That criminal mastermind of a film programmer, Eddie Muller is presenting 24 films a second… or rather 24 films in ten days, for the ninth annual edition of NOIR CITY taking place at San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, from Friday, January 21 through Sunday, January 30. This year’s festival features several Noir titles that overlap with the horror genre, as it’s focus is on madmen, psychopaths and all around demented individuals.
Horror highlights include Peter Lorre in STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, Albert Dekker as twins in AMONG THE LIVING, George Cukor’s GASLIGHT, taken from the hit Patrick Hamilton play, ANGEL STREET which helped to launch Vincent Price’s career in Hollywood, Robert Siodmak’s THE DARK MIRROR, Fritz Lang’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR with Joan Bennett, and Ray Milland in SO EVIL MY LOVE.
The complete schedule follows:
Friday, January 21
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR | Director: Boris Ingster (1940 – RKO) 64 min.
Nine years after appearing in Fritz Lang’s M, Peter Lorre plays another murderer on the loose, but in a Hitchcockian twist, Lorre’s crimes are pinned on “the wrong men.” Featuring a prolonged dream sequence that was the initial injection of noir expressionism into Hollywood’s bloodstream. Archival print from the Library of Congress.
HIGH WALL | Director: Curtis Bernhardt (1947 – MGM) 99 min.
Brain-damaged vet Robert Taylor confesses to murdering his unfaithful wife and is sentenced to a sanitarium. His doctor (sexy Audrey Totter) gradually realizes he might not be guilty. Taylor gives his best performance ever in this neglected gem, which glistens with feverish rain-soaked noir-scapes, shot by Paul C. Vogel (THE TIME MACHINE).
Saturday, January 22 | Matinee
GASLIGHT | Director: George Cukor (1944 – MGM) 114 min.
MGM’s glossy film version of the hit Broadway play ANGEL STREET, which starred Vincent Price as the megalomaniac Mr. Manningham, who was replaced in the film by Charles Boyer. George Cukor directed Ingrid Bergman to the first of her three Academy Awards, as the distressed woman whose husband drives her to the brink of insanity. Joseph Cotten and Angela Lansbury co-star.
Q: Did you consider Vincent Price for GASLIGHT?
GEORGE CUKOR: There had been some talk about it because I had met Vincent Price when he was playing Prince Albert in VICTORIA REGINA on Broadway, and David Selznick had wanted to put him under contract. But Metro wanted a bigger name and in the end we cast Charles Boyer in the part, which worked out quite well. Boyer kept up air of coldness throughout the entire movie.
Q: John L. Balderston who wrote DRACULA and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN worked on the script.
GEORGE CUKOR: Yes, along with John Van Druten and Walter Reisch. Balderston worked on it before I came on the film, though. Van Druten was a very good playwright, although I didn’t like his play OLD ACQUAINTANCE. I thought that was shit! It was too heavily done, but he was generally a very good writer of dialogue. Together he and Reisch worked out the suspense elements and were able to move the action out of the boundaries of the stage. It’s very difficult, because you have to have a certain fidelity to the original, but also give it movement beyond the confines of the stage, without tearing the script apart. Van Druten actually suggested Angela Lansbury for the part of the Cockney maid. She was here as a refugee from wartime England and working at Bullock’s department store on Wilshire Blvd., so I made a test with her even though she had no experience. Well, she did what I felt was a very good test and even though she was a bit nervous, as soon as she stepped on the stage, it was just as if she had been a professional actress all her life!
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT | Director: Anthony Mann (1944 – Republic) 56 min.
A WWII veteran comes to a California town to meet the woman who was his cherished wartime pen-pal. The girl’s peculiar mother claims she’s away-perhaps far, far away. This highly atmospheric, slightly daft “B” was the sixth low-budget wonder on the growing résumé of esteemed noir director Anthony Mann (T-MEN, RAW DEAL), featuring a jaw-dropping performance by Austrian actress Helen Thimig. A brand new 35mm print restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive! Preservation funded by Paramount Pictures.
Saturday, January 22 | Evening
THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME | Director: Irving Pichel (1947 – RKO) 95 min.
Robert Young is brilliantly cast against type as a married man whose sex addiction leads to murder. Director Irving Pichel (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER) elicits superb, nuanced performances from Susan Hayward, Jane Greer and Rita Johnson as the seduced and deceived women, all full-blooded characters in Jonathan Latimer’s sharp-edged screenplay. Produced by Hitchcock protégé Joan Harrison, it’s one of the most unjustly obscure films of the 1940’s.
DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK | Director: Roy Ward Baker (1952 – 20th Century-Fox) 76 min.
Hammer Horror director Roy Ward Baker got his start directing Marilyn Monroe as a mentally unbalanced babysitter (in a sheer negligee!) who is hired by a couple visiting Manhattan. All hell breaks loose when she entices randy airline pilot Richard Widmark in for a layover. A claustrophobic, unsettling drama scripted by Daniel Taradash, from the novel “Mischief” by Charlotte Armstrong. Featuring Anne Bancroft and Elisha Cook, Jr.
Sunday, January 23
A DOUBLE LIFE | Director: George Cukor (1947 – Universal) 104 min.
George Cukor directs Ronald Colman in his only Oscar-winning performance as Anthony John, an actor who confuses his role onstage as Othello with his life off the stage, resulting in the Moor of Venice’s jealousy becoming all too real. Miklos Rozsa provides another vivid score, but minus the thermin he introduced to such great effect for mental aberration in Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND. With Signe Hasso, Shelly Winters and Whit Bissell. Presented in an archival print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funded by the Film Foundation.
AMONG THE LIVING | Director: Stuart Heisler (1941 – Paramount) 67 min.
DR. CYCLOPS’s Albert Dekker stars as identical twins, one a brain-damaged psychopath who stirs up a Gothic whirlwind of insanity, family skeletons and murder in a small town paralyzed by fear. Stuart Heisler directs Lester Cole’s (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS) baroque script with fabulously lurid intensity. Costarring a lushly nubile Susan Hayward, venerable Harry Carey, and pre-tragedy Frances Farmer. This rarely screened horror-noir hybrid is one of the most requested films in NOIR CITY history, finally presented in a glorious 35mm print!
Monday, January 24
SORRY, WRONG NUMBER | Director: Anatole Litvak (1948 – Paramount) 89 min.
Barbara Stanwyck gives a tour de force performance (and won her fourth Oscar nomination) as a neurotic invalid who overhears a murder plot over the telephone. Based on the famous radio play by Lucille Fletcher, that starred Agnes Moorehead. The movie plot is expanded with flashbacks to Stanwyck’s romance with a young Burt Lancaster before things go sour in their relationship. Maestro Franz Waxman delivers a suitably thrilling score.
THE LADY GAMBLES | Director: Michael Gordon (1949 -Universal) 99 min.
Barbara Stanwyck delivers another great performance as a woman whose appetite for gambling destroys her marriage and threatens her life. The on-location scenes of early Las Vegas are great fun, but things turn harrowing as Stanwyck spirals into addiction. Writer Roy Huggins and director Michael Gordon are surprisingly frank and brutal for the time, especially when Stanwyck is caught cheating at back alley craps. With Robert Preson, John Hoyt and Stephan McNally.
Tuesday, January 25
THE DARK MIRROR | Director: Robert Siodmak (1948 – Universal) 85 min.
Witnesses place Ruth Collins (Olivia de Havilland) at the scene of a grisly murder. When it’s discovered she has a twin, Dr. Elliot (Lew Ayres) is brought in to psychologically evaluate them both. When the doc falls for one of them, the other becomes murderously jealous. Noir master Robert Siodmak deftly directs this Oscar-nominated original story, guiding de Havilland through two sensational performances, as the sisters both sweet and sinister. Preservation funded by the Film Foundation.
CRACK-UP | Director: Irving Reis (1947 – RKO) 93 min.
A museum curator (Pat O’Brien) survives a massive train wreck, but wakes up an amnesiac in a living nightmare; it seems the accident never happened, and now everyone is convinced he’s losing his mind. Fredric Brown’s ingenious short story “Madman’s Holiday,” is inventively realized by director Irving Reis and enacted by a top-flight cast, including suave, sinister Herbert Marshall, sartorially splendid Claire Trevor and Mercury Theatre veteran, Ray Collins.
Wednesday, January 26
THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH | Director: Jean Renoir (1947 – RKO) 71 min.
Despite this noir-stained psychodrama being drastically cut prior to release, it remains a mesmerizing tale of dementia, desperation, and lust. Legendary French director Jean Renoir elicits compelling performances from the triangle of Robert Ryan, Joan Bennett, and Charles Bickford, the latter as a famous painter blinded by his beautiful wife. A rare chance to see this maimed masterpiece-that-might-have-been on the big screen!
JEAN RENOIR talking with Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette in SIGHT AND SOUND (Summer – 1954):
Q: Is it true that you encountered some difficulties with your film, WOMAN ON THE BEACH?
JEAN RENOIR: That was quite an adventure. Joan Bennett, who is a friend of mine, asked me to make it. She said: “I’ve been invited to make a film at RKO. Come make it with me.” RKO seconded the offer, and I was pleased to go back to them—I’d been very happy there before. Originally, Val Lewton was going to produce the film. He was a most interesting person, and it was very tragic that he died some years ago. If not the first, he was certainly one of the first to make fairly ambitious films cheaply; that is on “B” picture budgets, although with good scripts and stories out of the ordinary run. Don’t think I despise “B” pictures; in principle, I prefer them to the big, pretentious psychological films—they are more amusing. When I happen to go to the cinema in America, I go to see ” B ” pictures. In the first place, they are a great technical achievement. To make a Western in a week as Monogram does, beginning on Monday and ending on Saturday, takes a good deal of skill, believe me. The crime stories are made at the same speed. Secondly, I consider that they are often better than the important pictures, because the director has complete freedom—working at that rate, no one has time to supervise him. Val Lewton kindly helped me to begin WOMAN ON THE BEACH, and then went back to his other projects, which no doubt interested him more, and left me to myself. I was more or less my own producer, in association with a man named Jack J. Gross, who kept strictly to the business side. In fact, I was wholly responsible, and I’ve never shot a film with less script and more improvisation. I took the opportunity of attempting something I had long wanted to do; a film based on what, today, is called sex—perhaps it was called sex then, but people didn’t talk so much about it—seen from a purely physical point of view. I tried to tell a story of physical attraction into which sentiment did not enter. I made it and was pleased with it; the film was perhaps a little slow, but the scenes were well balanced and excellently played by Robert Ryan—this was his first important part—and by Joan Bennett.
The studio, the actors and I were all pleased with this film, but we had some doubts about the public reaction, so we agreed to have several previews. I remember one in particular, at Santa Barbara before an audience of college kids. They didn’t like the film, they weren’t interested, and I had an impression that my method of showing emotional scenes devoid of emotion shocked them—or perhaps it wasn’t what they were used to. In any case, it was a poor reception and we returned to the studio very disheartened.
You know, a preview is an unbearable ordeal. You sit down and feel as though your body was being pierced by blows from a knife. I was so discouraged that I was the first to suggest cuts and alterations. The film had been expensive to make, as to arrive at the style I wanted I had to work slowly; and Joan Bennett had succeeded in completely altering her personality for the part—I even asked her to lower her voice, which was rather sharp. All of that took time. This time, it was I who feared a financial catastrophe, for which I would have felt responsible. The studio authorities were most considerate, and said: “All right, we shall have to make changes, but you must do it.”
I felt then that I had no right to take complete responsibility for launching the film on the public, and I believe that moment of doubt did no good to the picture. I carefully re-shot numerous scenes, altogether about a third of the film, including mostly the scenes between Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett; and I produced a film which was, I think, neither one thing nor the other, and which had certainly lost its raison d’etre. I had allowed myself to be too greatly influenced by the Santa Barbara preview, and, at the thought of losing contact with the public, I had flinched. All the same, people who criticize this film should not consider the things that influenced me. I was myself responsible for the alterations. Actually, I believe that I was attempting something which would have been successful now; today, in America, audiences are more ready to accept the ideas of WOMAN ON THE BEACH, and I am afraid that my film was premature, and anticipated the present state of mind.
BEWARE MY LOVELY | Director: Harry Horner (1952 – RKO) 77 min.
The great Ida Lupino plays a lonely war widow who employs a drifter (Robert Ryan) as a household handyman, only to learn–too late–precisely why he has no references on his résumé. Lupino and Ryan, a pair of noir heavyweights, battle through a “day without end” to an unexpected climax. Mel Dinelli’s suspenseful script is adapted from his hit stage play “The Man.” Released the same year Lupino and Ryan teamed-up on Nicholas Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND.
Thursday, January 27
THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS | Director: Peter Godfrey (1947 – Warner Bros.) 99 min.
Humphrey Bogart as a psychopathic artist who paints his wives as “The Angel of Death,” and then disposes of them with a glass of poison milk (shades of SUSPICION). Naturally Barbara Stanwyck catches on to her husband’s psychosis, so Bogart must eliminate Stanwyck in a more violent way. Especially memorable for the melodramatic scene where a crazed Bogart bursts into Stanwyck’s room, his face a mask of terror that foreshadows Christopher Lee’s dramatic library entrance in HORROR OF DRACULA, ten year later.
MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS | Director: Joseph H. Lewis (1945 – Columbia) 65 min.
