Body Count Rising: You are a veteran, a filmmaker, an author and you’ve done just about every job associated with filmmaking. Which of these roles was the most challenging for you and why?
Shaun Costello: I love a good story, and have been attracted to good story tellers since childhood. As a kid I preferred sitting in a room filled with adults and listening to their conversation, than playing with other kids my own age. I was the ultimate listener, and being a good listener is the first step toward becoming a good story teller.
In the late sixties, a Jamaican street hustler named Lloyd Smith, who we all knew as Smitty, was attempting to create loops, or ten minute stag films, and seemed bewildered by the process. I suggested to him that I would create little stories, and lists of shots to photograph, because the editing had to be done in the camera. The result would be that after the film was processed in the lab, when projected, it would tell a little story. Smitty jumped at my offer, and we began a working relationship that lasted about six months. It came naturally to me. As time went on, my ability to create shot lists became more refined, and when I began to direct feature length films, it was that six months of creating Smitty’s loops that enabled me to do it successfully.
Body Count Rising: You pushed through the adversity of homelessness and published a detailed account so that other veterans could read it and get help from the people you mentioned. Have you heard feedback from other vets on how your experience and writing changed their lives?
Shaun Costello: I felt an obligation to write that piece. When I lost my house in April of 2015, I spent the next three and a half months living in various homeless shelters. Through the VA’s HUD/VASH program I was able to finally wrangle a HUD voucher for a very nice two bedroom apartment, where I still live. To accomplish what I did took relentless tenacity. Everyone says “NO” to you over and over again. The trick is not believing them. I just kept hammering away at the system until I found a crack in the resistance.
During this process I found out who would help and who would not, and felt obligated to share that knowledge with other Vets. I have heard from many who read the piece. Some were helped by it, and some just didn’t get the point. To do what I did, you’ve got to want it badly, and you’ve got to do the work necessary to make it happen. Now I work on my blog in the mornings, and drive an Uber cab in the afternoons. From the Congressman, to whom the letter was written, I received a form letter in reply.
Body Count Rising: You’ve directed close to 70 projects spanning three decades. What do you feel is your most underrated film?
Shaun Costello: Porn? “Midnight Desires” is probably the most complete movie I made. It was my first 35MM film. And it was not very expensive; under forty thousand, which is pretty cheap, considering the big budget films I made for Reuben Sturman in the early 1980’s. My favorite though, is “Passions of Carol”, my smutified version of Dickens’ "Christmas Carol". It’s silly, and outrageous, and wonderful. I have a sentimental connection to it.
Body Count Rising: What about your best film?
Shaun Costello: My best work? “Writing for Time” was shot in the middle east during the First Gulf War. And a documentary I made with Bill Markle in Scotland in 1973 called “Four Days at Troon”. The making of both of these films is written about on my blog, and in "Risky Behavior".
Body Count Rising: You have stated that “Waterpower” was your funniest film. Were you ever able to direct with that level of autonomy again after “Waterpower”?
Shaun Costello: Waterpower was completed without any of its backers seeing it. Dibi died in 1986, never having seen his enema epic. You don’t get that kind of autonomy very often. But I was seldom interfered with. Bob Dolan was a pain in the ass, but everyone else left me alone. My movies made money. That’s why people hired me. I had a unique understanding of the needs of the degenerates in the balcony. I had been one of them
Body Count Rising: You made films for the Gambino crime family. Does one ever truly sever ties?
Shaun Costello: My early mob movies were made for the DeCavalcante’s. They were New Jersey based and were the inspiration for The Sopranos. There was a consolidation of DeCavalcante and Gambino interests into one gigantic empire if smut. Robert ‘Dibi’ DiBernardo, a DeCavalcante Capo, was moved to the Gambino family. The Mafiosi that I dealt with were not cowboys. They were businessmen. Dibi was a well-dressed, soft-spoken gentleman. I had made a connection in 1968 with a ranking member of the Colombo family named John Liggio. He became by benefactor. It was John who sent me down to Dibi at Star Distributors. When John Died of cancer in 1975, Dibi began looking out for my interests. I’m sure that this was at John’s request. Who were the most impressive gangsters? Dibi was an even-tempered, skilled negotiator. He was a big earner in the construction unions. Reuben Sturman in Cleveland, who operated under Dibi’s protection, was a visionary. He started out selling girlie magazines out of the trunk of his car, and died a billionaire.
