Remaking Caligula

This 1979 film about notorious Roman emperor Caligula had a script written by Gore Vidal, a well-known director Tinto Brass, and featured a cast of A-list actors like Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud. I saw the film a long time ago and despite the sterling credentials of the people involved, it was a mess. But that was not the fault of any of the above luminaries, but of the producer Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine who financed the film.

Guccione took charge of the final cut and seemed to think that it was a good idea to waste all this star power by inserting, after filming had been completed by Brass, large amounts of gratuitous sex scenes to make what some considered a pornographic film. He probably thought that all those sex scenes would draw audiences who would seize on the chance to see a mainstream film that was soaked in sex and violence, since in those pre-internet days, video of explicit sex was not available to the general public except in selected theaters that showed low-budget, crudely made films. He may well have been right since the film made $23.4 million at the box office, exceeding its cost of $17.5 million.

The film’s Wikipedia page describes all the turmoil and controversy that surrounded the film right from the beginning.

Gore Vidal originated the idea for a film about the controversial Roman emperor and produced a draft screenplay under the working title Gore Vidal’s Caligula. The director, Tinto Brass, extensively altered Vidal’s original screenplay, however, leading Vidal to disavow the film. The final screenplay focuses on the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The producers did not allow Brass to edit the film, and changed its tone and style significantly, adding graphic unsimulated sex scenes featuring Penthouse Pets as extras filmed in post-production by Guccione and Giancarlo Lui. Brass had refused to film those sequences, as both he and Vidal disagreed with their inclusion. The version of the film released in Italian cinemas in 1979 and in American cinemas the following year, disregarded Brass’s intentions to present the film as a political satire, prompting him to disavow the film as well.

Caligula‘s release was met with legal issues and controversies over its violent and sexual content; multiple cut versions were released worldwide, while its uncut form remains banned in several countries. Despite the generally negative reception, with some critics also citing it among the worst movies ever made, the film is considered to be a cult classic with significant merit for its political content and historical portrayal.

Thomas Negovan has obtained all the original negatives of the film and is remaking it in the spirit in which it was originally conceived by Vidal and Brass, without using a single frame of the original film.

That is quite an ambitious task. Here he explains what he has done and why and how.

The new film will be released this year.


  1. says

    He could make two movies out of the “original:” one as he’s planning to do now, and another consisting of all the gratuitous sex scenes he’d be cutting out now. If nothing else, it would be an easy few extra bucks. And the ad campaigns would be interesting: “CALIGULA DOUBLE FEATURE: NOW WE REALLY CAN PLEASE EVERYONE!”

  2. Holms says

    “…without using a single frame of the original film.”

    Why? Surely there must have been some takes in the final edit that were better than the takes left behind. This sounds like a choice made more as a challenge than for the betterment of the final product. Perhaps Copyright issues?

  3. says

    My other question would be: Why do a move about Caligula at all? He’s not really known for any accomplishments other than a reign of gratuitous violence in family and state circles that wasn’t all that relevant to people outside the city of Rome itself — which I guess is why Guccione thought he had to add lots of gratuitous sex to make it more fun to watch.

  4. consciousness razor says

    “…without using a single frame of the original film.”
    Why? Surely there must have been some takes in the final edit that were better than the takes left behind.

    Perhaps, but clearly the intention is to make the film very different from the original. Using entirely different material is pretty much a foolproof way to do that, no? That’s not to say any such results must therefore be good from a broader perspective, but that this sort of process is aligned with your goals for the project. There are probably tons of options here (countless takes, edits, etc.), and out of all of the ways there are to do it, maybe only some of them are any good. But there’s no obvious reason why you couldn’t choose any of them.

    I don’t think you need to do anything like that, all the way to every single frame being different, in order to make a substantially different movie, but that is a valid choice and happens to be the one that they made. I’m not a fan of the original and don’t care much whether the new one is better, but I don’t know…. Possibly, I’ll see it someday and find out.

    But you know, when you start talking about better takes and worse ones, basically all of them are “better” for something than others are, and we’d really have to get into the specifics of individual examples before we can say anything very sensible about that. At any rate, I think it’s possible for both versions to have the “better” stuff, which is nonetheless different, because that doesn’t mean they’re identical or that there can only be one unique choice which is the “best.” I mean, it’s not as if we already knew the material was like that — and I strongly doubt it was — when the actors and photographers and so on were doing their thing way back when. Some performances (etc.) might really stand out as being exceptional, but there are always going to be some types of films that they would not fit into very well at all, as great as they may be in other varieties of films.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    What this sounds like is a “because it’s there” kind of deal. It’s possible to assemble a whole film from unused material, therefore if there’s someone motivated and crazy enough, they’ll give it a go. It’s not necessarily a good idea, but I admire and applaud the level of obsession required to even attempt it.

    What it reminds me of is a relatively forgotten movie from 20 years ago called “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist”, in which a guy named Steve Oedekerk took footage from a 1976 Hong Kong action movie called “Tiger and Crane Fists”, shot a load of additional footage, and made a whole new film with a completely original plot unrelated to the plot of T&CF. It included shooting his scenes with dialogue he’d written, then dubbing over them deliberately badly with other, different dialogue, to get the authentic effect of the lip movements not even slightly matching the words being said.

    I watched the DVD at the time, and in the commentary Oederkerk said he was reasonably happy with the result, but if he’d known ahead of time how much effort it was going to take to do what he did, he definitely wouldn’t have started. Again, I was hugely impressed by the technical achievement, while at the same time not disagreeing with the general critical reaction to the movie, which was overwhelmingly negative. I don’t recommend it.


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