Unemployed Julia (Nina Foch) gets a dream job working for a wealthy widower, only to awaken in a nightmare-living with a schizoid husband and a scheming mother-in-law (George Macready and Dame May Whitty), neither of whom she’s ever seen before! Director Joseph H. Lewis (GUN CRAZY) made his mark in Hollywood with this incredibly tense and well-acted mystery thriller, one of the best B-films of the era.
Friday, January 28
CRASHOUT | Director: Lewis Foster (1955 – Republic) 89 min.
Killers on a Furlough from Hell! The rarest of jailbreak films, and one of the best. William Bendix, Arthur Kennedy, Luther Adler, Gene Evans, Marshall Thompson and William Talman (as a knife-chucking religious fanatic) crash out of the pen to unearth a stashed robbery payroll. Director Lewis Foster’s frantic film is full of wild flourishes and stunningly brutal action. Featuring leggy Beverly Michaels, wholesome Gloria Talbott, and mousy Percy Helton!
LOOPHOLE | Harold D. Schuter (1954 – Allied Artists) 80 min.
One of the rarest films of the original noir era, a tidy tale of unjust persecution that plays like a B-film LES MISERABLES. An innocent bank clerk (Barry Sullivan), made the fall guy in an embezzlement scheme, is pursued to the brink of insanity by a scarily righteous lawman (merciless Charles McGraw, in an signature performance). Presented in a brand new 35mm print funded by the Film Noir Foundation, courtesy of Warner Bros. and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Saturday, January 29 | Matinee
BLIND ALLEY | Director: Charles Vidor (1939 – Columbia) 69 min.
An escaped convict (Chester Morris) and his moll (Ann Dvorak) hold a dinner party hostage while waiting for their boat to freedom. During the long night, a psychiatrist (Ralph Bellamy) persistently probes for the root of the crook’s psychopathy-with shattering results. Remade several times, the first version remains the freshest, thanks to Charles Vidor’s (GILDA) canny direction, including startling dream sequences using camera techniques unique for the era.
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR | Director: Fritz Lang (1948 – Universal) 99 min.
Director Fritz Lang jumped (with abandon) onto the 1940’s Freudian bandwagon with this wildly symbolic cinematic fright-ride. On a pre-wedding holiday Joan Bennett meets the real man of her dreams (Michael Redgrave), who sweeps her off her feet and into a nightmarish honeymoon that’s a cross between Rebecca and Bluebeard. Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) shot this visually stunning film that has been lovingly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funded by the Film Foundation.
Saturday, January 29 | Evening show
THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY | Director: Robert Siodmak (1945 – Universal) 80 min.
Small-town designer Harry Quincey (George Sanders) finally meets the right woman (Ella Raines), but his possessive and possibly insane sister Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) has no intention of letting him go. How will Harry get free of her incestuous clutches? A dark and mordant psycho-sexual drama (with lots of spicy wit) in which director Robert Siodmak creatively undermines the Hollywood Production Code. Fitzgerald is at her stark, raving, and sexy best.
SO EVIL MY LOVE | Director: Lewis Allen (1948 – Paramount) 112 min.
Inspired by a true-life, never-solved murder, this is one of the great undiscovered gothic-noir dramas of the 1940’s, made a few years after Milland and director Lewis Allen teamed up for the scary ghost story THE UNINVITED. A devout missionary (Ann Todd) falls under the spell of a charming rogue (Ray Milland) and can’t resist aiding him in the commission of his crimes. Milland is at his caddish best, but the real standouts are Todd and co-star Geraldine Fitzgerald. Featuring Martita Hunt (BRIDES OF DRACULA) and Leo G. Carroll. Based on the novel by Marjorie Bowen, who wrote under the pseudonym Joseph Shearing.
Sunday, January 30
ANGEL FACE | Director: Otto Preminger (1952 – RKO) 91 min.
Jean Simmons is simultaneously sexy and creepy as a Los Angeles heiress who will do anything to get the man she wants. In this case, it’s ultimate noir hero-chump Robert Mitchum, who blithely believes he can handle his unhinged paramour’s Electra-fying passion. Otto Preminger directs this doomed romance with an almost suffocating precision, creating what Jean-Luc Godard hailed as “one of the ten best films ever made in Hollywood.” With Herbert Marshall and Leon Ames.
THE HUNTED | Director: Jack Bernhard (1948 – Allied Artists) 88 min.
More buried treasure unearthed! Steve Fisher’s original screenplay for this bargain-basement B-film offers a clever twist on the typical femme fatale. Laura Mead (Belita) has served her time for robbery and still claims her innocence. She returns to the city where her former cop lover (Preston Foster) sent her up. Was she guilty-or was he just jealous? Is she back for a fresh start-or revenge? A strange, hypnotic noir from Poverty Row director Jack (Decoy) Bernhard, resurrected in a new 35mm print by the Film Noir Foundation, courtesy of Warner Bros. and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
That criminal mastermind of a film programmer, Eddie Muller is presenting 24 films a second… or rather 24 films in ten days, for the ninth annual edition of NOIR CITY taking place at San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, from Friday, January 21 through Sunday, January 30. This year’s festival features several Noir titles that overlap with the horror genre, as it’s focus is on madmen, psychopaths and all around demented individuals.
Seventeen years ago on October 25 1993 at the age of 82, Vincent Price met the end of his adventure on Earth. To commemorate his passing, several Facebook groups are having a “Vincent Price Day” including Rick Squire’s The Vincent Price Exhibit. As is well-known, Mr. Price was a life-long devotee of all the arts and often defended the motion-picture as a great art form before it was fashionable to do so in the fifties and early sixties. In this homage Price wrote in 1986 for Forrest J. Ackerman, he offers a splendid tribute not only to “4 E” but also to the many fright films that will forever be associated with the name of Vincent Leonard Price.
HOMAGE TO 4E ACKERMAN
A tribute by VINCENT PRICE
March 24, 1986
I’ve done my share of horror films. Some were meant to be, some weren’t. Some actors are so connected (to the genre) in the public’s mind, that they mind the association–I do and I don’t. All of us have done other things, many of which we are more proud of than the horrors, but what the public remembers demands a certain amount of gratitude from all of us. The public can so easily forget.
Now there are people whose role in life is to perpetuate the public’s memory in certain ways, in specific areas of every field of endeavor. Some do it with a heavy hand and some with a touch of genius. Some even combine genius with humor and they are the very special few. To name the one special, unique, all by himself, we must come up with the name of Forry Ackerman. He is a gentle wit, full of fun and funniness. He loves a quip and is not above treating us to some striking punning. He wrote me that, “Twenty-seven years ago I brought forth upon this continent a genre magazine conceived in jeopardy and dead-icated to the proposition (13) that all monsters are cremated evil.” Now you see what I mean. And not even the slightest apology to Lincoln.
Quite seriously, Forry has indeed punned, joked and consciously smiled his way into millions of young hearts. To appear on a cover of his magazine is to become immortal. In a rather ghoulish way. The recipient of the cover honor can be sure of thousands of imitators. He or she takes a place in the make up’s of many Halloweens. They become collector’s items and are framed, hung, adored and almost worshipped throughout Monsterland. Landis, Lucas, King and Spielberg all owe him some of their devoted followers. Single handed he has kept alive many a lessening legend putting them under his list of ghost writers on the heading of his always imaginative stationary. Tod Browing, George Zucco, Jack Pierce, as well as the obvious greats, Karloff, Lorre, etc.
On a personal note he is a great and loyal friend and career supporter. When you’re with Forry or 4 E and his enchanting wife Wendayne at a movie opening or film festival as I was two years ago in Madrid, or at some especially enchanted Hollywood affair you know you’ve in the company of royalty. In his kingdom of the bizarre, weird and wonderful he is supreme ruler, keeper of the keys to monster immortality. He pictures himself crowned with Jack Pierce’s famous top part of Frankenstein’s monster’s head.
Forry has made monsters fun, vampires good company. His address in Hollyweird, Karloffornia has become a Mecca for young monster lovers and serious students of one of the oldest cinema genres. He is a collector extraordinaire as he truly collects extraordinary things and has made the grand gesture of giving it to the city of Los Angeles, which with it’s typical lack of concern for an industry that has made it famous, still doesn’t have a place to house it.
Eventually he and his collection will become monuments to a (but for him) much neglected cinema art form. We all owe him a great debt for keeping alive his favorite genre of movies and best preserving its mementos. We should thank him for his fun, devotion, and generous giving of it to his avid public. His fans are legion.
Celebrate Halloween this year with the magical voice of Vincent Price:
WITCHCRAFT & MAGIC: An Adventure in Demonology. Capitol Records 1969 SWBB-342 Stereo. Two Record Set. Written and Directed by Terry d’ Oberoff. Producer: Roger Karshner. Electronic score by Douglas Leedy.
The secrets of witchcraft and magic revealed by Vincent Price, distinguished actor and demonologist.
A Note from producer Roger Karshner:
“In this album we have attempted to bring to the listener the essential elements of Witchcraft and Magic, authentically and dramatically. Terry d’Oberoff’s script is historically sound and is beautifully written, with satanic, dramatic brilliance. Mr. Price’s interpretation is indeed masterful. His voice surrounds you, lifts your mind and transport it across the landscape of Hell.”
This is easily one of the best of Vincent Price’s many sound recordings. Here Price’s superb dramatic reading is beautifully enhanced by an inventive use of stereo sound effects that most of Price’s other recordings lack. There is also a very subtle music score and atmospheric readings from three un-credited actresses who play the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Image Entertainment’s new 14-DVD set of 67 episodes of THRILLER is quite a marvelous treat, and it fits in perfectly with Cinefantastique’s celebration of movies released in that seminal year for terror, 1960.
Among the impressive authors who wrote episodes for THRILLER were Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Donald S. Sandford and Barre Lyndon. The directors included such experienced hands as John Brahm, Laszlo Benedek, Ted Post, Douglas Heyes, Ray Milland, Herschel Daugherty and Ida Lupino.
Yet, what I find truly amazing about the series is the cornucopia of great Hollywood character actors who were featured on the show. Actors who were never “stars.” As Boris Karloff notes, “Isn’t it quite wonderful to use actors instead of ‘stars’ ” Indeed, it is and Thriller featured among many others, these fine actors, nearly all of whom had important roles in at least one classic horror movie:
- John Carradine, Torin Thatcher, Beverly Garland, Vladimir Sokoloff and Martita Hunt
- Jack Carson, Estelle Winwood, Everett Sloane, Edward Andrews and Mary Astor
- Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Judith Evelyn, John Williams and Hazel Court
- Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Oscar Homolka, Warren Oates and Patrica Medina
- Otto Kruger, Nancy Kelly, Eduardo Cianelli, Richard Carlson and Jo Van Fleet
- Sidney Blackmer, William Windom, George Kennedy, Ann Todd and Henry Daniell
All of these people were truly wonderful character actors, but none of them were ever really “stars” so it was no surprise to find not one of them listed among the 20 actors featured on the back of the THRILLER box set. I guess the PR “experts” think Donna Douglas, Tom Poston and Natalie Schafer are more exciting to genre fans, than John Carradine, Mary Astor and Henry Daniell!
Of course, since Henry Daniell nearly stole the show from Boris Karloff when the two actors appeared together in Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, I’d like to make a special note of Daniell’s work on THRILLER here.
Mr. Daniell made five memorable appearances on Thriller, playing among others, Count Cagliostro, Vicar Weatherford and Squire Moloch. Sadly, Daniell and Karloff were not reunited in any episode of THRILLER, but since both Karloff and Daniell appeared in five episodes, it’s interesting to note that Daniell’s episodes are of better quality than Karloff’s! That certainly doesn’t mean the five episodes Karloff appeared in were bad, simply that most of them were less exciting than such classics at The Cheaters and The Well of Doom.
Actually, all of the five episodes Karloff appeared in were quite good. They included, The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Sommervilles, Dialogues with Death and The Incredible Doktor Markesan. Dr. Markesan was beautifully directed by Robert Florey, who ironically, had been scheduled to direct Frankenstein before he was replaced by James Whale. If Florey had directed Frankenstein, it’s quite possible he might easily have cast an actor other than Karloff as the monster!
To introduce Boris Karloff’s comments on THRILLER, here are some of Stephen King’s remarks from his book Danse Macabre. King calls Thriller the best horror series ever made for TV, but in reading his comments, anyone with knowledge of the genre may notice the staggering number of factual mistakes he makes, which tend to mar his otherwise intriguing observations:
STEPHEN KING on THRILLER:
Probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller. It ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns. It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies—history may record that dramatic television finally gave up the ghost and slid down the tubes with a hearty cry of “Na-noo, na-noo!”
The contemporaries of Thriller were also weekly bloodbaths; the time of The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as the unflappable Eliot Ness and featuring the gruesome deaths of hoodlums without number (1959-1963); Peter Gunn (1958-1961); and Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), to name just a few. It was TV’s violent era. As a result, after a slow first thirteen weeks, Thriller was able to become something other than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be (early episodes dealt with cheating husbands trying to hypnotize their wives into walking over high cliffs, poisoning Aunt Martha to inherit her fortune so that the gambling debts could be paid off, and all that tiresome sort of thing) and took on a tenebrous life of its own. For the brief period of its run between January of 1961 and April of 1962—perhaps fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes—it really was one of a kind, and its like was never seen on TV again.
