Flavorwire Interview: Exploitation and Adult Cinema Icon Roberta Findlay on Making “Cheap” Movies, Getting Arrested with John Holmes, and Times Square’s X-Rated Past


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Exploitation and adult cinema is not exactly known for being friendly to women, but Bronx-born director Roberta Findlay is one of the most prolific filmmakers from the Golden Age of porn and genre filmmaking. Findlay started her career collaborating with then husband Michael Findlay on a slew of sleazy films that earned them a place among the most notorious filmmakers in sexploitation history. The couple is perhaps best remembered for the 1976 film Snuff, which started life as a low-budget gore flick and became a controversial sensation after producer Allan Shackleton recut and rereleased the movie under the guise of a real-life snuff movie, which prompted protests and an investigation.

Findlay soon broke out on her own and directed in the hardcore genre and beyond, producing, writing, editing, and distributing throughout the ‘70s and 1980s — something practically unheard of for women at that time.

New York’s Quad Cinema celebrates the work of Findlay in their Erotic City series, featuring the director in person on Wednesday, August 30. Flavorwire spoke to Findlay about her career directing porn, being a woman in the film and adult industry, and growing up in grimy ‘70s New York.

Flavorwire: In recent years, there’s been a big push to reevaluate films from the Golden Age era, both mainstream movies and adult films, and reframe the works of women — to recognize the contributions of women from the time period . . .

Roberta Findlay: I wasn’t aware that it was a Golden Age era . . .

Yes. There was an imbalance of men and women working behind the camera, so there’s a big push to highlight the works of women from that time.

Why bother going back to that, there still aren’t any. [laughs]

You’ve always rejected those associations from what I can tell. You’ve always been clear that you did these films for money — it was an economic decision, not art.

That’s correct.

Do you think of your work differently now? Do you see yourself as an auteur?

Well, that’s your business. If you guys choose to look at it that way. The practical truth of the whole matter was, I don’t know how I even fell into this whole thing. Well, it’s a long story.

First came my husband. He started making softcore films, and I had nothing else to do with my life — so I said, ‘Well, I’ll sort of work in this field.’ I was trained to do nothing. I was trained as a concert pianist. I drifted into making very cheap films. The only cheap films you could make were X-rated films. One could try to raise money; I’ve never raised two cents in my whole life. That’s how I came to be in that field. Not much of a field, I admit.

I was 20 years with the label ‘pornographer.’ Now I’m straight, I’m clean, in a recording studio. That’s all it was — the only way to make films, because it was all I could do. I’m very good at being a cameraman and editing. I don’t know how I learned this stuff, but somehow . . .

How did you learn it?

I honestly don’t know. Eventually I went out on my own — quite soon early on in the early ‘70s — and just picked up a camera and shot. Although, the first film I actually ever shot was Snuff, I was the cameraman. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ He said, ‘Aim it, and press the button.’ So I did. That was about all the schooling I had in photography. And then I went out on my own and started doing this stuff. I found making frames, as I call it, or being a cameraman, to be very rewarding. I enjoyed that. I said the only way I can continue this is to make X-rated films, so that’s what I did. Editing, too, was great fun. Putting together a film is a fun puzzle.

I hadn’t thought at the time that I was a female in a male-dominated field. I wasn’t aware of what you guys now call sexism. I never had any trouble with male crews, ever, or with anybody I dealt with, which was 99% men. I didn’t have any experience as a feminist. If you choose to put me into the field of feminists or think I was or groundbreaking or something, ok, but that was not the truth of it as far as I personally was concerned.

You’ve rejected the feminist label before, but your films do feature some empowered moments. There’s a female serial killer in “A Woman’s Torment,” which we rarely see in movies. In the opening of “Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy,” Karen Summer asks why should men be the only ones who are allowed to get turned on . . .

If I was interviewing an actress, I didn’t write that. She just said that. That whole thing was a rip-off by me, in very poor taste.

In “A Woman’s Torment,” one character also talks about wanting to have orgasms.

What you say is probably absolutely true. Any ‘creator,’ if you will allow me to use that word, brings themselves to the project, whatever it may be — inevitably, subconsciously. Yes, but it was not done consciously. I guess I had feelings at the time, and they inevitably wind up in the film — but it’s not a conscious attempt to change society or bond with my sisters, as they used to say to people.

There were few women directors working during the time period. Doris Wishman stands out, of course. Did you ever have a chance to get to know her? What do you think about her films?

