simply because it took years from signing the contract to finding the uncensored element to getting it scanned and restored. But it was worth the wait, the film looks stunning and is a revelation compared with the French and Japanese VHS copies from the 80s, of course. This is the thing when you're dealing with Franco, particularly the obscure titles. It's been so long, sometimes never, that the films have been transferred that they look like whole new movies with today's technology, compared with the cheapest cropped telecines that were done back in the VHS era. So it's a pleasure to dust them off and present them the way they were meant to be seen. The restoration process depends on the elements available. Often it's not as simple as it was with the Golden films. Hot Nights of Linda for example - all pre-print elements are lost. We had to use a 35mm release print for mastering which is always more frustrating because it's more work in restoration to yield a result that is a few generations down from a scan from the negative. But it's better to do that than leave the film to fade into obscurity and be unavailable at all.
M[m]: What elements do you think makes for a classic Franco film? And please discuss a few of your personal favourites?
David I described some of the elements that go into the mix in an earlier question but since doing In The Land Of Franco I now have an elevated appreciation of the architecture in his films. As a man who admired many forms of culture -- food, music, film, comics, literature -- he really had a keen eye for architecture. Personally, I like the fever dream films, of which there are many, in fact, a majority seeing as they mostly went in that direction as his career went on, but the early ones like Succubus and Venus in Furs are regular revisits for me as he was testing the waters with form and narrative structure. Love the formidable duo of Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy of course. Still love Bloody Moon so much and would laugh with Jess about it as he would dismiss it, which he did of most of his films but particularly that one. Virgin Among the Living Dead is awesome.
M[m]: 2020 saw you release four Franco titles-Night Of Open Sex, Cries Of Pleasure, Bahia Blanca, and Shinning Sex- all of these come from the early ’80s. Do you see any distinctive traits/ elements in this period of his filmmaking/ be they bad or good?
David Two of these -- Night of Open Sex and Cries of Pleasure -- are Golden Films. This period was particularly interesting for Franco-philes because he had 100% creative freedom. He was working with perhaps his lowest budgets so far at that point in his career but he always embraced being given the money and not being told what to do, so he was ok with it. He, Lina, Antonio Mayans, Juan Soler and a handful of friends/colleagues would hole up in a beachside location and shoot. They made a dozen or so films across a couple of years this way. Pure Franco. Shining Sex was a Eurocine production. Jess had a love/hate relationship with Eurocine but it can't be denied that they afforded him the opportunity to run free with his ideas too for the most part. I think they made him make some movies he wasn't into like The Cannibals and Devil Hunter but they also allowed him to make The Awful Dr. Orloff, Virgin Among The Living Dead, Eugenie De Sade and this very bewitching sci-fi sex film. Bahia Blanca is another pure Franco and one of his personal favourites, made for his own company Manacoa films. So again, made with the freedom he so craved.
M[m]: Talking of your 2020 Franco output, the Blu Rays feature the excellent In The Land Of Franco series, which features Stephen Thrower visiting filming locations. Please tell us a little bit about how this series came about, and over what period of time where they filmed?
David There are a whole lot of "historians" spewing their rambling thoughts all over disc releases these days but Stephen is one of the most articulate, learned and important voices in genre film appreciation, history and criticism today. You just have to glance at his massive tomes on Franco, Fulci and regional horror to know that if he is passionate about a subject he's all in. Unlike the ramblers, Steve won't be doing a yak track on just any movie he's offered for a few quid, it has to be something he wants to lend his comments to. I actually don't recall how the idea came about but it must have been at one of our interview sessions that we discussed the idea of visiting some locations. And once I said to him that I'd foot the bill for him to join me in Spain to visit some of these places he dove right in Thrower-style to figuring out where we could visit. We planned an 8 or 9-day schedule. My partner Liz and I rented a car and picked him up in Lisbon (we had spent New Years in Spain that year), spent the first couple of days there before heading back into Spain, picked up Antonio Mayans in Malaga, and then drove from town to town following our plan. We stayed in beautiful castles where Franco had shot or the "language school" from Bloody Moon or by the famous rock which features in a number of his movies and then showed up at the places and started shooting. On a couple of occasions, Stephen would recognize a location as we drove by. We'd stop the car, jump out and start shooting. But mostly it was locations Stephen had researched and figured out -- with the help of Antonio -- where to go.
M[m]: Still on the subject In The Land Of Franco- where any location that was particularly difficult to find, and did have any issues getting permission filming in certain locations?
David We decided not to seek permissions ahead of time and just acted like tourists with tourist cameras. I figured that as we were on such a tight budget and schedule that getting permission from such historic buildings could be costly and, if it was anything like the US, would require all kinds of insurance and local government involvement. A couple of times this led to our not being able to film inside a particular location, like the Sinfonia Erotica hotel, but mostly there was no trouble getting what we needed. In fact, on a couple of occasions, the proprietors went out of their way to help, like the manager of the 5-star hotel where Hot Nights of Linda was shot or the hotel where The Demons was shot. Once we explained what we were doing after getting busted, they took us onto the roof and into the basement which is where many scenes were filmed. So many mind-blowing locations. Mind-blowing in that Jess, Lina et al were able to make their little movies at these breathtaking, landmark places.
M[m]: What can we expect from upcoming episodes of In The Land Of Franco?
David There are two or three episodes left from that first shoot which will appear on our next Francos, which will be released in the coming months. We have plans to do the Canaries and France next. It was tentatively scheduled for last May after Cannes but alas that didn't happen. Hopefully before the end of this year but who knows? Me, Liz, Steve and Antonio are poised and ready to go as soon as it's doable.
M[m]: Another extra on these recent discs has been snippets of interviews that Filmmaker Donald Farmer carried with Franco & Lina Romay, when they visited the Us in the early 1993s. How did this meeting come about? Do you know how long the pair were in the US on this visit and did they meet any other filmmakers?
David Actually, Donald visited France and Spain in the early 90s and interviewed them there. I think he shot Daniel White in Paris and Jess and Lina at their then home in Torremolinos.
M[m]: There have been a few books now on Franco’s work, most notable of course been Stephen Thrower’s epic two-volume set Murderous Passions and Flowers of Perversion. But so far there has yet to be a definitive documentary, is this something Severin would be interested in being involved with? Or are you aware of any other docs in the works at present?
David Well, it has been discussed but I've done so many doc shorts or featurettes on specific films that it seems like it would be a lot of retreading the same ground, using old footage that's already been available on our discs. A chap called Kike Mesa from Malaga shot an epic interview with Jess towards the end of his life which we've bought off him, but it's still not the definitive doc. That would be a vast undertaking and alas many of the key players are no longer with us.
M[m]: What do you see as some of the rare/ gold grail Franco titles? And of those which are you most keen to source/ release?
David Faceless is the big one commercially speaking which has been out of circulation since the Media Blasters DVD. And then the lost Eurocine / Soledad Miranda production Sex Charade still hasn't surfaced.
M[m]: How many Franco titles do you have planned for 2021, and are you able to give us any hints on the titles yet?
David Two individual titles and a double feature for sure. But several others in the works, whether they'll make 2021 depends on how quickly we can get them ready.
Thanks to David for his time and efforts with the interview- to pick up Severin's Franco titles(as well as all the great releases on the label) head here
Photo credits: front page pic David and Jess at his home in Malaga- their last interview, menu picture David and Jess at pigeon dinner in Paris, cover artwork from Cries Of Pleasure, cover artwork for The Sadist Of Notre Dame, Stephen Thrower with actor Antonio Mayans taken from In The Land Of Franco epsoide Roger Batty