Digging Deep: With Filmmaker, Shaun Costello

Digging Deep: With Filmmaker, Shaun Costello

Dec 5, 2016

Shaun Costello

The meat and potatoes of roughies always started with WATERPOWER (1977) and FORCED ENTRY (1973). They became the stuff of great discussion and legendary in their own right as cult horror and exploitation films. Equally colorful is Shaun Costello, the porn star/director behind these films who is the very hallmark of the quintessential 70’s New Yorker.


Shaun Costello

“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.” Risky Behavior



Shaun Costello on Becoming a Director:


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.


Shaun CostelloIn 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.


Coming up with an idea for a story, creating a shot list to tell that story, and sitting in an editing room watching that story successfully unfold is an richly satisfying experience. Writing a good story gives me the same satisfaction. There’s that moment, whether it’s in an editing room, or sitting in front of a word processor, when the germ of an idea you had begins to take shape and blossom. There’s nothing like it.


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.



Shaun Costello on Filming for the Mob:


My early mob-funded 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.


Shaun CostelloThe 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.


Shaun CostelloDibi 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.


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. This was 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 and the FBI has never contacted me. Don Corleone would prove prophetic. Heroin would be the end of them.



Shaun Costello on his most Notable Films:


MIDNIGHT DESIRESShaun Costello (1976) 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 THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (1975), my smutified version of Dickens’ CHRISTMAS CAROL. It’s silly, and outrageous, and wonderful. I have a sentimental connection to it.


I believe my best works were WRITING FOR TIME (1990), which 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.


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.


Shaun CostelloI made WATERPOWER 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. 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.


Then there were the gags on that set. 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.



Shaun Costello on Scoring his Films:


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. 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.


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.” –Risky Behavior


Shaun Costello


Keep up with Shaun’s projects on his IMDb and stay in the know by following his blog.