The ninth issue of Cinefantastique featured a career article devoted to Christopher Lee, way back in the fall of 1973. Peter Cushing wrote this heartfelt introduction for his good friend, although they were only to make three more films together. Luckily Ted Newsome brought them together one last time for his documentary on Hammer films, Flesh and Blood, shortly before Mr. Cushing died in 1994.
In May 1972 Christopher Lee and I made a psychological thriller entitled Nothing But the Night. It was our 18th film together, a partnership spanning some fifteen years. It was fitting that this “Coming of Age Anniversary” should be celebrated by the first film under his own banner—Charlemagne Productions, Ltd.
One of the greatest compliments any actor can be paid is to hear people say, “It all looks so easy.” It is not.
To reach this stage in his career and maintain his position and enormous popularity has cost him much in hard work, dogged determination, resolution and sheer drive, sometimes in the face of ruthless competition and misunderstandings, apart from facing and learning all the technical difficulties presented in the art of film acting—yet still making it look “all too easy.” The art which conceals art.
Of commanding stature (some 6 foot, 4 inches tall), he uses his physical presence to great advantage, moving with grace and authority. Some are awed when first meeting him in person, but they would do well to know that beneath this outward aloofness and dignity lies a very human being: sensitive, warm, and oft times suffering from nerves which he goes to great lengths to conceal.
Among his accomplishment—perhaps unknown to his public—he is a Greek scholar, he possesses a magnificent bass singing voice, a wonderful knack for impersonation, has command of at least six languages, is an expert swordsman and a superb amateur golfer. Couple all this with a delicious sense of humor and wit—plus a deep personal kindness—then you will be getting somewhat closer to the real personality of this truly remarkable man.
He holds strong views about the business in general and, in particular about the misuse of the word “horror” as applied to some of his films, rightly preferring the more subtle and correct term “fantasy,” for that, indeed, is what they are.
Unstintingly, Christopher gives his public one hundred percent of himself and his talent, but full use has not yet been made of his range. Knowing him as I do, it will not remain hidden under a bushel forever.
I am privileged to count him as a dear friend as well as a valued and respected professional colleague.
The ninth issue of Cinefantastique featured a career article devoted to Christopher Lee, way back in the fall of 1973. Peter Cushing wrote this heartfelt introduction for his good friend, although they were only to make three more films together. Luckily Ted Newsome brought them together one last time for his documentary on Hammer films, Flesh and Blood, shortly before Mr. Cushing died in 1994.
Insurgent, the second chapter in Summit Entertainment’s Divergent series, arrives over a year after the first film, but takes place only three days after the climatic battle that ended Divergent, where the heroine, Tris seemed to be heading with her boyfriend Tobias Eaton or “Four” towards the walled “outlands” of a futuristic Chicago, that has been divided into five factions. However, as Insurgent opens, we find that Tris and Tobias are now living in hiding among the Amity faction, led by the kindly Octavia Spencer.
Since I had forgotten much of what took place in Divergent, here is some background on the basic premise of the series, which no doubt will also be helpful for first time viewers:
In a Chicago of the future, survivors have been divided into five factions based on their abilities, temperaments and personal preferences. As the books author Veronica Roth explains, members of “Abnegation believe in selflessness, Candor believe in honesty, Dauntless are into bravery, Erudite value intelligence, and Amity value kindness, peacefulness and friendship. A person in the faction system believes that to be Faction less means to be without community, to be disenfranchised and on your own, and a failure in the most essential way. But, to someone who is Faction less, it means freedom.”
Insurgent gets off to a bang when Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the power crazed head of the Erudite faction has her soldiers ruthlessly search for Tris, and quickly discovers her in the commune like Amity faction. Jeanine also discovers a pentagonal shaped box that Tris’s parents had hidden away, with each side bearing the seal of one of the five factions. Apparently it contains an important message that may well determine the future direction of this dystopian society, but it can only be unlocked by a divergent person, who possesses qualities of each of the factions.
The good news, is that, unlike the second film in The Hunger Games series, Insurgent is not merely a thinly veiled remake of the first movie, but branches off in quite a different direction, as we explore the distinct world of the other factions in depth, as well as those who are “Faction less,” who turn out to be led by Tobias’ own mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts). But can Evelyn be trusted, or is she just as power crazed as Jeanine is?
We also delve into a surrealistic dream world, more on the order of Inception, as Tris has to endure five separate dream-style tests in order to successfully unlock the secret of the box. Indeed, with her close cropped hair, and also facing a series of seemingly desperate battles, Tris becomes a sort of Joan of Arc figure, who like Joan, willingly surrenders herself to Jeanine, where she will have to undergo a trial by dream ordeal. Shailene Woodley also tends to recall the young Jean Seberg, who of course, was first brought to stardom in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Interestingly enough, with it’s future society ruled mostly by very strong women characters, Insurgent also recalls the future utopia portrayed in John Boorman’s Zardoz, where the society is also made up of very separate and distinct factions, in a world sealed off from the outside. In fact, in one of Tris’s dream ordeals, she must overcome a surrealistic building on fire, where her mother is entrapped, that is flying through the skies over Chicago, much like Sean Connery had to endure, to enter the sealed off vortex in Zardoz.
Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reigns from Neil Burger on Insurgent and gives the film a suitable fast pacing, with two brisk opening action sequences, which unfortunately are just a bit too overloaded to be believable, but then he settles things down, allowing the story to focus a bit more on the characters, as well as the action, which makes for a more pleasing blend, as Mr. Schwentke did so nicely with The Time Traveler’s Wife. The film also benefit’s greatly from it’s top-notch cast, with most of it’s young actors having gone on to important starring roles in other films after appearing in Divergent, and now being more familiar, bring a certain gravitas to their roles, as well as a few twists, especially in the characters played by Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT is quite an effective little horror chiller, that benefits greatly by treating it’s subject–a group of scientists exploring the possibility of bringing the dead back to life–with deadly seriousness. The movie follows two romantically involved researchers, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), who are operating with a grant from a Berkeley University, where they experiment with bringing recently deceased animals back to life. Just as they succeed in bringing a dog back to life–like the hapless Dr. Frankenstein–their project is halted in it’s tracks. Not by angry villagers, but by a biotech company, who seize all their research materials for there own corporate use.
What makes the film especially fascinating, is that it delves into metaphysical discussions about what actually may happen after death, with Frank taking a more scientific and atheistic point of view, vs. Zoe who brings a more traditional theological bent to their conjectures.
It’s also what attracted director David Gelb to the project, who said, “I loved the idea of really exploring the concept of being brought back to life. What would you experience while you were gone? How would you be different when you came back? And what might you potentially bring back with you? The young scientists in our film set out to give patients and loved ones hope, but they discover that there can be horrible consequences to playing with the power of life. As events begin to unfold, the story takes a sharp turn into becoming an absolutely terrifying thrill ride where you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know who the next character to disappear is going to be, and the scares are pretty intense.”
Indeed, it takes nearly half way into the film before we get any inkling about who might suddenly die, so they can conveniently be brought back to life. Of course, it won’t be a shock if you’ve seen the poster or the trailer (and I had not), so for me, it did add a bit more suspense to the first 30 minutes of the picture, while the basic premise is being developed.
Like any good FRANKENSTEIN movie, the subject of life after death is one of endless fascination, which is also the basis for movies like BRAINSTORM and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. In fact, rather strangely, the same weekend THE LAZARUS EFFECT opens, director John Boorman also talked about the subject when he was in San Francisco for the opening of his own delightful new picture, QUEEN AND COUNTRY.
When asked if QUEEN AND CONTRY might be his last film Mr. Boorman replied, “Yes, you saw the little signal in the last shot of the film. The camera stops. That was my little signal. I’m 82, so it’s high time I stopped. It’s high time I died, actually. I don’t want to be still working at 104!”
However, when pressed, Mr. Boorman admitted he does have a script he still would like to make, also about life after death. “It’s called HALFWAY HOUSE,” explained Boorman, “and there are some people who are encouraging me to do it. It’s about a man whose wife commits suicide and he has a recurring dream in which he visits a kind of clearing house where people go after they die. They are given a video of their entire life, and before they can move on, they must edit it down to three hours of highlights! If I live long enough and I’m strong enough, maybe I will make it.”
With STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE returning to theatres in a new 3-D version, we flashback to May, 1999 for my preview report that appeared in Cinefantastique’s cover story on the film.
A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away…
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with the blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace, to settle the conflict.
A disheveled boy, ANAKIN SKYWALKER, runs in from the junk yard. He is about nine years old, very dirty, and dressed in rags.
So opens STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, George Lucas eagerly awaited first chapter in the STAR WARS saga. When Lucas first began work on the script, back in 1995, he only had some brief notes. Lucas explained to Lynne Hale, the publicist for The Phantom Menace, that the original outline for the three prequels was only about 15 pages long. “The whole early part was written to set up the (first Star Wars) films that were made,” observed Lucas. “I had to sort of figure out who everybody was, where they came from, how they got to be where they were, and what the dynamic relationships were between everybody.”
