2010s

Interview with ‘Dad Made Dirty Movies’ Author-Director Jordan Todorov

Stephen C. Apostolof in Dad Made Dirty Movies

Stephen C. Apostolof, also known as A.C. Stephen, is “the most successful Bulgarian in Hollywood you‘ve never heard of” and officially a saint as per The Church of the Heavenly Wood. It is really difficult to trace back the facts behind the enigma, though, to look beyond his spectacular “tits and asses” legacy. Jordan Todorov has been unraveling Apostolof’s story for more than 15 years, first as a Film Studies undergrad at NATFA, Sofia, then as an emerging filmmaker, and now as the co-author of Dad Made Dirty Movies  together with Joe Blevins.

Todorov’s mid-length Apostolof documentary of the same title released a decade ago, co-produced by Martichka Bozhilova from Agitprop, and made quite the furor at international festivals, as well as back in Bulgaria, where the majority of viewers have no knowledge of B-movies’ history and culture. Available online on demand, Dad Made Dirty Movies is merely an amuse-œil compared to Todorov’s thorough investigation over the years. The book encompasses an exuberant plot line featuring Burgas, Istanbul, Paris, Toronto and then the promised land, L.A., before succumbing to more sombre locations, towards the end of Apostolof’s eventful life.

Without any doubt, U.S. readers will find the Ed Wood parts of this biography most intriguing. What is even more captivating, however, beyond the Orgy of the Dead hype and all the salty Hollywood anecdotes, is the question of Apostolof’s complex identity, constructed on the go and with whatever tales were available at hand, particularly during the Cold War era we now tend to perceive as devoid of political nuance. As for his career, based mostly on qualities such as entrepreneurship, networking and having a nose for the market, it reads like the antithesis of what today’s film schools preach, yet maybe there is a lesson in here for all of us.

It is worth mentioning that Dad Made Dirty Movies is illustrated with a large amount of intimate photographs, many of them published for the first time ever. They invite to mediation on a bygone era, as well as on the ever-shifting prism of regarding film history.

Stephen C. Apostolof in Dad Made Dirty Movies

Yoana Pavlova: You are credited as the director of the “first Bulgarian documentary commissioned by HBO” and were subsequently awarded the Nipkow fellowship to develop your next documentary on the cult American photographer Will McBride in Berlin; your 2011 film about Stephen C. Apostolof traveled to festivals and was aired on TV around the globe. I wonder what prompted you to return to the written word for this biographical book?

Jordan Todorov: I never stopped writing all these years while I was making documentaries. I left my day job at one of Bulgaria’s weekly newspapers to focus on the Apostolof documentary, but I kept working as a freelance journalist. I just love writing, and Apostolof’s story kept me fascinated for the past 15 years, so a book about him was the most natural thing to come out of this fascination. Despite the popularity of the documentary and its success in renewing interest in Apostolof and his films, I somehow felt that it didn’t quite do justice to his incredible life. There were stories that were fascinating but difficult to incorporate in a documentary, so I decided a book would do the job best by telling the whole story in all of its complexity.     

YP: How would you compare the work on this book vis-à-vis the work on the documentary a decade ago? Knowing how well you prepared the first time, I assume you simply put to good use the results of your extended research on Apostolof and his milieu? Or you dug some more?

JT: I started researching the documentary about Apostolof in the autumn of 2005. And because I was a first-timer with no previous directing experience, it took a good couple of years to get the film made. This allowed me to focus on research, so I managed to accumulate an enormous amount of material. I talked to close to a hundred people and traveled a couple of times to the U.S. to study Apostolof’s archive in Mesa, Arizona as well as some other archives in the Los Angeles area. I also visited Apostolof’s childhood home in Burgas on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. In 2008, I retraced his steps in Istanbul, 60 years to the day, hoping to learn more about his life there in 1948, right after his escape from Bulgaria. I managed to find an old Armenian guy who had been living in the same Beyoglu neighbourhood as Apostolof since the 1940s and who remembered him. I left no stone unturned, and when I finished the documentary, I was left with tons of stories that didn’t make the final cut. So, in the summer of 2012, with all this information at hand and while out of job, I sat down and wrote the first rough draft of the book. I had a contract with a Bulgarian publisher, but it fell through. 

