THE FILTH AND THE FURY: AN INTERVIEW WITH SHAUN COSTELLO By Ian Jane and Robin Bougie
When the opportunity to interview notorious NYC golden age porn film director/performer Shaun Costello came up, intrepid perverts Ian Jane (of DVD Maniacs) and Robin Bougie (of Cinema Sewer) where on the scene to make sure things were handled properly. With the recent resurgence in Costello's work thanks to the various releases from Alpha Blue Archives, the timing was almost to perfect for words. The results are now here for you, dear reader, to enjoy and to savor.
How much input did you have in the recent Shaun Costello DVD boxed set release from Alpha Blue Archives, if any?
A few months ago I received an e mail from a friend in California who asked me if I had Googled myself lately. Not having done so I went to the Google site and typed in my name, clicked search, and got the shock of my life. Right there on the screen, thirty years after I made them, and twenty two years after I retired from the industry that spawned them, was a list of sixteen XXX rated, pornographic feature films titled: THE SHAUN COSTELLO COLLECTION. I had never been embarrassed by my connection to the porno industry, but I never advertised it either, and certainly not under my real name. This was the first time I had ever seen my real name attached to any of these films, and although I probably overreacted, I was horrified. Unlike most of the people I knew in the porno industry, I had another life, in another world, and was quite successful at not mixing the two. Not that I was in any way ashamed by my participation in the XXX rated movie business, it’s just that when people find out that you’ve directed porno movies the relentless inquisition begins. People simply have a fascination with this stuff that can turn an otherwise perfectly acceptable neighbor into an endlessly questioning asshole, who will never cease asking stupid questions about this girl or that, about this scene or that, about this film or that, etc, etc.
After a few annoying experiences, I decided early on to keep the two worlds separate, and although there was an occasional leak, I have to say that I was pretty successful at keeping the two apart. Participating in equestrian events (I was a three day eventer ) on weekends, and directing hard core porno movies during the week. The question is, which life was real. Anyway, I hadn’t seen any of the films in the Alpha Blue collection in thirty years, had no input whatever in putting them together, and certainly do not expect a royalty check.
Were you, or anyone else doing porn back then in New York, a sleazy casting couch type director? Did you ever have sex with the performers in your movies off camera?
It’s probably difficult for many of you to understand the sexual attitudes of the sixties and seventies. America’s evolutionary changes regarding sexuality seemed to happen so suddenly, and to transcend the conservative attitudes of the preceding decades. A new era of permissiveness and prurient curiosity was at hand, and the country was awash in a new world of sexual exploration and expression that started with Woodstock, and ended with Aids. After Aids, promiscuity could never be the same. I was connected, in one way or another, with the porno business from 1968 to 1983, fifteen years at the height of the pre-Aids sexual revolution. I acted in, and directed more films than I can now recall, was getting laid almost as much as Wilt Chamberlain, experimenting with hallucinogens, and pretty much having the time of my life.
During the course of my career I auditioned many, many girls who wanted to act in XXX rated films, and I had sex with lots of them. It really had nothing to do with the sleazy casting couch thing. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. You have to remember that I was also an actor, and would probably be having sex on film with the very girl I was auditioning. During the interview we discussed extremely intimate information about ourselves, our sexual preferences, and our sexual no-no’s. What we liked to do and what we didn’t. I felt that the more I knew about actors I would be working with, the more successful the work would be. Sometimes I would get ideas from the interviews that were later used in the film. I often asked if they did anything sexual that was unusual, or that might look great on a movie screen. The answer sometimes led to demonstration.
This was an era of spontaneous promiscuity. Seeing the girl undressed was part of the audition process, also the guys. I didn’t like surprises on the set. I can remember more than one girl asking me if she would be doing a scene with me, and when the answer was yes, asking me to take off my clothes as well. You can imagine what this led to. I can honestly say that I never mislead a girl I interviewed in any way. I tried to run a happy set. I provided comfortable working conditions, communicated everything that was expected from each actor well in advance, fed everyone well, and paid as much as the budget would allow. It was to my advantage.