Lucas took his outline and began work by expanding it to include approximately 50 scenes for each of the three prequels. “I basically have to come up with 150 scenes,” asserted Lucas. “If I come up with a few a day, towards the end of the process, I will really start going through the outline and filling in all the blanks—finishing it and putting in all the detail and that sort of thing. Then I start the hard part, the actual writing of the pages.”
By beginning with such a rough outline, Lucas had the freedom to change characters and situations, none of which were ever set in stone in the first place. Lucas further explained the flexible nature of his scripting process, stating, “when I have an idea for a character, usually the character comes alive and metamorphoses into something else, or another kind of character. If you take the first draft of Star Wars, you can find the central characters that always existed, but they had different names, shapes or sizes. But the core of the character is still there and growing. It’s just trying to find the right persona to carry forward that personality.” A good example of this occurred in early drafts of Star Wars, where the character of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) was the leader of the rebellion on Yavin who comes up with the idea of using small fighter ships to attack the Death Star. In the final script Lucas has transformed Tarkin into the ruthless agent of the Emperor, making him the actual builder of the Death Star rather than one of it’s attackers.
With such a slim outline for the three prequels, it’s not much of a surprise to hear Lucas’ revelation that there was never any story material for the final three sequels—the ones that were supposed to continue the nine part saga after the ending of Return of the Jedi. “It really ends at part six,” Lucas told Vanity Fair. “When you see it in six parts you’ll understand. I never had a story for the sequels.” Of course, it was Lucas himself who always maintained there was at least an outline for the final three chapters (episodes 7, 8 and 9). It appears the real reason for his abrupt abandonment of the Force is that in May of 2005 (when the last of the current trilogy is scheduled for release), Lucas will turn 61. “I’ll be at a point in my age where to do another trilogy would take 10 years,” said Lucas. “My oldest daughter was born during Return of the Jedi and since then I slowed down quite a bit. I focused more on my family and making The Phantom Menace is the first time I will go back and try to do a movie of this scale, with this much intensity.”
One of the reasons Lucas embarked on the current set of prequels, was due to the new advances in technology he can utilize. “I get to do a lot of things now, that I couldn’t do before,” explained Lucas. “I can create things that weren’t possible to create before. I was always—and I will be on The Phantom Menace—at the limit of what is possible in terms of storytelling. Things have advanced so far in the last 20 years, in terms of your ability to portray things on the screen.”
Lucas also noted in a recent article for Premiere, that digital technology will allow him to get closer to his grandiose vision. “The idea of being able to explore my imagination and make it literal is exciting,” noted Lucas. “It moves me forward to try to get my visions onto the screen. When I was young, I had ambitions for some things to be brilliant, and when it came out less than brilliant, I was very upset about it. Who knows, maybe it’s better that way—because the things that have come out exactly the way I wanted them, have not been very successful. I think I’ll be able to get closer to what I imagine things to be like with this film.”
Among the many new treats Lucas has promised for The Phantom Menace, is the portrayal of the Jedi Knights in the days when there were thousands of them to guard the peace and justice of the Galaxy. The two Jedi Knights sent to Naboo at the outset of the story are the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Obi-Wan’s mentor, who also holds a seat on the Jedi council (along with Yoda). Lucas disclosed some Jedi characteristics, while talking to Lynne Hale: “The Jedi are like negotiators,” explained Lucas. “They aren’t people that go out and blow up planets, or shoot down things. They’re more of a one to one combat type. In The Phantom Menace I wanted the form of the fighting and the role of the Jedi Knight to be special. More spiritual and more intellectual than just something like a fighter or a superhero.”
In an effort to top the light saber battles of the first Star Wars movies, Lucas is attempting to bring a more dynamic element to the new swordplay that will be occurring between the Jedi masters and their chief opponent, the maleficent Darth Maul, played by martial arts expert Ray Park. “I was looking for the kind of sword-fighting we had already done,” said Lucas, “but I wanted a more energized version of it, because we actually never really saw the Jedi’s at work—we’d only seen old men (Obi-Wan), crippled half-droid, half-men (Darth Vader), and young boys (Luke). To see the Jedi fighting in their prime, I wanted a much more energetic and faster version of what we’d been doing.”
The action of the new film will take place largely on three planets: The already familiar desert planet of Tatooine, where the 9 year old Anakin Skywalker is growing up; On Naboo, home to the royal Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), as well as several swamp-dwelling creatures, such as the Nuna (a flightless bird, similar to an ostrich, but without the long neck) and the Peko Peko (a Pterodactyl-like bird with an immense wing-span); and finally, on Coruscant, the capitol of the Galactic Republic, where both the Senate and the Jedi Council convene. Interestingly enough, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who eventually becomes the Emperor—by his plotting with the Dark Lords of the Sith—represents Naboo in the Galactic Senate and is still shown as a benign presence in The Phantom Menace. The actual design of Coruscant was previewed in a brief shot seen at the end of the Return of the Jedi special edition, and it promises to be a truly spectacular city, full of streamlined ultra modern skyscrapers, jutting several miles into the sky. The Jedi Council deliberates in a circular dome room at the top of an imposing temple that looks vaguely like the Chrysler Building, but with huge windows, that afford breathtaking views of Coruscant.
As each new morsel of information about The Phantom Menace slowly leaks out, all the hype may eventually cause overwhelming expectations, that may be very hard to meet. Then, inevitably, the success engendered by the film will generate a backlash of criticism. For his part, Lucas professes these high expectations are not really affecting how he’s making the movie. “The fact that the film is so anticipated,” exclaims Lucas, “allows me the freedom to be creative, in the way I’d like to be creative, without having to worry about what people think. On one level, I’m going to get slaughtered, no matter what I do. On another level, some people will like it. After you make a lot of movies, no matter what you do, you’re going to get trashed on one side, while some people are going to love it.”
Academy gives honorary Oscars to Dick Smith and James Earl Jones; J. J. Abrahms sites "Cinefantastique Magazine" in his tribute to "The Godfather of Make-up Artists"
This weeks CFQ Ultra-Lounge podcast features a talk on Dick Smith getting his honorary Oscar for the groundbreaking work he did as one of the greatest make-up artists in the history of the cinema. Cinefantastique Magazine helped paved the way for this award, by devoting a retrospective cover story to Mr. Smith and his (then) 35-year old career in the industry in our Summer, 1981 issue, as written by David Bartholomew.
So naturally it came as a pleasant surprise to hear producer/director J. J. Abrahams acknowledging Cinefantastique from the stage of the Academy Governor’s Awards on Saturday night, by mentioning that Dick Smith gave him a “signed” copy of Cinefantastique Magazine when they first met back in 1981!
You can watch the video of J. J. Abrahms tribute to Dick Smith at the Academy video highlights page of the Governor’s Awards HERE, along with separate videos featuring Linda Blair’s comments about working with Dick Smith on The Exorcist, and Rick Baker awarding Dick Smith with his honorary Oscar, followed by Mr. Smith’s acceptance speech.
Excerpt from the text of the tribute to Dick Smith given by J. J. Abrahms:
J. J. ABRAHMS: …One night I was in New York visiting my grandparents and at the airport I spotted a man waiting for his bags. I had seen pictures of Dick Smith before, and holy shit that looked like Dick Smith! — but how could I be sure?
I remembered that Mr. Smith had only four fingers on his left hand. It was like a Ludham novel. I slowly walked around the carousel trying to get a glimpse of his left hand, and there I saw it. I was never happier to see a missing digit in my life! (Dick Smith holds up his left hand, to laughter from the audience.) I was in a room with my hero. He was The Beatles to me, and no one in the terminal had a clue. I approached him and introduced myself and he was (if this is possible) even kinder in person!
He gave me a pre-release issue of Cinefantastique Magazine; Dick Smith was on the cover, they were featuring his work on Altered States. He signed the magazine and encouraged me to stay creative and keep making movies and if I wanted, to continue writing to him. My correspondence with Dick Smith went on for years.
A typical letter from him reads:
Dear J. J.:
I have just returned from Czechoslovakia doing an old age make-up for Amadeus.
The Hunger comes out on April 29 (1983).
Yes, I like (Tom) Savini’s book and his work on Creepshow.
Yes, cable was attached to plunger in large syringe instead of lever. Bicycle cable.
Keep up the good work,
This year marks Pixar Animation Studios 25th Anniversary, although the core group that went on to form Pixar actually dates back before 1986. Cinefantastique was on the scene to celebrate Pixar’s first major success, TOY STORY in 1995, along with their early triumphs in computer graphics for effects work. As CARS 2 is about to race into theatres across the globe, we look back at the early history of one of the most successful studios in the history of the motion picture business.
