George Abagnalo Interview

george-abagnalo-michael-kiwi_10331Screenwriter George Abagnalo talks about Andy Warhol’s BAD, The Factory and the film collaboration between Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey

BOZUNG:   So take me back to where this connection with Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol started for you?

ABAGNALO:   I grew up in Brooklyn.  When I was about twelve or thirteen years old I started to develop a taste for art films. My local movie theater used to show foreign films as co-features–films that would be set up to play before the main feature film.   They only showed foreign or art films that were dubbed because they didn’t feel our neighborhood was ready for subtitles.   I really developed a taste for very serious cinema out of that–so I started going into Manhattan to see underground films or avant-garde and American independent films.    In those I discovered the films that Andy and Paul had made.   I was fascinated by those and so at sixteen years old I went to The Factory and asked for a job.  This was right around the time that Andy had been shot by Valerie Solanas.  It was about a month after that had happened.  Paul Morrissey was there and he thought I was interesting.  He hired me.     I started out there running errands and I found it really exciting.  I would do things like take a film print to the post office so it could be sent out to a theater somewhere.

Working at The Factory–there were always problems.  People would always fight with each other and so  my job was always off and on again for about nine years.   I started working at Interview Magazine.  I did some interviews for them.  I managed the film prints.  I would clean them.  I would keep scrap books about the films.  I would log the reviews or the clippings as they were related to the films.   Then I was asked to play the Photographer role in WOMEN IN REVOLT (1971).   Paul and Andy were very emphatic that both of my parents sign a release allowing me to be in it because the film was very dirty for it’s time.   I think I was eighteen at the time but they still insisted that they get a release signed.

I came up with the idea for BAD (1977) aka ANDY WARHOL’s BAD.   Andy loved that title. He was mostly thrilled by the title alone and he didn’t really seem to care about what the film would even be about.  I started working on it with Pat Hackett.   She was also employed at The Factory at that time.   She used to type up all of the tapes that Andy would make of people.    Pat and I starting writing the script for BAD and it took us about two years to finish it.   We started working on it in 1973 but it didn’t go into production until 1976.

BOZUNG:   Wasn’t [Producer] Robert Stigwood initially interested in producing BAD?

ABAGNALO:  He was awful.   Ronnie Cutrone, who also worked at The Factory, overheard Robert Stigwood at a party one evening tell someone about how much pleasure he was taking in pretending that he was interested in producing the film. He had no intentions to ever produce it.   So, had it not been for Ronnie hearing that conversation the film might not have gotten off the ground for an additional six months.    The actual producer of BAD was Jeff Tornberg, who at that time was working for Robert Stigwood.   He had wanted to break away from Robert Stigwood and become a producer on his own, so he stepped up and asked if we’d like him to produce it.   We were all very young at the time.  I was twenty-two at the time.  Pat Hackett was twenty-four at the time.  [Director] Jed Johnson was twenty-four.  Jeff was around that age as well–so it all seemed like it was a really good fit.   Andy said that if Jeff could raise the money, he could produce it

BOZUNG:   Before we talk about BAD…Could you talk about the shooting of WOMEN IN REVOLT?

ABAGNALO:  The shooting of WOMEN IN REVOLT went on for a very long time.  

BOZUNG:  It was shot over just a few days, wasn’t it?

ABAGNALO:  Well, it was strange.   In most of the Morrissey/Warhol films…A scene would grow out the scene that came before it.    They would shoot a scene and then Andy and Paul would talk about what should happen in the next scene.  It would go on for months at a time.  I remember WOMEN IN REVOLT taking the longest to shoot of all those films that were made there.

BOZUNG:  What was the collaboration like between Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol?