And I liked Dominick Cataldo, a Colombo Capo. I spent a lot of time with Dominick. He was a lot of fun to be around. Of course, no one told me that he liked to bury his hits two at a time in double decker graves in his own private Boot Hill, in upstate New York. I might not have taken trips to Las Vegas and Palm Beach with him had I known. Dibi was shot in the head in 1986 by a Gravano underling named ‘Old Man’ Peruda. The order came from John Gotti, who had been told that Dibi was plotting against him. This was completely untrue. Sammy Gravano told him it was untrue, but by this time Gotti had lost his mind and was whacking people left and right.
Body Count Rising: Have you been harassed by the FBI, not just for the pornographic aspect, but in questioning regarding organized crime?
Shaun Costello: The FBI has never contacted me. My blog is filled with stories about the mob. Particularly a story about a movie I was supposed to make at Dominick Cataldo’s son’s wedding in 1978. The reception was attended by over 200 Bosses, Capos, and Associates from all over the country. The largest gathering of Mafiosi ever, and the story is accurately told. I think that La Cosa Nostra is pretty much past tense. They’re not on the FBI’s “A” list. Don Corleone would prove prophetic. Heroin would be the end of them.
Body Count Rising: You had stated that there is “a piece of you in every shot”. What would you consider your integral trademark that is personified overall in your films?
Shaun Costello: Did I really say that? Sounds silly! What I probably meant was that I worked hard. I seldom settled for anything that didn’t make me happy. But that was after I had left porn. Porn was different. Take “Waterpower”: I made it for $16,000 in four days. You can not make a believable feature length film for $16,000 in four days. I never tried to. What made me happy was creating a scene that played from beginning to end and worked. If it was just one scene per movie, that was OK. But I needed a scene that worked.
Then there were the gags. These were long shooting days, and we did our best to get through the inevitable boredom by playing games. If I was acting in a scene, we would play the watch pool. How many times would I look at my watch during a scene? The crew all put numbers down on paper along with a dollar bill, and put them in a bowl. I would not be aware to the numbers guessed. We would shoot the scene, and the closest guess would win the pot.
In “Waterpower” there is a shot of Sharon Mitchell with a copy of Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man” in her hand, intensely reading. I found someone like Sharon Mitchell reading a book like this to be hilarious. But there was something else. The movie was being shot in 1976, and on page 76 of “Ascent of Man” is a sentence with both “Water” and “Power” in it. I found these things amusing. No one got it, of course, but years later I was contacted by DVD Maniacs and asked about it. It was thirty five years later, but someone finally got it!
Body Count Rising: You worked under some different aliases with George Payne too...
Shaun Costello: I liked George. He showed up, and did what was asked. And I knew how to use him. George was basically gay. If you watch him in a scene you will find that he is almost always looking at another guy in the scene. The trick was never to put George in a scene alone with a girl.
Body Count Rising: With each decade you’ve done your share of popular recreational drugs of that time. How did these affect your acting performances in the over sixty films through the decades?
Shaun Costello: The funny thing is that, until 1970, I seldom even smoked pot. Then I met Harry Reems. I did way more that my share of Hallucinogens. Real LSD25, which does not exist anymore, mescaline, and shrooms... How many trips did I take? Probably somewhere between 60 and 80. And I loved every moment. It was a life-changing experience.
I started doing coke around 1975. By the late Seventies everybody was snorting as much of it as they could afford. I certainly was. Real cocaine hyrdrochloride (surfer coke) does not exist anymore. When the cartels in Colombia took over the processing (mid 1980’s), there was a sociological shift in the market, from the white collar users who snorted and danced the night away, to ghetto users, who smoked free base, which was reprocessed cocaine alkaloid. Free basing was highly addictive. The alkaloid, along with filler chemicals, is processed into crack, and is strictly ghetto.