I met her a couple of times. [laughs] Did you ever meet her? It’s way before your time, I guess.

It’s way before my time, but I recently interviewed Michael Bowen who knew her very well and worked with her. He told me a lot of stories about her. She sounded like a great character.

Oh yes, indeed. I hardly knew her at all. I don’t remember why we met. She was quite elderly when I met her. She reminds me of the character Ruth Gordon played in Rosemary’s Baby [Minnie Castevet]. That’s the way she talked, actually. She was idiosyncratic. She was highly amusing and had no idea that she was. I did meet her a couple of times. I don’t think I ever saw one of her pictures, but I understand they were just awful. Is that true?

They’re definitely on the low-budget end of the spectrum.

Somehow I heard they were worse than usual.

I think some people would probably consider them worse than usual. I find them weirdly charming.

Oh, ok. I thought she only made what you call horror films. Did she make X-rated films?

She made nudie-cuties and that kind of thing. She also made two hardcore films.

Doris, oh dear. Now I’m in Doris Wishman’s category, huh?

There weren’t a lot of women working during that time.

There were a couple, but they’re kind of fakes. There was Gail Palmer, who I sort of knew. She was actually sort of a front for a production company. They used her name as a maker of films. She made two famous films, I can’t think of at this time [Hot Summer in the City, The Erotic Adventures of Candy, and Candy Goes to Hollywood].

And then there was Candida — Candida Royalle, to you — who directed some films. [Royalle started her career as an X-rated actress.] She wouldn’t do absolute hardcore, so she’s sort of a lesbian-type character in a couple of our pictures. I hired her for her name. I don’t know anybody else.

You worked with a lot of famous adult stars, like John Holmes and, of course, Shauna Grant . . .

I went to jail with John Holmes. We were busted, all together, for obscenity I and conspiracy III in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.

What was going on at the time?

We were shooting in a shopping mall that was closed [1979’s Honeysuckle Rose]. It was a Sunday night. Two rent-a-cops, security guards, peeked in. Apparently that was illegal on their part. We were all carted away. It was about 20 people, cast and crew. We all got arrested. That was my second bust. Eventually the charges were dropped, because it was a bad arrest, bad bust — but my partner, Walter Sear, decided to sue the county and the police. I said, ‘Walter, leave it alone. Forget it.’ ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ So he sued them, and he won — not much, but he actually won the case. We were in jail for a couple of nights. All the police came around to the male cells and wanted John Holmes’ autograph.

Who were your favorite stars to work with?

I don’t think he’s well known — Jeff Eagle [aka Jeffrey Hurst]. He looked a lot like Herbie . . . Harry Reems. I think I only shot Herb once at the very beginning, before he became a big star.

A lot of people romanticize New York City in the ’70s. What do you remember about New York and Times Square during that time period?

It wasn’t exactly a romantic adventure. Finally, Disney came in and Giuliani. They cleaned it up. Now, it has no character, I guess. As I recall, it was quite dangerous; I didn’t go there much. The only times we went there was with Michael before I left him. He was a film nut — a true cinephile, if you will. He knew more about film history than anybody I’ve ever met. He introduced me to the greater art form of film, of cinema. We used to go to 42nd Street, because the theater tickets there were like 12 cents — I exaggerate, but it was the cheapest in New York. You wouldn’t want to see one of these theaters with the lights on. These were not X-rated theaters. The Apollo was a foreign film showcase on the corner of 42nd Street, and that’s where he used to drag me. There weren’t that many X-rated theaters on 42nd Street. There were two, I think, but the rest were showing double-feature Hollywood films.

We actually met at City College, because he was running a silent film festival at the library, and he needed a pianist. So, I became his pianist. I think I got $5 a film. He started me off, if you can believe this, with Intolerance. I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at. I had never seen a silent film. I used my repertoire, I didn’t make stuff up. This was all pieces I had studied. I remember I used as a theme — I was very proud of this — “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. Eventually the head of the music department of City College heard about it, and he forbade me to go back and do anything as low-brow as playing for movies. I did, anyway. That was how we met.

Where did your films screen in New York?

The big theater at that time in New York was the World Theatre on 49th Street. We never made it there. We played The Circus, where they ripped us off, of course. That was their M.O. And then we played The Pussycat, which was across the street, owned by the mob. There weren’t that many theaters, believe it or not. It wasn’t, frankly, much of a paying play date. I was a distributor of all the films. You had self-distributors in every territory, but I took care of the distribution and all the booking. There were much better exchanges than New York. New York was terrible.