In 2014, I moved to Berlin and renewed my work on the book. I thought I had exhausted every last source of information, but I was wrong. I managed to contact dozens of new people who helped me put together the most complete picture possible of Apostolof’s life. I also talked numerous times to some of the people I had talked to before. The documentary did a good job of getting the word out about Apostolof, and it caused a wave of people to come forward with their memories of him. Some of their stories were downright strange. Like the one that came from a screenwriter named Henry C. Parke who watched my documentary and remembered meeting Apostolof back in the late 70s. A friend of Parke met Apostolof in front of the legendary Hollywood hangout Schwab’s Pharmacy and funnily enough helped him break into his own car using a wire coat hanger. The friend used the opportunity and did a little networking by arranging a meeting between Parke and Apostolof, hoping they could work together. So, a couple of days later, after a long night spent polishing his pitch for a recently written horror screenplay, Parke arrived at Apostolof’s office. While waiting in the lobby, Parke slowly realised that Apostolof was in the business of making sex films, not horror movies. Parke described the meeting as the weirdest pitch in his career, since he now had the absurd task of “unpitching,” as he put it, his own screenplay to Apostolof. Luckily for Parke, Apostolof wasn’t even remotely interested in his screenplay. Judging by Orgy of the Dead, Apostolof’s only entry in the horror genre, it would have been a terrible movie anyway, and I doubt it would have advanced Parke’s career. 

Stephen C. Apostolof in Dad Made Dirty Movies

YP: Could you please tell me more about your collaboration with Joe Blevins, known as an Ed Wood specialist — the text feels “organic” style-wise, and at the same time the Apostolof/Wood relationship, with all its ups and downs, provides a fantastic dramaturgical structure. Was this the plan all along?

JT: Joe is an American writer and Ed Wood scholar based in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He’s one of the premier “Woodologists” worldwide and the author of, among other things, an extensive, maniacally researched series of online articles called “Ed Wood Wednesdays.” It’s a massive undertaking he started eight years ago, and it’s highly recommended to everyone who has more than a passing interest in Ed Wood. Joe’s articles cover Ed’s life, his books and films, and his outlandish coterie of friends and associates. My first contact with Joe was back in 2013 when he reviewed my documentary about Apostolof as part of the “Ed Wood Wednesdays” series, and I supplied him with some photos from Apostolof’s archive. I was really impressed with Joe’s original research on some of the Apostolof/Wood movies and I was planning to incorporate some of it into the book. Instead, in January 2016, I wrote to Joe asking him if he would be interested in joining me as a co-author. He responded with what he would later call “the four most fateful words” of his life: “I could do that.” Joe is known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Wood’s life and career and American pop culture in general, so I don’t think I could have found a better co-author for this project. 

As I mentioned previously, I had a very rough first draft of the book that I wrote in Bulgaria. So, I uploaded it on Google Docs and we started expanding it and trimming it down constantly. We spent countless hours researching, writing, rewriting, editing and reediting the manuscript. We exchanged hundreds of emails and instant messages and spent numerous hours talking on Skype, often about things totally unrelated to the book. All in all, it was an amazing cooperation that I enjoyed immensely. 

As for the dramaturgical structure, it roughly follows the one already established in the documentary. Apostolof’s life, with its ups and downs, was “one of the great postwar American stories, a rollicking tale of rebellion, adventure and female breasts,” as one reviewer put it some time ago. We were also very lucky because we got a resolution at the very end of the story. But life rarely works out that way.

YP: Do you have any tips or recommendations for non-native speakers willing to embark on a book-writing adventure in English (and outside of academia)? Despite being a proficient journalist and freelance contributor to several high-profile outlets, did you experience any difficulties or frustrations, working on such a voluminous project, also one that is so close to your heart?

JT: Best to start small, but ambitious. Make a list of publishers that might be interested in your book. Do your research well before approaching any of them. You’ve got one shot, so make it count. When we decided to pitch Dad Made Dirty Movies in the U.S., we made a list of a couple of publishers known to have released similar books in the past and decided to contact them one by one. Luckily for us, McFarland & Company, an academic publisher from Jefferson, North Carolina and our number one choice, got interested immediately. They asked us to send a detailed proposal that included a table of contents, a sample chapter, biographies, etc. A couple of weeks later, we got a deal, signed our contracts and started working on the book.

As for the difficulties and frustrations, I’d say that the scale of this endeavour was huge, much larger than I had anticipated. The main race was against time. A lot of people involved in the sexploitation industry back in the 1960s and 70s are in their seventies and eighties now and don’t use social media or the internet, so tracking them down was really hard and very often close to impossible. Convincing them to talk was yet another challenge that proved to be a daunting one and quite frustrating at times. 