Thriller was an anthology-format show (as all of the supernatural-terror TV programs which have enjoyed even a modicum of success have been) hosted by Boris Karloff. Karloff had appeared on TV before, after the Universal horror wave of the early to mid-thirties finally ran weakly out in that series of comedies in the late forties. This program, telecast on the fledgling ABC-TV network, had a brief run in the autumn of 1949. It was originally titled Starring Boris Karloff, fared no better following a title change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, and was canceled. In feeling and tone, however, it was startlingly similar to Thriller, which came along eleven years later.
…Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run, and not in the best of health; he suffered from a chronically bad back and had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932. He no longer starred in all the programs—many of the guest stars on the Thriller program were nonentities who went on to become full-fledged nobodies (one of those guest stars, Reggie Nalder, went on to play the vampire Barlow in the CBS-TV film version of ‘Salem’s Lot)—but fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (“The Strange Door,” for instance). The old magic was still there, still intact. Lugosi might have finished his career in misery and poverty but Karloff, despite a few embarrassments like Frankenstein 1970, went out as he came in: as a gentleman.
Produced by William Frye, Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales, the memory of which had been kept alive up until then mostly in the hearts of fans, a few quickie paperback anthologies, and, of course, in those limited-edition Arkham House anthologies. One of the most significant things about the Thriller series from the standpoint of the horror fan was that it began to depend more and more upon the work of writers who had published in those “shudder pulps” …the writers who, in the period of the twenties, thirties, and forties, had begun to guide horror out of the Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel it had been in for so long, and toward our modern perception of what the horror story is and what it should do. Robert Bloch was represented by “The Hungry Glass,” a story in which the mirrors of an old house harbor a grisly secret; Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness. Other episodes include “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” in which a red wig keeps an actress eternally young …until the final five minutes of the program, when she loses it—and everything else.
Miss DeVore’s lined, sunken face; the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”); the fellow who sees the faces of his fellow men and women turned into hideous monstrosities when he puts on a special pair of glasses (“The Cheaters,” from another Bloch story)—these may not have constituted fine art, but in Thriller’s run, we find those qualities coveted above all others by fans of the genre: a literate story coupled with the genuine desire to frighten viewers into spasms.
BORIS KARLOFF on THRILLER:
These comments were compiled from various interviews Boris Karloff has given over the years for a special tribute program I put together in 2006 for a retrospective program of Karloff films, for which Sara Karloff was the guest of honor. The Karloff retrospective was organized in San Francisco by Gary Meyer, currently the director of the Telluride Film Festival.
How do you determine what parts you’ll accept?
BORIS KARLOFF: I am quite shameless. If I am offered a part, I’ll have a go at it. I do not go seriously around trying to pick my own parts. That is dangerous. I could fancy myself playing all sorts of things. I could read a book and think, “I would be great in that,” but I don’t think you know what is best. I think it’s much better for somebody outside of yourself to choose the part. You can always say no, if it’s a bad part.
You did a TV series in which you played quite another type or role, didn’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, yes, that was Colonel March of Scotland Yard. It was made in England during the winter of 1953 and ‘54.
Were they made for American audiences?
BORIS KARLOFF: Yes, they were made for the American market.
Did you enjoying making the TV series Thriller?
BORIS KARLOFF: Very much, indeed. The man who produced it, Bill Frye, is a very good friend of my wife and I. I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful producer and it’s a great loss to television, because he’s gone to Columbia to make films.
How did you initially get involved in doing Thriller?
BORIS KARLOFF: I just happened along, and they made this test film, which was called The Twisted Image. I do hope you won’t confuse me with the title. I wasn’t in it, I just did the emceeing. I appear as myself, which is a frightful thing to do to an audience. They do it quite simply. I sort of intrude into the first scene and explain for example, that this nice looking couple is really in for quite a terrifying day, as you shall soon see and then I quietly slip out again. The producers then suggested that I might like to appear in some of the episodes, to which I was most agreeable, because it has been set up quite sensibly I think, as there is no set number of shows which I must do, you see. And it is quite wonderful to use actors instead of “stars”—that abused word that has ceased to have any meaning. It is a sad thing—the awful waste of potential talent you find today.
You have actually done quite a range of things outside of the horror category, haven’t you?
BORIS KARLOFF: That’s a dreadful word… it’s the wrong word…
What term besides “horror” would you like to be applied to the films you work in?
BORIS KARLOFF: Well, I think the trapping was, in the early days when they first made these films, they were trying to get one word to express it, and they chose the word “horror.” But the word “horror” has a connotation of revulsion. That’s what the word really means. Well the aim certainly is not to repel you, or to revolt you. It is to attract you. It’s to excite you. It’s to alarm you, perhaps. It’s excitement. I think the word should be thriller, really, or shock, but certainly not horror. So I think “Thriller” is quite the best word for this sort of thing, as the word “horror” has come to mean something else altogether. I mean, if it’s to be a horror show, they put some guts in a bucket and show it to you. That sort of thing, but a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It’s not tied down to pure mystery, or violence, or murder. That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller—violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock. The two skillful men who are in charge of this operation are going to prove that you can have all the suspense, mystery, adventure and excitement you could want, without resorting to violence. I’m quite delighted with the whole thing.
You don’t live in Hollywood now, do you?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I live in London.
In London, that’s right.
BORIS KARLOFF: And in airplanes! (Laughs).
Oh yes, commuting across the Atlantic.
BORIS KARLOFF: I flew a total of 12,000 miles (on a round-trip from London to Hollywood) to do one day’s work filming six of the lead-in’s to Thriller. I thought it would take at least three days, and I must say I was flabbergasted that it only took one. It was filmed at Universal, on the same lot where 30 years earlier I played Frankenstein’s monster. In a way, it was like coming home again. The first season I only appeared in one episode, but it was a little tiresome to fly 12,000 miles just to read the teleprompter, so during the second season I appeared in four shows.
In 1953 you made an Italian film on the island of Ischia, called The Island Monster.
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh God, yes.
Do you remember much about it?
BORIS KARLOFF: No, I haven’t the least idea what it was like. Incredible! Dreadful! No one in the outfit spoke English, and I don’t speak Italian. Just hopeless. I had a very good time, but that’s beside the point.
Most of your recent films have been done for American International Pictures. How do you like working for them?
BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, they (James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, the heads of AIP) have been extremely considerate to me. They are very successful and intelligent men. They know their market and they know their field very well. I’m most grateful to them. Their films are beautifully mounted and photographed. They shoot them in about three weeks. How can they do them in that short amount of time? The answer is in the immense amount of preparation, the homework that is done before you ever get on the set and start shooting. That’s when all the money starts to roll out, the moment you assemble the whole thing on the set. Then, if you’re not ready, you’re throwing money out the window. They rent space at a studio, they have assembled one of the finest crews that I’ve ever known, and the crews in the studios out there are really marvelous. They anticipate everything, they are ahead of you, they take a pride in what they are doing, and believe me it makes a difference. Everything is there and ready right down to the last button so that there is no pressure on me as an actor. If I’ve played a scene badly and want to do it again, they say, “sure,” not, “oh, Christ we haven’t got the time.”
Obviously, Stephen King is a masterful writer of horror fiction, but one wishes he had done a little more fact checking for his book, Danse Macabre, since it is filled with an incredible number of factual errors. Here are just a few from the short text I’ve quoted from, above:
KING: …fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes…
Mr. King obviously got the total number of Thriller episodes wrong, since it was 67 episodes, not 78.
KING: Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run
When Karloff began Thriller, he was 71 and in fairly good health. His major health problems came in 1963 after Thriller was off the air.
KING: Karloff had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932.
Frankenstein, as most everyone knows appeared in 1931. Karloff did not have to wear weights to stand upright, but needed leg braces to walk in his final years.
KING: Fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (appear on the show) “The Strange Door,” for instance.
Fans will remember The Strange Door, but not because it was an episode of Thriller. It was a Universal feature film starring Karloff and Charles Laughton.
KING: The young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (“Pigeons from Hell”).
Mr. King’s memory is faulty, as the scene he describes does not appear in “Pigeons from Hell.” The young man is carrying a hatchet with which he attempts to kill his brother, it is not buried in his head.
Watch the Video of the BFI and BAFTA special achievement award presented to RAY HARRYHAUSEN on the occasion of the master animator’s 90th birthday:
This fabulous 42 minute minute video includes comments from:
- James Cameron
- Steven Spielberg
- Guillermo Del Toro
- Nick Park
- Frank Darabont
- John Landis (Host)
With guest speakers:
- Sir Christopher Frayling
- The Tortoise and the Hare Animators
- Randy Cook
- Colin Arthur (mask-maker)
- Gary Raymond and John Cairney
- Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren & Ken Ralston
- Tony Dalton & Vanessa Harryhausen
- Ray Bradbury
- Peter Jackson
(Jackson shows his rare amateur film inspired by Harryhausen and presents a special BAFTA Award to Ray.)
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your earlier films, although you didn’t have star names, you always had excellent British character actors, such as Douglas Wilmer, Laurence Naismith and Patrick Troughton. In fact, all those actors appeared in Sir Laurence Olivier’s film version of Richard III. Did you see Richard III when in came out in 1955?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Oh yes, although that was many years ago. And as you say, we always had very talented actors, even if they were not what today you would call stars. But they were all very competent actors: Douglas Wilmer was brilliant as King Pelias in Jason and later we used him in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as the Grand Vizier. Laurence Naismith was also in Jason, and we used him again in The Valley of Gwangi.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What led you to stop making movies after Clash of the Titans?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: I had enough of spending my time in a dark room after everybody else went home. I spent most of my life in a dark room, painted black, which can be depressing if you are aware of it, although I was never aware of it. I also felt that tastes had changed. After Clash of the Titans, we were going to do a follow-up and I helped Charles develop a script with Beverly Cross called Force of the Trojans, although a lot of the effects work would have been farmed out to someone else. But even though Clash had made a lot of money for MGM, they didn’t want to back it. They felt costume pictures weren’t suitable and the pictures the studios wanted you to make all had to have explosions in them every five minutes. So I’m grateful that I got in on the tail end of the great days of Hollywood.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So once MGM passed on making Force of the Trojans, you finally decided to retire?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Yes, pretty much. I was able to spend most of my time doing the things I had always wanted to do for a long time. I began making bronze figures of some of the characters used in my films, and doing many other things, including getting re-acquainted with my family. Unfortunately, when you devote too much time to a film, you have very little time to see your family.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Now that all your fairy tales and early films are out on DVD, are there any animation scenes that got cut which might be included on future DVD releases—such as the Ghoul fight from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: There’s not a great deal and once I finish a picture it’s out of my hands. I don’t recall the Ghoul sequence having been cut that much. It couldn’t have been that important, because I’ve looked at the picture on DVD and it didn’t bother me. I did have a sequence we cut from Jason and the Argonauts during the skeleton fight. After Jason cuts off one of the skeletons heads, the skeleton got down on his hands and knees to look for his head, but it slowed the whole pace of the scene down, so we decided to cut it out. Unfortunately, I never kept that footage. I should have saved it, but once you finish a film, you are so glad to be done, you don’t think about those kinds of things.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What are you thoughts about the current state of the movie business compared to Hollywood in the forties when you were first starting out?
RAY HARRYHAUSEN: Well, today everyone is saturated with all sorts of entertainments, where in the good old days you looked forward to going to the movies on Saturday night and it was a big event in your life. The people who made pictures in the forties, the big studios and producers had great imagination. When you look back at some of those pictures, you see that they knew how to make the average person see things bigger than life for two hours. It was a relief or an escape that we all loved. But today, you are bombarded with so many different things: DVD’s, Television, the Internet, and everything else, so I think people become rather jaded. That means you have to go over the top, in the sense of showing more, to make it bloodier and more ghastly in order to top all previous productions. Where that will eventually lead, I have no idea. At the rate some of today’s horror films are going, only people who work in the slaughterhouse would care to see them. I think also, that today, the fantastic image is so overdone it no longer amazes you and they tend to do overly violent things. It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes—you have to disguise the fact that there’s nothing really there in the story with smoke, loud noises, 8-frame cuts and zoom-in and zoom-outs—all the techniques that cover up the fact that there’s no story. In some of today’s movies, you don’t even know what you’re watching. I saw The Matrix and I didn’t know what the picture was all about. When I see a picture I want to know what I’m looking at. When characters are introduced I want to know who they are and what relation they have to the hero. But today there are no more heroes. There are only anti-heroes. So it’s a different world. Everything is so negative I don’t even feel like I’m part of the film business anymore.
As I’ve suggested here for the last two years, limiting the Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects” to only three nominees seems quite unfair, since all the other categories (except make-up) have five nominees. Given the overwhelming number of films that feature superlative effects work these days, it has become increasingly obvious that this is a change that has been long overdue. Last May, the Visual Effects branch finally acted, when their three Governors (Richard Edlund, Craig Barron and Bill Taylor) chaired a meeting and recommended that the change be made to five nominees. According to an article on the meeting in Variety by David S. Cohen, the change actually met with some heated resistance from Academy members.
The two main objections cited in the Variety article were that four additional names (for each of the two additional films nominated) would have to be read on the Oscar show, and that if five movies were nominated, the final award might not go to “cutting-edge” effects work. Such objections seem silly at best, and luckily wiser heads prevailed, so this years award for “Best Visual Effects” will indeed feature five contenders for the first time since 1979 when ALIEN won the final prize.