ABAGNALO:  Well, some of the films were Paul’s and then others were Andy’s.   All of the films up until FLESH (1968) were Andy’s films.   Just before that time–Andy was shot.   It was decided that it was time for another film and so Paul got Andy on the phone to discuss the idea of a new film and he said, “Well, how about I just make it?  But it will be released with “Andy Warhol Presents” above the title…” FLESH was made on weekends.  Because Monday through Friday Paul had to attend to whatever was going on at The Factory at that time.  FLESH was made very fast though.  It was one of the fastest films made at The Factory.  I remember that Paul edited the film right up until the night before the film print was due to be at the theater the next morning.   The early movies were advertised as “Andy Warhol’s…” then the title.  It was done like that because at the time you had  Ingmar Bergman’s THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY (1961) and Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963).  With FLESH, again, it was advertised as “Andy Warhol Presents…”     Later on, with home video, it got all mixed up.   The home video distributors messed it all up.  They put FLESH on VHS as ANDY WARHOL’s FLESH and then put BLOOD FOR DRACULA (1974) and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (1973) out as ANDY WARHOL’s DRACULA or ANDY WARHOL’s FRANKENSTEIN–even though Andy didn’t direct any of those films.  Those are Paul’s movies.   It all became very complicated and it’s a confusing situation to most people today.   

Originally, WOMEN IN REVOLT was supposed to be one of Andy’s movies.  When the film opened it was advertised as ANDY WARHOL’s WOMEN IN REVOLT.   Go back and watch the film–there is no director’s credit on the film today.  This allows you to assume that Warhol was the director.  Paul directed many of the scenes in it–in fact, he directed some aspect of every scene–it is still Andy’s film however.   It wasn’t until after Andy died that this changed.  Somewhere along the line, things changed, and Paul started to claim that WOMEN IN REVOLT was one of his films.   Look at his other films.  His other films say “Directed by Paul Morrissey.”  WOMEN IN REVOLT doesn’t have a credit on it.

BOZUNG:  From your perspective…How did Paul work with actors on films like WOMEN IN REVOLT or FLESH?

ABAGNALO:  Well, there wasn’t a script.   DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN had scripts, and of course BAD had a very well-crafted script.  Andy would just pick people for the films that he felt were interesting and then he’d stick them in front of the camera.  He would offer almost no direction.  Paul, saw how great people could be if they were given parts that he felt they were perfect to play.  Paul started with FLESH, but there was no script.  He had ideas about how the film would start, progress, and how it would end.  He picked people who he thought were perfect for the parts and he would give them a little direction.  He would tell them what he felt they needed to accomplish in a scene.   For example: In that opening scene–where Geraldine Smith decided to tie her scarf about Joe Dallesandro’s penis–that was her idea.  She just came up with that, but she was still following Paul Morrissey’s suggestion for what was needed for the scene.   That’s how FLESH and the others were shot.

BOZUNG:  Of those four films: FLESH, TRASH (1970), HEAT (1972) or WOMEN IN REVOLT…Which is your favorite and why?

ABAGNALO:   Well, I don’t know if I have a favorite.  I could tell you what is wonderful about each…

BOZUNG:  Well, my favorite is HEAT.   What do you think is so special or unique about HEAT?

ABAGNALO:    Well, Paul Morrissey and I disagree when we discuss HEAT.   Even though I’ve known him for years and worked with him–I’m still his biggest fan.  Paul sees HEAT as a very funny comedy, and I see it as a extremely depressing film which just happens to have some very funny scenes in it.  I feel that the Joe Dallesandro character is a psychopath.   He doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings or needs.  It’s depressing because the other characters are extremely unhappy.  The Sylvia Miles character doesn’t love her daughter and she’s had many failed marriages and she’s desperate for the love of a man.   The daughter is desperate to be loved by her mother.  The daughter is a abusive mother.   The other characters on the sidelines are miserable and desperate as well.  It’s a sad film that just happens to have some wildly, hysterical scenes in it.    

MADADE WANGS (1981), Paul’s film, is another one that is extremely depressing.  When I’ve discussed that with Paul he doesn’t agree with me.  He just sees it as a comedy.  His film, MIXED BLOOD (1985) was a marriage of BAD and TRASH to me.   

