Massimo Vanni Interview
by Lance Manley
by Lance Manley
Thursday 1st March 2018
Massimo Vanni is an Italian actor and stuntman who acted in several films directed by Enzo G Castellari. He played Blade in 1990: The Bronx Warriors, and Big Little Man in the sequel Escape From The Bronx. He has made over 100 other films including The New Barbarians, The Last Shark and Zombie 3. He also works as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator, appearing in the Leonardo Dicaprio movie Gangs of New York.
After being given Massimo’s phone number by Enzo’s son Andrea Girolami, I got in touch with him and he invited me to his apartment in Rome to conduct the following interview.
"How did you get involved in Bronx Warriors?"
Massimo: "Enzo Castellari, a wonderful director who specialised in action films. Enzo put a lot of his passion into his films because he created costumes, he made up jokes and created really great action scenes. I’d made other films with Enzo and so he knew me well. Nearly every film of Enzo’s there are, how do I put this, a lot of action so there needs to be people who can run around and are athletic. People who can jump, shoot, have fist fights etc. For this reason Enzo always wanted to work with actors who could not only act. I mean I’m not De Niro or Al Pacino but I know how to act but Enzo also wanted the physical form from his actors. He wanted actors who were capable of easily doing the action scenes. Enzo knew me well, I’d done films with him, films about cops and robbers, The Big Racket. So…he called me to do this film too, with many other actors. Mark Gregory, other American actors. It was really a great film because we weren’t only in Rome but we also went to America. Wonderful memories. We were in America for 2 or 3 weeks. I’d never been in America before and we were in the Bronx and it was a little dangerous, you know. But Enzo, because he’s smart, a nice guy, when we went out in the Bronx, when we were out on the bikes, the Bronx residents…well, they became our friends. They weren’t friends with the police but they were friends with Enzo. (Laughs)
“He was smart”.
Massimo: “Yes, very smart. Very intelligent. He knew what to do. The police were around but they were kind of…distant. Enzo also got many of the people to work on the film, they were happy to be friends.
“So they didn’t steal anything?”
Massimo: (Laughs) “No, exactly”.
“Your character in Bronx Warriors dies pretty horribly. Would you have preferred a more heroic end?”
Massimo: “No, for me it was fine like that. Enzo had invented that death and it was really good. Enzo had a lot of understanding about the film and I liked that scene. It was me and Marco and nobody else. They did great make up on me, a beautiful job, it seemed so realistic. All that blood, a beautiful job”.
“What’s your greatest memory of the film?”
Massimo: “The best part I remember about Bronx Warriors? Well, Enzo had found Mark Gregory. He was Roman. So I was kind of friends already with Marco and I remember, above all, especially Mark. He was unknown and, like I said before, it was a great experience even before we started making the film. Enzo said to me “Massimo, take Marco. Take him to the gym, take him running because Mark has never learned to fight”. Poor guy had never done this before and it’s not easy to do. I’m currently working with a guy. He’s always there beside the director for the action scenes. He teaches the actors how to move. Many years ago I did this with Marco and this led into my work now. So there were a few great times when we went to New York, in the Bronx especially with Enzo. He created a very friendly atmosphere, like a family. We were all friends. When we were working, we worked hard but in the evenings we’d go for dinner and relax, and we weren’t doing this in Rome but in New York. We’d go to different, unique restaurants the kind you didn’t find in Rome. It was another way of life. And so…for Bronx Warriors I have very good memories. I remember when we filmed Bronx Warriors we were with the famous Hell’s Angels, the motorcyclists and there was one who had a hook for a hand. Andrea (Enzo’s son) recently met him when he came to Rome. He had a hook for one hand and the other was normal. Andrea showed me the photo of them recently.
“Can you remember any sequences filmed that didn’t make it into the final movie? For example when you follow Trash to tip him off that Ice has betrayed him you miss out an entire gang (The Iron Men) before being ambushed by the Scavengers? There’s scenes in the trailers that weren’t in the film”.