Since we are still only seven months into the year and there are already more than five worthy nominees, (among them: INCEPTION, IRON MAN 2, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE, ROBIN HOOD, CLASH OF THE TITANS and even THE LAST AIRBENDER), this is obviously a change for the better. Likewise, last year several worthy films, such as 2012 and TERMINATOR SALVATION failed to make the cut because there were only three slots available.
The Academy explained the change in their official press release: “Since 1963, when the Special Effects award was discontinued and new separate categories for achievements in visual effects and sound effects were established, the only period during which it was possible to have five visual effects nominees was 1977 through 1979. In only one of those years (1979) were five achievements actually recognized. Between 1980 and 1995, two or three productions could be nominated; since 1996 the rules have dictated there be exactly three nominees.”
Probably the biggest challenge for Pixar in making TOY STORY 3 was turning the third film into more than just a rehash of ideas from the first two stories. But having a central core of well-loved toy characters who were already familiar to audiences from the first two movies, freed the Pixar story team so they could concentrate their sights on developing several interesting new characters and a brand new adventure. The result is yet another astonishing bulls-eye for Pixar, as TOY STORY 3 is a sheer delight and although it may not scale the same heights as TOY STORY 2, it comes awfully close.
Of course, some people might be disappointed or unhappy with TOY STORY 3 in comparison to the first two films, but as director Lee Unkrich notes, “There’s nothing we can do about that. We just want to make the best movie we can make and feel fortunate that so far, after putting so much of ourselves into these films time-wise and emotionally, we’ve gotten to enjoy the fruits of our labors.”
John Lasseter, the director of the first two TOY STORY movies and the executive producer of TOY STORY 3, shares some brief thoughts about the series below, before going on to discuss the making of TOY STORY 2 which was recently re-isssued on Disney Blue-Ray and DVD in fabulous deluxe editions.
JOHN LASSETER ON TOY STORY 3
JOHN LASSETER: The secret to these films is that each movie is not trying to repeat the same emotion or the same story. We go into something completely different, with the same set of characters and the same world. And therefore we’re able to tap into a completely different set of emotions. Once the toys are alive they become adults with adult concerns. Everyone can relate to these characters. Looking at the world from a toy’s point of view is one thing, but looking at it from a character’s point of view makes it a deeper and more emotional thing. Audiences are able to relate to things in their own lives. This movie has a totally different kind of emotion and depth to it.
Anything that prevents the toys from playing with their child causes them anxiety and worries. And each of the TOY STORY movies deals with those concerns. Basically, in the first film, Woody is concerned with being replaced by a new toy. The toys are always concerned about two days of the year more than anything else—Christmas and a child’s birthday. In TOY STORY 2 the toys deal with being torn, broken, and not being played with because they’re fragile. Woody faces the choice of staying perfect but never being loved again. It’s a pretty deep thing. And in the third film, we really deal with that point in time that the toys are most concerned about—being outgrown. When you’re broken, you can be fixed; when you’re lost, you can be found; when you’re stolen, you can be recovered. But there’s no way to fix being outgrown by the child. It’s such an interesting evolution to the story.
TOY STORY has always been about us… so much of me, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Joe Ranft, and Lee Unkrich has seeped into these stories about Buzz and Woody, and I think TOY STORY 3 continues that. For me personally, I was able to tap into the real emotion of taking my son to college. After helping him set up his dorm room, my wife and I were ready to return home, and we thought he’d walk away and go back to his room. Instead, he stood there and wouldn’t leave. As we drove away, he just waved, and I broke down in tears. It was an immensely powerful emotion. You’re with someone since birth, and then all of a sudden they’re going away. The timing between TOY STORY 2 and TOY STORY 3 was perfect for letting Andy—and our own life situations—grow up.
When we were trying to figure out what Andy would look like as a 17-year-old headed off to college, my wife found these framed pictures of our kids—their 8” x 10” school pictures. Over the years, she had put their latest photo over the ones from preschool and kindergarten up through their high school senior pictures. And it’s just fascinating to watch how they grow and their evolution. They provided some great inspiration for taking a look at Andy and trying to predict what he would look like as a teenager.
From the very beginning, I knew that within the computer, the world is truly three-dimensional. And it seemed like something that Walt Disney himself would have loved, because he was always striving to get more dimension in his animation. And now with 3-D technology and the latest advances in exhibition, we’re able to give moviegoers an amazing experience. It’s like we’ve always been making 3-D movies, audiences just haven’t been able to see them that way until now. It was like watching the film with one eye closed. Last year, we introduced 3-D versions of TOY STORY and TOY STORY 2 and they looked like we made the movies in 3-D. With Lee’s dynamic staging of things and his knowledge and training in live action filmmaking, TOY STORY 3 is the most spectacular 3-D experience yet.
JOHN LASSETER ON TOY STORY 2
Shortly after TOY STORY debuted in 1995, there was almost immediately talk of a sequel to the first-ever CGI feature film, but the creative staff at Pixar initially resisted the idea. “Making a sequel was the last thing we wanted to do,” explains Lee Unkrich, the director of TOY STORY 3. “We felt there were other stories to tell so why make a movie with the same characters when there’s a whole uncharted territory of other stories and new characters. But we saw the big impact TOY STORY has had on the culture. It’s really lasted and we finally realized we had a great thing on our hands. We had all these great characters the world had embraced, and we thought it would be sad if they only got to live in one 90-minute movie. So after some time had gone by, we thought “we enjoyed creating these characters, we really liked them, why not try and give them a great adventure that would be a worthy follow-up to TOY STORY’.”
Rather unbelievably, when the first sequel went into pre-production the plan was to make it as a less expensive direct to video title, using many of the same computer models and sets that had already been created for TOY STORY. That would allow it be completed in only two years (as opposed to four) and premiere in video stores for the 1998 holiday season, three years after TOY STORY’s debut. However, John Lasseter was already heavily involved in directing Pixar’s second movie, A BUG’S LIFE, so Ash Brannon, a supervising animator on TOY STORY, was promoted to director, with Ralph Guggenheim returning as producer. The idea was “to make a sequel that would be measured by a gentler yardstick,” explained Pixar’s then chairman Steve Jobs. “Most of the team that created TOY STORY was already working on A BUG’S LIFE, and even with a handful of TOY STORY veterans in key positions, we thought it would be almost impossible to recruit a second crew as talented as the original TOY STORY team.”
However it soon became apparent that the storyline created by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Ash Brannon and Andrew Stanton was so strong it didn’t make much sense to rush the project out in only two years. In fact, Tim Allen, who plays Buzz Lightyear, claimed he lobbied Disney executives to make the switch to a theatrical release. Ironically, the switch meant Allen would have to return and re-do much of his voice recording, as did all of the other actors when the story was re-vamped halfway through the production.
Around June of 1997, as initial animation was getting underway, Colin Brady (an animator on TOY STORY), came on as a co-director. At the same time, longtime Pixar employee, Ralph Guggenheim felt the need to make a change, and left as producer. “I left because I was interested in pursuing other areas I had been involved in, like entertainment on the Internet,” explained Guggenheim. “I’d been at Pixar for 11 years and felt I was ready for a change. Helene Plotkin and Karen Robert Jackson, (the production manager on TOY STORY), took over and I hear they’re doing a wonderful job.” Then, a few months later, when the decision to switch to a theatrical release became official, more changes were made. Co-director Colin Brady left the production, and when A BUG’S LIFE wrapped, many of the key creative people who had been working on that film were now free to re-join John Lasseter on TOY STORY 2, including art director Bill Cone, director of photography Sharon Calahan and Andrew Stanton, who did a revision of the screenplay. By the time Lasseter and his new team came on to bolster the production, it was already January of 1999, leaving them less than a year to meet the release deadline of November, 1999. “When we joined the production, very little animation had been done,” noted Unkrich, “but all the character models and setting had been designed and were ready to go, so that’s really when we started to animate and make the film.”
No doubt a big reason for the high morale on the project was the depth of emotion the animators could express with their characters. After all it isn’t every G-rated animated film where a character (Woody) comes face to face with his own mortality and another (Jesse), faces the traumatic loss of her purpose in life. It sounds more like the stuff of Ingmar Bergman than Walt Disney!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I recall Joe Ranft (the head of the story dept. on TOY STORY) telling me that you were the exact opposite of him, because you always kept your toys in perfect condition and he was like Sid, who trashes them. Was that one of the starting points for TOY STORY 2?
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, pretty much. I had my Hot Wheels in a case, and if I used them, I would put them right back, so they didn’t get all over the place. I enjoyed collecting them as well as actually playing with them and took pretty good care of all my toys. And as you know, in my office are a lot of rare and antique toys, so when my sons show up here, their eyes are huge, because they want to play with Daddy’s toys. But I have to say, ‘no these are Daddy’s toys’, and I would be in my office telling them, ‘no you can’t play with that one,’ and I stopped and thought, ‘what if you’re a collected toy.’ So Pete Docter and I were sitting at lunch one day and I started talking about this idea and within a few minutes Pete and I came up with the basic outline of what the story would be. That’s really where the idea really came from. And in the first TOY STORY we don’t really say where Woody came from, how old he is, or anything like that. That opened the door for us to create a history for Woody. So we made him part of the merchandising from a 1950’s TV show called, WOODY’S ROUND-UP. It’s sort of like a Howdy Doody or Hopalong Cassidy type of show. That gave us the opportunity to give him this whole back-story and a rich history. Kind of the retro quality of all these great things from the fifties. Then we could give them this aged look that would be really exciting. So we worked on the story with Ash Brannon a little bit and we brought in Andrew Stanton to help when we were bringing it up to the next level, as a theatrical release. Andrew is so good at that. He really added some key elements to the story and the personalities. Joe Ranft helped on it too. Then the storyboard guys added a lot.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You went from being the sole director on TOY STORY, to being the co-director of A BUG’S LIFE and on TOY STORY 2 you now have two co-directors, Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, I was the sole director on TOY STORY, but it really helps to be able to delegate and have more than one director. It’s just so complex, there’s too much work for one person to do. I’m not sure how it works with Disney and their co-directors, but here the way we do it depends on the people and their strengths. I worked with Andrew very closely on A BUG’S LIFE. On TOY STORY 2, Lee Unkrich has strength in editing and he comes from a live-action background, so he took the lead in working with the layout dept. and the editorial dept. Ash Brannon, comes from animation, so he and I took the lead in the animation dept. and I took the lead in some other areas. Lighting wise, Sharon Calahan really stepped up to a more active position, as far as leading the lighting team, working closely with myself and Bill Cone, the production designer.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It seems like after A BUG’S LIFE wrapped, not only you, but a lot of the team working on that movie came over to TOY STORY 2 and took over the production.
JOHN LASSETER: Not really took over, but they came in because we had an awful lot to do to get the film out before Thanksgiving. We came in and supplemented the team. That was always the plan, once this became a theatrical release, we knew the production would be staggered, and we knew that a big part of the production would happen after we finished A BUG’S LIFE. You don’t have things going exactly at the same time and we had some story revisions that put us a litter bit further behind than we would have liked, which always happens. We had that on TOY STORY and A BUG’S LIFE, we’re always tweaking the story until the last minute, so we had to bring a lot of people over from TOY STORY 2, during the final stages of A BUG’S LIFE. Most of the animators and most of the lighting people came over for the final stages of A BUG’S LIFE, so it’s a real give and take. That’s why we have the studio, so we can have overlapping productions like that. But we are an animation studio, we’re not two different teams. We have one animation dept. and one lighting dept. and so the people go where they’re needed.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Was there an actual hiatus in the production of TOY STORY 2, after it was finally decided to make it a theatrical release?
JOHN LASSETER: Actually, I think the scene of Buzz and the toys crossing the road was the only sequence that was in production. It was still mostly in pre-production on story reels, when we looked at it and said “yes”, this is going to be great. Some of the layout had been things like them crossing the road, and some things had to be changed, because it was initially being produced for a video aspect ratio, so the biggest production change was switching from 1.33 to 1, to a 1.85 to 1 aspect ratio, because the decision to go to a theatrical release was made in October, 1997. So everything was re-worked for the 1.85 ratio.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Tim Allen said he helped to convince Disney that TOY STORY 2 should be a theatrical release.
JOHN LASSETER: Well, I always felt that TOY STORY 2 had that potential, but it was just that there had never really been an animated sequel. When TOY STORY came out all the animated sequels, with the exception of THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, had been made as direct to video titles. So the business model kind of dictated that decision. It was like, ‘Hey, this is what you do’. The marketplace determined what we were going to do, and also the schedule, because I really wanted to do this as the movie after A BUG’S LIFE, and so what we decided to do was get this started as a direct to video release, brought in Ash Brannon as director, and I was still heavily involved in overseeing it (as Executive Producer). It wasn’t going to be produced, (like Disney’s other animated sequels) overseas; we were going to be making it ourselves and as we started to see the story, everybody including the actors said, ‘let’s make it a theatrical release’.