PIXAR: A CHRONOLOGICAL HISTORY (PART ONE)
In 1979 George Lucas was flush with cash earned from the huge success of STAR WARS, released in May 1977 and he begin envisioning great leaps in the advancement of computer graphics for motion picture technology. To begin research and development in that area he hired Dr. Ed Catmull, the director of the computer graphics lab at the N.Y. Institute of Technology. “Our initial charter,” explained Catmull, “was to develop technology for digital audio, digital editing, and computer graphics. So I brought in somebody to work in each of those areas.”
By the early eighties, Catmull had proposed a computerized editing system, known as EditDroid; a digital audio signal processor, for sound mixing; and the Pixar image computer, for rendering high resolution images. “At the time computer graphics was viewed mainly as effects,” notes Catmull, “but it still wasn’t economical. We had to solve several problems to make it more practical. First, we had to have motion-blur, if we were going to be used in feature films. Secondly, we had to plan our thoughts and algorithms around the faster computers that we knew would become available in the future. Finally, we had to get to a point where artists could design the models and their appearances. It required a great deal of technical expertise to use the equipment, so we began to design systems that artists could use, not just the technical people.”
The Lucasfilm computer graphics division contributed sequences to a mere three feature films, working under the umbrella of Lucas’s ILM effects facility. And although George Lucas was funding the research, there was a degree of reluctance to trust CGI to actual production. At the time it was still a very new and unproven medium for effects and the few films that had used it extensively, such as TRON and THE LAST STARFIGHTER had not been successful.
In 1984, to gain production experience on the new techniques they had been developing, Catmull began work on a demonstration film, THE ADVENTURES OF ANDRE AND WALLY B. “At the time, we didn’t have another project to work on,” says technical director, Bill Reeves, “so we decided to invent a little short, to show what we could do in CGI.” “The only hitch was we weren’t supposed to be making films,” continues layout supervisor, Craig Good. “We were a research and development group, not a filmmaking department, so ANDRE AND WALLY was officially just a demo for Siggraph (the yearly computer graphics convention).”
To work on ANDRE AND WALLY Catmull invited Disney animator John Lasseter to Lucasfilm, after he was impressed with Lasseter’s short computer film THE WILD THINGS. “Ed called me and said they had a idea for a short film,” remembers Lasseter. “It was supposed to be about an android character in the woods. Well, it was being made at Lucasfilm, so I thought they wanted to do something with robots. Instead of that, I proposed we do something a little more cartoony. I was inspired by early Mickey Mouse cartoons and I did a bunch of drawings for the main character, Andre. When I showed it to them, I thought they were going to hate it, but instead they said, `this is really great, nobody’s ever done this before in CGI’.”
Since Dr. Catmull’s ultimate dream was to make a feature film in CGI, it soon became clear he was on a divergent course from his employer. “Lucasfilm wasn’t set-up where somebody else could come in and make animated films,” recalls Catmull. “So we approached George, and said, `we want to do things that are different, so maybe you should sell off the division’. We then went through a period of about a year, getting ready to divest ourselves from Lucasfilm.” Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple computers eventually purchased the division from Lucas for what today seems like an incredible bargain: only $10 million. When Disney brought Pixar from Steve Jobs twenty years later the asking price was just a little bit higher: $7.4 billion!
In fact, at the time, George Lucas was a bit worried about whether Steve Jobs would be able to come up with all the money, which delayed the sale for a period of time, but the deal finally went through and the new company was officially named Pixar as they moved across San Francisco Bay from San Rafael to their new headquarters in Point Richmond, Ca.
As an independent company, Pixar formed a small animation unit and began making short films. “We were doing three pieces for Siggraph in 1986,” recalls producer Ralph Guggenheim. “One was Bill Reeves doing a realistic simulation of ocean waves, another was a whimsical little story about a beach chair, that walks down to the ocean and dips it’s toe into the water and the third was John Lasseter’s idea to tell a story using his desk lamp. LUXO, JR. was born out of that and went on to be the first Pixar success, as it was nominated for an Academy Award.
Pixar went on to make a short film a year, spending about six months researching different ways of improving their software and equipment, while the other six months were spent in making the film which would implement the results of their research. “The short films laid the foundations for the core animation system we used on our first feature film TOY STORY,” explained Reeves. “Then, after we did KNICK KNACK, we realized if we kept making shorts, we wouldn’t have the production experience or staff needed to make a feature. To get more production experience, we decided to make television commercials, because we couldn’t justify enlarging our staff on the basis of the short films, since they didn’t produce any income.”
After TIN TOY won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short film in 1989, Disney and Steve Jobs signed an exclusive 3-picture contract in 1991, with an option for several more films. It was the beginning of a nearly perfect match, which only hit some rough spots when Disney Chairman Michael Eisner nearly lost Pixar when Steve Jobs threatened to bolt to another distributor after Eisner insisted Disney had the sequel rights for all Pixar films. Luckily, Mr. Eisner was “retired” and his successor quickly made a deal to buy Pixar outright in 2006. “Back when Steve Jobs first bought Pixar from Lucasfilm, he agreed to fund all our animation shorts,” says Catmull, “with the belief that at some point we would come through. Looking back, it could have gone either way. But after TOY STORY was a big hit, we lived up to our expectations.”
BEFORE PIXAR: THE LUCASFILM YEARS (1979 – 1986)
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH Of KHAN (1982)
Jim Veilleux, ILM’s special effects supervisor on STAR TREK II, proposed that CGI be used for what eventually became the Genesis planet sequence. “They didn’t really know what they wanted,” says Bill Reeves. “They just said, `try and come up with something interesting’. Originally, they had these storyboards, where a gray rock in a glass case, turned green. Then, Alvy Ray Smith said, ‘why don’t we have Kirk and Spock looking at a planet and we’ll simulate turning the dead planet into a life-like planet’. So we storyboarded out a whole sequence and designed it as one continuous shot. Then, after spending five months doing it, using particle systems and fractals, we were worried they’d cut away to the actors, right in the middle of the shot. Of course, that’s exactly what they did”
At least the characters were impressed with what they were watching. Spock turns to Kirk and says, “fascinating,” while Dr. McCoy becomes nearly hysterical at the implications of the “Genesis device.”
“We didn’t have much software for that, so a lot of what we did was just a home-brew of different stuff we cobbled together,” explains Reeves. “I did all the particle systems to create the fire, while Tom Duff did the cratered moon. Tom Porter put together the very beginnings of our compositing language and did the star fields as well. Loren Carpenter did all the fractals for the mountains that rise out of the burning planet. It was amazing, because we had all these separate programs that didn’t tie together. Shortly after that we developed a system where everything works together.”
RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Bill Reeves and Tom Duff created the brief scenes of CGI used in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Admiral Ackbar gives a presentation to the rebel fleet, outlining how to penetrate and destroy the death star. He is aided by a holographic 3-D representation of the unfinished battle station, as it orbits around the forest moon of Endor. “We worked with Joe Johnston (visual effects art director) and Bruce Nicholson (optical supervisor) on RETURN OF THE JEDI,” says Reeves. “Joe had a lot of designs and we used on old Evans & Sutherland line drawing display. All it could do was draw lines–there were no pixels or color. We just put a camera in a room, got it pitch black and shot our elements right off the screen. Then we took it to Bruce Nicholson, who burnt it into the live-action plate. Bruce would have to do multiple passes in order to get the different colors (green for the Endor Moon, red for the death star).”
THE ADVENTURES OF ANDRE AND WALLY B. (1984)
After waking up one morning in a (very stylized) forest, Andre encounters a playful bee, who he attempts to elude (unsuccessfully). “I brought in John Lasseter from Disney,” says Catmull, “because he had a vision that wasn’t fitting in at Disney, but it fit in perfectly with what we wanted to do. At first it was on a temporary basis, but it soon became permanent.”
“One of the problems I had on ANDRE,” recalls Lasseter, “was that I had to use all geometric primitives (basic geometric shapes) to build the characters. I wanted Andre to have a sort of teardrop shape, and I thought it would be difficult to make his body that way. Ed Catmull looked at the drawings and said, `I think we can come up with something like that’. So we invented this teardrop shape that was really flexible and I got so inspired I started to animate it real loose, like a water balloon. Out of that came the inspiration for the bee, which had these giant feet, that were just floating below him. There were no legs connecting the feet to the body. Then, when the bee flies off, the feet would just drag way behind and catch-up, which gave us this neat overlapping action.”
“All the forest backgrounds were done using Particle Systems,” says Reeves, “and we used two Cray supercomputers in Minneapolis to render the characters. We were trying to see how fast a Cray computer would go, and it wasn’t very fast.”
YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)
For the effect of a Knight springing to life off of a stained glass window, effects maestro Dennis Muren wanted to attempt CGI, thinking it would be more effective than traditional stop-motion. “Dennis was interested in seeing what we could come up with,” recalls Reeves. “He came over and showed us the sequence and we all got very excited about doing it. There was a lot of stain glass windows out at Skywalker ranch, so we had the glass studio that had made those windows, build us a little stain glass Knight, which we could use for reference. If we hadn’t come through, Dennis would have probably used that model for stop-motion. He was really taking a chance on us, because at the time nobody really knew if we could do it or not.”
When the CGI sequences were completed, instead of being filmed off a video monitor, the images were transferred directly onto film, via one of the earliest uses of a laser scanner. David DeFrancesco, the head of Pixar’s film scanning dept., developed and built one of the first laser recorders while at Lucasfilm. “That was the first use of a laser recorder to put images on a feature film,” says DeFrancesco. “Now that recorder is at the George Eastman House Museum as part of their permanent collection.”
THE PIXAR PHENOMENON: THE STEVE JOB YEARS (1986 – 2006)
LUXO, JR. (1986)
“LUXO, JR. began as an opportunity for John Lasseter to model on the computer,” says producer Ralph Guggenheim. “John had done animation before, but had never done modeling.” “It was originally a 15 second test,” recalled Lasseter, “but it kept growing and growing, because I came up with the storyline after I got started on it. I like the idea of bringing inanimate objects to life, so I got the notion of having two desk lamps that were alive. ”
The film is quite remarkable, in that Lasseter is able to create a believable father and son characterization, through a pair of realistic looking desk lamps, in the space of only 90 seconds. LUXO. JR. also showcased a new technique in computer graphics, self-shadowing, which allowed the lamps to accurately cast shadows on themselves. Years ago we came up with a statement, `reality is just a convenient measure of complexity’,” says Lasseter. “At Pixar, we tend to shoot for realistic images, only to help us develop our tools. Then we take a step back and create things that can’t possibly exist, but look very real.
LUXO, JR. is also notable for it’s highly imaginative stereo soundtrack, designed by Gary Rydstrom, who came to the film after Ben Burtt (STAR WARS), was unable to fit it into his schedule. Rydstrom went on to design the sound for all of Pixar’s early short films and most of their features, and eventually left Lucasfilm to join Pixar as a member of their senior creative team. Rydstrom’s sound design for his many feature films, including TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK has won him seven Academy Awards.
R ED’S DREAM (1987)
Perhaps the least known of Pixar’s short films is RED’S DREAM. A melancholy tale about a forgotten unicycle, who on a rainy night dreams of his former glories performing under the big top. The evocative mood and atmosphere captured by the film is quite impressive, as if an Edward Hopper painting were merged with a clown episode from a movie by Federico Fellini. “We actually had two ideas that were happening at the same time,” recalls Ralph Guggenheim. “John Lasseter had a desire to do a story about a unicycle that’s alive and Bill Reeves was doing some realistic rendering of rainfall on city streets.”
“I saw the great imagery Bill was working with,” says Lasseter, “and I thought it fit into this circus story I had, which was causing me some story problems. It was originally going to be about this inept clown, and you find out that the person behind his act is really his unicycle, which is actually alive. So we took the images that Bill had and combined them with my story to make it more of a dream sequence for this poor unicycle. At the time nobody had really done those kind of dark, moody images in computer graphics.”
TIN TOY (1988)
Pixar’s first magnum opus introduced Tinny, the tin toy of the title. Much like the toys in TOY STORY, Tinny attempts to please his owner, a toddler who’s energetic enthusiasm, causes most of his toys to flee in terror under a nearby sofa. “We wanted to push into human characters for the first time,” notes Guggenheim, “so we designed a very carefully worked out story. It was a very complex show for us, 55 shots in 5 1/2 minutes, done by only 6 people.”
“TIN TOY was really an exhausting event for us,” says Lasseter, “because it had all these firsts. It was the first use of our current animation system, our first use of a human character and was twice as long as any film we had done before. We used every different piece of software we had and the baby’s face had 40 different muscles we could use for animating him.”
Most of Pixar’s short were made to show at Siggraph, and took about six months to finish. TIN TOY, due to it’s `epic’ length, wasn’t quite finished for the Siggraph film show. Consequently, when the film premiered, it was only two thirds complete. “We ended on a cliffhanger,” recalls Darwyn Peachey. “Tinny is running away from the baby, and he gets caught in the box, looking up through the cellophane as the baby is looming overhead. It ended right there, with a title, `to be continued’. The whole audience just went, `oh no’!” When finally completed, TIN TOY went on to become the first computer animated cartoon to receive an Academy Award.
KNICK KNACK (1989)
“After exhausting ourselves making TIN TOY, we wanted to do something that was easier,” reveals Lasseter. “During the making of TIN TOY, ROGER RABBIT had come out, and that was really an animators movie. It had just wild animation and after getting excited about it, I went back and looked at what I was doing. It seemed like everybody was standing still. So I was inspired to do something more cartoony for KNICK KNACK.”
“Since we wanted to do something simpler,” says Guggeheim, “John thought, `why don’t we do something like a Chuck Jones cartoon’. So we came up with the idea of a snowman, trying to get out of his glass snowglobe.” “KNICK KNACK has much more of a cartoon sense of reality,” notes Lasseter. “The snowman walks off, and comes back with a blow torch or something else, and is continually frustrated trying to get out of his globe. We just played off those cartoon type of situations.”
KNICK KNACK was done as a polarized 3-D film and each frame had to be rendered twice, to realize the 3-D effect. “The nice thing about doing 3-D in computer graphics,” says Guggenheim, “is after you have your main camera view, all you have to do is set-up another virtual camera, about 5 degrees off center axis to get your second view.”
“We tried not to push the 3-D effects too much,” says Bill Reeves. “We just used it to get the depth. It’s pronounced in a couple of shots, like when he’s falling off the table, but we didn’t want to do the typical thing, and give everyone watching it a headache. Very few people ever got to see it in 3-D, but when we showed it at Siggraph that year, it was a big hit.”
SURPRISE and LIGHT AND HEAVY (1991)
“At Pixar, the characters almost become like employees, you get to know them so strongly,” says John Lasseter. So when Pixar was asked to do some educational pieces for Sesame Street, they thought of using Luxo junior and senior, to visually illustrate the meaning of the words, light and heavy.
“We jumped at the chance to do it,” says Lasseter, “because we all loved Sesame Street. Luxo is really a very simple character, and we’ve used him as a training tool, so people can learn simple hierarchy. The way models are structured on the computer, they’re built on simple hierarchies, and with Luxo it’s quite simple, because you just move his base, and that moves him. Previously, I had used Luxo to illustrate a course at Siggraph. It demonstrated that how fast you move an object, can determine how heavy the object will feel. So we did a little vignette, where Luxo comes hopping in and starts moving around the exact same size sphere. First he does it very fast, which makes it seem like a beach ball, then he comes back and does it slowly, putting a lot of effort into moving it, so it feels very heavy. I showed that to the Sesame Street people, and they liked it, so that’s what we used.”
The producers at Sesame Street told Lasseter that normally they like to repeat things within a piece, to emphasize it for young children. “Luxo, Jr. comes in and hits the light ball to Dad,” explains Lasseter. “Then, Dad hits it back, and the narrator says, `light’. We repeat that, and then junior comes back and pushes the heavy ball, which doesn’t move at all, and the narrator says, `heavy’. Then he comes back and pushes and pushes, until he gets it rolling.”
SURPRISE was a very short 30-second piece, where Luxo Sr. finds a wrapped box and out of it pops Luxo, Jr., surprising his Dad.
TOY STORY (1995)
Back in the summer of 1995, before TOY STORY had opened to great acclaim, Pixar President Ed Catmull told me what he saw for the future of the company he founded: “In a way, when Disney agreed to make TOY STORY, it was an experiment, since no studio had ever made a full-length CGI feature. They said, `let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work, we may lose a little money’
“Well, TOY STORY is turning out very successfully, and when the film comes out, I think there’s going to be a great rush to do computer animation. Now that we’ve done this one, we’re already cheaper than traditional animation. We have a crew of 110 people, vs. the 500 or more on a 2-D feature. This is our first film and I think it looks beautiful, but because all the technology is brand new and improving all the time, TOY STORY will be the worst looking film that we’ll ever make!”
“We are now the only company to have done a CGI feature film and we know what to do to take the next step forward. Other companies will be doing CGI productions, so at some point they may catch up, but right now we’re way ahead of everyone else. If we’re lucky, maybe we can keep the lead forever.”
Dr. Catmull’s predictions have of course, gone on to become reality, and after TOY STORY’s huge success, Pixar has gone on to make one smash film after another. Today they remain the supreme leaders in the field of Computer Animation.