Massimo: “If you’ve seen them then they were filmed but Enzo in the editing would have cut some things to give the film better pace and to get them to the running time. Films are usually 100 minutes long so when you film, and Enzo filmed a lot, I mean he did not waste film but he filmed a lot. When you come to editing and the film is very long and some things need to be cut or you’ll end up with two films. So, maybe yes, there were some scenes that weren’t in the final film. To tell you the truth it’s been a long time. I remember some things but not specifics. You’re better than me, you remember everything about the film really well, like photographic memory (laughs)”.
“I remember every second”.
Massimo: “There’s a lot that I don’t remember”.
“In Escape From The Bronx you are playing another character (similar to Enio Girolami). This character is called both Big Little Man and 'Rebel With Eyepatch'. Did he have a name?”
Massimo: “I copied Snake Plissken from Escape From New York for this”.
Lance: “Really? I never knew that. Brilliant!”
Massimo: “I copied him for the leather outfit too. But I don’t remember if the character had a name in the film, I don’t think anyone says it. So no, I don’t remember if he had a name. I remember a woman from the first film, tall and blonde with whip”.
“Witch. Betty Dessi”.
Massimo: “Yes Betty Dessi, she was the girlfriend of Klaus Dibiasi, a great diver who had won medals in three Olympic games for Italy and I knew her because she was a swimmer and we’d worked together in Rome many times”.
“There’s also a photo on the back of the VHS cassette of the film of you being shot while lying on the ground. In the film we only see you get shot in the back. Was your death scene in the 2nd one more dramatic and heroic originally?”
Massimo: “To be honest I really can’t remember. This afternoon I’ll watch the DVD (laughs). It’s difficult to remember everything. It was hard to film as we had tight deadlines and Enzo didn’t waste time. He was putting it together in his head so he would film footage knowing where stuff had to go”.
“I remember the trampoline bombs. Enzo told me before that he activated those”.
Massimo: “Ah yes, the trampoline bomb. That was one of my specialties. Not in Enzo’s movies but in many films I used the trampoline. It’s a special type of explosion. So you have a trampoline and next to that is a metal bell with the bomb inside and that is behind you when you jump to be safe. So you take a run up and you jump and there’s a panel between you and the bomb and it goes off sideways. You land on the floor or on some cardboard boxes, whatever. You could have big or small trampolines depending on the scene”.
“By the second film (Escape From The Bronx) it appears Mark had learned how to handle himself better.”
Massimo: “Yes, slowly he started to learn and understand, watching what was going on. He understood better. After Bronx Warriors and Escape From The Bronx he made other films with another producer, Fabrizio de Angelis. He did other films in the Philippines such as Thunder. I went to the Philippines also, with Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso to make films like Robowar, Born to Fight, but Marco worked a lot after. And afterwards he left the scene and I think it was his own choice”.
“I think his last film was in 1989”.
Massimo: “He worked for 6 or 7 good years but after, and this is just my opinion, he was not crazy about the cinema. Nowadays, you take some young guy and put him in the movies or TV, then he’s happy. Marco…well he worked at it but he was not a star.
“We’ve heard that Marco is now living in Cesano in Rome”.
Massimo: “I don’t know, but once more, I would love to meet him again. Put it this way, if I meet him again I’ll let you know (laughs).”
“How long did it take to film that opening fight sequence between you guys and the zombies? That scene blew my mind the first time I saw it when I was 13. The skull on the wall, the way the Zombies were clearly scared of you all.”
Massimo: (Laughs) “It didn’t take long. I can’t remember how long exactly but it didn’t take a long time”.
“Marco seemed a little stiff in that scene.”
Massimo: “Yes it was difficult for him he was not very nimble. Also it was not easy to find someone the same size as Marco because he was so tall. As much as possible Enzo tried to do action scenes with Marco. Enzo is a master with a camera, whether actions scenes or still life”.
“Was Bronx Warriors filmed in English and dubbed over or filmed in Italian originally?”