The story was strong, we all started looking at it and saying, ‘why don’t we make this for theaters? It doesn’t make any sense to go direct to video.’ So collectively we made the decision, about October 1997 to make it a theatrical release, and we then started ramping-up to make a theatrical movie, instead of trying to scale down the budget. We decided to make it look as good as we could and re-worked the story. Then when I finished A BUG’S LIFE, I stepped in to help as director, and brought with me Lee Unkrich, as a co-director. It’s exciting, the whole notion of this story, is dealing with some pretty deep emotions. Basically what Woody goes through, is he gets stolen and gets caught up with the idea of being a collectable, and loses sight of what it is to be a toy. Buzz is the one this time, who comes to him and says, ‘you are a toy, you’re not a collectable, you’re a child’s plaything!’ The other layer emotionally that Woody goes through, is basically, Woody’s fear of dying. In the beginning, Woody’s arm is ripped, and he is so worried about tearing more, because he thinks Andy won’t ever play with him again. This really becomes a deep fear, because he wants Andy to play with him and that’s the underlying theme of the movie. By being valuable as a collectable, you’re being given the opportunity to live forever. Therefore, being afraid of dying, here’s Woody’s choice: you can be restored and sit in a glass case and live forever, but the downside is that you would never be played with again. And of course, the longer you live, the more valuable you become, which means you definitely will not be played with. So that’s like a human being getting a chance to live forever, but never to be loved again. So it’s a really heavy choice. It’s kind of fun and wonderful in that way. It’s something that the kids won’t necessarily get, but adults get, and that’s one of the things we strive to do in our movies, to put the layers in there, for adults, as well as for kids. It’s that heart and pathos, and deeper issues and meanings that take these movies to another level. So adults can go and find it to be an entertaining and enjoyable 90 minutes. That’s really the goal. So we work to make G rated movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re just for kids. We work so hard to make it play for all age groups. So far, the adults we’ve previewed this for are really caught up in this.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: At the end of TOY STORY, Buzz has changed into accepting the reality that he is a toy, and likewise, Woody is no longer threatened by Buzz being Andy’s new favorite. So you already had a good set-up for continuing their adventures with a fresh perspective. You don’t have to just re-hash the first film like most sequels.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, now they are friends and that was the challenge, where do we go from there. I wouldn’t buy, as an audience member, the characters going through the same kinds of issues. They’ve been there and done that and you want the characters to be intelligent, so they don’t keep doing the same old thing. That’s where looking at toys being alive and finding other aspects of that was the avenue we pursued. So we just thought, ‘what if Woody was a valuable and was collected.’ Then, the next thing you know, we’re off in a whole adventure that is very believably and interesting and is completely new. We’re very aware of the sequel issue, and we looked back at many different films for examples of what we hold high as the types of sequels we liked. GODFATHER II, for instance, which is a sequel that is a great movie into itself. It goes beyond what happened in the original, and what went before it and it’s a really interesting movie. The EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is also a great sequel, because it takes off from the original, but it doesn’t copy it. So they were both huge inspirations for me, as far as what kind of sequel to shoot for. We wanted this to be original and unique and still respect what makes TOY STORY successful, which is the storyline, the characters, their personalities and their relationships. The fact that they all like each other, they’re friends, and the look of the medium, the art direction, all of this makes up TOY STORY as a whole and you want to bring all that over into TOY STORY 2 so it feels like the world you saw in the first one, but then you want the new story to be completely different. It’s a real respect for the original, but then taking off from there and not copying it. So we have all the same returning voice actors along with some new ones.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So with your main characters already set, you could concentrate more on creating the new characters and the story.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, exactly. In creating these movies from scratch, like we do, there’s three elements that need to work really closely together: the story, the characters and the world they live in. The logic of the world and the design of the world. Well, doing TOY STORY 2, the characters and the world are done, we just kept it in the same milieu and we had all these great characters to work with. That freed us up to concentrate on the story and develop new characters and we found the characters were a great collection of personality types. It’s kind of like some of the great sitcoms, like MASH, CHEERS or MARY TYLER MOORE that lasted forever. In any situation someone is there to have a nice observation or angle. Mr. Potato Head is always there to question authority, to poke at people. Hamm is Mr.-know-it-all. Rex is great character in the new one, because he has a child like innocence, where he takes things at face value, and is very emotional. Slinky Dog is completely and 100 % loyal. His loyality is always there. So we had those core characters and then looked at doing new characters who are funny and unique, and had that opportunity by creating the WOODY’S ROUND-UP TV show to create characters who would be like Woody. So we thought Woody would be the Sherrif of the town, and every good cowboy needs a horse, so we created Bullseye, his horse. We decided early on to keep him mute, so he doesn’t have a speaking voice. That kept him more in the vein of a very loyal dog, rather than a character. But there’s something so honest and straight-forward about Bullseye, as Woody would say, and it’s true. It’s Woody’s horse and he would do anything for Woody. That’s his reason for being, to be Woody’s horse. Then we added Jesse, the cowgirl, and we didn’t want her to be a love interest for Woody, because there’s Bo-Peep, and we didn’t want to confuse that, so we basically thought of her as Annie Oakley, combined with a heavy dose of Ellie-Mae Clampett from the BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. She just has this energy and spark, and her Mountains are really high and her valleys are really deep, emotionally. She wears her emotions on her sleeve and Joan Cusack does her voice. Design-wise we pulled a lot of elements from Woody. She’s got the same color scheme as Woody, a shirt with yellow and red, and her chaps are the same cowhide as Woody’s vest. Her buttons are exactly the same size as Woody’s, thinking, when they manufactured them they would just use the same buttons. The same belt buckle and the boots are the same, too. The hair we kind back to a kind of Raggedy Ann style, of red yarn going back into a ponytail and beautiful green eyes. We wanted to make her as cute as possible. She is just a fiery cowgirl, real spunky, and one of the great things about her character is we could make her really extreme when you first meet her, so Woody is taken aback and then you find out what really drives her. It’s one of the emotional cores of the movie. We always said, that a toy wants to be played with by a child more than anything else, and all the things that can prevent that, are the things that cause them anxieties in their lives. In the first one we dealt with being broken and lost, but we never dealt with what is probably the most tragic thing for a toy, which we deal with in this one: Jesse gets outgrown. Her owner Emily grows-up and Jesse is left behind. If your broken you can be fixed, if your lost, you can be found, but if your outgrown, there’s nothing you can do about it.
There’s a song “When She Loved Me” that Randy Newman wrote, and it’s played over this flashback of watching her being played with by her owner, Emily and then she outgrows her and in the end of it, she’s given to this charity donation center and Jesse watches the car drive away with her owner in it. Sarah MacLaghlin sings it for us. It’s a low point for Jesse and Woody too, because he’s trying to figure out whether to go back or to stay. Then Jesse gets really mad at Woody when he wants to go back and what happened to Jesse is potentially going to happen to Woody, so it parallels Woody story. It’s very similar and adds to Woody’s worries about if he should just stay as a collectable. It gives such emotional resonance to the story and you just fall in love with Jesse because of what she went through. Then we have Stinky Pete, the prospector, played by Kelsey Grammar. He’s like the Gabby Hayes character. I grew up watching Roy Rogers and Sky King and all those shows and they always had the comic sidekick character and I remember, when we were developing this, we had to have this kind of crusty comic sidekick type of character. So as a toy, we thought that the other aspect that would be interesting to delve into was having a mint in the box toy, because that is the most valuable a collectable toy could ever be, if it’s never been opened and never been played with. Of course, that goes 100% against why toys are made and it means that Stinky Pete was never bought. Then later on, he was found by a collector and the next thing you know he’s worth something. So he goes through this depression of never having had a chance to be played with and now that the depression has turned into anger and manifests itself in pride that he never has been played with, so he’s more valuable that way. We play Stinky Pete from inside a box for most of the movie. He’s mint in a box. It’s a funny thing. He’s like old man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in a wheelchair in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, he’s continually being pushed around by Bullseye, because he’s in a box and can’t walk. So we had a lot of fun developing these characters. We have Big Al, of Al’s Toy Barn, and he’s by far the most complex human character we’ve ever done. The Evil Emperor Zurg, who is Buzz Lightyear’s arch-enemy makes an appearance. Andrew Stanton is actually doing his voice, but it’s heavily tweaked and modified, so it sounds like a space villains voice. There’s a new character that we find in Andy’s room, Wheezy, a forgotten Penguin toy who was left up on a shelve after he was broken and forgotten and Joe Ranft is doing the voice for Wheezy.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In TOY STORY 2 Barbie finally makes an appearance, after Mattel nixed her cameo in the first movie.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, you bet. We wanted to have Barbie make a quick appearance in the original movie, but Mattel said no, because Barbie is their flagship doll and they didn’t know anything about what this movie TOY STORY was. So after TOY STORY went on to become a hit, Disney signed a long-term deal with Mattel. Then Mattel came to us and said, ‘Oh, by the way, if you want to use Barbie in TOY STORY 2 you can. It’s actually a very funny scene, where Buzz and Rex and all the other toys journey out to try and find Woody and they end up at Al’s Toy Barn and they sneak in before it’s open. They get lost and end up in the pink aisle and find a whole bunch of Barbie’s and their jaws drop because they’re all gorgeous and they say, ‘excuse us ladies, but can one of you tell us where the Al of Al’s Toy Barn is’. And one of them goes, ‘I can, I’m tour guide Barbie’ and she jumps down and gives them a tour of the toy store. It’s very funny. If you know Disneyland, there’s a lot of funny little Disneyland kind of tour guide jokes, like ‘please remain seated and keep your arms inside the car and no flash photography’. Then she repeats it all in Spanish. It’s just like the Matterhorn ride. That comes from my days working at Disneyland. I worked at Disneyland while I was going to Cal Arts. I was a sweeper at Tomorrowland the year that Space Mountain opened, which was the same year that STAR WARS came out, so it was the summer of 1977. It was crazy that summer at Disneyland, with huge crowds and I loved it. Then the following summer I worked as a ride operator on the Jungle Cruise. Barbie is played by Jodi Benson, who is the official voice of Barbie in the commercials and for whenever Barbie needs to have a voice. She was also Ariel, the Mermaid in THE LITTLE MERMAID. She’s a very talented actress and we just had a blast with her doing the part. We kept telling her to smile, because she’s a tour guide. Barbie looks great on the screen and it’s a very funny scene.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You didn’t want to make the world of TOY STORY 2 that much more complex than what you had shown in the original TOY STORY. Did that mean you actually had to pull back from what you could accomplish in creating the environments?
JOHN LASSETER: What happened was we talked about how much we respect the entities that make up TOY STORY. We knew that for A BUG’S LIFE we had gotten so much more visually complex, way ahead of what TOY STORY was. We couldn’t go ahead of that, because it would not resemble TOY STORY. So we did pull back, but TOY STORY 2 is still going to be a lot more complex looking if you were to compare them frame by frame. I think when the audience sits and watches the movie, it’s going to feel like the same world that they saw in TOY STORY. Of course one of the most difficult thing to produce with the computer is organic things and we just went through A BUG”S LIFE so now we have this digital nursery filled with all these plants and rocks and twigs and trees and anything you’d go out and find in the natural world. We have that now because of A BUG’S LIFE, so that worked great and we weren’t afraid to use organic things. In TOY STORY, we didn’t go outside very much and when we did, we were very careful, because it was so complex to create that world. Now, when they go outside, it’s full of the plants and rocks and terrain from A BUG’S LIFE. It’s been a great use of the digital backlot, to make the setting more complex without really adding a lot of time to the production schedule, because we had it all there.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How much does that save you in the budget, since you don’t have to design and built everything from scratch?
JOHN LASSETER: It’s hard to say, but from a creative standpoint I know that those sets are there, whereas, if I knew something didn’t exist, I would question how we would go about doing it. In creating our models, it’s actually like building a real working model in a machine shop, because it takes a lot of time to create a complex model in the computer. So you have to look at the importance of it in the movie. That’s one of my jobs. If it’s really important, lets do it. Sometimes it may be just for one shot, but if it’s really important, we have to do it. There’s other times when it’s too complex, so we say, ‘let’s simplify that, or not do it’.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: As VP of creative you have your eye on all the movies that are being made at Pixar?
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, I oversee all the movies that are going on, but after TOY STORY 2 I’m taking a much needed break, because I’ve been going pretty much straight since TOY STORY, which was back in 1991. So I haven’t had much of a break. I went straight from TOY STORY to A BUG’S LIFE, and then straight from A BUG’S LIFE to TOY STORY 2. I’m going to just be the executive producer for a while and I have a couple of ideas I’m interested in that I’ll probably start developing. But I need to re-charge my creative batteries. Because I wear two hats, I will just be wearing my executive producer hat for a time, because one of the goals of Pixar is to get a lot of things into development, so we can use both sides of our production staff.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Does being an executive conflict at all with your artistic role when you are directing?
JOHN LASSETER: Well, I’m really an animator at heart and during the production process everyone gets to put his or her own creative ability into the task at hand. We’re honest, and there’s virtually no politics going on. I always believe that the feeling and atmosphere at a studio always comes down from the top. So as VP of creative I try to be honest, funny, crazy and just have fun with what we do, because I realize I’m an example for everybody and it kind of permeates the place.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you direct the voice sessions with the actors?
JOHN LASSETER: Ash did some early on and I was there for a lot of them and then we did a lot after I came over, after finishing work on A BUG’S LIFE. So I worked with all the actors and did a lot of voice recording. On the casting, I definitely worked with Ash in the early days, casting all the voices, especially with Joan Cusack and Kelsey Grammar.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Stinky Peter was originally voiced by David Ogden Steirs, before you brought in Kelsey Grammar.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, that was very early on when David was still playing Stinky Pete. At that point he was more of a true Gabby Hayes type of prospector, then the character evolved to be more of a mint-in-the-box toy. So Kelsey stepped in and fit the bill there.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Why didn’t Ralph Eggelstein come back and work as the production designer on TOY STORY 2.