What were the better ones?

Houston, Texas was fabulous. And, of course, L.A. That was the biggest that you could do. The Pussycat Theaters had screens up and down the Coast. That was the biggest date.

What was it like being on the other side of the camera in Michael’s films?

I started when I was 16. I left home. I was still in school, actually — I was in college. Michael put me in a couple of pictures. I think in the first one, to excuse my behavior in front of the camera, they said in the very beginning that I was drugged. I don’t remember. That’s the way I appeared. I wasn’t. I’ve never taken a drug in my life, except I drink.

You were just really nervous?

I guess I was. I wasn’t very good. Then in the second or third — I don’t know how many I was in — I accused my husband of thinking I didn’t look good enough to be on film, so then he had to put me in the second or third picture. [laughs]

What would you say to people who believe that Michael directed your films? This has happened before to women filmmakers. And then there are cases like Barbara Loden, who was married to Elia Kazan. He tried to claim authorship of “Wanda” after her death.

If you want my history, that would be impossible — except for two or three horror films where he called me in to be the cameraman, because he had panic attacks and was very scared. The fact of the matter is, I ran away and left him before I started making films. I had no contact with him, so he couldn’t have directed my films. I left him in the early ‘70s. I had no contact with him, until one day he called me and asked me for money, like a bum. It was very sad. But I already started making these pictures myself. We didn’t have any physical contact. He couldn’t have done that.

You did it all in your movies — writer, producer, editor, composer . . .

No. Before I met Walter [Sear], and I was making these pictures for other people — Dave Darby, Alan Shackleton, and all various men — I used to steal all the music. I stole everything. Nobody cared, I guess. I’d go to Sam Goody’s record store, and my criteria was the composer, of course, and how cheap the recording was. You could get a record for a buck in those days. Nobody wanted it. . . . I’ve never written a piece of music in my whole life.

Then I met Walter, and we started doing films together, and he did all the music — and performed almost all of it by a Kurzweil 250 synthesizer, which duplicated every orchestral instrument. He was a composer. If you look at the posters, he never used his real name on the sex pictures. We co-produced this stuff together. I directed from behind the camera, that’s true — almost all of them. I let him direct a couple of pictures, because he wrote the scripts, and he wanted to make social satires. I said, ‘Walter, we’re making X-rated films here. What are you trying to do?’ His films were so far from sex pictures, it was another genre. I don’t know what the hell it was. So he directed a couple. Liquid A$$ets is one. I edited all of the stuff and shot it, yeah. I did all the post-production at the studio.

Tell me more about your first film, “Erotikon.”

I was a teenager. We went to Europe. I didn’t know anything about anything. Michael got a bunch of money — it was nothing, like $2,000 dollars — to make a film in Antwerp. Crazily enough, the cast only spoke French. Michael spoke Spanish quite well, but he didn’t speak any French. I directed the darned thing in French. I didn’t know what I was doing. He’d written the script, and I just translated everything for the cast and crew. I believe he shipped the negative back to the States, and I believe it was seized at customs. I don’t think it ever was released. They found it objectionable.

The “Flesh” series is a favorite for exploitation and grindhouse junkies, since it upped the ante in terms of portraying sex and violence in one film. What was it like working on the series?

I didn’t work on it in any way, I don’t believe [Findlay has multiple credits on each film]. We were just living as husband and wife. I always used to say to myself, and I think I said this to others, it’s a good thing that Michael had an outlet in these films. . . . He was very disturbed. He had a lot of emotional and mental problems. I didn’t know. I see this or think this in retrospect. Again, really, I was still a kid doing all this stuff, but he was not well.

He had a lot of dark thoughts?

Oh yeah. Like I said, I was not really aware of his problems. A lot of it had to do with being Catholic. All the brothers were supposed to be priests. I guess he found the most antithetical thing he could find to being a priest.

What do you remember about the controversy surrounding “Snuff?”

The only thing I really remember is a silly story. After it was in release and playing at The National Theatre on Broadway, a spokesperson for a woman’s group called me on the phone. She scared the life out of me. She said, “Hello? I understand that you’re the cameraman. We insist that you come and picket with us in front of the theater.” I said, “Oh, oh yeah. Sure. Ok.” I had no intention of doing it, but she scared me. I said, “How will I know you?” She said, “I’ll be wearing a trench coat and a hat, and you can’t miss me.” I said, “Ok, ok. Goodbye.” That’s the only thing I remember.