THE PIXAR FEATURE FILMS
A BUG’S LIFE (1998)
TOY STORY 2 (1999)
MONSTERS, INC. (2001)
FINDING NEMO (2003)
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
TOY STORY 3 (2010)
CARS 2 (2011)
To celebrate the lasting legacy of Vincent Price in his centennial year, here is a collection of fond memories and a few letters from a selection of his many friends and co-workers.
HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was my last film with Vincent. It was the first time Vincent, Peter Cushing, John Carradine and myself were all together in one film. I would have liked to done more with pictures with Vincent, but alas, it was not to be. In all, we only did three pictures together. The first was THE OBLONG BOX, followed by SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN. Peter was in that one as well, but we didn’t have any scenes together. I was very fond of Vincent, and had great respect for him as an actor. We always had a lot of fun and joshing on the set. At the end of Scream and Scream Again I pushed Vincent into a vat of acid, to pay him off for the mistakes he has made with his experiments. Well, the yellow tinge of the acid made it look like Vincent had suffered some terrible natural mishap on a grand scale, so the first take we did was completely ruined by our both laughing as we fought to the death.
Vincent did so many wonderful pictures. THE RAVEN was a charming picture. I would have loved to be in that. THE COMEDY OF TERRORS was very funny. I remember laughing until my sides ached. Vincent and Peter Lorre as two drunken undertakers and Boris as the old man without any teeth. I have a wonderful picture at home, which Vincent sent to me. Peter Lorre is playing the piano, and Vincent, Boris and Basil Rathbone are standing behind it singing. Vincent wrote on it, “To Christopher, from three great gentlemen and Vincent Price.” I reproduced that in my autobiography and underneath it I wrote, “Correction: four great gentlemen!”
What a marvelous man he was. I shall miss him dearly.
This is a letter Peter Cushing wrote to Vincent Price in 1973, thanking him for his birthday card:
26 May 1973
Thank you so much for your card today. And the sweet message your wrote.
I much appreciate it.
I also want to thank you for my birthday treat.
I just returned from seeing THEATRE OF BLOOD. How excellent your are in this film, dear fellow. I particularly liked your reactions to the way the syringe was handed to you, and the basin, – in the decapitation sequence. So did the whole audience.
Christopher sent me a cable from Spain and asked me to give you his love and respect for the 27th as he doesn’t have your address.
My card to you should have reached you through Dennison Thornton’s office — and I do hope you spent an enjoyable day in Manchester.
I look forward to the rest of our filming enormously. I’ll be finished with “The Zoo Gang” by Tuesday next – except for post- synching.
May God’s blessing be with you always.
In all sincerity,
SIR LAURENCE OLIVIER
Lord Laurence Olivier wrote this letter to Vincent Price during the tryout run of Jean Anouilh’s Ardele in Brighton, before the play opened at the Queens Theatre in London. Sir Laurence apologizes for not being able to make it to one of Vincent’s performances in Brighton due to illness and wishes Vincent and Coral Browne well in their run of the play when it opens in London.
4 Royal Crescent
Tele 0273 61015
Sun June 15, 1975
Oh my dear, dear Vince,
How dreadfully you must think I neglected you. Do please forgive me. I fully intended to come to the show here in Brighton and get Coral and you back here for supper. The fatted calf has been looking at me reproachfully for months, saying, “I know, I’m being saved for that Vince.”
I was really quite ill with a viral flu and wasn’t allowed out of the house and I continue to feel a great sense of deprivation not to have given you a great hug of welcome to take your place in “the tightly woven tapestry of our island historie” more welcome still upon our banks and still in our midst.
I hope you have the happiest success and I wish you and Coral most lovingly, and I shall come round the Queens as soon as I possibly can, but I am not now up to going out evenings in London yet, but we must have some supper all together as soon as possible – maybe.
All great thoughts, strong wishes and held thumbs for last night,
Ever, as ever,
Cathie Merchant appeared with Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, playing his assistant and lover, Hester Tillinghast.
I had a crush on Vincent Price from the time I was a very young girl. I thought him the epitome of sophistication, because he was so very handsome and debonair. Indeed, when I met him in person playing Hester Tillinghast in THE HAUNTED PALACE, he was all those things and so much more!
Vincent had a wonderful sense of humor and sometimes it was quite naughty. He made many funny remarks about the monster in the pit that was going to mate with Debra Paget and most of them are unprintable! However, what I recall most of all, is how very kind and thoughtful he was to me as a newcomer. He was always helpful and concerned for other people. I think one reason he was so convincing in his roles is that he immersed himself in the character and he really believed what was happening in the moment. That really made him very effective in the last frames of THE HAUNTED PALACE. Interestingly enough, we did shoot a scene for The Haunted Palace that wasn’t used. Roger’s brother, Gene directed it. It showed Lon Chaney, Milton Parsons and myself, pulling the portrait of Joseph Curwen out of the big fireplace before it burned up. I think Roger cut that sequence, as it made Vincent’s final scene in the film far less ambiguous.
Vincent was quite unique and has given us many, many moments of pleasure and will continue to do so for many generations to come through his wonderful film performances.
If there was a image that helped me though my early life, it was Vincent Price. For some reason I was always likening the Edgar Allan Poe movies to my own life. Vincent was like my psychologist. He helped me get through the abstractions of those early years. The characters he played (Roderick Usher, Nicholas Medina, Verden Fell) would always go through some grand, dark, catharsis. Vincent was usually plagued by some sort of abstract demons, was overly sensitive and often on the verge of insanity. Strangely enough, I found I could relate to that in a very meaningful way. Those kinds of stories were my form of therapy. His characters really spoke to me. In the same way that when you read fairy tales, you get a real visceral response, well that happens with the Poe films. You get a real emotional response. That’s what I really loved. That extreme imagery that was really symbolic for something else.
Later on, I did some drawings for a children’s book which eventually became VINCENT, my first short film. Vincent Price was the first person I really met from Hollywood and he turned out to be such a wonderful guy. Just incredible! He was interested in all sorts of things and he gave me a great deal of hope when I was starting out. He was a tremendous inspiration to me. Vincent really shaped my early life. Then, when he played the inventor in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS it gave the part an emotional weight that made it very strong for me. It was very thrilling for me to be working with him again. If you look at all the movies he’s done, you see he has such fun with them. He so obviously enjoys what he’s doing, that it can’t help but be a little contagious to the audience.
I was lucky to film a little conversation with Vincent, which we did in his art gallery at East L.A. College. He donated this incredible art collection for the students to look at and I found that to be one of the most admirable things you could do. You know, most people who do something like that splash it all over the place, but Vincent didn’t make any big hoopla about it. He just did it and I found that pretty special. Everybody has someone they admire. For me it was an actor named Vincent Price.
Valli Kemp appeared with Vincent Price in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, playing his beautiful and ever resourceful assistant, Vulnavia.
Vincent was my mentor and friend from day one when we met on the set of DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN. He was really like a father to me and he would even send me food by cab to make sure I was eating properly. He was so very thoughtful. Vincent was always making me laugh, as I recall in the scene where I was playing the violin after we discovered the tomb in Egypt. He took a grape from the fruit bowl and put it in my mouth, and then he took another grape and put it in my mouth and I couldn’t swallow them, because if I did, I knew I would burst out laughing and ruin the shot. Then Vincent picked up a pineapple and motioned as if he was going to try and put that in my mouth as well, but he shook his head when he realized it was too big. That was all in the film and it was hysterically funny, because I had no idea that Vincent was going to do it! Vincent improvised it all while we were shooting.
Vincent had a serious side, as well. He cared about other people and one day after he heard I was also a painter, he asked me to show him some of my paintings. He loved them and arranged for an exhibition of my work where I sold 30 paintings in only two hours! Vincent was so kind, I miss him dearly, especially when I used to paint him and I could feel his presence.
I have a number of pleasant memories about Vincent Price, who, I have said in all interviews, was truly the nicest man I ever met in my days in Hollywood, a perfect gentleman and a most genial friend.
I recall one specific incident that occurred on the set of HOUSE OF USHER. As a preliminary to the anecdote, I would like to speak of the number of times I saw Vincent talking with visitors on the set. Invariably, he was pleasant and generous with his time and, equally invariably, he always had a little quip to make before leaving his visitors to return to work on the film. One time, Vincent and I were talking about the paintings of the Usher family done by Burt Schoenberg. They were as grim a collection of characters that ever hung on a wall. Vincent shrugged before leaving me and said, “Oh well, they’re just plain folks.”