Body Count Rising: I understand you had a special gift that made you exceptional at your craft. Was this enhanced by drug use?
Shaun Costello: Although having sex on acid was both thrilling and mystifying, it did not enhance my sexual abilities. They were separate but equal.
Body Count Rising: You had a scare when you were quite ill and thought you could have AIDS, but thankfully tested negative.
Shaun Costello: That was the parasitic infection that I brought back from the Middle East after making a film for Time Magazine during the first Gulf War.
Body Count Rising: What are your thoughts on the proposed mandatory condom use in pornography filmed in California, and do you think this will truly make a difference in the industry overall?
Shaun Costello: People in the adult film business are grown ups. Whether or not they use condoms during filming is their affair.
Body Count Rising: You wrote the phenomenal account “Wild About Harry”, which chronicled the apex and struggles of the life of Harry Reems. Did putting these experiences on paper also allow a certain catharsis for you and a chance to exorcise your own demons?
Shaun Costello: Herb and I were close friends back in the day. When I heard of his death I was stunned and saddened. I contacted my friend Thomas Eikrem in London and asked him to save some space in the next edition of Filmrage, and that I would send him a piece about Herb/Harry. The book was Thomas’s idea. He said to write it as a stand-alone book, but that we’d have to get it out fast. I worked on it around the clock for three weeks. No one bought it, of course, because no one knows that it exists. I can’t afford to promote it, and eBooks without promotion go nowhere. Herb’s demons were quite different than mine. There was no catharsis. I simply wanted to record a side of Harry Reems that few are aware of.
Body Count Rising: Your IMDb says you were nominated for an AVN award, but I know you have won awards that are not credited. Which was the most meaningful that you were proud of and why?
Shaun Costello: I have never had anything to do with the AVN. It’s a silly organization that provides a venue for stupid people to pat each other on the back. I’m sure they have a category that reads – Best Performance by a Foxy Milf while getting DP’d by hung Midgets. I have one Clio and four International Monitors. Two of the Monitors were for a film I made for Time Magazine, "Writing for Time", during the first Gulf War. It was shot in Egypt, Jordan, NYC and Washington DC. It’s still the best promotional film I’ve ever seen. It was expensive and ground breaking. Some of the best work I’ve ever done.
Body Count Rising: I’ve noticed the song “Return of the Pimpmobile” has turned up in a couple of your films. Are you a fan of Isaac Hayes?
Shaun Costello: I was guilty of blatantly stealing more music that anyone in the history of the movie business. I loved cutting picture to great music, and Shaft was a great score.
Body Count Rising: And you have a writing project just published…
Shaun Costello: A French publisher purchased the French language rights for “Risky Behavior”, so I’ve been busy finishing it. They don’t like the title “Risky Behavior”, so they retitled it: Le Journal d'un Pornographe Unrepentant (Diary of an Unrepentant Pornographer).
Body Count Rising: You are a quintessential old school New Yorker. Did you ever frequent CBGB or rub elbows with other local filmmakers like Buddy Giovinazzo, Nick Zedd or Richard Kern?
Shaun Costello: I went to CBGB’s but that was really a scene that happened later on. My night crawling was done at Pyramid, Studio 54, Mudd Club, Hellfire and Eros. I never really hung out with other directors. I didn’t know any, except for Ron Sullivan and Chuck Vincent, and the only reason I knew them was because we shared the same coke dealer. I never went to film school, or even watched another director on a set. I just loved movies and watched them endlessly. Then I tried to figure out how they were made, and went out and did it myself. And it seemed to work.
Body Count Rising: There is an ocean of essays, memoirs and documentaries on the topic of 42nd Street. Is there any aspect of 42nd Street’s “delightful debauchery” that you feel hasn’t been adequately highlighted and what’s your favorite memory of Times Square?
Shaun Costello: I’m going to answer by excerpting from “Risky Behavior”:
The Times Square subway station was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the over-modulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was, “The Deuce”.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Men’s clothing, Army/Navy, cheap electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on “The Deuce”.IMDb and stay in the know by following his blog.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family-friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.