Dad Made Dirty Movies

YP: Have you thought about publishing a longer text on Apostolof in Bulgarian, particularly something oriented towards a wider audience? It is true that B-movies do not have a large fan base in our home country, yet it seems that local filmmakers (in all stages of their careers) can learn a lot from such a figure, especially when it comes to entrepreneurship, inventiveness, risk taking.

JT: The book was published recently in the U.S. and is being sold worldwide through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and a dozen other outlets. If someone in Bulgaria reads it and is interested in publishing it there, they can contact McFarland for the rights. As for “a longer text oriented towards a wider audience,” I haven’t really thought about that. I think my documentary on Apostolof did a lot to turn him into a household name in his home country. By the way, in 2016, I received the kind of compliment life sometimes pays to art — a Bulgarian micro brewery started producing a stout beer called Orgy of the Dead, named after Apostolof’s most famous film and inspired by my documentary about him. 

YP: As for Apostolof’s place in American cinema, do you consider Dad Made Dirty Movies (the book and the documentary) ready to bridge the gap in film history?

JT: I think the book finally did justice to Apostolof’s contribution to exploitation film. Whether it managed to bridge the gap in film history or not is up to the critics to decide. I feel like the book did a good job exploring Apostolof’s life and movies while conveying my enthusiasm and endless fascination with the subject.

YP: Owing to this title, it is interesting that in both cases it is like you side with the point of view of Apostolof’s children, i.e. the younger generation who tends to see his endeavours through the prism of something exotic, comical, even a bit passé?

JT: Apostolof’s kids shared their memories of their father’s life, but they’re neither the main source of information nor are they driving the story. Interestingly enough, most of them were born in the early to late 1950s, so by the late 1960s they were old enough to visit their father on set when he was filming the non-erotic scenes in a couple of movies, namely Orgy of the Dead (1965) and Lady Godiva Rides (1969). Polly, Apostolof’s second daughter, worked at his office one summer in the mid-70s to pay her way through college. She remembered sitting face to face with Ed Wood (or Uncle Eddie, as she called him) and buying him lunch almost daily. Apostolof’s older son Steve worked on a couple of his father’s films and even got to meet legendary erotic actress Rene Bond on the set of Fugitive Girls (1974). He remembered feeling quite awkward and Rene Bond, sensing this, just added to it by discussing her upcoming lesbian scene she was going to shoot that day.  

When Dad Made Dirty Movies was published in September last year, someone on Twitter noted that “children coming to terms with their parents’ careers in mid 20th century erotic films and books seems like an emerging memoir genre.” That same person compared Dad Made Dirty Movies to another book published in 2014 that I wasn’t aware of. The book is called My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, and it’s about a man whose father, a well-known writer of pornography in the 70s and 80s, left him in his will more than 400 erotic novels that he wrote under a secret pen name. It’s a hilarious read and a very touching one, too. I was recently told about a British comedy podcast called My Dad Wrote a Porno in which every week a guy reads a new chapter of an amateur erotic novel titled Belinda Blinked, written by his father under the pen name Rocky Flintstone. So, maybe Dad Made Dirty Movies, while not a memoir, strictly speaking, might turn out to be part of this “emerging memoir genre” in which children reminisce about their parents careers in adult entertainment in a comical, even absurdist way.  

Dad Made Dirty Movies

YP: Scrutinizing Apostolof’s œuvre, it looks like the films he wrote and directed represent his projection of sorts about America in the 1960s and the 70s. Not that this wasn’t the case for many immigrant filmmakers in Hollywood, yet now we can easily compare his filmography to a “mood board,” so I find it curious how contemporary, post-video, XXI-century America would react to such a vision, what is your take on this?

JT: Apostolof’s movies indeed are like a mood board of mid-century America. And like any mood board, they tend to convey the feeling about that particular era. They do this, in my opinion, in a more authentic way than the well-known film classics of the time, because they had relatively few content restrictions compared to mainstream Hollywood films. From the very beginning, exploitation films have always tried to capitalize quickly on timely social problems, so a lot of these movies today seem to be outdated and irrelevant. At the same time, exploitation movies, including Apostolof’s, are remarkable not because of their artistic qualities but because they so well capture the spirit of the time. His movie Drop Out Wife from 1972 is a perfect example, since it comments on the changing role of women in the nuclear family. In their crude way, these movies allow us to step into another time. Or as film historian Randall Clark writes in his comprehensive study At a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The History, Culture, and Politics of the American Exploitation Film (1995), “an exploitation film, like an old milk bottle, is a genuine bit of Americana.” 

