Barbarella Forever


I was but a callow youth, pulled out of film school – there was only one in London then, back in the 60s – by Hollywood supremos from Universal and then Paramount Pictures. Why me? Because, as is always the case with Hollywood, they come for you if you can be useful to them, and more importantly, if you can make money for them. It was Laurence Olivier’s agent, great friend and confidant, Cecil Tennant, who spotted me and raced me through the ranks to become a director in my early 20s. Before I knew it I was on a plane to Rome, a Boeing 707 piloted by two Australians drinking vodka and tonics in the cockpit (well it was a more relaxed era, that long time ago), with a commission from Paramount to cover the filming of Barbarella for their publicity department.


It was this early experience of using money from one budget to fund another project that got me where I am today (currently out of work, as it happens). Thus I used the Publicity Department’s money to make a pretty useless publicity film, but what turned out to be a personal and highly impressionistic account of being on set with Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim, David Hemmings and Marcel Marceau. Fortunately, few people at Paramount could tell the difference when they viewed my opus, and so I was let out of the cage on a number of subsequent occasions.

The crumbling and not-at-all soundproof studios outside Rome, had recently been acquired by the producer Dino Di Laurentiis, which he dubbed Dinocitta in the mistaken belief that they would rival the highly productive and famous Roman Cinecitta complex. It was here that the elaborate sets had been constructed, and where we were all installed in concrete offices close by so we could all be kept a close eye on. Here I have to acknowledge the generosity and skill of the photographer assigned to cover the publicity on the film, David Hurn, a member of the great Magnum Picture Agency, who encouraged me to use a stills camera for the first time in a serious way. The photographs in my forthcoming exhibition at Snap Galleries are the result of David’s well-proven ability to nurture and encourage talent.


The star, Jane Fonda, and her husband, director Roger Vadim (a sexual predator if ever I saw one) had installed themselves in a wonderful five-hundred-year-old villa on the Via Appia Antica, but the goings on there were an eye-opener for someone whose main sexual experience involved the awkward unhooking of a brassiere in the back row of the Granada, Sydenham. Naked women appearing from behind balcony curtains chased by rock musicians with upraised members, cries and moans of pleasure and (I assumed) pain echoing around the Roman artefacts, all this and more. Ah how it all comes back to me!

David Hemmings and I arrived on the same flight from London. He was the new “golden boy” of British and international cinema, having just starred in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, and this had gone slightly to his head. He was restless twenty-four hours a day, and I subsequently found in dealings with him later in London, that he was virtually unable to be alone. Seriously, you could not walk out of an office if he was the only one to be left in it. As an only child I found this quite incomprehensible, as much of one’s childhood in those circumstances is very much a solitary experience. However, he was delight to be with, great fun, a joker and smoker, and after he had finished his week as a guest artiste was sorely missed by the production.


The film’s so-called “special effects” of the Matmos (or some such cobblers), a miasmic astral cloud of a mysterious floating substance, was created in an old petrol drum with various combinations of incompatible paint to prevent them mixing, then shot in slow motion as a technician with a fag rocked it from side to side. I think Stanley Kubrick would have been intrigued but ultimately dismissive of their DIY technique, but this magical combination of Sellotape and Plaster of Paris remained with the production, as well as in a sense shaping it, from beginning to end.

One evening I scheduled a filmed interview with Vadim and Jane for an early evening at the villa at 7pm. Well seven came and went, as did eight, nine, ten, eleven and then at the stroke of midnight they showed up. Drunk, arguing like cat and dog, and very annoyed to be reminded that we had been waiting all evening. I really should have cancelled, but I had committed to paying the crew (plus overtime by now) and I was determined to get something in the can, as they say. One of the worst decisions of my directorial life! Vadim was so drunk he was barely able to speak as well as being extremely hostile to the simplest question (not an attractive combination) whilst Jane looked on with the fixed smile and waxen expression of someone who had recently undergone cosmetic surgery (something she of course has never needed, even to this day). Indeed, Jane for me had the most perfect figure, and there were times when she was on set in her torn Barbarella costume that my fingers in the course of directorial duty strayed within mere centimetres of a golden prize or three. Well the interview lasted for over an hour and not a minute was usable and I will remember to this day my producer back in London consigning the whole lot to a dustbin with a sage-like sigh. If only I had rescued it, what fascinating viewing it would make now!


Even in the midst of all these goings-on, the 60s, compared to the world as it is today, were basically innocent times. The Rolling Stones dropped by the set with Anita Pallenberg, looking much more intimidating than they actually were. The slightly musty smell of marijuana hung over their colourful clothes, but people weren’t dying in lonely hotel rooms quite yet from overdoses of heroin or crack cocaine. Jane’s role as Barbarella kind of epitomised the optimism in the air: sexual dalliance and pleasure seemed a better alternative to engaging with the Vietcong. Barbarella’s experience of tantric sex, courtesy of Milo O’Shea’s orgasmic organ (of the musical kind) seemed to delight her about as much as a child’s introduction to candyfloss or a toffee apple. In a sense then, we all felt like that. Looking back, we seem to have lost more than we have gained.

Paul Joyce’s photographs of Jane Fonda will be displayed at The Women Who Rock Exhibition: classic images of the women who defined popular culture, at Snap Galleries, 8 Piccadilly Arcade, London SW1Y 6NH, from 15th February to 2nd April 2011. Paul’s documentary on the making of “Barbarella” has been re-mastered and will be screened at Snap Galleries during the run of the exhibition.


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