George Payne has always been one of the best and most intense of the vintage era male performers. You worked with him on AFTERNOON DELIGHTS and PANDORA'S MIRROR, among others. What do you remember of him?
I worked with George many times. He was good looking, dependable, easy to get along with, and he showed up. George was basically gay and I realized this early on, so I always had another guy in his scenes. The next time you see him in a scene notice how he’s usually looking at the other guy. I took great pains to understand the needs of the actors. This was why I had happy sets. Back in those days, erection problems on porno sets were pretty common, but not on my sets. You’ve probably noticed that, with very few exceptions, I stuck with the same guys: Jamie, Herb, Marc Stevens, Herschel Savage, Steve Tucker, Alan Logan, etc, etc. They were MY GUYS. They showed up and did their thing, and I did mine.
You worked with CJ Laing on a bunch of movies like DAUGHTERS OF DISCIPLINE, TWO SENORITAS, and she had a really smokin' scene in MIDNIGHT DESIRES. What was she like?
C. J. Laing….Wendy Miller…..Wendy, Wendy, Wendy, Wendy, Wendy…..I first met Wendy when visiting the set of a one day wonder that Ron Dorfman was shooting in his West 98th Street apartment. I had stopped by to make sure everything was going well for Ron, who was a friend, and maybe to do a few freebie come shots. In the corner was Jamie, nose to nose with this young babe (definitely underage) who was calmly reviling him with disgusting epithets while Jamie, dick in hand, was enjoying every syllable. This was the first time I saw Wendy. The last time I saw her was in about 1989 or ’90, on the Lexington Avenue subway. In between the first and last, Wendy and I shared a bizarre sexual journey, and together devoured many people, many times, in many places, and many ways, for many reasons. There are just so many Wendy stories that I’d have to prioritize. She was a JAP from Flushing, who constantly denied her Jewishness, and wreaked a bit of havoc on the porno business.
She certainly went through some pretty exotic sexual self-indulgences, but when it came right down to it, she was a girl who just liked getting laid. I can remember her saying to me more that once, “What is all this oral shit with you guys? Doesn’t anyone FUCK any more”. My phone would ring at 2AM, “Just leave the fucking door open”. When I woke in the morning she would be gone. No foreplay. No romance. No small talk……..she just wanted to get laid. I remember really pounding her one afternoon in her East Eighties apartment. After she came, she turned into a little girl. All the toughness and wise ass talk was gone. She just looked up at me and said, “You see……that’s all I wanted”.
It's always fascinating to find out what people do after they leave the porn industry, or any entertainment industry for that matter. What do you do to make a living now and what have you been doing since exiting the adult entertainment industry?
I’m going to limit this to the fifteen years I was involved in the porno business. Ask me anything you want from 1968 to 1983, and I’ll answer as truthfully and accurately as I’m able.
That's perfectly fair and completely understandable. Are you still in contact with a lot of people from back in the day?
Crew people that I worked with back then yes, but not with the actors. I spoke with Wendy in the late nineties. She was in the restaurant business in San Francisco, and we made plans to get together when she came east, but it never happened. Marlene Willoughby called when she saw a story about me in Backstage in the late eighties, and it was great to hear from her. Other than that, I have not remained in contact.
What was the chain of events that transpired to have you become a porn director in porn's early years? Did you just fall into it randomly or did you plan on becoming a porn director and performer at some point in your life and then take explicit steps to achieve that goal?
I was a child of the balcony, and haunted many a theater watching soft core porn when all of a sudden there it was: HARD CORE PORN WAS PLAYING IN THEATERS, and I just ate it up. In 1968 I read an ad in The East Village Other, an alternative weekly that preceded Screw: MALE AND FEMALE MODELS WANTED, NUDITY REQUIRED. Spending my post puberty life as an unapologetic sex addict, this seemed like just what the doctor ordered. I reported for duty at a second floor studio, on 42nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, owned by a guy named Ted Schneider and his Igor-like assistant Aaron. They were taking soft core stills for magazine publication, and hired me to pose with two really unattractive biker-bitch types, who were too stoned to function, and too ugly to arouse. But this situation had potential. I figured that sooner or later real girls would show up at one of these things, and that potential would be realized.