BOZUNG:  That’s interesting…Because you can draw a parallel in the themes of both BAD and MIXED BLOOD–in that all are about sociological and family deviancy and mores.   All feature a matriarch who is running each of their respective worlds as well.

ABAGNALO:  There is a family which is in crisis.   Both the women want to make as much money as possible and it will come from criminality.  MIXED BLOOD is also similar to TRASH in that it takes place on the Lower East Side and it has the look of poverty.

BOZUNG:  Where do you think the inspiration for the story for BAD came from?

ABAGNALO:  Well, at first we were thinking about a women-in-prison film but that didn’t work out.  There had been a play, Women Behind Bars, that had come out that was written by Tom Eyen.  We had suspected that he had gotten a hold of our early screenplay for BAD and taken his idea for the play from that.  It was very funny and very campy–it was a parody of women-in-prison movies as we had already written.   So we scraped it.  We weren’t totally satisfied with what we had written at that point anyhow.   

We just re-wrote it.  The way that Pat Hackett and I worked on it…Well, I wrote the outline for it initially.   I came up with all the characters and then Pat went over that, added in a character or two and then made some additional changes.   I wrote the first scene alone, and then handed it over to Pat.  She was really great at taking dialogue or a scene and making it a little more clever and funnier.  I was really dependent on her.  She was dependent on me as she wasn’t able to come up with the first take on the scene.   We never worked together really. I wrote alone, and then, she would go over what I had written.   It took us over two years because we kept going over it and changing things.  We wanted to make sure it was great.

BOZUNG: Did you have any say in the casting?  I’ve read in my research that both actresses Vivian Vance and Lana Turner were pursued for the lead role that eventually Carroll Baker went on to play…

ABAGNALO: Carroll Baker was my favorite actress in the world, so, I really pushed for her for that part.   Once we got her..I was so happy that I didn’t care about much else.  We always knew that we were going to cast Geraldine Smith because she had been so wonderful in FLESH.  Vivian Vance was being considered but then she said that she wasn’t really interested.  Actress Peggy Cass was interested in the role.  In fact, we did give her the part, but when Carroll Baker agreed to be in the film–we had to tell Peggy that we wanted to go with Carroll instead.  We did offer Peggy Cass the part of “Mary” but she decided to bow out.    The film brought Carrol Baker back to the United States from her stint of making films strictly in Europe for what was like nine years.  As a result of BAD, she went on to continue to work again in English-language films.

BOZUNG:  How about Susan Tyrell?  Was she always an actress that was of interest?

ABAGNALO:    She was Pat Hackett’s favorite actress.  She was very impressed by her work in John Huston’s FAT CITY (1972).   

BOZUNG:  What do you think that Carroll Baker brought to the role of “Hazel Atkins” that wasn’t already in your script?

ABAGNALO:   Nothing. I don’t think she brought anything that wasn’t already there. I think that she understood and appreciated that character completely and brought her to life exactly how we had imagined her.  

BOZUNG:  Thematically, there are these women and  Perry King who decide to “kill-off” the handicapped and autistic children in the film….Where do you think this black humor comes from?

ABAGNALO:   We wanted people to laugh.  We wanted the film to be very funny, but we wanted the laughter to be nervous.  You’re laughing at this film because you realize that you’re watching horrible behavior of people that don’t have a conscience.  You laugh because it’s disturbing.  The other thing that happens in BAD is that there is a lack of communication between the characters.   They don’t listen or understand each other.  One character won’t really understand what has been said and will respond as if something completely different was said.   Lack of communication was also something that was meant to be funny.

BOZUNG: Why were those types of ideas so interesting to you?   All of these characters commit these horrid acts, but they are also a family unit and they all seem to care a bit about each other….