JOHN LASSETER: Ralph still works at Pixar, but he was working on other projects. Jim Pearson and Bill Cone, who worked on the original took over for Ralph. The task in terms of the art direction for TOY STOY 2 was to respect the original, but take it too new levels. It’s a difficult task, because the technology has jumped so far from where we were originally. But you don’t want to just re-create the world and have it be something you’re not familiar with. The original look was important, from the neighborhood to the cars, so we have the same cars from the original and the art direction is very much the same, but I think we have gotten better as artists, so the lighting is richer and there are new worlds we haven’t seen before. The whole WOODY’S ROUND-UP show with it’s retro-fifties cowboy collection and there’s also the whole Buzz Lightyear outer space world that appears in the beginning, which is really fun. You get to see him as the true Buzz Lightyear space ranger. The whole beginning 4 minutes of the movie is a full-on, over the top Buzz Lightyear space adventure, with the Evil Emperor Zurg. Then at the end of it, you realize it’s Rex playing a video game. But the whole beginning of it is this great adventure. It’s a great opening sequence, like in a James Bond movie. I’ve always loved the opening sequences of the Bond movies.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Buzz Lightyear meets a whole shelf of other Buzz Lightyears while he’s in Al’s Toy Barn.
JOHN LASSETER: Yes, we recognized that part of the charm of Buzz was this absolute 100% honesty he has, that he believes in himself and the things he can do, but it was all a false reality, because he was a toy. So we realized now that Buzz knows he’s a toy, let’s put him a position where he could meet himself the way he used to be. It’s so funny, because it’s like STAR TREK when they had a good Kirk and a bad Kirk.
In Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND Christopher Lee has a brief one line “cameo” as the voice of the dragon-like Jabberwock, so it was interesting to note that Lee himself has recently suggested he might play the voice of Smaug, the dragon, in the upcoming two-film adaptation of THE HOBBIT, being produced by Peter Jackson in New Zealand. Unfortunately, with the recent departure of director Guillermo Del Toro it now appears a start date for the filming of THE HOBBIT will be delayed for some considerable time, so as the 88-year old Lee noted in a previous interview at CFQ about HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, if they want to use his voice in THE HOBBIT, “they better hurry up.”
I recently re-viewed the three extended LORD OF THE RINGS movies on Hi-Def which has inspired me to post Christopher Lee’s extensive comments about his work on the THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy that first appeared in a drastically edited version in the December, 2003 issue of CFQ, which did not even include Mr. Lee’s reaction to the unpleasant shock he received in late 2003 when he first discovered that Saruman’s important death scene was being removed from the theatrical version of THE RETURN OF THE KING. Ironically, Lee was the most vocal cast member when the first two movies failed to win the best picture Academy Award, a mistake that was finally corrected when RETURN OF THE KING won a record 11 Oscars in 2004. Unfortunately, Christopher Lee was no longer a part of the third movie (although his footage was eventually restored in the extended DVD version).
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What do you think accounts for the tremendous interest in fantasy films these days?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think it’s because we all love to dream. We don’t live in a particularly attractive world. I don’t really remember, except as a small boy, anything but a pretty grim world. I’m old enough to have seen Hitler in the flesh. I’m old enough to have been in Munich in 1934, on the night of the long knives, when Hitler butchered so many of his own people. I’m old enough to remember the Second World War and all the other things. So I’m not being a Cassandra, who prophesied nothing but evil and misery; I’m simply facing reality. So, yes, let us not lose faith, let us be optimistic, let us believe in the good things, but we still have to face the world as it is. When you live in a world like that, what do you want? You want to escape, to get out of this world from time to time, into another world, a magical world, an enchanted world, where things happen we dream about, a world of fairy stories and wizards. It is like the conjurer, the enchanter, or magician who says, “Look, nothing up my sleeve. When I do this, you will come into my enchanted world!” Dreaming, escaping, that is what we’re talking about. I firmly believe that is why this kind of film is so universally popular, and always will be, because people like to get into another world.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You first read THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING when it came out in 1954?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, and I was immensely impressed with what I read. I still think THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime. Like so many other people, I couldn’t wait for the second, and then the third book. Nothing like it had ever been written. Other authors like T. H. White and Lewis Carroll invented imaginary worlds, but Tolkien not only invented an imaginary world, he invented imaginary races, which you can easily believe in. And he created very long appendices with all the family trees and the names of the previous Kings and so-forth. It’s quite incredible, really, the scholarship and imagination that went into the writing of it. And what is even more remarkable is that Tolkien, who was a professor of philology, invented new languages. The Elf languages are two: Quenya and Sindarin. Quenya is based on Finnish, and Sindarin is basically Welsh. Most of the Elves speak Sindarin. And if you want, you can learn to read it, to write it and to speak it, just like English or any other language. I always thought the books would make a wonderful film, but I also felt it would probably never happen, because of the enormous amount it would cost to make. But if they ever were made, I dreamed that I would be in them. It just goes to show you, that sometimes dreams do come true.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You actually met J. R. R. Tolkien, didn’t you?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, quite by chance, really. I met him with a group of other people in a pub in Oxford he used to go to, The Eagle and Child. I was very much in awe of him, as you can imagine, so I just said, “how do you do?” I also met T. H. White who wrote The Once and Future King.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Having read the book so many times, you must have had a thorough understanding of Saruman’s history and his place in the story.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, from reading the books I naturally knew Saruman and all of the other characters intimately. And the way he is presented in the scripts is the way he is presented in the books. Saruman is one of the great Wizards. When they first came to Middle-earth there were five Wizards. Two of them, the Blue Wizards, are not mentioned. The other three are Saruman the white, who is the greatest of them all. Then, there is Gandalf the grey and Radagast the brown. We don’t see Radagast in the book or in the movie. So basically we have two wizards, Gandalf and Saruman. They have human bodies, but they are immortal. They were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar, who are the creators and guardians of the world. Saruman is number one, the most powerful and the most brilliant of them all. And at the very beginning, Saruman was a good Wizard. He was given the land for his tower at Isengard, and he is the head of the order of Wizards, the Istari, as they are called. He also has one of the seven great seeing stones, a Palantír. He and Gandalf have been friends for hundreds of years. But, as Gandalf first discovers in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, he has been corrupted by the dark power of Sauron. Saruman’s ambition causes him to think he can take over as the Lord of the Rings, because at some stage, he feels that he is more powerful than Sauron. But it’s the biggest mistake he makes in his life, which is many thousands of years. So it’s a question of a great Wizard, one of superior intellect and brilliance, being tempted until the temptation finally overcomes him. He of course pretends to be a servant of Sauron, but Sauron sees through this. It’s a very complex character, superbly written by Tolkein, although a lot of people don’t realize whom the actual Lord of the Rings is. Who do you think it is?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Sauron.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, absolutely, but a lot of people don’t realize that. It is Sauron, because there were many rings made, and as the poem says, “One ring to rule them all… and in the darkness bind them”. Sauron forged the one ring and it’s when Sauron discovers that Frodo now possesses the ring that he attempts to recover it. Saruman knows this and he wants the ring for himself.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What do you think accounts for Saruman turning to the dark side and joining Sauron in a union of the two towers?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Tolkein never explains that. Possibly it is the Palantír and the all-seeing eye of Sauron. Saruman thinks, “if Sauron can do this, so can I” although I don’t’ think Saruman fully realizes that Sauron is always one step ahead of him. But when we first see Saruman, you think he is a very agreeable character. He meets Gandalf in the garden at Isengard with a smile and when they start talking about the ring, he says, “Are you sure about all this—the ring of power has been found?” There is absolutely no indication at all of Saruman’s true character to the audience. He only reveals it in his chamber at Orthanc, when he says, “why don’t we join Sauron” and Gandalf is so horrified. Up until then, Gandalf has not even remotely thought about Saruman going over to the dark side. He still regards him as his superior and as the head of the order. That scene was also my first day on the picture and it subsequently had to be done over, because when we did it the first time there were some Orcs in the garden. Gandalf is surprised by this and he says, “Orcs in Isengard?” So that was re-shot to show it without the Orcs.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Before doing THE LORD OF THE RINGS you played another Wizard in a television series, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: That’s right, and the only reason I did that was to show anyone who was watching that I could play a Wizard and that I would be ideal casting for THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And you sent a photo of yourself as the Wizard from ROBIN HOOD to Peter Jackson?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I sent him a picture of myself all made-up in the Wizard’s role, but it was more in the nature of a joke, really. “This is what I look like as a Wizard, don’t forget this when you cast the movie.” It wasn’t me putting myself forward at all, because I think Peter had already made up his mind. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway, that he never thought of anybody else for Saruman, except for me, so it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Had you met Peter Jackson before that?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I first met Peter when I was the President of the Jury at the Avoriaz Film Festival in 1993. Peter Jackson’s movie, BRAINDEAD was in the competition, and I thought it was very funny, very humorous, very close to the Monty Python kind of comedy. As I was head of the jury, we decided to award BRAINDEAD the grand prize. Since then, I think his career has gone through a constant artistic growth. He started with these bizarre horror-splatter movies, and then he made HEAVENLY CREATURES, which was beautifully done. He’s a great director, who improves himself each time he makes a movie.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So Peter Jackson eventually contacted you about appearing in THE LORD OF THE RINGS?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, he asked me if I would do a reading. Some people would have said no, but I certainly didn’t. I met with Peter here in London, in the back room of an old Church. He was there with a casting director and Fran Walsh, his partner, who is also one of the screenwriters on the movies. They asked me to read a scene in front of a video camera, and I read a scene between Gandalf and Frodo. It was one of the first scenes in the book. I think he was just asking me to read something from the book to give him a general idea, and my passion and love for the work was quite obvious to him. Of course I would have loved to play Gandalf, but I don’t think he ever had me in mind for Gandalf, because but that time I was too old.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You must have enjoyed working with Peter Jackson, since he knew the books so well and he wanted it to be as faithful as possible to what Tolkien wrote.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, he certainly shares my passion, as indeed we all did. The whole cast and the whole crew had such a dedication to this work, I’ve never experienced anything like it. And Peter knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. I’ve very seldom met a director who was so absolutely convinced about what should, or should not appear on the screen. He always seemed to know exactly what he wanted and he wasn’t going to let a shot go until he got it exactly as he wanted. Sometimes this meant a lot of takes. But it could be the pace of the scene, it could be the inflection of the dialogue, it could be many things. Peter’s intuition is extraordinary, in terms of how to deliver dialogue and how to play the scene. When he finally got the shot and said, “right, let’s print it,” you knew that was as good as it was ever going to be, which is very encouraging. A good director is someone who cares about what the end result is going to be, and Peter Jackson is certainly a director who cares. So what was on the printed page is what I did. And if Peter Jackson wanted to change any of it, I did so. If he wanted a different interpretation or a different meaning or a certain emphasis given to a line, or a phrase, or even a word, I did it. To me, he always seemed to be right.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In THE TWO TOWERS we are introduced to your new accomplice, Grima Wormtongue, played by Brad Dourif.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, Brad Dourif is a brilliant actor. He plays my right hand man, you might say, who is spying for me, while advising King Théoden of Rohan. He gives a wonderful performance, as he did in films like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and MISSISSIPPI BURNING. He’s a marvelous person to work with and tremendously enthusiastic about everything he does.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In THE TWO TOWERS although you don’t have as many scenes, you are a bit like Harry Lime in THE THIRD MAN, since all the other characters are constantly talking about you and what you are planning to do.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, Saruman does hover over everything like a kind of menacing dark cloud. Everyone talks about Saruman’s armies and Saruman’s forces. They talk about him all the time, so although there isn’t as much of me as there was in the first film, where you had to establish the character, the shadow of Saruman still looms large over everything that happens. So even though he is something of an invisible presence, when you do see Saruman, he is immensely powerful and he still goes through all the emotions that are in the book: the feeling of power, the actual power, the hypnotic effect of his voice and what he says and does. THE TWO TOWERS is really a kind of confirmation of Saruman’s downfall, which is achieved partly by his losing the power after which he lusts so much. Also, several of my scenes that were cut out of THE TWO TOWERS are now restored in the extended DVD. You now see me meeting with the leader of the Wild Men and Grimma telling me about yet another ring, the ring of Barahir that is worn by Aragorn. Barahir was one of the great lords of the north in the first age. He had this ring that was handed down over thousands of years and eventually it came into the possession of Isildur.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It must have been exciting to work with Ian McKellan on the three movies. He said he was really thrilled to be working with you.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Ah, Ian is such a nice man. He always said very nice things about me and I’m happy to return the compliment. Not only is he a very distinguished and eminent actor, with a wonderful record—mainly in the theater—but also to a certain extent in film. He is a major actor and if you find yourself, as I did, playing scenes with him and he’s already had some weeks to get into his part while I’m doing my first day, it can be difficult, to put it mildly. My introduction to the picture was the scene in the garden at Isengard, where I come down the stairs and meet Gandalf. I was up until three in the morning that day, working with Ian McKellen. But Ian was immensely supportive and very encouraging. That doesn’t happen very often these days, where you’re working with a major actor, and they help you and guide you along. But that’s exactly what Ian did with me at the beginning of the film. I was so glad that most of my scenes were with Ian, especially after I got quite badly injured, when a door slammed on two of my fingers. My hand was all bandaged and bloody, so I had to hide it and if you look very carefully, you can see that in the film. It was really very difficult, because I was in extreme pain, but Ian was enormously helpful, very encouraging. He’s a tremendous person to work with and you don’t find that very often these days. People are so concerned about what they consider to be rivalry, or confrontation. They only think about themselves, and they don’t give a damn about the other people who they are working with. But the word is collaboration, not confrontation, and Ian McKellen is a shining example of that. So many people think another actor might be some sort of threat to them, in terms of performance. There are some big stars that won’t have anybody else in the film with them, because they are so unsure of themselves and you can see that in their films.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Ian McKellan said you startled him in one scene, where you sneaked up behind him and snarled at him, as if you were playing Dracula.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, not at all. That’s quite a good story, but I didn’t sneak up behind him. What he said was to be within three feet of a Lee snarl is rather unsettling.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: So you didn’t try to scare him by playing Dracula?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, not at any time. That part was last played by me over 30 years ago! I have no connection with it whatsoever. Nor do I wish to have.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Actually, I thought it would have been marvelous if Francis Ford Coppola had used you to play Dracula at the beginning of his movie version. You could have played the Count in Transylvania, exactly the way Stoker described him, as an old man with a mustache. Then, when Dracula arrives in London and starts drinking blood, he would grow younger and be transformed into Gary Oldman!
