With an oeuvre of more than 300 films, Spanish director Jesús “Jess” Franco is easily one of cinema’s most prolific directors. From the 1960s through the late 1980s, he churned out films at such a breakneck pace, he often released them under dozens of different pseudonyms—a tactic he adopted, he’s said, so that other directors wouldn’t hate him. (He’s also an amateur musician himself; many of these pseudonyms were taken from obscure jazz players.) Franco is also one of filmdom’s most provocative creators, drawn to dreamlike stories of lesbian vampires, sadomasochism (he’s made several films based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade), incest, and erotically charged horror, and he helped pioneer such staples of cult cinema as the “women in prison” film, as well as some less-popular genres like “nunsploitation.” Naturally, he’s endured his share of controversies, with many of his films blasted as sick and perverted, savaged by international censors, and even condemned by the Catholic Church. Yet he’s never softened even as his 80th birthday approaches—he’s still collaborating with longtime muse Lina Romay, and still cranking out films like Snakewoman and Killer Barbys Vs. Dracula. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Franco about why he doesn’t like his own movies, why filmmakers aren’t really artists, and how he’d like to die.
The A.V. Club: You were recently awarded a lifetime achievement award at Austin's Fantastic Fest. What would you say is your greatest achievement?
Jess Franco: I don’t think I’ve done anything important or magnificent. I’m a worker, and the thing I prefer in my life is cinema. When I’m working in cinema, I’m happy. And that’s all, you know?
AVC: You’ve actually said, “I don’t think I’ve made good movies. I’ve just made some movies more disgusting than others.” Do you generally not like your own films?
JF: No, I don’t like my movies. I prefer John Ford’s movies. [Laughs.] I’ve made some movies that are interesting, or that have some point, or are more or less beautiful. But I’ve never made anything big to me, from my point of view. “Big” like John Ford or someone of that kind. I say John Ford because he is my favorite director.
AVC: Some directors make films for art, and some for business. Why do you make films?
JF: Because I love cinema. It is the most important thing to me. Life is cinema. It has been this way since I was a child of about 14, and I was going every day to see the movies.
AVC: You’ve also said that you approach films like a jazz musician. Does that mean that you don’t always know what the final result will be?
JF: I started my life in music school, and I became a—not good, but acceptable piano and trumpet player. But there was a moment in my life where I had to make a choice whether I was a cinema director or jazz trumpeter, which are two things that are so different. In the point of view of my personal feelings, I love the music as well as the cinema, but the future of a trumpet player—in the money point of view, but also any point of view—is very short on expectations. The life of a moviemaker can be glorious and wonderful. It can put your life in the best of possibilities. I decided to forget music. Not forget, because this is impossible, but to work in cinema, and just to be someone who loves music, and who tries to make music with his films.
AVC: Legend has it that you used to work on several films simultaneously. Do you think you would have liked some of your films better if you’d concentrated on just one at a time?
JF: Excuse me, no. I never worked on different films at the same time. I made one by one. I never made two or three films together. This is impossible! I only have one head. It is impossible for me to think about two films at the same time. There are a lot of these legends about me, and I don’t know why. I’m not a legendary man. But the people all the time say I make three films at the same time, and it’s not true. Don’t believe these kinds of things.
AVC: Not even when you worked with producer Harry Alan Towers? He was pretty notorious for doing that.
JF: No, with Harry I made many films, but always one by one, start to finish. Never two films together. Perhaps yes, we would write or think about another one at the same time, but not to shoot. It’s so nonsensical. It’s the idea of someone who does not know how to make movies.
AVC: Many of your films hinge on the intersection of sex and death. How do the two relate for you?
JF: I think death and sex go together. If you shoot about sex in a funny way, it’s different. But when you are doing sex in a serious way, death is always around.
AVC: What was it like the first time you read the Marquis de Sade?
JF: When I was a child—I was 15 years old, or something like that. I belong to a very intellectual family, people with a literary point of view. One of my nephews first told me about de Sade. When I read it the first time, I had heard he was a very sensational writer—all about sex and sadism. But I discovered it is not true. He is a wonderful writer with a lot of value, and he’s very clever, with a lot of sense of humor. Of all the things about de Sade, I would argue he is funny. A lot of people didn’t understand de Sade. No. 1, he is a very good writer, and No. 2, he had the courage to talk about a lot of things that in public, even now, almost nobody has the courage to talk about. He would do it with a kind of funny way—not the stories themselves, but the way he tells them. He is never serious. Do you know French?
AVC: Not fluently.
