Total Film was first published in January 1997 (cover date February, as is the way) which means it must have been 1996 when I sat down and interviewed the legendary Russ Meyer who was over in the UK to promote the VHS release of some of his movies. Three points to note here. First, Russ Meyer was the absolutely most heterosexual man I have ever met in my life. Second, to this day I’ve still never seen any of the man’s films. Third, this interview was responsible for that first issue of Total Film having the word ‘Brobdingnagian’ on its front cover (as in ‘... breasts’). I can’t see any film mag getting away with that nowadays.
Your first proper film was The Immoral Mr Teas...
Well, you made a burlesque film called The French Peep Show in about 1950, with Tempest Storm.
"That was a film on burlesque. I would say that was the one. It's been kind of ignored."
I heard it had been lost.
"Probably it has been. I think there was someone unearthed one somewhere. I had no control over it - it's not mine. The man Peter A DeCenzie is gone now. But it's a film that is forgotten."
But most filmographies start your career with The Immoral Mr Teas. It's cited as the first sex-related film that wasn't just a boring fake travelogue of a nudist colony. Did it just come along at the right time, or was it that nobody had thought of doing it before?
"Well, I'll tell you what started before that which kind of kicked me off - not 'ticked me off' but 'kicked me off' - was the fact that there were a lot of nudist films made in the States. They were in black and white, and they were always about sunbathing, the fact that the sun is good for the body. Young children become even more nourished by walking around nude with their parents. They were always photographed in such a way, like when they were playing ping-pong, you could use the table top to cover up the pubic hair or the man's dick. And the children were always okay, totally spanked-ass naked, no problem. It's sort of worthwhile that children are out there, embracing the sun.
“So I didn't want to make a movie, as I was telling my partner after he had done the thing on Tempest Storm. Tempest Storm was - and still is - a strong woman: good-looking, and the whole works. She made a lot of money as a stripteaser. She was the first one to come along with big breasts. I was taken to a liking with her, and carried off to go down to where she was living, to continue her career. I thought, 'Well, leave my wife and go off with a girl: seems like a good idea.’ We ended up nearly dying on what they call the Ridge Route. We were driving, both fell asleep, and just woke up bouncing off the back end of a giant lorry. So it could have finished everything for Meyer and Tempest Storm, had we not awakened in sufficient time.
“I went to live with her for a couple of days and then I ended up being a person who would capture her gowns as they came - 'Schoop!' - over to the wings. So I did that for a day or so, saying, 'Well, that's kind of interesting.' I could pinch her ass when she walked by me, and so on. Then I realised that I had to have something else to do in life, other than be a person that cared for a stripper's garments. So we said goodbye and we remained friends for a number of years. She ended up marrying a well-known singer, a pretty good singer..."
I understand that Immoral Mr Teas was made for $24,000 and took in $1.5 million.
"We played with numbers."
But it was a big hit. Did you expect it to do so well?
"It was an enormous hit. No, I didn't expect it to be that much of a success. When we played it originally, it was busted in San Diego: the term 'busted' is not 'bust' but the police. We'd not come up with what was called a 'patch'. My partner, Pete DeCenzie, was in with people who spoke of the underworld, although he wasn't a member of it. He says, 'You've gotta have a patch.' It's like putting a band-aid on, for a policeman, then you'd make it, like that, no problems. He wouldn't come down and - not necessarily arrest you - but he wouldn't complain about the fact that you were showing a movie that's full of nudity and so forth. The only trouble here is that I didn't come up with a patch. My partner was somewhere else, and boy, they busted us right off the bat. They didn't lock me up, but they grabbed the print, so we couldn't play it anywhere. And once you let the film business know that there is a picture out there that's dangerous, they stay away from it."
But did the public not want to see it all the more?
"Sure they wanted, but there was no way they could. No exhibitor would play it: 'Forget it, I don't care how much money it would make. No way! Stay away from it, that's bad news.' So my partner went up North and he was working with a group of three nude women called Pictures and Poses. These girls would pose to Debussy and this dumb kind of thing. And the guys would sit in the audience and whack off. So that was how it got going. And one day he was asking one of his cohorts, who was a man who pulled the curtains, an Italian guy, and he says, 'Look, how can we get the censor board?' You see, there was a censor board in Seattle, Washington. Nobody else had a censor board. 'Why can't we get them to look at it?' he says. 'Gee, I don't know. They seem to be nice guys.' So Pete says, 'I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll get a lot of red wine and spaghetti and I'll get a suite. You tell them I have a suite.'