Another incident that took place during HOUSE OF USHER was when Mark Damon came charging into Roderick Usher’s room with an ax (fortunately, not a real one) in his hand and after threatening to hit Roderick with it, gave up in disgust and slung the ax aside before charging out to look for Madeleine. Mark, I gathered was an advocate of “the Method,” as he used to run in place before a scene, huffing and puffing to work himself up, while Vincent merely chatted with someone and then went right into the scene and would be far superior in every way. When doing the scene, Mark did not think about where he was slinging the ax and it bounced off Vincent’s shin with some force. I heard, at that time, the only epithet I ever heard Vincent utter and he immediately left the set and walked around its entire perimeter, in pain and shaking his leg. By the time he returned to the scene, he had totally regained his composure and was, once more, the same genial, kind, charming man he always was. To my knowledge, he never berated Mark for what he had done, but simply accepted it as an accident of the game.
Not long before he passed on, I had the foresight to write Vincent a thank you note, in which I told him how much I had enjoyed working with him and how I appreciated the quality of his work in the scripts I’d written for him. I also send him a copy of my book The Path and told him how much I admired him as a human being. Needless to say, even ill and weak, he wrote back a lovely note thanking me and expressing his pleasure at working with my scripts.
What a wonderful man. I hope he enjoyed every pleasure that life has to offer and very much suspect that he did.
Mark Damon co-starred with Vincent Price in HOUSE OF USHER and wrote this letter to Price on February 9, 1960 before the film had opened.
This is an “actor-to-actor” note before the picture has been released. My comments are therefore not on your performance, which I don’t have to see on the screen to appreciate, but on your off-screen behavior, which has taught me much.
You remember, I asked you if you had learned anything working on this picture, and you told me that you had. I didn’t tell you what I had learned. I learned just how gracious, cordial, and warmly human a star of your caliber could be. You set an example I hope I may follow through the rest of my acting career. Thank you for that.
Thank you, also, for your advice, your help, your unselfishness, and for all the wisdom you imparted to me. I have benefited greatly by working with you, and I am very grateful to you.
I hope I will have the pleasure of seeing you again very soon.
Your good friend,
I cast him in our first film together, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, because the character of Roderick Usher was very close to his own persona: handsome, educated, cultured and sensitive. In the Edgar Allan Poe story, Roderick Usher is a gentle, aristocratic man who progressively descends into madness. My feeling was that the audience should be frightened of this character but not in conscious reaction to his sinister features or brute strength. Instead, I envisioned a refined, attractive man, who’s intelligent but tormented mind operates in realms far beyond the minds of others, and who therefore inspires a deeper fear. In Vincent I found exactly the man I was looking for.
Only once do I remember Vincent being puzzled by my film making requirements. In THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, he was asked to speak the line, “The house lives. The house breathes.” He came to me and asked in great bewilderment, “What does that mean?” It seemed that the good folks at American International Pictures, the company providing our financing, were worried that this was a horror film about a monster. To win them over, I had promised that the house itself would be our monster. Now I had to make good on my promise. Once this was explained to him, Vincent said, “I understand totally.” He went on to deliver the line with a subtle intensity that became for me one of the high points of the entire film.
Aside from his powers as a dramatic actor, Vincent was surprisingly adept at humor. His abilities along these lines were put to the test in THE RAVEN, a film intended to combine horror with comedy. Vincent’s contribution of jokes & comic bits to the shooting script added greatly to the picture’s overall humorous effect. On the set of THE RAVEN, Vincent had to adjust to the presence of two veteran co-stars, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, as well as a new young actor, Jack Nicholson. He showed extraordinary flexibility in working harmoniously with Jack (trained in the Method), Boris (schooled in the English classical style) and Peter, who did anything that came into his mind at any given moment!
Peter Lorre’s great talent was for improvising, which he did with great wit and panache. This on-the-set spontaneity did not sit well with Boris Karloff who was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career, and expected to do his scenes precisely as written. Inevitably, there was some friction between these two strong personalities. Fortunately for me, Vincent was able to strike a balance in his own acting style, adapting to Peter’s looseness but also playing scenes with Boris that were models of the classical approach. His personal graciousness in bending to the demands of two conflicting egos was a great help to me in what could have been difficult circumstances.
Vincent had a well-deserved reputation as a host and a gourmet chef and I was privileged to attend several dinner parties at his home. The food, the wine, the décor, everything was planned in the most exquisite detail. And he had the gift of eliciting sparkling conversation from his guests, so that it was a joy to sit at his table. I suspect that by inviting me to dine, Vincent was trying to improve my eating habits, which tended toward the Spartan back then. In fact, in our film making days he used to joke about sending me CARE packages to keep me from starvation.
There is no question that Vincent Price was a remarkable actor and a remarkable man. His friendship enriched my life, and for that I will always be grateful.
In 1960 when Roger Corman cast Vincent Price in The House of Usher he never had any thoughts about making a whole series of Poe films, but box-office success quickly changed his mind. As a result, between 1960 and 1965, Corman and Vincent Price went on to make eight films together, which most people agree are the highlights of both men’s careers.
To celebrate Vincent Price’s 100th birthday (on May 27, 2011) Roger Corman flew to St. Louis to pay homage to Vincent Price at the Vincentennial celebration, speaking before sellout crowds on May 21 and 22 about working with Mr. Price after screenings of their last two (and best) Poe films, The Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia.
I spoke with Mr. Corman about working with Vincent Price earlier this month when he was in San Francisco, on May 6, 2011, to receive an honorary degree from The Academy of Art University. In 2006, Joe Dante and I also had a long conversation with Roger Corman, along with Daniel Haller, which Joe felt was quite good, so I’m glad he has endorsed my more recent talk with Roger at his new Trailers From Hell blogsite Here.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I see you will be in St. Louis to help celebrate Vincent Price’s 100th birthday.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, they asked me to come and speak and I have always had a great admiration for Vincent. We did a number of Poe pictures together, although at the time we did the first one, The Fall of the House of Usher, neither Vincent nor I knew we would end up doing a whole series of Poe films. We both thought we were just doing one film, but after House of Usher became so successful, we ended up making seven more pictures together. Vincent was a very dedicated actor and we both enjoyed working together, so I was delighted to be asked to go to St. Louis and help celebrate his centennial.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Looking back, Vincent Price was ideal casting for the role of Roderick Usher. Do you remember if you considered any other actors for that part?
ROGER CORMAN: No, I don’t. I think Jim (Nicholson), Sam (Arkoff) and I all jointly agreed that Vincent was the best choice for the role. What we would normally do is discuss various cast members in-depth, come up with three or four leading men and then jointly decide on the man we wanted. I don’t recall now if we considered anyone else, because Vincent was our first choice, right from the beginning when we were working on the initial idea until we had the final script. When the script was finished, I contacted Vincent through his agent and sent him the script with an offer. After Vincent read the script, he liked it and suggested we meet to talk about it. We then met for lunch to discuss it and we got along very well. We talked about the picture and the character of Roderick Usher and he agreed to make it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Sam Arkoff said he made the deal to sign Vincent Price for House of Usher who went on to become AIP’s biggest star.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, that’s correct. After we all agreed on using Vincent, it was actually Sam who made the deal to sign him.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your book, you quote Vincent as saying whenever he came over to your house for a story conference he would be mystified to find only a few cans of Metrecal in your refrigerator when he went for a snack.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, that’s why we’d often have good dinners at Vincent’s house, when he and his wife were cooking, but never at my house!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In House of Usher, Roderick Usher is both a painter and a musician, which somewhat mirrors Vincent Price’s own real life cultural attributes.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, that was one of the main reasons I wanted Vincent for the part. Roderick is educated, sensitive, and quite cultured, so the role is very close to Vincent’s own persona. I felt Vincent was perfect in getting those qualities into the role. We were dealing with a cultured and refined man, whose mind becomes unhinged and slowly starts to unravel. So he descends into madness by degrees.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s interesting that Roderick Usher is actually quite reasonable and gentle throughout the film. He never resorts to overt violence. Even when Madeline is roaming through the house, he simply plays his lute. It’s actually Philip who becomes overtly violent and threatens Roderick with physical harm.
ROGER CORMAN: That’s a perfect example of where the one who actually has the least power, is the most physically violent. The person, who has the greatest power, does not have to use physical violence. Concomitant to that, was the fact that I didn’t want to have a traditional bad guy. I felt the audience shouldn’t be afraid of Roderick Usher based on any sinister features or brute strength. I wanted the audience to have a more unconscious reaction to him. So if you were afraid of him, it would be on the basis of his superior mental qualities. I felt that would be a deeper and subtler fear than any physical violence, per se.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Vincent Price told me that you’d come to him and discuss your Freudian theories, which he said helped to stimulate his performance, but that he also took it with a grain of salt. Were those Freudian theories something you really believed in, or were you just trying to stimulate the actor’s performance?
ROGER CORMAN: No, I believed then, and do believe now in the essentials of the Freudian psychoanalytical approach. I think it’s possible to say Freud was not correct in all of his theories, and I never did believe that it should be taken as total gospel, but the basic concept of Freud’s teaching, which is the concept of the unconscious mind, is something I definitely believed in, and still do believe in. I would use that for myself, and work with the actors along those lines. And if Vincent wanted to take it with a grain of salt, that was all right with me, as long as he utilized it in his performance.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Vincent Price was very pleased that you allowed him such a free hand for his interpretation of Roderick Usher’s character.