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, there’s no point in going over the past. These things either happen or they don’t and it’s too late now. I did see Coppola’s version, and while he’s done some wonderful films, his DRACULA was not the Stoker novel. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got, was when I did COUNT DRACULA in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons. In Coppola’s movie, Gary Oldman did not have a mustache, and he was wearing what looked to me like a red dress! He also had a hairstyle that I thought was absurd. It certainly wasn’t how Stoker described the character. In the book, Stoker describes Dracula as wearing black from head to toe, without a single speck of color about him. But as far as I’m concerned, that character is very much in the past for me, and I’m really not all that interested in talking about the past, only the present and the future.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You were widely quoted as saying you just wanted to still be around in 2003 to be able to see the final part of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy…
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s quite true.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: …Which is why it was obviously upsetting for you when you found out that Peter Jackson had cut your final death scene from THE RETURN OF THE KING. Production designer Grant Major told me that the scene was originally supposed to appear at the end of THE TWO TOWERS and after it wasn’t used, Peter Jackson put it at the beginning of THE RETURN OF THE KING, then decided to cut it out because he thought it slowed down the opening of the picture:
GRANT MAJOR: Producer Barrie Osborne and I came up with the idea for Saruman’s death scene. As you know, Christopher Lee is very well known for his parts in the various Dracula films, and of course, Dracula traditionally gets done in by driving a stake through the heart. So Barrie and I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to quote that same sort of death for Saruman?” The death of Saruman was written in the script to happen at Isengard, where Grimma Wormtongue actually stabs him in the back and he falls off the top of Orthanc tower and goes all the way down to his death, landing on this treadmill structure of his own devising which has these large spikes sticking out of it. So Saruman is impaled on this huge spike. That was originally going to happen at the end of THE TWO TOWERS, as sort of a finale, but it didn’t appear, so now I suspect it’s going to be used in THE RETURN OF THE KING.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I was really outraged when Barrie Osborne called to tell me I wasn’t going to be in the third film. He told me they were worried about keeping my scene in the third film because everybody would think it was a continuation of THE TWO TOWERS, after you see me and Grimma on the balcony of Orthanc looking horrified as everything around us is being flooded. They felt if they included it in the opening of THE RETURN OF THE KING it would seem like a continuation of THE TWO TOWERS. I thought that was rather strange, because it is a continuation of THE TWO TOWERS and it’s a crucial part of the story. You can’t have Saruman looking frantic on a balcony while everything in Isengard is being destroyed and then never see him again! The audience needed and indeed, they demanded to know what happened to Saruman!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The restored scene in the extended DVD is quite marvelous, because after you vainly attempt to persuade King Théoden to make peace, you become enraged, shouting at him, “What is the house of Rohan but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and their brats roll on the floor with the dogs,” which is dialogue taken straight out of the book.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, and even in defeat Saruman can still exert his power and that makes them uneasy. You see, I had to make the audience believe that Saruman is still a very considerable hypnotist, particularly with his voice. There’s a chapter in The Two Towers called The Voice of Saruman and Tolkien describes Saruman’s voice as “low and melodious—its very sound an enchantment.” Saruman is able to hypnotize people with his voice and at first he succeeds. People fall under his spell, but not King Théoden and not Gandalf. They now see him for what he is. He then says to Gandalf, “Oh, you want information do you. I can give you some. You are all going to die!” That is, of course vicious and sarcastic. Later, in the book, Gandalf finally laughs at Saruman, and then the other side of his character is revealed: the hatred and the fury when something doesn’t go the way he wants it too. So part of it is savage and harsh, part of it is sarcasm and contempt and part of it is “I know things you don’t, things you have failed to see.”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Since you knew so much about the Tolkien books, did you have any kind of capacity on the film as an unofficial advisor?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, I don’t recall that. But members of the cast and crew where always trying to catch me out. They’d ask me questions like, “what was the name of Frodo’s father,” or “what was the name of this or that sword.” Things like that. Well, they never caught me out—not once! They tried, but they never did.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You had to go back several times to shoot additional scenes for all three movies?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I went back to New Zealand four times to shoot pick-up shots. I think everybody else went back, as well, with the possible exception of Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm. But everybody else went back at one time or another, because they can’t take any chances. They can’t take risks. Once they start editing the picture, if they feel an extra scene is needed, or additional bits of dialogue or action are needed, then they have to call us back. It’s in our contract.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It must have been hard on you having to fly back to New Zealand so many times.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s the downside of shooting there. The tremendous length of the journey, even if you break it up, is 25 hours in the air, which is very tiring, particularly to someone of my age. The other thing is that we seemed to have done most of the pick-up shooting in our summer, which is their winter. Many people don’t realize this, but New Zealand is south of the equator, so they were bang in the middle of winter. Before I arrived there in June, they had several weeks of sunshine, but I’m afraid I brought gales and sheeting rain with me. There were 70 mph winds and bitter cold. On the southern island, in places like Christchurch, there were blizzards and vicious cold, because the further south you go, the closer you get to Antarctica. So many of us got sick with the flu, or something like it. Most of the cast, in fact, since if you are working on a set that is hot and dusty and anybody has anything wrong with them it’s going to go around very rapidly. So if you walk out of the set to go to your caravan or to make-up, into the kind of weather we had to put up with, it was murder!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you have to re-dub a lot of your dialogue?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I did most of it here in London, because it is very difficult to use direct sound in New Zealand, as the studio was a former paint factory that was not sound proofed. It was right bang by the airport runway, so there were planes all over the place and that meant we had to re-record all of the dialogue afterwards in a sound studio. Some members of the cast did their ADR afterwards in a sound proof studio in New Zealand, as hardly any of the direct sound could be used. For people playing major roles that go through all three films, like Frodo, Sam and Gandalf, it means they have to do their entire roles all over again in the sound studio.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Would you prefer not having to re-dub your dialogue?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, I’ve done it for years and years, so the technical aspects of re-recording doesn’t disturb me at all. The problem, which is the same for everybody, not just for me, is that it’s not just a question of getting the right lip-sync to the lines, which even experienced actors find difficult. It’s also a question of getting it right in terms of the atmosphere, the tone, the pauses, the voice going up, or going down. You’ve got to repeat all that in a sound studio, following the original soundtrack, which you can hear of course, but it can’t be used. Sometimes you can improve on it, but the problem is, that you’re there alone. If you were playing scenes with other people, which one does all the time, they are no longer there! And the same thing applies to them. I’ve never in my life done any looping or post-synching with another actor, because you can’t get them together at the same time. I think that is the most difficult thing: not having anybody to act with. What must be absolute hell is when somebody has to play a quiet romantic scene and the woman is there without the man, or vice-versa. That is really difficult, although it didn’t apply in my case.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Besides being cut from the RETURN OF THE KING, I was rather surprised your name wasn’t mentioned as best supporting actor in any of the trade ads New Line Cinema ran for the first two films.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, that didn’t bother me, because it’s not a question of whether I’m mentioned, or whether my name is in a certain position in the credits. It’s what’s on the screen that is far more important than any critical reviews. You were saying some very nice things about my performance in the film. Well some people have agreed with you and some people haven’t even mentioned that. But it’s what’s on the screen that counts. I keep saying that, because it’s true. It is what’s on the screen that the audience looks at, what the industry looks at and what the Academy members looks at. Isn’t that the really important thing?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, exactly. And now after your roles in THE LORD OF THE RINGS and the two STAR WARS movies all you need is a part in one of the HARRY POTTER pictures to complete a triple-crown of the three top-grossing fantasy series of the new millennium.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: It’s funny you should say that, because after my agent had seen the script for the first HARRY POTTER movie, she was talking to one of the producers and said to him, “there’s a part in the film that would be ideal for Christopher Lee.” Well, this producer gave her a look of absolute horror and said, “oh, but he’s already played a Wizard.” Now wouldn’t you think that a smart producer might say, “oh, he’s going to play a Wizard in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, that’s going to be an enormous success, let’s get him for HARRY POTTER.” I’ve read the first HARRY POTTER book and it seems to me that it is really for children, although I think grown up people can enjoy it as well. On the other hand, THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not for children, and when I say children, I mean younger children, those under nine or ten years old, although some of them will undoubtedly still go to see it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Orson Welles talked about being what he called a “King actor.” He felt he was an actor who did his best work when playing people of great power, whether they were Kings, Prime Ministers or Wizards.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, these kinds of parts are very definitely a challenge to the actor. In the case of Saruman you have to make the audience believe in his immense power. You have to make people believe that here is a man who is an immortal in a human body. The question is, what’s he going to do with that power? Does he control it? Does he believe in his own destiny, or are there any doubts? All of these things are in the books.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You’ve said several times that you think THE LORD OF THE RINGS will go down in cinema history.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I said that on my second day of work on the film, when the executives from New Line Cinema arrived in New Zealand and asked me how I thought everything was going. I said, “You are creating cinema history!” I think everyone connected with the pictures has. These films will be seen for years and years, long after the HARRY POTTER films have—I won’t say faded away—but perhaps, have lost their appeal. It is the soul of Tolkien on the screen. This film is a modern miracle and it will be remembered for a long, long time. Professor Tokien had a vision for a very long period of time. Peter Jackson had a vision. And I have my own vision: I see Professor Tokien walking over to Peter Jackson, shaking his hand and saying, “well done my boy, well done.”
Cinefantastique celebrates the horror stars’ birthdays with retrospective interviews regarding their work together on HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, THE OBLONG BOX, and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN.
Horror and fantasy acting legend Christopher Lee (the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, LORD OF THE RINGS) shares a May 27 birthday anniversary with the late “Merchant of Menace” Vincent Price (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, HOUSE OF USHER); their frequent co-star, the late Peter Cushing, was born on May 26. To celebrate their 100th (Vincent), 98th (Peter) and 89th (Sir Christopher) birthdays, here are some of the comments that Lee and Price made in the mid-eighties about their last film together, THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS. The movie was something of a horror milestone as it also featured horror star John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA); unfortunately, despite the teaming of these four horror greats, the picture was very poorly conceived and executed, so it was no big surprise that it was never released to theatres in America.
MGM recently made the film available as a bare bones DVD-on-demand through Amazon; apparently the quality of the transfer makes the film completely unwatchable. George Reis at DVD Drive-In calls it “probably the worst looking product ever to bare the MGM logo, with a far inferior transfer than the one used for the old VHS release!”
This is rather a shame, since the joy of seeing Price, Lee, Cushing and Carradine acting together in even a badly written and directed piece of claptrap like The House of Long Shadows would be a real delight for classic horror film fans. The DVD might also have been made more memorable if MGM had done the right thing and released it as one of their “Midnight Movie” DVD’s and included a few extras, such as the beautifully narrated Vincent Price trailer, the video press conference that Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and John Carradine held to promote the film at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, or even an audio commentary with Sir Christopher Lee!
Interestingly enough, when I talked to Christopher Lee on his birthday in 1984, he felt the film was “most entertaining.” Apparently he has drastically altered his opinion since then, as he wrote in the 2003 edition of his autiobiography, The Lord of Misrule, that “The House of the Long Shadows was billed as the four masters of the macabre and there wasn’t a single marvelous speech to share between us. The direction was a blank and we agreed with the critics who shredded the film.” Perhaps, as Vincent Price told me, the film was ruined by a woman editor at MGM who apparently “took an axe to the film.”