ABAGNALO:   Pat and I wanted to show bad women could be.  Mrs. Atkin’s tragic flaw is that she allows a man to work for her.   He is the one that screws everything up.  All the men in the film are weak and failures.  The only woman in the film that had any conscience would be Susan Tyrell’s character.   We wanted to show the end of the family.  It was before the term “dysfunctional family” existed.   I guess we were influenced by Paul Morrissey’s films and his portrayal of family disintegration.   But we weren’t aware of his influence while we were writing the film.   We were aware of society.  We were aware of child abuse, parents that hated their children, loveless marriages, and a lot of the other things that occur at a breakdown of society and that’s what we wanted the film to be about.

The film also features a television that has the news on all the time and it’s always featuring a terrible atrocity that has just occurred.  When BAD was filmed–there were no news shows on television during the middle of the day.  When we shot the film in 1976, you could either watch the news in the morning or in the evening.  The only way you could see the news in the middle of the day would be if there was an interruption because of a plane crash in the middle of a neighborhood or an assassination or something.   I remember talking to Pat about this and saying that we couldn’t have the news on in the middle of the day and she said, “Believe me.  In a couple of years it will be on the afternoon…”

BOZUNG:  BAD has some great music in it that was done by musician Mike Bloomfield…

ABAGNALO:  I was a fan of his.  I had been a fan of the music he had done for Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (1967) with the band The Electric Flag.   But I think it was Pat Hackett was the one who approached him to do the music for BAD.

BOZUNG:  No talk about BAD would be complete with a question about the shooting or the inspiration for that incredible scene where actress Susan Blond throws the baby out the window of that building…

ABAGNALO:   Well, that was my idea.  When I first told Pat about it she was very appalled. She looked at me as if I was insane, and then later on she just accepted the idea.  Early on–she had considered showing a frying pan in the woman’s kitchen and it was supposed to be bubbling with fat.  There was an implication that the woman was going to fry the baby in the pan on the stove.  

There were theater managers who said that they always knew when that scene was on the screen because they saw six or seven people walking out of the film in a state of disgust.   We decided to cut out the frying pan portion of the scene because we decided early on that it was a little too horrible.  We wanted the film to be esoteric and we wanted a lot of people to dislike it, but a group of people who would appreciate it and like it.   We were concerned that some of the things that we were putting in were going to be too much.  At one point we wanted Susan Tyrell’s baby to be black.  We wanted the audience to question where Carroll Baker had a black blood in her family.  But in the end, we decided not to go that far with it.  In retrospect, we should’ve done it though.   We did hold back on some things.

BOZUNG:  How many drafts of the screenplay did you write prior to shooting?

ABAGNALO:  Five. Maybe, six.    The movie was too long.  Once we finished shooting–the first cut of the film was two hours and ten minutes long.   We had to cut out thirty minutes.  So, there are thirty minutes to BAD that no-one has ever seen.

BOZUNG:  What is included in those cut scenes?

ABAGNALO:  It’s mostly just scenes that occur in the kitchen with various operatives talking and very dementedly.   There are conflicts between Carroll Baker and the operatives.  Lots of great dialogue.  Nothing that happened outside.

BOZUNG:   Did Andy Warhol ever visit the set during the shooting?

ABAGNALO:  He came and visited a couple of times.   He would never do anything. He’d just stop by and sit and talk to people.

BOZUNG:   The film was given a “X” rating on it’s initial release?

ABAGNALO:   Yes, and later on that was changed to a “R” rating.  It was given the “X” because of all of the violence in it.   It was not advertised very well.  The poster for BAD had Perry King on it with Stefania Casini and it looked like it was a X-rated film. It was a nice poster but it really gave off the wrong impression of what the film actually was.   The film got mixed reviews and it just didn’t open up in the right theaters.  It opened up in theaters that would be considered as mainstream Hollywood product theaters and it should’ve opened up in arthouses.  It was a failure.  Two years after it was released it came back as a midnight movie.  It played all over the United States playing at midnight.   The revival theaters picked it up and they would show it day after day for months.  It developed a cult following.  When it initially opened up in European countries in 1977 it did very well.  It did well in Germany and in Japan. I think, and I hate to use this description, but…. It was ahead of its time.