ROGER CORMAN: Well, Vincent was a very experienced actor and at the time I was a young director, so I didn’t feel I should try to give him a lot of intense direction. Also, I’ve never believed in giving line readings to actors. I think that’s very bad. I prefer to talk about what is going on in the character’s mind and what the actor is feeling so you get a more organic performance. I had training in the method with Jeff Corey, while Vincent was more of a classically trained actor, so what I did was talk about the character of Roderick with Vincent beforehand—what his childhood was like, how he grew up, where he stood at this point in his life—delving more into the thoughts and motivations of the character. Then, on the set, we would discuss the scenes just a little bit, in the morning or just before shooting for the key scenes. That worked out very well for both of us.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What did you think of Vincent’s performance in The Pit and The Pendulum? Some critics felt he went a little bit over the top.
ROGER CORMAN: No, I think Vincent was brilliant in the part. He was able to convey the intensity and the madness of the character, bringing it to its fullest extent, without really going over the top.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Vincent Price told me the performance really demanded a “larger than life” approach otherwise it wouldn’t come alive.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, and we were very careful about that. We tried to make it a full emotional performance, knowing that for a motion picture, an actor has to hold back a little bit, especially a stage trained actor, as Vincent was. That was especially true for close-ups.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It must have been marvelous working with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre on The Raven.
ROGER CORMAN: Oh, absolutely! It was a real pleasure. All three of them were superb actors. With some actors you have to keep working on them, imploring them to give a performance, but with Vincent, Peter and Boris as well, they would give you all you could ask for and more. It was really very fascinating to be working with them.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Vincent Price told me he really enjoyed the shooting of The Raven and I imagine you probably tried to maintain a jovial atmosphere on the set.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, particularly since we were playing The Raven for humor. I haven’t done that much comedy, but when I have, I’ve tried to keep that feeling going both on and off the set. You can’t very well be working intensely serious in the preparation, and then come in and tell somebody to be funny for three minutes in front of the camera, and then go back. I think you have to try and maintain that spirit all day long, as much as possible. And because it was a comedy, I took a different approach not only towards the acting, but also with the sets and the photography. It was not nearly as somber as I had used in the earlier films. Overall, I would say that we had as good a spirit on the set of The Raven as any film I’ve ever worked on, except for a couple of moments with Boris. There was a slight edge to it, because Boris came in with a carefully worked out preparation, so when Peter Lorre started improvising new lines it really threw Boris off from his preparation.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Vincent Price felt that Tomb of Ligeia was the best of his Poe films.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, and I agreed with Vincent—Ligeia is one of the best Poe pictures and Vincent’s performance in the film was very good.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That was one of the nice things about Ligeia. All of the acting was quite good. Both Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepherd gave marvelous performances.
ROGER CORMAN: Yes, I felt both Vincent and Elizabeth were excellent in Ligeia. What happened there was when Bob Towne and I started to go in the direction of a love story with Ligeia, we decided to make Rowena a much stronger character than she was in Poe’s original story. In the previous pictures the love element was either non-existent or very slight. So beforehand, I discussed with Vincent the new approach we would be taking with Ligeia. In the previous pictures, although Vincent had always been the star, he had never been what you would call a romantic leading man. So we deliberately tried to go for a more restrained approach with Ligeia and we both agreed he would be playing more of a leading man type of role.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Vincent Price told me he always regretted you stopped directing the Poe films. Did he ever talk to you about doing a non-horror film?
ROGER CORMAN: No, not really, but I did have the feeling Vincent may have resented being typecast because he had started out as a star, in some cases playing a romantic leading man, in other films as a character leading man and I think he lost some of that momentum along the way. He was older when the Poe pictures came along, but he enjoyed making them and I think they brought him back to a certain degree. At the end of his career, I don’t think he was that happy with the reputation he had as a horror star, although he accepted it, but that was really only one aspect of his career.
While Universal’s planned version of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was being put on hold, I began looking as some of the dates when Lovecraft came up with his classic terror stories. I was rather startled to see that Lovecraft’s work was mostly done in close harmony with the classic era of Hollywood horror in the twenties and thirties.
Lovecraft died in 1937, but he had started writing as a child, around the turn of the century. Yet his work was so unique and advanced, it was never “recognized” during his lifetime, although he wrote most of his best known stories in the same years Hollywood was going through it’s golden age of horror film making.
For example, during the years 1925 – 1926 Lovecraft was writing these classic terror tales: The Horror at Red Hook, In the Vault, Cool Air, Pickman’s Model, and The Call of Cthulhu.
In those same years, Hollywood and the German studio UFA released such horror classics as: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE MONSTER, THE UNHOLY THREE, THE BELLS, THE MAGICIAN, LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE, and THE CAT AND THE CANARY.
In the classic Hollywood horror years of 1931 and 1932, Lovecraft wrote these stories: At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Trap (with Henry S. Whitehead), The Dreams in the Witch House, The Man of Stone (with Hazel Heald), The Horror in the Museum (with Hazel Heald) and Through the Gates of the Silver Key (with E. Hoffmann Price).
Of course, Lovecraft’s own bizarre stories woudn’t reach the silver screen until almost 30 years after he died, when Roger Corman and Charles Beaumont opened the gates to his “old stories” by adapting The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward for AIP in 1963, which ended up being labeled as “Edgar Allan Poe’s” THE HAUNTED PALACE, even though the film (by Corman’s own admission) had nothing to do with Edgar Poe or his stories.
So it’s seems a bit strange that Universal was recently close to giving the green light to a $150 million version of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. In a way, I’m glad it’s been but on the back burner, as I don’t think anyone would be happy with the film if Tom Cruise turned up as the leading man – least of all, Mr. Lovecraft!
A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH H. P. LOVECRAFT:
Q: I understand you lost your maternal grandmother?
LOVECRAFT: Her death plunged the household into a gloom from which it never fully recovered. I began to have nightmares of the most hideous description, peopled with things, which I called “night-gaunts.” In dreams they were wont to whirl me through space at a sickening rate of speed fretting and impelling me with their detestable tridents.
Q: Where do you suppose you got the idea for these creatures?
LOVECRAFT: Perhaps from an deluxe edition of Paradise Lost with illustrations by Dore, which I discovered one day in the east parlor.
Q: You depict this night-gaunt image vividly in one of your Fungi From Yuggoth sonnets. Did the mad sorcerer referred to in your stories, “Abdul Alhazred” have a childhood source as well? And what of your fictional book of spells, the “Necronomicon”?
LOVECRAFT: The name “Abdul Alhazred” is one, which some adult devised for me when I was five years old and eager to be an Arab after reading the Arabian Nights. Years later I thought it would be fun to use it as the name of a forbidden book author. The name “Necronomicon” occurred to me in the course of a dream.
THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH
by H. P. Lovecraft
The place was dark and dusty and half-lost
In tangles of old alleys near the quays,
Reeking of strange thing brought in from the seas,
And with queer curls of fog that west winds tossed,
Small lozenge panes obscured by smoke and frost,
Just showed the books, in piles like twisted trees,
Rotting from floor to roof-congeries
Of crumbling elder lore at little cost.
I entered, charmed, and from a cobwebbed heap
Took up the nearest tome and thumbed it through,
Trembling at curious words that seemed to keep
Some secret, monstrous if only one knew
Then, looking for some seller old in craft,
I could find nothing but a voice that laughed.
I held the book beneath my coat, at pains
To hide the thing from sight ins uch a place;
Hurrying through the ancient harbour lanes
With often-turning head and nervous oace.
Dull, furtive windows in old tottering brick
Peered at me oddly as I hastened by,
And thinking what they sheltered, I grew sick
For a redeeming glimpse of clear blue sky.
No one had seen me take the thing-but still
A blank laugh echoes in my whirling head,
And I could guess what nighted worlds of ill
Lurked in that volume I had coveted.
The way grew strange-the walls alike and madding-
And ar behind me, unseen feet were padding.
III. The Key
I do not know what windings in the waste
Of thos strange sea-lanes brought me home once more
But on my porch I trembled, white with haste
To get inside and bolt the heavy door
I had the book that old the hidden way
Across the void and through the space-hung screens
That hold the undimensional worlds at bay
And keep lost aeons to their own demesnes.
At last the key was mine to those vague visions
Of sunset spires and twilight woods that boord
Dim in the gulfs beyond this earth’s precisions
Lurking as memories of infinitude
The key was mine, but as I sat there mumbling
The attic window shook with a faint fumbling.
