"Guerilla film maker, pornographer, activist, provocateur", cult director Peter de Rome, "the unsung hero of gay underground filmmaking", has lead a life as cinematic as the films he was obsessed with as a child growing up in pre-war Kent. Maturing just as WWII became a reality, after a stint in the RAF, post demob, de Rome joined Birmingham repertory theatre as an actor, a profession he subsequently exchanged to work as a press agent for film impresarios J Arthur Rank and Alexander Korda in London.
In 1956, the film producer David O Selznick, invited him to New York to work on an adaptation of Hemingway´s Farewell to Arms. When this project stalled, de Rome sought employment as a salesman at Tiffany´s, before becoming a civil rights activist in the 60s.
It was during the mid-1960s, when de Rome was now in his forties, that his interest in film−making reawakened. Initially for his own (and his friends’) amusement, and also as a chat-up line, de Rome, and also as a means to explore his own erotic imagination, he began making short Super 8 films featuring friends − and also men he had picked-up in the street. In order to get his films processed, and past the censor, de Rome was careful to sandwich his footage between more innocuous material at the beginning and ends of the reels he gave to Kodak to develop for him.
These films have a unique lo-fi charm which celebrate gay, male sexuality and eroticism (as opposed to the salacious). They are witty, wry, and in the main, subtle, with an unabashed, almost revolutionary, attitude to sexuality. De Rome is a prolific director, making over 100 films − although not all of these were completed − some werescreened internationally at festivals such as the Wet Dream Film Festival in Amsterdam in 1971. There he won the award for best short for, appropriately enough, his film Hot Pants. His fans included Andy Warhol and later on the film producer Jack Deveau persuaded de Rome to release six of his cinematic works, which became his collection The Erotic Cinema of Peter de Rome.
The advent of HIV/Aids in the 1980s, which de Rome lost many of his friends to, caused him to put his camera aside saying, "It wasn´t the same anymore." However, now in 2012, with de Rome now aged 88, his film career has been re−invigorated as his archive has been acquired by the British Film Institute, which has also released his collection, The Erotic Cinema, on DVD. To accompany this release, the BFI also commissioned a companion film, a biographical feature, Fragments: the Incomplete Films of Peter de Rome, which was directed by British film maker Ethan Reid.
Glass spoke to Ethan Reid about his film and also the life and times of Peter de Rome.
How did you discover the films of Peter de Rome?
Through David McGillivray, a cult figure, who wrote a lot of British horror films, with director Peter Walker, such as Frightmare and Satan´s Slaves in the 70s when he was quite young. He´s a hot shot-film writer who is totally besotted with the film world − a walking encyclopaedia of film. David knows Brian Robinson, the head of BFI films through working with him on Sight and Sound magazine. They discovered Peter de Rome´s films via the BFI and also the journalist Rupert Smith who knew about Peter´s work before anyone else in the UK. Brian managed to make contact with Peter who had donated his films to the BFI archive. In their discussions, Peter mentioned also that he had all these unfinished films under his bed in a big old case. These films were to become the collection, The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome.
As David´s usual collaborator was not available, he asked me if I wanted to be involved in this project. Up to this point I had never really heard of Peter de Rome. But David knew we were all kindred spirits as we all really love film, especially those obscure outsider film makers. As soon as I learnt more about this project, I really wanted to get involved although I was a little bit daunted.
You usually make short films and music videos. So to make a feature-length film Fragments: the Incomplete Films of Peter de Rome a biography of Peter de Rome is quite a departure for you.
It was a complete accident.
But this film is a real accomplishment. For a first full-length documentary, it´s really amazing.
Thank you. It was hard as we didn´t have that long to do it in and we couldn´t take any gear with us. Basically it was one little camera and two lenses and a little thing on the shoulder for sound recording. And that was it.
Did you plan it really carefully?
I´m surprised as the film is so seamless and self-assured.
We literally had a few meetings about how we were going to do it. On the plane over we tried to figure out what we would shoot. We decided to shoot in Tiffany´s as Peter used to work there and also Central Park. We just did it like that. What I really like is being thrown in at the deep end. Despite how much preparation you do, it never goes according to plan. You need to get a rough idea of everything you want to talk about and then ad lib the rest of it. This seems to work.
What do you like about Peter de Rome´s films?
I love those kind of people. He was a publicist for David O Selznick, working in a major film company with the biggest names in Hollywood such as Carol Reed and Orson Wells. And at the same time he was making his own films as he felt the urge and the need to do that. He got the equipment and threw himself into doing it. He was a maverick − someone who made something out of nothing. I love those kind of people.
I think his films are incredibly accomplished.
Yes, the editing is great. It's a shame we can't see them with the original music (because of copyright issues − the films have no dialogue, only a musical soundtrack) as he is a real music buff. He very carefully selected the music for his films. And once he had that, he worked the films around the music. It's slightly annoying that the music has had to come off and has had to be redone. But Stephen Thrower and Augustin Bousfield have done a fantastic job of creating new scores.
In many respects, erotic films aren’t new but the way Peter made them for a gay audience was setting a precedent. His first films were private – only for friends. I don't think he had seen many, he just got up and did it which I love about him this get up and go attitude.
I liked his unassuming way of creating something for himself. In the late 70s, he met Jack Deveau who encouraged Peter to get the films properly released. (Deveau went on to become a highly successful film director and to set up the gay film company Hand-in-Hand films). So inadvertently Peter is the grandfather of gay porn. He was definitely the forerunner of those guys.
Which of the films is your favourite?
I really like Scopo as it’s the most fully formed out of all those unfinished films. I like the simplicity of it. I also like Boogaloo.
They are quite light and sort of felicitous, humorous and sly.
Yes, like fleeting moments. I like Green Thoughts which is set in Kew Gardens which originally had Frank Sinatra singing on the soundtrack. I also like Encounter and Fire Island Kids which was stolen almost scene by scene by Wakefield Poole who made Boys in the Sand.
What is Peter de Rome like?
He is very sweet, very traditional. He had a really easy time growing up being gay. He didn't question it. He had no problems with being gay at all, not even when he was in the armed forces nor when he went to America. His attitude isn't borne out of any struggle to prove himself or be who he is. He is very relaxed, very quiet, very well-read.
He is 88 now. He is as mentally as agile as he ever was. He is a walking encyclopaedia of Hollywood but he was unaware and uninfluenced by any peers making films at the same time he was. Another thing I really like about Peter is his goal is to make an erotic film without any sex in it.
Are you going to make another film with him?
Yes, the next film is more about Peter's life. We had six days with him in New York and now since he has been back in the UK recently, so we have been shooting in London and in his home in Sandwich, at his screenings at the BFI, at his award ceremonies, about his life in Ramsgate, we went to Barcelona with him to meet Kirsten Bjorn [the gay porn film maker]. We have also got to return to NY.