Exclusive interview with film historian and documentarian Eugenio Ercolani

Image for this story

The SWDb's Sebastian spoke to film historian, director, videographer and content producer, Eugenio David Ercolani. He may be one of the most important names in home video you've never heard of, but you should. He is especially knowledgeable in Italian cinema, splitting his time between Rome and London interviewing surviving movers and shakers of 60s, 70s and 80s cinema. He is currently in post production of a documentary on 70s polizio legend Luc Merenda.

What got you interested in movies in the first place, how did you end up doing what you're doing and how would you describe what you do to those not familiar with your work?

Ever since I was a child I wanted to be in films, make films, watch films, study them, immerse myself in that world and stay as close as possible to it, even if they were at first just the peripheral borders. I guess many go through a phase just before they decide to act upon their passion, in which films become a slightly painful experience, good ones at least, the ones you enjoy. You watch them and as much as you get enthralled by them you feel frustrated, you don’t just want to be sitting comfortably in your living room or enveloped in the reassuring darkness of a cinema theater, you want to be part of the process. This latent frustration becomes increasingly more difficult to ignore as time goes on, at least that was my case, until something has to be done. So you can say films have always been very important to me, cinema definitely helped me a great deal during difficult and dark periods of my life, especially my teenage years. You know, there are two kinds of people: ones who after having watched a film quickly labels it with a five-word sentence and proceeds with their life and then there are “let’s go and find a café, sit down and talk for an hour about what we’ve just watched” people. If I show you a film you better be ready to discuss about it later, you’re not getting off the hook with a “I liked it”. My adolescence was one big, bubbling celluloid soup in which I immersed myself in. I would watch anything. I would go to “Videofobia”, a local video rental in Rome as big as phone booth but cramped with VHS, floor to ceiling, and reemerge from it an hour later with bags full of videocassettes. I would watch indistinctly everything I could put my hands on during these expeditions. I would come back with some obscure eighties slasher, a film by Bela Tarr, a Mario Bava picture and a 1950’s musical by Minnelli or a previous one by Busby Berkeley. In the meantime, I would be reading constantly any book I could find, and in this sense I have to be very thankful to my parents. I was brought up by two wonderful people that pushed and tried to give wings to any curiosity or passion I would manifest. Over time this apparently confused kaleidoscope started having clearer features. You start connecting filmic currents, directors, styles, overlapping trends, crossing genres and not only do you do you start actually developing a pallet but also you start seeing the grand design of things, the context films were born from. It’s a fascinating process and like every evolution it begins with a glorious chaos, a fascinating primordial soup. Snobbery, and the preconceived notions that it entails, are the worst enemies of personal growth.
After a few experiences as a volunteer assistant I made my first concrete step in the right direction which meant signing up at that boot-camp called London Film Academy. After that experience and four years in the United Kingdom I started doing a number of things. I’ve always had to recycle myself, tagging along different roles in parallel. 1st AD was the first thing and something I actually still do, followed by a long stint as a senior editor for the monthly magazine Nocturno Cinema which led to other collaborations and a series of gigs as a researcher and organizing events and retrospectives for the Italian National Film Registry. Then, about six years ago, I founded my company with which I started packaging special contents –featurettes, interviews, documentaries- for home-video labels such as 88 Films, X Rated, Fractured Visions, Indicator, Arrow Video, Xcess, Severin, Cineploit, Blue Underground, Turbine, Grindhouse Releasing, StudioCanal, Treasured Films, Anolis Entertainment, Cinestrange Extreme, Vinegar Syndrome and Capelight. In this mare magnum of booklets, short films, writings, screenings, articles, audio commentaries and hours on end of interviews my first book “Darkening the Italian Screen” popped out, a spontaneous germination. That book was followed by another two. My work is an overlapping of various roles and diverse areas of the audiovisual world. My core business is definitely producing special content for the abovementioned labels, which in itself involves the activity of a film historian and a video maker, but I’m also a writer and finally an AD in films.
Regarding your question on what my activity as a content producer entails, it really depends on the homevideo label that is contacting me and the rapport we have built over time. Sometimes I will be responsible only for a sliver of what you can find on the disc, other times I’m responsible for all of it. That said the modus operandi usually is as follows. An in-house producer will make contact and inform me on whatever title they are planning to release. I will respond with a number of ideas, possible interviews and features. Most of the time they give me free hand and it’s more a question of locking down a suitable budget. I also have to take into account the period I have to put everything together. I will give you an example: newborn label Treasured Films is releasing “The Last Hunter” by Antonio Margheriti. Now for that particular title, I produced four featurettes, one video-essay I recorded myself, an audio commentary (starring Troy Howarth, Nathaniel Thompson and myself), I curated the booklet and dealt with the licensing of archival material, mainly the feature length documentary “The Outsider”. Therefore, I was all over that release. I try to give buyers and fans as many features as possible with the time and money I have at my disposal. I also help labels find the rights holders of whatever film they want to release and hunt for the materials and master, which is often the tricky part.