The day had come again, when as a child
I saw-just once- that hollow of old oaks,
Grey with a ground-mist that enfolds and chokes
The slinking shapes which madness has defiled
In that the same-an herbage rank and wild
Clings round an altar whose carved signs involve
That Nameless One to whom a thousand smokes
Rose, aeons gone, from unclean towers up-piled.
I saw the body spread on that dank stone,
And knew those things which feasted were not men;
I knew this strange, grey world was not my own,
But Yuggoth, past the starry voids-and then
The body shrieked at me with a dead cry,
And all too late I knew that it was I!
The daemon said that he would take me home
To the pale, shadowy land I half-recalled
As a high place of stair and terrace, walled
With marble balustrades that sky-winds comb,
While miles below a maze of dome on dome
And tower on tower beside a sea lies sprawled.
Once more, he told me, I would stand enthralled
On those old heights, and hear the far-off foam.
All this he promised, and through sunset’s gate
He swept me, past the lapping lakes of Flame,
And red-gold thrones of gods without a name
Who shriek in fear at some impending fate
Then a black gulf with sea-sounds in the night”
“Here was your home,” he mocked, “when you had sight”
VI. The Lamp
We found the lamp inside those hollow cliffs
Whose chiselled sign no priest in Thebes could read,
And from whose caverns frightened hieroglyphs
Warned every living creature of earth’s breed.
No more was there-just that one brazen bowl
With traces of a curious oil within;
Fretted wtih some obscurely patterned scroll
And symbols hinting vaguely of strange sin.
Little the fears of forty centuris meant
To us as we bore off our slender spoil
And when we scanned it in our darkened tent
We struck a match to test the ancient oil
It blazed-Great God!. . . But the vast shapes we saw
In that mad flash have seared our lives with awe.
VII. Zaman’s Hill
The great hill hung close over the old town
A precipice against the main street’s end
Green, tall, and wooded, looking darkly down
Upon the steeple at the highway bend
Two hundred years the whispers had been heard
About what happened on the man-shunned slope
Thales of an oddly mangled dear or bird
Or of lost boys whose kin had ceased to hope
One day the mail-man found no village there
Nor were its folks or house seen again
People came out of Aylesbury to state
Yet they all told the mail-man it was plain
That he was mad for saying he had spied
The great hill’s gluttonous eyes, and jaws stretched wide
VIII. The Port
Ten miles from Arkham I had struck the trail
That rides the cliff-edge over Boynton Beach,
And hoped that just at asunset I could reach
The crest tht looks on Innsmouth in the vale.
Far out at sea was a retreating sail
White as hard years of ancient winds could bleach
But evil with some portent byeond speech
So that I did not wave my hand or hail.
Sails out of Innsmouth! Echoing old renown
Of long-dead times, but now a too-swift night
Is closing in, and I have reached the height
Whence I so often scan the distant town
The spires and roofs are there-but look! The gloom
Sinks on dark lanes, as lightless as the tomb!
IX. The Courtyard
It was the city I had known before;
The ancient, leprous town where mongrel throngs
Chant to strange gods, and beat unhallowed gongs
In crypts beneath foul alleys near the shor.
The rotting, fish-eyed houses leered at me
From where they leaned, drunk and half-animate,
As edging through the filth I passed the gate
To the black courtyard where the man would be….
The dark walls closed me in, and loud I cursed
That ever I had come to such a den,
When suddenly a score of windows burst
Into wild light, and swarmed with dancing men:
Mad, soundless revels of the dragging dead-
And not a corpse had either hands or head!
X. The Pigeon-Flyers
They took me slumming, where gaunt walls of brick
Bulge outward with s viscous stored-up evil
And twisted faces, thronging foul and thick
Wink messages to alien god and devil
A million fires were blazing in the streets
And from flat roofs a furtive few would fly
Bedraggled birds into the yawning sky
While hidden drums droned on with measured beats.
I knew those fires where brewing monstrous things,
And that those birds of space has been Outside-
I guessed to what dark planet’s crypts they plied
and wht they brought from Thog beneath their wings
The others laughed-till struck too mute to speak
By what they glimpsed in one bird’s evil beak.
XI. The Well
Farmer Seth Atwood was past eight when
He tried to sink that deep well by his door
With only Eb to help him bore and bore
We laughed, and hoped he’d soon be sane again
And yet, instead, young Eb went crazy, too,
So that they shipped him to the county farm
Seth bricked up the well-mouth up as tight as glue-
Then hacked an artery in his gnarled left arm.
After the funeral we felt bound to get
Out to that well and rip the bricks away
But all we saw were iron handholds set
Down a black hole deeper than we could say
And yet we put the bricks back-for we found
The hole too deep for any line to sound.
XII. The Howler
They told me not to take the Briggs’ Hill path
That used to be the highroad through to Zoar,
For Goody Watkins, hanged in seventeen-four,
Had left a certain monstrous aftermath.
Yet when I disobeyed, and had in view
The vine-hung cottage by the great rock slope,
I could not think of elms or hempen rope,
But wondered why the house still seemed so new.
Stopping a while to watch the fading day,
I heard faint howls, as from a room upstairs,
When through the ivied panes one sunset ray
Struck in, and caught the howler unawares.
I glimpsed – and ran in frenzy from the place,
And from a four-pawed thing with human face.
In the history of Cinefantastique Magazine, Sir Cristopher Lee has appeared on our cover three times, surpassed only by Ray Harryhausen. Interestingly enough, all three of the CFQ covers on Lee (Dracula, The Man With The Golden Gun and The Wicker Man), were also the movies that were given the most play in the film clips shown in the nine-minute tribute to Sir Chris at the BAFTA awards in London on Sunday night.
The BAFTA Fellowship award is quite important, as it puts Mr. Lee in the august company of those talented people who have preceded him: Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Christie, John Barry, Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Hopkins, Terry Gilliam, Dame Judi Dench and last year’s recipient, Vanessa Redgrave.
The award is even more noteworthy because it is the first time an actor in the genre of dread has ever been given such an honor. It is something that eluded past genre superstars, like Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Of course, directors in the genre, like Spielberg, Lucas and Cameron, our now loaded down with such honors, but sadly horror actors have not been so fortunate.
Since Mr. Lee will turn 89 this coming May, I’m sure everyone reading this will agree, “it’s about time!”
Here is the text of Tim Burton’s BAFTA induction of Mr. Lee, followed by Christopher Lee’s acceptance speech:
The recipient of this years award is an electrifying screen presence, whose work I’ve loved since I was a child. I’ve since had the privilege of working with him several times, starting with Sleepy Hollow, which was itself drawn from the inspiration of his great screen heritage. At six foot-five, he physically towers over those around him, in the same way his screen persona puts all of us in the shade.
The range of his screen performances is truly amazing: From Sherlock Holmes to Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, from Rasputin, to Rochefort in The Three and Four Musketeers, to the real life founder of Pakistan in Jinnah, one of the best performances of his career.
In the ’50s and ’60s, he was definitive Count Dracula, as well as The Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster, giving his own unique take on the classic screen monsters. In the seventies he was Francisco Scaramanga, James Bond’s triple-nipple adversary in The Man With the Golden Gun. More recently he appeared as the villain Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels, and appeared as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I won’t mention every movie he’s ever made, because we’d be here all night, but he has developed the reputation as one of the most dedicated and determined actors of multiple generations.
Last year he worked with Martin Scorsese on Hugo Cabret and is currently slated to reprise his role as Saruman in the forthcoming fantasy, The Hobbit. In between all of this, he manages to squeeze in time to do work with UNICEF and record Operas and heavy metal albums. I don’t know if any of you have those, but they are good!
In 2009 he was knighted for his many achievements and at the age of 88, he’s still keeps doing amazing things!
Film clips from Lee’s career included HORROR OF DRACULA, THE WICKER MAN, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, Saruman in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Count Dooku in the STAR WARS prequels, and several of Burton’s own movies, most notably CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACOTRY and THE CORPSE BRIDE. Only two of Lee’s many non-genre films were highlighted: that of his own favorite performance, Jinnah, where he plays the leader of Pakistan, (and which received almost no distribution whatsoever in America) and his new film Triage, with Colin Farrell (which will also have no American theatrical release).
I do feel a little bit like the man who said, I can’t wait to hear what I’ve got to say, but I’ll do my best.
Wise and generous members of the committee, my fellow thespians, many of whom are involved in this (points to the BAFTA award)… I thank you all. This is a truly a great honor. A great, great honor. Two things really make it so. The fact that this was voted to me by my peers, and secondly, that I received it from one of the great directors of our age. (Tim Burton hugs Christopher).
I think there was a newspaper this morning that said I was probably going to cry, something I don’t very often do, in films at any rate. But it is a very emotional moment for me. I’m thankful that I don’t follow in the steps of the great Stanley Kubrick, whose award was posthumous. And I would like to say (looks at award)… my God… this is without a doubt the finest image I’ve ever had.