Bob Murawski just won an Oscar for editing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, a long-in-the-works indie project that came seemingly out of nowhere to earn the respect and accolades of the Academy. Now Murawski's own long-in-the-works indie project is about to be unveiled at the Egyptian Theater tonight, and it's about as far from Oscar-winning respectability as you can get.
When I went to a Burbank screening room last week to see Gone With the Pope, the lost 70s sub-B-level movie that Murawski has spent the past 15 years finishing and restoring, I was the only person in the room who wasn't in some way involved in its production, and the only woman. I caught the other guests exchange glances when I walked in, as if to say, “Who's gonna tell her?” It was Murawski who gave me the warning: “This movie is pretty politically incorrect. These Italian guys…this was just how they talked, how they lived.”
Pope was directed by and starred Duke Mitchell, a nightclub singer and sometime Jimmy Durante impersonator who was known as “Mr. Palm Springs” for all the gigs he booked there in the 70s. It's a low budget exploitation flick about a crew of bumbling Italian gangsters who come up with an ingenious plot to kidnap the pontiff, demanding a ransom of 50 cents from every Catholic around the globe. The film is gloriously, hilariously offensive, including all manner of racist and sexist jokes, and one sequence of WTF? grotesquerie worthy of John Waters, in which Mitchell's character kidnaps an obese woman as a “surprise” for his sleeping friend. The two gangster then try to have sex with her (it's probably technically rape, but the Benny Hill-style musical accompaniment softens the threat), but can't because they're laughing too hard.
The film was shot in 1976. It was hardly an organized production. “There were some scenes written on notebook pads, cocktail napkins, things like that, but there literally was no script,” Murawski says. “I think he was just coming up with ideas for scenes, and shooting as he went along.”
Mitchell got most of what he apparently intended to shoot in the can, and then ran out of cash. Fourteen years later, Bob Murawski saw a VHS copy of The Executioner, AKA Massacre Mafia Style, a “homemade answer to The Godfather” that Mitchell made before shooting Pope (both films are screening tonight at the Egyptian). Murawski became determined to “find the guy” who made it, only to discover that Mitchell had died in 1981. But Mitchell's son was still alive, and in a parking garage storage unit, he had ten boxes containing a rough cut, negative and sound tapes of his dad's unfinished film. The son offered Murawski the loot, and in between editing jobs over the course of fifteen years, he slowly cobbled together tonight's never-before-seen feature.
“Everything was in such disarray, it was a really rough assembly,” Murawski says. “It was 17 reels, and four reels were missing out of the middle. So we had to go back and figure out what we were missing, and find the negative and reprint everything from the negative. So it was basically like cutting any movie — it took a lot of time to figure out where everything went. As a professional editor I was thinking of what I would propose to a director, and would he agree to it?”
The result is an incredible hybrid, with Mitchell's decidedly dated sensibility delivered in a modern, masterfully quick-cut package. Some will hate on Pope as an expression of unbridled id and cultural insensitivity, but as an unadulterated personal vision, it's fascinating. The opposite of a Hollywood player, Mitchell could only make Gone With The Pope if he paid his own way–which afforded him the opportunity to make his own rules.
That's sort of what Murawski's doing, too — he funnels his profits from work-for-hire editing gigs (like Hurt Locker, but really like the Spider-Man films) into Grindhouse Releasing, the company he started with Sage Stallone in order to restore and help audiences rediscover cult classics. They released Lucio Fulci's The Beyond in association with Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures, and are about to re-release Sam Raimi's early classic, Evil Dead.
Though Grindhouse is committed to “super deluxe” DVD releases, Murawski says reinvigorating the midnight/cult movie circuit is job number one.
“We're definitely trying to cultivate that. We try really hard to show this stuff theatrically, to try to get these old movies playing in theaters with an audience. There are definitely a lot of theaters that are trying to get into this cult stuff, which is great, because it kind of died out, but it's coming back. It's nothing that's gonna make anyone rich, but if you can get 200 or 300 people in a theater to see some 30 year old movie, it's incredible. And it's always best to see these movies with a big crowd.”
Here's hoping a big crowd comes out for Friday's Mitchell double feature. For more information, check out the American Cinematheque's website.