The distributor, who was Allan Shackleton, I made films for him after that, which is a coincidence. I had nothing to do with his distribution of that film. I met him after that. He apparently had learned about the FBI looking at snuff films in South America or something. That’s how he retitled the darned thing. It was originally called The Slaughter. Apparently there was a Paramount film coming out at that time that was called The Slaughter, so they paid off Michael and his parter a couple of thousand dollars for the title — not that you can copyright a title, you really can’t, but they didn’t want confusion.

Allan and I were . . . close. A couple of years after that it was just a coincidence, when I started making films. All that he really participated in making Snuff was that he ripped off my husband and his partner. They never got a dime. He was the distributor, and he kept all the money. He never liked paying anybody — even me.

The last picture that I made for him was, I guess, The Clamdigger’s Daughter. That’s just about the time I met Walter. I went to [Allan’s] office and demanded to get paid, and he punched me in the eye. Walter got me a lawyer. It was called forbearance to sue. I collected the money. He owed me $12,000. Threatening to go to the police with a black eye, he gave me my money — but that was the last I saw of Allan.

“Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy,” one of your later hardcore films, upset a lot of people . . .

That’s right. That was bad on my part. [Adult film actress Shauna Grant committed suicide in 1984. Findlay’s 1985 film was controversial and maligned by critics for its mock documentary style that “investigated” Shauna’s suicide while hardcore sex acts played out in the same scenes.]

I was going to ask, do you stand by the film?

There were no repercussions to me, to us, to the film. I never heard about anything. I did it all. It was my fault. We had a lot of outtakes from two other pictures that we made with her. So I said, ‘She’s in the news now. Let’s take the outtakes and make a film out of it, and we’ll pretend it’s a documentary.’ I got Joyce James. She did the narration or interviews, I don’t remember. I remember shooting her, though, and she thought it was a real documentary — a serious attempt at reconstructing Shauna’s story. I’m sorry to say it was not. I was just using outtakes, and it was a very inexpensive picture. . . . We were shocked, though, about the story.

We had an occasion to go to LA and shoot stills of her. We met some of her, shall I say, friends. Not good. Not good at all. Very unsavory characters. At that time . . . I don’t know how it is now in California or in LA, the X-rated industry was heavily involved in every possible way with drugs. It wasn’t like that in New York, crazily enough, that we knew of. But out there, she was unconscious most of the time — walking around, but not all there. Not remotely there.

You’ve said that your film “Tenement” was a reimagining of your childhood. Did you grow up in a tenement in the Bronx?

Yeah. We shot Tenement in two buildings. The city owned one of the buildings. It was empty, and they were rebuilding it. It was actually in Harlem. We used it as a shooting stage. We had the run of the building. It was just an empty shell. The other building, the exterior, was a Bronx tenement — not exactly where I lived, but it was an example of the building I grew up in. The building came replete with rats. It was a walk-up, of course, to the fourth floor. This is the Southeast Bronx, which is — as I understand — still a war zone. It was when I was a kid.

The Bronx tenements, I call it a tenement anyway, were nothing like what’s on the Lower East Side. They’re much newer, for one thing. Architecturally, they’re built in the ‘30s, generally, not before the turn of the century. These buildings were nowhere near as primitive as what’s Downtown, but it was not the lap of luxury. I called them Bronx shtetls. It’s a Yiddish word. Shtetls were small Jewish enclaves in Poland and Eastern Europe, where in nobody ever left the perimeter — 10, 20 blocks, maybe. I compared it to that, these Bronx neighborhoods were enclaves — when I grew up anyway —of Jews, just living within a 10-block radius. The dream of all shtetl livers, all East Bronx people, was to move to the Grand Concourse. That was the ultimate luxury. That was the Trump Tower — I’m gonna throw up — the Golden Fleece. Nobody ever got out, though.

You got out. Did you just run away?

Yes, I ran away. I always used to say — I still say it to my brother — Bronx girl makes good.

Roberta Findlay’s “A Woman’s Torment” screens tonight and tomorrow at New York City’s Quad Cinema as part of the “Erotic City” series. Findlay will appear in person at the Wednesday night screening.