CHRISTOPHER LEE on THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You haven’t done a Gothic thriller like The House of the Long Shadows for quite some time.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, my involvement is less and less these days. Until somebody comes up with a good story, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy or shocker. Whatever you want to call it. I’m just waiting for somebody to give me a film in that area, which is very worth doing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What was it about The House of Long Shadows that tempted you back to making a terror film? Was it the chance to work with your three co-stars, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, it was primarily the cast. I’ve made pictures with Vincent, I’ve made a great many pictures with Peter, and I had done one picture, called Goliath Awaits, with John Carradine. I had never worked on a picture with all three of them. I don’t think any of us had worked together in the same picture before. This was a first. Hopefully, not a last, but certainly a first. When Vincent, John and I were being interviewed for television, at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, somebody asked Vincent if we would be doing more pictures together, all four of us. He said, “Yes, we’d be delighted to, but they better hurry up!” (Peter was not there, as he lives in England, and hates to travel). So it was the cast, then it was the story. I thought the story was most entertaining, most amusing, with its adequate share of thrills and chills, and there is a remarkable twist in the story, which nobody quite expects, that I think gives it its major value. The one thing about this picture that is of the utmost importance is that the audience should know before they see the film, what kind of picture they’re going to see. If they think they’re going to see a 100% terror movie, they aren’t and I think that should be made clear. If they think they’re going to see a 100% comedy, they aren’t, and I think that should also be made clear. I think, for lack of a better phrase, it should be described very clearly beforehand as a black comedy, which is exactly what it is. Audiences from my experience, don’t like to go and see films expecting one thing and then getting another. The film ran for a very short time at a theatre in London and was taken out because the theatre concerned was already booked with its next film. Apart from that very short run, it’s never been seen, except at film festivals. One in Spain, one in France, and I think one in Germany. In every case it has been extremely well received. The public enjoyed it immensely, because they knew what kind of picture they were going to see.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Were you aware of the reputation of director Pete Walker? His past films (such as House of Whipcord and Schizo) are not very good and are quite graphic and gory.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: No, I didn’t know this. Having not seen any of his previous films, I can’t comment on them. But I didn’t know that until some months afterwords, somebody told me that he had done some very violent pictures and even did some softcore films, or something in that area. However, that’s not quite the point. If you have a competent director, a good crew, and the crew was excellent, a cast which certainly knows what they’re doing in this particular area, as well as other actors, like Richard Todd and the very delightful ladies who are in the film, and everyone works together in a story that is amusing, exciting and, at times, very scary, I think you have the recipe for a very good film, which is what we ended up with. I saw it at a private screening in Rome, nearly two years ago and I thought it was most entertaining, and worked as well as I could possibly have hoped it to do. The people who have seen it at the festivals, knowing what they were going to see, a black comedy with an unexpected twist and the veterans at work, have been absolutely delighted with the picture. Why it isn’t being shown I have no idea. All I can tell you is that at the (1984) Cannes Film Festival my wife asked Yoram Globus, one of the heads at Cannon Films, what had happened to the picture and he said it was going to come out on cable TV in October.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When I talked to Cannon’s publicity people in 1983, they told me the film was going through marketing tests.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I’ve never been able to find out what a marketing test is! I mean do you get people who sit around a table with rows of figures in front of them, or strange mystic symbols, who then make obtuse calculation in a room, saying this film will appeal to this audience, and it won’t appeal to that audience, then come up with an answer and say, “yes, we will show it,” or “no, we won’t show it.” I understand the value of this, but there’s also that imponderable that really nobody knows until the public get a chance to make up its own mind. You cannot calculate the public’s reaction by sitting around a table and talking figures.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Apparently they put the figures they had into a computer which came up with a projected gross that wouldn’t justify the cost of releasing the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: A computer! That really just proves what I’ve been saying. I’m not going to take issue with these gentlemen, because it’s their job, and I know very little about it. I’m merely a creative person. Yet, when you say a computer makes the decision, you’re into the realms of fantasy. Real fantasy, as opposed to film fantasy! How can a machine possibly predict what a man and a woman, or a boy and a girl are going to like or not like? We’re talking about the reaction of the public watching a film. To me, the fact that this sort of thing is fed into a computer is a disastrous sign for the future of the film industry. It’s like the famous “Q” rating which exists in television, where they feed the names of actors and actresses into a computer, and the computer tells them whether that actor or actress is significantly popular to warrant putting them in a series. Ask the public, don’t ask a computer!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I would think that the combined value of your four star names alone would justify releasing the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I quite agree. It’s a mystery. I firmly believe that if this film is given a proper promotion and representation to the public, it would do extremely well, because it’s a very entertaining movie. Together we have made a considerable number of pictures. We worked it out one day, and I’ve made over 150 now, Vincent’s done about 120, Peter’s done 110 and John said he’s made 430 pictures! That’s quite possible, because when he started out, you made two or three pictures a month. They were very quick in those day, jumping from one studio to another.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: During the filming of your death in the movie, Vincent was apparently watching and was quoted as saying, rather gleefully, “I just love to see Chris bleed.”
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s typical of Vincent and his humor. Indeed, all of us would have said the same thing about each other. One must maintain a very relaxed attitude towards this kind of film. If you’re making a film with people whom you respect enormously as actors, and people whom you’re very, very fond of as individuals, then one is bound to have a lot of joshing and fun on the set. That’s the best way to make a picture of this kind. So he may very well have said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. If he did, I certainly go along with it, because I certainly would have thought of something similar to say at the time of his demise in the film. I think that’s a very funny line and very appropriate.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Of course, you did get to push Vincent into a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that’s right and 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. The three of us were in that as well, but not in the same scenes. I played the head of British Intelligence, who was an alien.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You were supposed to be an alien? I didn’t realize that when I saw the film.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Oh yes, I am an alien. I have this very responsible job as the head of British Intelligence. Vincent’s character was an alien, as well. He is one, and I’m another. I’m really there to pay him off for all the mistakes he’s made with his experiments. If that wasn’t clear, it was either in the cutting or the story, because that indeed was meant to be the solution. It is a fault that lies, not with us, but elsewhere–in the way the film was put together.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It was made for Amicus and producer Milton Subotsky who always liked to tamper with his films in the cutting room. Later on, didn’t Milton Subotsky ask you to appear in The Monster Club?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, I got a message from my agent asking me if I would like to do a picture with Milton Subotsky and I said, “Yes, after all these years, what does he have planned?” So he told me he’s going to do a picture called The Monster Club. I said, “That’s enough. We need go no further!”
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s funny, because Peter Cushing also turned him down, but Vincent said he thought it was a funny script and decided to do it, as did John Carradine.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Well, people do what they want to do, or what they enjoy doing. If Vincent wanted to do it and it was a story which appealed to him, fine, then do it. It might have been, for all I know, a marvelous script, but a title like that would put me off immediately. I hated the title of a picture I did with Milton, called I, Monster. I thought it was a dreadful title, and I never stopped telling him that. It was an absolutely absurd title, because it was the story of Jekyll and Hyde. In that respect, it was very good, because what we did was very close to Stevenson’s story.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Except you were not called Dr Jekyll.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, they changed it to Dr. Marlowe and Mr. Blake, while everyone else had the correct names from the Stevenson story. Don’t ask me why. I’ve long since ceased trying to fathom the mysteries of why people do certain things in this business. But I thought it was an appalling title, and Milton, on the other hand, thought it was a very good one. He said it was a good marquee title, so we agreed to disagree.
VINCENT PRICE on THE HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You got to act with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine for the first time in The House of the Long Shadows, and although I felt it could have been a much better film, Christopher Lee told me he thought the film was quite entertaining.
VINCENT PRICE: I did too, we all thought it was good, until this woman took an ax to it! It has to be recut. I really don’t know what she was doing. She called me up and said, “will you go out and promote the film”, and I said, “If you show the film that we shot,” because it’s just not the same film. She cut out all of the comedy payoffs to everything. As you know, we were all hired actors to scare Desi Arnaz, Jr. out of the house, people who just came in to do a job. After everything that happens in the house, Chris Lee getting killed, and all the other things, suddenly we all come out and take a bow, and it is revealed to Desi that we are all actors. We had these marvelous comments on all the things that happened, and that was all cut out. They tried to turn it into a horror picture and destroyed it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When I saw it the bows you all take at the end are still in the film. It reminded me of the Fritz Lang film, The Woman in the Window.
VINCENT PRICE: That’s the way it should have been done, so maybe they’ve put it back together. But I think there was way too much of Desi Arnaz in the beginning, and it does take too long to get into the story, so I don’t quite understand it. I don’t know if it was Golan and Globus (the producers) who wanted it to be a horror picture, or what. If they did, then why did they shoot it as a comedy?
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is it true that you were watching Christopher Lee’s death scene, and said, “I just love to see Chris bleed.”
VINCENT PRICE: (laughing) Yes! We’re great friends you know. We both find each other hysterically funny. Before we met I heard he was very pompous, and I was really worried about meeting him. It was on The Oblong Box, the first film we did together. Well, we took one look at each other and started laughing. We spend our lives screaming and laughing at each other and having a wonderful time. I’m really devoted to him. I think he’s really one of my few very good friends in the business.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I imagine that’s one reason why you wanted to do the picture, even if it wasn’t first-rate material, because you got to work with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine.
VINCENT PRICE: Oh yes, absolutely. It was like a marvelous class reunion. John is an adorable character, who I’ve known for about 40 years now. Peter is unfortunately, a little gloomy, because of his wives death, but he’s still a sweet man.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s too bad about Peter Cushing, because Christopher Lee was telling me how’s he’s really just waiting to join his wife, Helen.
VINCENT PRICE: I know, it’s like, “are you kidding?” It’s very sad. He’s just waiting to die, but he’s going to have to wait a long time. He’s going to live to be 100 years old, but Peter and I have done a lot together.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What else, besides Madhouse?
VINCENT PRICE: We did a marvelous radio show in England called Aliens of the Mind (broadcast in six parts in January, 1977) and we were in a picture called Scream and Scream Again.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, but you never appeared in any scenes with Peter Cushing in Scream and Scream Again. Peter Cushing was only on screen for about two minutes!
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, and Chris Lee was in that one, as well.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of things Christopher Lee fervently believes in, is the reality of evil and the dark forces. You’ve played several very evil characters, from the Satan-worshipping Prince Prospero, to Satan himself.
VINCENT PRICE: Satan is the ultimate hero.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: But do you believe in evil or the occult?
VINCENT PRICE: I don’t believe in the occult, but I do believe there is a power of evil. How do you read the Bible? It is divided equally between good and evil. You can’t have good without evil, because there’s no conflict. One of the lectures I do is basically that; trying to explain that the role of the villain has a definite part in the history of drama. He is the fellow who creates the suspense and the conflict. You can’t have drama without suspense.
In this article, taken from the book Fritz Lang (Oxford University Press, 1977) by Lotte Eisner, the sculptor Walter Schultze-Mittendorf reveals how he created the iconic “false Maria” robot for Metropolis.
The Birth of the female robot in METROPOLIS
By Walter Schultze-Mittendorf
Problems of form? No! Expressionism lived. Technological form had been discovered as motif for painting and sculpture. Primary, in this case, was the question, ‘What material?’
I thought at first to have real metal – chased copper plate. That meant searching for and finding a suitable chaser to execute the work. ‘Complicated,’ I thought, when Fritz Lang tried to interest me in the work. But which material really?
An accident helped us. A workshop making architectural models gave us decisive assistance unintentionally. I went there because of another job. My attention was drawn to a little cardboard box labeled ‘Plastic Wood – trade sample.’ A postal parcel. This ‘trade sample’ was not interesting for the workshop and was given to me. One trial brought the proof straightaway that the material for our ‘machine creature’ had been found. ‘Plastic wood’ turned out to be a knead-able substance made of wood, hardening quickly when exposed to the air, allowing itself to be modeled like organic wood.
Now it needed a procedure that was not very pleasant for Brigitte Helm: namely the making of a plaster cast of her whole body. Parts resembling a knight’s armor, cut out of Hessian, were covered with two millimeters of the substance flattened by means of a kitchen pastry roller. This was then stuck onto the plaster Brigitte Helm, like a shoemaker puts leather over his block. When the material hardened, the parts were polished, the contours cut out. This was the rough mechanism of the ‘machine creature’ that made it possible for the actress to stand, to sit and to walk. The next procedure was furnishing it with detail to create a technological aesthetic. Finally we used ‘Cellon’ varnish mixed with silver bronze and applied with a spray gun, which gave the whole it’s genuinely metallic appearance, so it even seemed convincing when looked at from close range. The work took many weeks however. In those days, films were carefully prepared and thus the realization of a piece of work unusual for a film like this one was ensured. In striking contrast to the present-day German film industry!
Fritz Lang discovered the 17-year old actress Brigitte Helm for the double-role of Maria and her robot counterpart in METROPOLIS and she gives a remarkable performance in the film, convincingly portraying both angel and whore . In this 1927 article she discussed the rewards and difficulties of working with Fritz Lang, a notorious perfectionist.
THE MARIA OF THE UNDERWORLD, OF YOSHIWARA, AND I
By Brigitte Helm
What excited me most about the role of Maria in Metropolis were the character’s crass differences, because these also lie hidden in my own nature: the austere, pure and chaste Maria, who believes in doing good, and the Maria the obsessed siren. Whenever I’m told how well I portrayed these intertwining and contradicting elements, I find it flattering and take it as a compliment.
It was incredible work. Now that it’s over, I have trouble remembering the disheartening and sadder moments – only the sunnier and uplifting moments stay with me. Sometimes it was like heaven, and other times like hell! The three weeks spend shooting the water sequence, when the underground city is flooded, were unbelievably hard on my health. Even now, I have to admit that I don’t know how I got through it.
The night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments–even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time – I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air. But like I said earlier, today I have to make an effort to remember the unpleasant things: they’ve just faded away. Now that I relate so much to the role of Maria, I can’t image myself playing any other role. Only I can’t imagine myself not working in films again. So I’m curious to see just what is going to happen.