“He didn't have a suite. Got it in the hotel, got all that food and wine, got those guys in there and a 16mm print which was projected off the wall. I mean really off the wall! So they showed it and they drank wine, ate spaghetti. And the board said, 'Oh, there's nothing wrong with this. A little nudity. It's wholesome.' From then on we were off and running - we played anywhere we wanted. We had passed a censor board, and that was an important factor with regards to releasing a film. A censor board said okay, and then if an exhibitor wanted to play in, say, Baltimore - which was a problem, they had situations there - they took up the fact that the film had been presented in a theatre under the sanction of the Seattle, Washington's censor board. From the on, it was like stealing - it played anywhere."
A few years later, what was the reason for the move from the earlier 'nudie-cutie' film to thrillers like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!?
"'Nudie-cutie', I don't know."
It's just a term I've read.
"Well, for example, for The Immoral Mr Teas, I don't use that term. It's my first film, The Immoral Mr Teas. A film that was sanctioned to play in cities that had restrictions about nudity. They weren't 'nudie-cuties' - that was a kind of slovenly, unpleasant expression."
"No, no, it's just not used. Call it things like 'titty-boom'."
Okay. But there's a definite change from the 'titty-boom' of Eve and the Handyman and Heavenly Bodies and so on...
"Well, those were different. The Immoral Mr Teas was the name of an actual man I knew in the service. He loved to do put-ons. He had an idea that someday he could be an actor. A great portrait artist, a photographic portrait artist. I asked him, I said, 'Bill, why don't we do this? We'll give you five per cent of the show.' My partner Eve was in completion with this, and then Pete DeCenzie. So we made the movie in three days. It almost never got made. Bill Teas was in the service with me, then I had another friend who was a police photographer. We had everybody photographed; there was one girl left. But we had to go to the beach, and it was hotter than the hinges of Hell, down in Santa Monica.
“Well, Teas just wiped himself out with booze. He was so drunk that he had ambitions of crawling in the sack with this Marilyn Westley. She didn't go for that particularly: the idea of this guy crawling in bed and so on. So what happened was that he decided that this girl was denying him her body. And he was the star. You know what he decided? He was going to shave his beard off. Another army buddy who was with me, a policeman, said, 'Teas, you can't do that to Meyer. He's got his bank roll in this. You're not going to shave your beard off. I'll throw you down on the ground, I'm going to sit on you. And leave that girl alone, she's part of the cast.' The next morning we all went down to the beach; it was like Hades. So hot, he was out there all day just burnt to a crisp, and I shot all this footage that completed the movie. That's how it was made."
Let's move on to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It's very different from the earlier stuff. It's more action and leather and bikes. It's more of an action thriller.
"You see, it came about because we did a film called Motorpsycho. Like 'motorcycle', but it's 'psycho'. And these were three psychotics. Their thing was beating up people, stealing money, a little rape, it was okay. It went over like a million bucks. I tell you, it really came across strong. So I said to my wife at the time, 'Now look, we made a lot of money on this. Why don't we, you and I...' - we were separated but - 'We'll throw in 50-50.' So we did, took pictures of the thing, made a bundle of money. Then about six months later, I said, 'Why don't we do one with three bad girls?' She said, 'Oh, I don't know about that.' But I found Tura Satana, this Asiatic girl.
“Tura was very strong. She was the kind of girl that you didn't screw with. She demanded certain things. She wanted to make a good film. Motorpsycho was a good film. So we shot this film with her being in charge of these other two girls. And it was just a play-off of the other one with three bad boys; now we've got one with three bad girls. Tura was kind of special because she knew the martial arts. We set out to show them harassing men, things like that. Brutalising men, driving around in Porsches and different cars. They end up in a situation where there's a gas station and the guy is kind of a half-idiot. He says, 'Oh, that man over there, he's got millions of dollars.' Of course the girls immediately go, 'Ooh wow!' Then he has a demented son, big muscular guy. So they have dinner, it's a very short thing. The money is hopefully to be accepted by Tura Satana. Oh, everything went wrong, like all of these things. Tura's girlfriend, Haji, was her lover; she died. The blonde was murdered by one of the others because she wanted to get the hell out from under, and then there was one more girl, that was partner to another girl, and she was involved. So we had a great little crime thing going.
“Then we had the dirty old man who had these sons: one was a hulk of a character, he other one was quite understanding, and wanted to fall in love with Tura Satana. Then of course, her ability kill this guy with her own hands, that was important. So we put all this stuff together, and all of a sudden in colleges they started looking at it: 'Boy, this is something else!' And from the on, it was! We made it, and then I made other films every year. Another year, another film, and so on."
You seem to have ignored Hollywood prejudices. A lot of film-makers don't - or at least didn't - like casting black or Asian actresses, or having characters in wheelchairs.