The next ad I answered took me to a small basement studio on West 14th Street owned by a guy named Bob Wolfe. He was going to shoot a soft core loop (a ten minute stag film) with a wind-up Bolex camera. When the girl showed up the potential was realized, she was adorable. The problem was that I couldn’t lose my erection. Try to imagine a sex addict like me in a situation like this: I’m naked on a mattress, rolling around with this adorable girl, pretending to have sex, and getting paid to boot. The only way we can deal with my erection problem is to have me come a few times, so Bob Wolfe, being an understanding soul, lets me take a sex break. The girl ( I can’t even come close to remembering her name) and I fuck for a while, I come, but the erection just won’t go away. I come again, and it’s still hard. Wolfe is now pissed off at me. The only way we can hide my hard cock is to put it inside the girl, which is just fine by me. So we finish, the girl leaves, and Bob sits me down. He asks me if I always stay hard like that. I tell him that I do, and that I’m sorry if it caused a problem for him. He tells me that he’s never seen anything like this before, and propositions me to come over to his apartment and fuck his wife while he watches. (Which I did, but that’s another story) He also tells me about this strange guy, named Sam Manning, who shoots hard core loops in his Eighth Avenue apartment, and gives me his number.
As long as I always have an erection I might as well put it to use. This is becoming interesting. For the next two years I become known as the guy who always has an erection, and did a lot of work doing hard core loops for a variety of strange characters. Along the way I meet a skinny, light skinned, Jamaican guy named Smitty, who somehow manages to come up with enough money to buy some film, pay a few actors, and rent a location. The problem is he just doesn’t know how to make the movies. Seeing his dilemma, I tell him I can help. He won’t have to pay me any more than the 100 bucks I’m already getting as an actor, but I’ll come up with some kind of story for each loop, and direct the actors involved. So he lets me do it, and it works out. Two weeks later he calls me and asks for a repeat performance.
For maybe a year we kept shooting this way, and this is how I learned how to make porno movies. I didn’t really make any money working for Smitty, but I gained invaluable experience learning how to structure a series of scenes into a one hour movie that was to become the formula for the one day wonder, a type of film which I was to pioneer, and later use as a catapult to bigger things. Along the way the budgets gradually increased from $5,000.00 for a one day wonder, to $150,000.00 for the last picture I made in 1982 for Reuben Sturman. Once I figured out how to create story structure, and learned the art of film editing, it turned out that I was a natural.
Did you have a favorite porn actress to work with? Someone who always really put a lot into her performances?
Sure……Vanessa Del Rio and Marlene Willoughby were in more of my pictures than anyone else, and for good reason. I got a call one day, I think from Alan Logan, telling me about this new Cuban girl who he had met who wanted to get into the business. I interviewed her in my apartment on east 21st Street. I had never met anyone from Cuba before (it turned out later she was Puerto Rican) and asked her what it was like growing up in Havana. I asked her what she and her friends did for fun. She looked at me with that little girl twinkle that she did so well and said, “Eat fruit and fuck”.
Well………..I wrote a movie for her that was funded by Teddy and Tom, the Greeks who owned the Cameo theater, and we started shooting about two weeks later. The picture was called THAT LADY FROM RIO, and although we used a different name for her on that picture, we changed it to Vanessa Del Rio from then on. Marlene Willoughby was really Marlenka, a Polish princess from Detroit, who had moved to NYC with her sister and seamstress mother, to try to break into show business. Lily Tomlin, another Detroit girl, beat her to the big city by a few years and, although I thought that Marlenka was every bit as funny, there was just no room for two Lily Tomlins.