What are some of the movies, and also filmmakers, that draw you to movies?

They are really too many to list, but when I have to answer this question my mind usually goes to those directors I discovered during my formative years: Sam Peckinpah, Roman Polanski, Billy Wilder, Charles Chaplin, Robert Aldrich, Robert Wise, John Sturges...

You deal mostly in classics, a lot of your projects deal in unearthing long lost movies, restorations or are about making obscure milestones more widely accessible and appreciated. Why does that fall on people like you, where are the bigger institutions (cinemateques, national archives, etc) and companies in all this?

As much as I do deal, as you correctly stated, in older films, often forgotten, they are for the most part genre and exploitation films. This means that most national archives, definitely the Italian one, do not feel that investing money and time on these titles is worth it. It’s a long story and mostly a political one. The cultural life of Italy has always been in the hands of a political elite. In Italy, “genre cinema” is a label that groups diverse types of films, all of which have in common an easily accessible filmic language and use of strong narrative and visual elements, may they be of comic, violent, horrific or sexual derivation. The term is often used as a synonym for ‘exploitation’ and is usually adopted with a derogatory acceptation. Films ascribable to this category usually have to follow the rules that administrate and are expected by the genre or sub-genre they are tied to. The expression has often been used in opposition to that of “auteur” or “committed” cinema or even "arthouse", in other words a cinema in which a greater attention to content and quality are expected. If this viewpoint may be considered simplistic, it could have been a comprehensible one, if it were not that the term, in Italy, has historically been adopted simply to categorize whatever film does not fit a certain politicized idea of what “high art” should be. In more recent years a new generation of film critics and historians have subverted this preconception but the higher institutions still have great difficulties in welcoming so-called genre films as an important part of our film history. It comes down to a cultural thing. We took the theories of the Cahier du cinema and distorted them. Nowadays we call the films, I don’t know, of Lucio Fulci, Sergio Corbucci, Fernando Di Leo and we call them cults, Tarantino favorites, B-movie classics and they do get some sort of exposure but it’s another way of keeping them separate from what is the cinema institutions feel is worth protecting. The words have changed but not the attitude, not really.

What recent projects are you most proud of?

I can only speak for those titles that have been announced. The aforementioned “The Last Hunter” is definitely a release I’m happy with. Generally, I’m most happy when I feel I put together what can be defined an ‘immersive experience’. Ultimately what I would like is create a package of extras that if watched in its entirety leaves you with an exhaustive knowledge of the making of the film, its place in film history therefore a sense of the social and cultural context, together with some strong portraits of the people involved in it. How much fun I have does not depend on the stature of the film but exclusively on the opportunities and freedom I have. Some of my best work is for, well, frankly terrible films. I am very happy with what I put together for Vinger Syndrome’s release of “Blood Delirium”. I had a chance to interview some people for the very first time. I’m also satisfied with “Tentacles”, that will be released soon by 88 Films. Among other recent projects I would also add “Violence in a Woman’s Prison”, again by 88 Films, which has a long and dense interview with co-director Claudio Fragasso and a special featurette on character actor Franco Carracciolo. The 4K release of “Cannibal Holocaust” is another one packed with special content. Speaking of non-Italian films I would have to give special mentions to “Breeders” (Anolis Entertainment) and “Don’t Open Till Christmas” (Vinegar Syndrome).

Let us know about some projects that you would love to do but so far haven't materialized, what are the titles you'd love to work on if you had the power to make it happen?

Off the top of my head, and wanting to go into Italian western territory, I would say “Nest of Vipers/Night of the Serpent” by Giulio Petroni. That is a title I would be very happy to work on. It’s not one of the greatest westerns but it’s an interesting one in its dark overtones.

For those not familiar with the complexities of releasing archive titles, can you quickly illustrate what this involves, from a legal, technical and financial perspective, let's say from the perspective of a boutique label that hires you as producer?

If we are talking about the research involved in trying to find a title, on my side it means a lot of trips to the National Archive going through the chain of right holders the film has gone through. Then it is a question of telephone calls and endless emails. When it comes to the actual physical film, the original negative, it comes down to knocking at every post-production lab in Rome and asking them to look through their archives. This process can last weeks, months even if there are disputes among rights holders, which is more common then you would think.

What's your relationship to the spaghetti western specifically? Do you have favorites?

