Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Sadly, Jess Franco passed away yesterday. Simon Birrell is way more qualified than I am to "say a few words"...

Jess Franco and Lina were one of history's great couples, right up there with Lux and Ivy. I was privileged to meet and work with them over the years and my only regret is that I didn't see more of them towards the end. I first met them in 1992, just after moving to Madrid. I was helping out my buddies Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs on their book "Immoral Tales" and one of my missions was to track down Franco. This was when he wasn't making movies (post "Don Quixote") and nobody had heard of him or gave a fig. My first impression was of a deeply cultured man who did exactly what he wanted in life, without a giving a hoot for anybody else's opinion or agenda. I was doubly fortunate in meeting Spanish critic Carlos Aguilar the same evening, a friendship that continues to this day. The three of us drank late into the night, then after Jess staggered back home, Carlos grabbed me by the collar and said, "And now let me tell you the TRUTH!". He proceeded to spend the next hour debunking a large part of the stories that Franco had just told me.

Cathal Tohill and I later travelled down to Sitges to meet Jess and Lina. They were exceptionally gracious with us, a couple of hard-up fans who had somehow come across their work. I was supposed to work on the unfinished "Golden Beetle" with them, but a new job came up and I couldn't go to the shoot. That's a regret - my life would have taken a very different course if I'd chucked in the job and just gone. Later, I translated a series of their scripts from Spanish to English; Jess wrote in Spanish but shot in English. So "Killer Barbies", "Marie-Cookie", "Tender Flesh" and others are partly my fault. I remember watching "Tender Flesh" on the sofa with Jess and Lina and not understanding a damn word of my own dialogues. The actors had an uncertain grasp of English, there was no dialogue coach, and my dialogue was probably unpronounceable anyway.

They came over to my flat one day with a scheme for getting a grant to make movies for CHILDREN. Their proposal to the EU (which I translated) contained a line which lamented the "recent tide of sex and violence in cinema" and recommended the financing of a series of wholesome family films. I asked Jess, "So who made all those dreadful movies, then?". He didn't bat an eyelid and replied, "Some bastard!"

That day I had hoped to impress Franco, the jazz expert. I didn't know jazz, but I did have plenty of old obscure music. I put on an LP by Steve Gibson and Red Caps, a 40s group so obscure even their parents had forgotten them. As we were discussing the proposal, Jess suddenly shushed me. "Buddy Tate", he said, referring to the music. Ever the sophisticate, I said, "Oh no, that's Steve Gibson and the Red Caps". "No, no", he replied, "I mean the SAXOPHONE!". It was a Bear Family issue, so it had the session details and yes, Buddy Tate played on that track and only that track. So much for my in-depth musical culture; I couldn't even approach his encyclopaedic knowledge.

In exchange for one of the scripts I translated, Jess agreed to appear in an animated web series I directed, a project for Planet Hollywood. He did a great, if hard to follow, voice over for the mad scientist character. His old colleague Jack Taylor was lead voice for the main villain. I loved the fact that he would appear in a marketing vehicle for a company that represents everything detestable and vulgar about modern Hollywood.

There are a lot of stories doing the rounds about Jess making movies and not paying people. I worked with him knowing the stories and fully expecting never to get paid. Who cares? I was going to work with Jess Franco! My own experience is that he paid little, but paid every dime he promised.

The more I think about it, the more apt the comparison with Lux and Ivy is. They were a couple who built their own world, beyond anything in the rest of the universe. We were privileged to peek in to their world from time to time, and lucky to see the end results.

The last time I saw Jess and Lina was some 10 years ago in Madrid. We'd drifted apart when he moved to the south of Spain. It was at the book launch for his excellent autobiography (inexplicably unavailable in English). We were delighted to see each other and stopped to gossip for a while. He was still walking, but with difficulty. "I'm going to die shooting!", he said, and that's pretty much how it turned out. He soldiered on to the end, even after Lina died.

Cathal, Pete and I used to call him "The Great Man". After all these years, and even after the last, decadent, uneven movies, it's still absolutely true.
Many thanks to Simon for the piece and the photos.