Many porn directors seem to have used a lot of pseudonyms, which makes cataloging their filmography now, rather tricky. You’ve used a few – Shaun Costello, Warren Evans, Oscar Tripe, Russ Carlson. Why all the different names?
At some point I was making a lot of movies, and the one thing I did not want to become was a porno icon like Harry Reems, or Gerry Damiano. So each group that financed my movies got a different director. Helmuth Richler, Oscar Tripe, Amanda Barton, Russ Carlson, Nicholas Berland, Warren Evans, etc..
I think that I was Oscar Tripe for Teddy and Tom, at the Cameo, and I can remember Teddy asking me if I had ever met this Russ Carlson guy who was making pictures for Cal Young. I was tempted to tell him, but I didn’t, and till this day I don’t know whether or not he found out. I was really an outsider in the business, and wanted to keep it that way. I just wanted to make my weird little movies, and be left alone.
Settings and locations play a huge role in the tone and feel of your films more so than most adult movies, especially the 42nd St. settings that pop up in so much of your work. Did you shoot the inner city/42nd St. locations on purpose to get a specific look for your films or was it just that you were working out of the area and that it was cheaper to shoot material locally than to travel?
You have to remember that I was born and raised in NYC. I commuted to high school by subway. A real city kid. Once I was old enough to travel into Manhattan on my own I learned to prowl the canyons of the West Forties. I just loved sleaze, loved 42nd Street, the look of it, the smell. And I loved pornography. I suppose you could simplify my sex addiction by looking at my Irish Catholic upbringing, and blame my eternal erection on every girl who denied me bare tit, which was every girl I knew. But the truth is that I just wanted to have sex with everyone I met, and was bewildered when there was a lack of reciprocity. Anyway I loved the way 42nd Street looked at night, and learned how to tweak a story by including this look. The best example is probably WATER POWER, but you’ll find this look in a lot of my work.
You’ve mentioned shooting material in the infamous Hellfire Club in NYC. Did any other notable locales work their way into your movies during this time, like the Avon Theater or any of the other more recognizable sex trade establishments?
I shot theater scenes in several films, most notably AFTERNOON DELIGHTS, with Vanessa, and also PANDORA'S MIRROR. I used many different exterior locations - The Cameo, The Capri, and others, but the interiors were shot in an Off Broadway house on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street. I never shot anything in the Avon Theater.
Because several of my one day wonders, usually of the S&M variety, played at the Avon Theater there is a myth that I made them for the Avon people. This is not true. I made them for the boys downtown, who were the porno unit for the Gambino crime family. They had an arrangement with the Avon owner, a guy named Murray something, to play them at the Avon. I never worked directly for the Avon people, and didn’t really know them. Other than Hellfire, I don’t think I used any other recognizable sex clubs as locations.
Much of your work is a lot rougher than average porn – SLAVE OF PLEASURE and DAUGHTERS OF DISCIPLINE being two prime examples. There’s a lot of BDSM and rape in your work. When coming up with ideas for your films were you just catering to the lowest common denominator and trying to think of material that would sell or were you working out your own personal demons through the footage that you shot?
Another misconception. The Gambino boys had an ongoing deal with Murray who owned the Avon theater. Murray would call them with some specific needs, and I would include them in a picture. I was not into S&M on any level. I had a knack for working with rigs, and could figure out how to mechanically photograph several shots that were completely faked, and edit them in such a way that when the scene played back it was difficult to sit through, unless you were into that kind of thing. If you saw how it was done, it would seem very mechanical, maybe even comical, but the finished product would make you squirm. It was actually a satisfying process.
WATER POWER has a reputation unto itself. It’s revered by vintage smut enthusiasts and by cult movie fans alike because it’s just so damned freaky. Can you give us some background on how this movie came about and how Jamie Gillis came to be cast in one of the most notorious roles in porn history?