I have always loved Italian westerns. I don’t know exactly how to answer your question, so I will just latch myself onto Giulio Petroni, seeing I mentioned him earlier. I think he’s a very interesting director within the western landscape. Petroni was an actor’s director which isn’t as common as one might think, especially for directors of that generation. He loved the acting process and did everything he could to create a safe and comfortable environment for them. He always participated very closely to the casting process of his films. “When I was approached to direct the film, the only name that was being bounced around was Van Cleef’s one. Law was one of the various options we discussed. I remember Antonio De Teffè (Anthony Steffen) was one actor that was mentioned a couple of times. Terence Hill was another- remember that at that time he was doing serious, straight-up Westerns. There were quite a few in the mix. I ended up choosing Law because he was getting a lot of attention in the States but I don’t think he had done any Italian films before he was cast for mine. I remember an article, maybe on Variety, that kind of pointed him out as a newcomer to keep an eye on. But more importantly he had a certain quality I was looking for. De Teffè, Hill, Law…they all had a common trait. They had a childish look, a certain purity. Clean faced, baby-eyed men. The story was about a traumatized child who grows up into a man thirsty for revenge, living in the past, reliving in his mind, in a continuous loop, those terrible moments of his past –watching his family being killed, his mother and sister raped. I wanted him to maintain the innocence of a child at least in his face, to contrast the violence of his adult sentiments and actions. That said, Law isn’t a great actor by any means but I think he works well in the film. Sansone believed he had a new Clint Eastwood on his hands.” Regarding his feeling towards the genre, what I can state without a slimmer of doubt, because as much as I accurately avoid making mention of this in my book Giulio was indeed my grandfather, is that not only didn’t he nurture any particular love for the genre but he was also not a cinephile by any means. He understood the genre and more importantly understood straight way it could work as a container of ideas and ideologies. His roots though were firmly gripped in literature and in fact he states in my interview, as well as in others, that the written page was where the inspiration, and structure, for his Westerns came from. “It was a chance to go back to the kind of spirit that animated the adventure novels I would read as a kid” is how he puts it. I think this answers the first of your questions. In 1961, two years after Giulio makes his debut as a film director, I specify film because he came from a decade as a very successful documentarian, his first novel is published. He will go back to writing, and documentaries actually, once he abandons cinema. A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof moves from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” for example. He was made very much aware about the similarities between Death Rides a Horse and Pursued but he’s always insisted in saying that he has never seen Walsh’s film. On this specific matter I would believe, it would surprise me a great deal if I discovered he was lying. Keep in mind that the story is the work of Luciano Vincenzoni, Petroni was called in with a first treatment already in place, which he retouched and sewed to fit his needs but the main plot is not his. I think it’s safe to write off this whole parallelism as a coincidence, which film history is riddled with. So anyway, literature has always had a very important role in his life and most of his films, whatever the genre or final result, have a strong narrative structure. It shouldn’t surprise then that he found himself penning his Westerns with very high profile screenwriters such as Bernardino Zapponi, Franco Solinas and Vincenzoni, Even because Petroni had a productive system and consequentially budgets supporting him that say Umberto Lenzi, which we’ve just finished talking about, didn’t have, definitely not for his westerns. Petroni unlike other directors such as De Martino or Enzo G. Castellari was not raised in the trenches of the filmmaking world. Sure he had to pay his dues, go through the channels of the industry, he worked as an AD, extensively as a documentary maker as I mentioned previously but he was just as much forged in the living rooms of the Roman intelligentsia. He was considered within certain circles an intellectual, he brushed elbows with people like Campanile, Franciosa, Pasolini, Petroni had authorial ambitions which mind you don’t make him better than his contemporaries mentioned in the book and this interview but, compared to a few, definitely more coherent conceptually. The genres, the tones and even the themes which are recurrent give his filmography a tight coherency. Despite the fact that his Westerns are so different from each other, there is a very strong thematic unity: the torque as the polarizing element around which the story rotates, revenge and stolen innocence. Interesting, in this respect, is the role of children: the opening sequence of Death Rides a Horse, in which the child, who will later become John Philip Law, witnesses the cruel extermination of his family or Nest of Vipers, in which Askew is forced to live with the remorse of having killed his own son while drunk and then of course Tepepa where the last one to dirty his hands with blood is little Paquito. Even Adorf and Palmer, in their respective films, are, perhaps, nothing more than children too grown-up for their context. The figure of the child is always surrounded by violence or contaminated by it. Trauma and the emotional aftermath is also a recurrent theme within Petroni’s later films, in the seventies. Add to this also the anti-Christian/Catholic element. which is ever present in all of the films he has directed. I define, in “Darkening the Italian Screen” Night of the Serpent/Nest of Vipers an openly atheist Western because of the “anti-evangelical”, as Petroni phrases it, sentiments manifested by Luke Askew, the lead. There is a tendency to stuff all these directors into one big cauldron but actually if you stop and focus on background, choices and productive systems you realize that many all have in common the fact of doing commercial films, and by that I mean literally films aimed to make money. In Italy the word commercial is an insult, it relegates whatever product in sub-category which is very difficult to crawl out of. This backward thinking is something I hope emerges in the book because I tried to underline it as much as possible. Going back to Petroni, the fact he grew up in a financially rich and health film industry and he was used to be supported by money and time made it so that Petroni was one of those directors that struggled the most with the crises in the late seventies. I think the words of Romolo Guerrieri really condense what happened to many directors like himself or Petroni:

“I was one of those directors who got hurt the most by the crisis. Those who survived were people who were able to direct films with increasingly smaller budgets and in less time. Plus, I had the possibility of choosing the films I wanted to work on. Of course always with a margin of compromise but generally I had the luxury of being selective. Something you just can’t be during a crisis so I attempted to make a few films for…money. By the late seventies and early eighties directors were asked to become mercenaries. They were given a budget and a time frame, if you didn’t like it you were replaced like that, a snap of finger, maybe by a DOP, or some 1st AD willing to accept anything just for a shot at directing. I decided to retire, it was simply more dignified”.

This brings me to your second question, he didn’t direct the Providence sequel for the same reason he was adamant at the idea of helming the first one. By the early years of the seventies Giulio managed to emancipate himself from producers, which he’s always had a bad rapport with and opened his own company Azalea. A big mistake, he had ideas and ambition but not a financial mind. His first film, which he also directed, Non commettere atti impuri (Don Not Commit Impure Acts) in 1971 with Barbara Bouchet, did fairly well but he needed to pump money into his company which is when Providence come into play. Although, as much as by 1972 the Western genre was gasping for air and the farcical was devouring the mythos which had been created up until then, Providence was still a reasonable compromise, production wise. You had a strong cast, a strong crew –you know of course Mario Bava is responsible for some of the optical effects and gags- and he was able to bring on board people like Ennio Morricone who signs the score. That said you can tell quite easily we are talking about a foreign body within his filmography. It wasn’t his kind of humor, it contains very little of his visual traits and it’s the first and only Western of his that was not shot in Spain, in Almeria. “Apart from my personal aspirations, it must be said that the genre had started to decline and I didn’t want to find myself involved in the vulgarization that was taking place. I felt guilty enough, having directed Providence. So I immediately made it clear that I wasn’t interested. You can’t make more than one film of that kind, plus I felt the need to move on to something new. Westerns were dead, and in fact the sequel made half the money my one made.” There is one thing I would like to point out, seeing Iv’e mentioned quite a few names, and that is that Italian film industry was pretty chaotic, we never had a layered, pyramidal industry like the Americans, where you’ve got the so called Studio System where strategies are put in place and there is a certain communication amongst these giant film factories, where you’ve got independent cinema, the drive-in circuit… Of course I’m over-simplifying but undoubtedly in Italy there was one sticky, pulsating, over-populated confused blob of an industry which somehow managed to function, although in the long run its dysfunctionality is exactly what brought to its demise, but for a long time this blob bounced away happily, sometimes it would slow down but then it would start again gleefully slapping its quavering jelly-like behind as fast as possible, bouncing its way towards the sunset. This makes it very difficult I think for foreign historians and film aficionados, especially Anglo-Saxons ones, to fully grasp the trappings and mechanics of the Italian film industry and in fact I often find a certain overly romanticized prospective in English essays. Many years ago I was at the Venice Film Festival and an American film critic, a high profile one, was talking about spaghetti Westerns as if it was a community of directors sharing notes and comparing points of views on the genre. It’s very sweet and easy way to link things together but the reality of the matter is that there was no real awareness, let alone a community working hand in hand. De Martino, Petroni and Corbucci smoking and drinking JB whiskey in someone’s living-room, Castellari in a corner flexing his muscles as he ponders out loud on the use of slow-motion. Leone next door in his studio, knocking on the wall, warning them to keep their voices down because Valerii is trying to rest. Hardly any of these directors would even watch the films of their contemporaries.

Thanks to Eugenio for taking the time to answer my interview questions and a few days later having a drink with me in Rome. Especially however: thanks to everyone out there buying collector's editions of cult classics. These films will live on forever, and your support will help people like Eugenio put some of the witnesses in front of a camera for the last time. Only if the energy, love and investment that go into decent home video releases and restorations make sense economically, there will be more of them. So happy shopping!

Picture credit: Rosalba Panacciulli.