Massimo: “We made it in Italian. Marco couldn’t speak English, I didn’t speak English. I think maybe Giancarlo Prete (Timothy Brent/ Strike) spoke English and Giovanni Lofreddo (Joshua Sinclair/ Ice) spoke English and also Fred Williamson and Stefania. The rest of us, we didn’t know any English”.
“It looks like you had heaps of fun making the sequel Escape From The Bronx. Did you?”
Massimo: “Oh yes! On the second film I filmed all my scenes in Rome, I never went to America. The first one yes, but the second one no. For example, you remember that sequence where we were in the underground cave? Well that’s very close to here”.
“Can I go there?”
Massimo: “I think that now it’s closed because that place where we filmed they grew mushrooms in there. But we filmed inside there and now I think there’s nothing there any more. I don’t know if you can still go in but it was really beautiful because it was very big, very high, you couldn’t have imagined such a place. We did some scenes there and then we were at Via Tiburtina, Ponte Mammolo. It was an old, abandoned factory. That scene where I die, that was filmed there. Then we did the rest in Rome. Then Enzo left with Marco and some others, I don’t remember who, maybe Enio, 4 or 5 people and they did about 2 weeks filming in America. For the first film nearly everybody went but for the second film, Escape From The Bronx, I did all my scenes in Rome”.
“I always thought it was ironic that the film was called Escape From The Bronx when no one wants to leave, they’re fighting to stay.”
Massimo: (Laughs). “Yes, yes you’re right. I think the two Bronx films are more well known in America than in Italy. I saw a movie poster and in the US I was a star but here not so much. Very popular in the US, this was very much the case.”
“I own the original VHS copies of both movies that I saw back in the early 80s. The video shop sold them in about 1989 and I bought them”.
Massimo: “You are a scholar of the Bronx (laughs). You have studied everything. Me, I remember some things but you are too good. Today or tomorrow I really have to watch the films again”.
“What was Mark Gregory like to work with?”
Massimo: “When he started working in the cinema he was very wary, he didn’t make friends easily and I think he saw me as a big brother, so we got on well. I mean Marco was born when?”
Massimo: “Yes, so I was born in ’47. A big difference, nearly 20 years. Anyway, when we went out like in New York, when we were shooting on the set, if he needed someone to talk to he’d come to me because I was honest with him and I’d help him. He was intelligent, well educated, very calm on the set, a nice guy. Not at all like Trash. He didn’t give himself airs and graces. He was very similar to me, calm and we got on really well. We would have been happy to work together on other films and I helped Marco all I could. ‘Look for work, don’t waste money, buy a house while you are earning because one day the cinema will be finished’ and I think he took my advice. He wasn’t the sort of person to throw his money away”.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
Massimo: “Well…there was a little episode. After Escape From The Bronx, I know Marco worked, he went to the Philippines, but we lost contact for many years. Marco was finished with the cinema. When he made Bronx Warriors and the sequel he finished with the cinema because he had to do military service firstly and I believe the film companies were waiting for him to come back and start working again once he left the military. I didn’t see him for many years and then one day in the summer I saw him again. It was in the centre of Rome, I don’t remember exactly where. But I saw someone walking towards me, in silhouette because the sun was behind him and he was very tall. I couldn’t see clearly because the sun was in my face and slowly I got closer and realised it was Marco. He was with a woman, maybe his wife, much shorter than him and he was eating something and I was like ‘Hey Marco, it’s been such a long time! What are you up to? Are you still making movies?’ and he was like ‘No, I left the cinema, it’s not my world’. He said he was still working, I don’t remember what job, but not in the film industry any more. Maybe a waiter, I don’t remember. I remember realising though that he had never been a cinema lover. He’d had the opportunity to make a lot of money. First movie, a little money, second more and by the third even more. But it was kind of strange. He wasn’t that he didn’t get work in movies because there was no work, it was his decision. He was only about 25. Nowadays, you take a young guy of 20 and put him in movies, it’s a dream come true. Marco, on the contrary, I think it was his pesonality, he just finished and then found something else to do. I would like to meet him again. We had a connection, a great friendship".
Massimo's message to Mark Gregory...