"They're all whores, those people in Hollywood! Are you kidding? They wouldn't do anything good for anybody. The hell with it! I don't care. That's the way it is. So he's a dirty old man, so the guy gets run over by Tura in a Porsche, and good riddance. I don't worry about any of that stuff. But what got the majors was: 'Who is this upstart, bringing out pictures? They're playing them in theatres where we put pictures, and it means we lose a screen. That son of a bitch is going to show a movie there, and they'll be playing a picture that we have no gain from.'"
In terms of casting actresses, which is more important: acting ability or breast-size?
"There's no question about the size of the breast. I'd be a fool to think in other terms. You can always get actresses built like hoe-handles."
Two people I've spoken to who worked on your films - Dave Prowse and Dave Warbeck - both had memories of them being tremendous fun. Have your shoots always been fun to do?
"Let's see. One of the few early actors that gave me a gift was Darth Vader (I call him). He gave me a bottle of Scotch when he was going off the island. He had some good times with black hookers. Then we had Percy Herbert who was good fun, always playing a Tommy. He proclaimed that he hated black women but he was always with a black hooker every night. So I said, 'You're just a totally no-good, son-of-a-bitch person, you.' But that was it. We made the movie, except eventually we had Anoushka Hempel. She was a problem. She has a club or a hotel or something, and she's married to a very rich man. What she didn't like was: always in a film you're trying to get cutaways to make it work better. We had a rape scene with Percy and Darth Vader. Then, when I took her back to the States, I found that we needed some more shots.
“Well, Anoushka Hempel had small tits. It was unfortunate. See, they had found a girl who was an Italian with giant tits, and then she had overdosed. Then she got on my case always about the damn English rule about tea-time. God, that was always a knife in my throat. I don't give a damn about tea-time, we've got to work here. Then she'd call the group of English actors. Darth Vader, he says, 'Ah, the hell with it! Forget me, leave me alone.' The others were always kind of siding with her, but it worked.
“Important about Anoushka Hempel: I always make a lot of cut-ins. Now we've got a rape scene in which one of the actors is gonna jump on the bed and have her. It got to the point where there was no interplay. She was nude, and we couldn't find anybody in LA with breasts small enough. She was complaining about all this. So we found a girl with tiny tits and we shot it in a friend of mine's dark room, laboratory and so on. And she just became obsessed with this whole thing about being portrayed as a girl with angry, unpleasant-looking breasts and being taken advantage of.
“Then Roger Ebert, the film critic, made a suggestion. He says, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'Hell with her!' He said, 'Well, I understand her old man has got an enormous amount of money.' So: 'I tell you what I'm going to give you. You can have this whole damn negative for $275,000. You get your old man to give me $275,000.' And she was beside herself. So the hell with it. We put it in there, with this American girl. We had an awful time trying to find a girl with the right size tits. So we photographed her, and when she saw her tits, along with the American tits, she just absolutely freaked out. So I'm not her favourite."
Can I ask you briefly about the few days shooting you did on the Sex Pistols movie when it was still called Who Killed Bambi?.
"McClaren. You can say it in one word: an asshole. Plain and simple. Just what he had in his hand and he didn't have the balls, the courage to do it. I was out with Laurie Frost the other day, who was the focus puller. We had an Australian cameraman. We shot the stuff to show Mick Jagger supposedly going out to kill in the Queen's game reserve, with a crossbow. And we shot it. Then Darth Vader - I keep calling him Darth Vader - Dave Prowse. We'd been given by a film producer a big Rolls Royce, so he was in livery and so on. So this animal was killed.
“And they thinned this out. They do it all the time. They came up with an item that: Meyer is a person who is vile and he goes out with a pistol and shoots little innocent deer. And we had an expert guy, you know. So they took the thing and put it on the bonnet of the car. Then we had this cute little girl in this typical little house. So he drives down and he takes the deer and he puts it on the stoop. The little girl comes out and says, 'Look, Mummy. Someone's killed Bambi.' That was it. that was what we shot, see. That was the extent of it. We had a great script; we had her at the end of the film.
“And here's McClaren being the honcho guy and leading a big band. There they are down by the river. They had a lot of extras. We didn't do it, but that was planned. But then the shock of it was great, with the little lady. We were going to shoot. We never got it shot, because we didn't have the money to hire all the extras. So we looked at: she's sitting in the audience, and here we have McClaren singing like Mick Jagger. It was a big put-on, see. So all of a sudden, the idea at the end of the film, which Ronnie thought was a masterpiece: while he's singing, all of a sudden, the little girl walks right up to him, and she has a .357 Magnum and destroys his face: 'That's for Bambi.'! It could have been just an absolute great film.
“Johnny Rotten was quoted in a magazine, saying, 'Meyer is a cunt.' Well, Kitten Natividad had a bush on her that was just incredible, so I sent a photograph of it to Johnny Rotten, saying, 'No, Johnny, this is a cunt.'”
Official site: RMFilms.com