In the Fall of 1976 I got a call from Sid Levine, an elderly, gentle, grandfather type, who was the front man for the porno unit of the Gambino crime family. As I sat across Sid’s desk he says, “ I’m ashamed to have to say this, but I need an enema picture”. He had been given an audio cassette called “The Enema Bandit”, and some articles about a guy who was convicted of going on a cleansing spree at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and forcibly giving enemas to co-eds. I had recently seen TAXI DRIVER, and thought that Jamie would make a great Travis Bickle, but on foot rather than driving a cab, and bent on a quest to cleanse evil bitches in order to save their souls.
Then a strange thing happened. Sid was ashamed of his involvement in this, the goombahs were too macho to participate, and DB, their boss, didn’t want to see it. “Just make the thing”, I was told. At this point I realized that my position was unique. I could make this ridiculous enema movie without any interference from any of the people who were paying for it. “Just make the thing”, they said, so that’s exactly what I did. I wrote what I thought was an absurd story, hired my favorite actors; Jamie, Marlene, Rob Everett, Al Levitsky, C. J. Laing, etc. and set about making a movie about a tortured soul who was so demented that he truly believed that his quest to cleanse evil bitches of their vile humors was the answer to all of his problems.
Without adult supervision, I turned the movie into a parody of itself. Of course there was always the chance that the boys would catch on to what I was doing and I would sleep with the fishes, but I didn’t think so. The picture played to empty porno houses. The theater owners were afraid of it, and the audiences didn’t know what to make of it. So on the shelf it went, and after a few years someone came up with the idea of distributing WATER POWER in Europe. Bingo…….cult smash. I guess the Germans and the Dutch are a bit kinkier than their American cousins. The picture opened in Germany under the title SCHPRITZ.
Till this day I think it’s the funniest movie I ever made.
Did you run into any problems on the shoot given the enema scenes in the film as far as unwillingness on the part of Gillis or the female performers in the film or was everyone more or less into it at the time?
I was concerned about the enema expulsion close ups. Of course I could fake it, but I felt like that would be cheating, so I went ahead and did them. Both cast and crew feared a disgusting atmosphere if the worst happened, but it really didn’t. There was one scene where shit actually happened, but other than that there was only water.
As far as Jamie was concerned, he was totally into it. During pre-production Jamie actually wanted me to fly him to Illinois to visit the actual bandit in prison. I think he realized that this part was a great opportunity for him, and he wanted an edge. The boys wouldn’t pay his fare so he never went.
It’s been rumored that Harry Reems freaked even himself out with his over the top performance in your first film, FORCED ENTRY. Did his performance just come out while he was working or did you as a director have to coerce him into getting more and more aggressive in the part as the movie progressed? Were any of the actresses really flipped out by him while the movie was being made?
FORCED ENTRY was my first film and I had no idea what I was doing. I hired Herb to play the crazed rapist because I knew him pretty well, and thought he would do a good job, which he did. He was very into this part and worked hard to pull it off. I had never seen anyone direct a movie, but I had a natural feel for it, and thought I could do it. The scene with Herb and Laura Cannon is still talked about. It was actually shot at my mother’s house in Forest Hills. All I did was explain the scene to the actors, tell them the tension that I required from them, and got out of their way. Again, we’re talking rigs here.
Sure, when you see Herb slit Laura’s throat and in the final version it’s pretty violent. But if you had been on the set, watching me rig some catheter from the rubber bulb of a turkey-baster that was filled with color corrected stage blood, to the side of the completely dull stage knife, so that Herb could squeeze as the knife ran across her throat, releasing the blood from the side of the blade, you would have said, “Are you kidding?….That will never work”. But it did, and on the first take. I was just good with rigs.
It’s pretty obvious that some of the music in a few of your movies was swiped from mainstream films like SISTERS and TAXI DRIVER. This seemed to be a common practice in porn in the early years. Did you ever run into any issues with copyright infringement or any cracking down from the rights holders to that music?