As for “how contemporary, post-video, XXI-century America would react” to Apostolof’s vision of mid-century America, this really depends on viewers’ historical distance from the original context of the film and the amount of film-historical knowledge they have accumulated at the time of viewing. Exploitation fandom has always been rooted in nostalgia. And nostalgia by definition is a positive reevaluation of the past in response to a negatively evaluated present. Or as the late Mike Vraney, founder of Something Weird, the company distributing Apostolof’s movies on video and DVD in the 1980s and 1990s, once said, “The older you get, the more nostalgic you get — the more you hate today. And the more you just want to revel in your youth and your parents’ youth and all this time period that came and went.”  

YP: I admit I read the whole book pondering over the prologue where you mention that several actresses, such as Marsha Jordan and Fawn Silver, refused to go on record for your project — in your opinion, how would the book, and the softcore era it depicts, land in today’s #MeToo conversations?

JT: Yes, Marsha Jordan, Fawn Silver and a couple of other people from Apostolof’s saga refused to talk to me, which is a real pity. These days, Fawn Silver has a successful career as a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, so I suppose she doesn’t really want to talk about her short-lived career as a sexploitation starlet. I understand this and respect her decision. Marsha Jordan passed away in 2013, and I’m afraid we lost a lot of valuable information not only about Apostolof’s movies in which she starred, but about the sexploitation scene in general. Marsha was considered the reigning queen of sexploitation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the last time she spoke to anyone about her career was in 1974. An interview with her was published in Sinema: American Pornographic Films and the People Who Make Them by Stephen Zito and Kenneth Turan. Yes, that Kenneth Turan, who would later go on to become a well-known film critic for the Los Angeles Times. I do sometimes wonder if the book would have been better if I had interviewed all these people who turned down my requests. I don’t know…

As for the book and its place in the #MeToo era, I think many stories in it depict in a truthful way the working dynamic between the directors and producers of softcore erotic movies like Apostolof and their actors and actresses. And contrary to what many people might imagine, the softcore filmmakers like Apostolof were known for their loyalty and professionalism. I talked to more than a dozen actresses who took part in Apostolof’s movies, and none of them ever complained of the way they were treated. Quite the contrary, they praised Apostolof for his professionalism and friendly, easygoing demeanour. Apostolof himself said that having respectful, professional behaviour helped him “stay the boss.” Also, when auditioning actresses for his films, he alway had another person with him, preferably a woman. To put it simply, the relationship between sexploitation producers and their actors and actresses was a co-dependent and precarious one. 

YP: You have spent an enormous amount of time with Stephen C. Apostolof’s peculiar character, with the help of archives, family members, friends, collaborators — what did his story teach you about the film industry, about life?

JT: I’ve always thought of Apostolof’s story as a cautionary tale about ego and success, failure and subsequent revival. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, in the notes on The Last Tycoon, that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Although a bit different from the meaning Fitzgerald intended, in common usage this phrase has come to mean “There are no second chances.” Well, Apostolof’s story proves that sometimes life inadvertently gives you a second chance. In the mid-1980s, due to the renewed interest in Ed Wood, he was rediscovered and enjoyed a quiet renaissance that continues to this day. Since the introduction of home video in early 1980s, a lot of exploitation films, including Apostolof’s, became readily available, first on video, and then in other formats, including DVD and Blu-ray. And although not as prominent a figure as Wood, Apostolof’s place in cult movies history today is firmly secured. 

Dad Made Dirty Movies

YP: The book is out in a very particular moment, what is in stock in terms of marketing in promotion? Do you intend to travel to the States for the premiere? Any online screening / meeting events planned?

JT: Just a year ago, I was thinking that maybe I could make a small tour in some American cities together with Joe. However, given the recent world situation, these plans seem like a distant dream. For now, our efforts are concentrated in online promotion and getting the book out there, making it more visible, so to speak. I think a niche book such as this needs time to find its audience, so the promotion period will be long for sure. Hopefully, we will do a tour at the end of this summer when things more or less get back to normal.

Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.