JF: Excuse me for asking this question, but de Sade is very special, and if you know French, you can understand him better. In English, you can find writers with a wonderful sense of humor, like Oscar Wilde. But in the French language, this is very special, and de Sade is one of the very brave writers with a sense of humor. But most people don’t understand that. When they read de Sade, they take it seriously. They say, “Oh, what an awful man!” But listen, this is not the moment now to talk about de Sade. Maybe one day I write for you something about de Sade, yes? Because he is really a very unknown writer.
AVC: Is that a problem you also have—that people don’t understand you’re being funny?
JF: Yes! [Laughs.] Okay?
AVC: The Vatican once named you and Luis Buñuel the most dangerous filmmakers in the world. Do you think it’s possible for another filmmaker today to shock people like you did?
JF: To shock? I don’t think I shocked anybody. But oh, you are talking about the Vatican. I was working in Paris one day, when they come and say, “Listen, now we are watched very closely, because we have been condemned by the Vatican.” And I say, “What? Why? It’s so stupid. I don’t get it.” But it does not matter, because I am not a Catholic. I don’t care about these things. But anyway, it was very stupid. I can tell you 200 people who are much worse than me.
AVC: Like who?
JF: Much more! Many more!
AVC: Are you a religious man at all?
JF: I am Christian from when I was little. Because of the politics in Spain, everybody must be Christian by law. But I’m not a real big believer. I believe in people. I believe in life. But not especially in Catholics or priests or whatever. What about you? You don’t say nothing! I would like to know if you are a believer.
AVC: No, I’m agnostic at best.
JF: Good, I like to hear these kinds of things. So many people have the impression that I am the devil, and are afraid to talk to me.
AVC: You’ve been living and working with Lina Romay for decades now. What’s the secret to your relationship?
JF: Because we love each other. It’s so simple. We met some 35 years ago, and from the first moment, we fell in love, and we still are. We’ve never had a fight or argument, not once. We are very happy. We very much like each other. [In the background, Lina Romay says something to Franco in Spanish, and he laughs.] Is true!
AVC: If you had to point to one as your definitive film, which would it be?
JF: I don’t think I have a definitive film. Such a thing is not possible for me. But if you’re curious about which film I would save from a fire, I should tell you Necronomicon [Succubus], Black Angel [Venus In Furs], and Miss Muerte [The Diabolical Dr. Z]. They are the most sincere. They are the most close to my previous idea to do it, you know what I mean? I like the style of black cinema. I like the style of expressionisimo, and they are the most of myself. I don’t say that I love it, though, because I don’t.
AVC: What are you working on now?
JF: I am working on an adaptation of The Human Voice, by Jean Cocteau, and a new version of Jekyll And Hyde. Okay?
AVC: Do you think you’ll ever fully retire?
JF: Retire? I am not retired! I will be retired the day I die. I was very close friends in Paris with a wonderful tenor sax player named Don Byas. He was very old—much older than me—and he told me one day, “I am thinking I will die very soon. I would like to die playing. It would be a beautiful way to die.” And he did! He was playing on stage and had a heart attack. [The official cause of death for Don Byas was lung cancer, and there’s no report of him dying onstage.—ed.] I think this is beautiful!
AVC: You once said, “I don’t care about being remembered.” Has that opinion changed the older you get?
JF: No, no, no. I don’t care about being remembered. I’m not a wonderful writer or anything. This should be reserved for people who really did something great. I think it’s a mistake to consider the movie director as if they were great artists. I think a very good movie director makes films to entertain people, but not to be considered like they were Cervantes, you know? One of the biggest problems now, with all the festivals and everything, is a confusion between the quality and the beauty and the highness of things. A film is a film. It’s something to entertain you a couple hours. Not to be considered as if it were Shakespeare.
AVC: So there’s not one filmmaker whom you would consider to be an artist?
JF: There are probably five or six directors who did something really great. Orson [Welles], my big friend, is one who would have to be remembered as a genius. I was working with him for a long, long time, and he was so clever and brilliant. But in general, a movie director is not as great as him. I have a lot of friends in the profession, and I can tell you, for instance, that Nicholas Ray was a very clever man, but he wasn’t a genius. I know very well his filmography, and Johnny Guitar is a very beautiful film, but it’s not the masterpiece of the century. In general, a movie is a movie. But this is a very special discussion. I do not think we will find a solution now! The problem is, I don’t think it’s so important to be a movie director. It’s a beautiful profession, but no more than to be a cartoon writer. A very rich cartoon writer. I’ve done a lot of films, and I know deeply that, in all of cinema, there is no director who is as good as Shakespeare. Excuse me for being pessimistic, though. I’m not pessimistic—I love it. I love my business. I love cinema.