I was a guy who loved film scores. The opportunity to edit pictures to Bernard Herrman music was an education in itself. I used the scores from TAXI DRIVER, SISTERS, LIPSTICK, CHINATOWN, etc. and a lot of Mike Oldfield. In the early years of the one day wonders no one cared where the music came from, but as the budgets went up, the subject became a bit touchy, particularly with Reuben Sturman’s people. I told them that one of the reasons my films were better than the competition was that I was stealing fabulous music from fabulous film scores. ASCAP swung a mighty hammer back then, but somehow I prevailed, and continued using other people’s music, and was never caught.
You were supposedly contracted by Avon to deliver more extreme content. How did you get involved with them and do you have any odd memories of the work you did for them?
I think that I’ve already given a pretty detailed account of my lack of involvement with the Avon people.
Stories abound about strange ways of legitimizing what they were showing in these theaters such as Jamie Gillis’ infamous nude Shakespeare recitals. Did you ever get involved in any of these back handed legitimizations?
I never really saw the point. Why legitimize pornography? It IS what it is, and it’s great that way.
Is it true that you have to flee New York in the early eighties because of some ‘misappropriation of funds’ or is this just more urban legend?
Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm……………..There IS I bit of truth here. By 1983 I was seriously burned out. My cocaine use had become prohibitively expensive, and I simply couldn’t look at another come shot. But, of course the Sirens were sweetly singing from Ohio……”Just one more……here, have some cash”…….So, in order to support my cocaine driven lifestyle, I agreed to do another movie for Sturman’s people. Bob Dolan, who ran a video duplication business, which was part of Sturman’s empire, was to fund the project, and I took the money, I think it was $8,000.00 and put it up my nose.
After avoiding Dolan for as long as possible, I thought the best thing to do was call him up, and tell him the truth. I had done several pictures for Bob over the years, and although he was a strange man, he always paid on time, and we basically got along. So I called him and told him that I would come to Ohio and work off the debt. I had to get out of New York, and away from drugs, and maybe this situation was providential. So I went to Cleveland, worked off the debt, and wound up in Minneapolis, building my commercial reel, (in those days the Minneapolis advertising agencies were sweeping the Clio Awards) and two years later returned to NYC with a comedy driven commercial reel under my arm.
The odd thing about the time I spent in Cleveland was that Dolan also wanted out of the porno business, and thought I was his ticket. Using his studio, I started a production company to produce local television commercials, and had enough success to make a name for myself in the mid-west. Dolan, and his sons became cumbersome after a while, and that’s when I left and went to Minnesota.
How do you feel about the fact that your work is so well remembered these days and seems to be experiencing a bit of a resurgence as of late?
Extremely flattered. In the past five or six years I have seen a few of the movies I made back then, and found them to be not quite as good as I remembered. The acting was bad, the stories were thin, and they moved too slowly, but they had moments, and that’s really all I was trying for anyway. I was kidding myself to think that a film shot on 16MM, with a budget of $18,000.00 could hold up in feature length, but WATERPOWER had enough moments to make it worthwhile. Sometimes entire scenes actually worked from beginning to end, and that’s enough to justify having done them. Thirty years later intelligent people are actually watching these little movies and talking about them. It’s extremely flattering.
Why do you think your films are so memorable and what is the work that you’re the most proud of out of all the films that you made?
I think that I had the right combination of cinematic intelligence, and sleazy underbelly. I was young and using the porno industry to learn how to make movies, and of course let’s not forget the fact that I was a sex addict, and just loved pornography. I just wanted to create little scenes that worked, and if I labored long enough, maybe I could string together enough of them to make a little movie that worked. The fact that I did this for fifteen years should also tell you something about my sex addiction. I learned all I could learn in the first five years. I stayed for ten more because I loved being around it.
Did you ever think you’d be making ‘porn history’ when you were on set or was it just a job to make a quick buck at?
And on that note.....
Special thanks to everyone on the DVD Maniacs message board, and especially to Mr. Costello himself who took the time out of his life to answer our questions.
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