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Ed Wood

Ed or Johnny: The Strange Case of Ed Wood

By Chris Gore & Jeremy Berg
Film Threat
December 1994

Even the most diehard fans of actor, writer and director Ed Wood Jr. would agree that he made bad movies. Really bad movies. Wood’s films are so bad that they are actually fun to watch. Fun in the same kind of way as witnessing someone tripping on the sidewalk or vomiting upon exiting a roller coaster, or like the simple pleasure of viewing a painful traffic accident. You know, that kind of fun. Ed Wood’s best-known travesties of cinema spanned the classic schlock film era of the ‘50s and early ‘60s: Glen or Glenda, Jailbait, Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, The Sinister Urge and, the most infamous of all, Plan 9 from Outer Space. But the ultimate honor is now due this master of mediocre movies. Ed Wood, the motion picture, is a delightful biopic that pays loving tribute to the man who is commonly referred to as the worst director of all time.

While the real Ed Wood grappled with his own transvestite tendencies in his biographical film Glen or Glenda, Johnny Depp had to contend with becoming Ed, which involved the actor’s rumored frequent testing of various types of lingerie that he wore under his everyday clothing in order to “get a feel” for the part. Depp’s research must have paid off in spades because his portrayal of Wood is both hilarious and touching. Depp seems all too comfortable in those pink angora sweaters and heels. Johnny nonchalantly directs his actors in re-creations of Wood’s worst while wearing full makeup without batting a fake eyelash. Wood himself, who passed away in 1978, might approve of Depp’s performance, if it weren’t for the film’s overall slickness.

Though celebrity film director Tim Burton seems poised to receive most of the credit for the success of this strangely dark, funny yet moving biopic, the true brainchilds behind Ed Wood are the film’s screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. The writing team behind such crap as Problem Child have surprisingly crafted a wonderful Horatio Alger tale. They’ve even avoided the conventions of the genre by providing this biography film with a happy ending. Considering that the real Ed Wood had drug problems and died penniless, before his films’ glorious rise in the encyclopedia of kitsch, this is a break from the norm. Film Threat cornered Scott and Larry for the lowdown on Ed’s inception, color versus black-and-white, and the virtues of comfortable women’s clothing.

Meet the Bad Boys of Bio
Can there really be two people on the face of this Earth who can claim that their chance meeting was due to Herschell Gordon Lewis? Well, this just happens to be the case with the authors of Ed Wood, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander. One day while in line to check into the dorm rooms at USC, somehow these two strangers began a discussion on the Godfather of slasher flicks, and thus a great writing team was conceived.

Film School Maniacs
It was their senior year at USC when the two decided it was time to think about writing a movie. While driving to South Bend to see Larry, Scott was transfixed by a lawsuit where a high school kid was suing his school district. Scott explains that “a bunch of kids had been crawling on the roof of the school gymnasium, trying to vandalize it, kicking holes in things and spray painting it, and they had fallen through a glass skylight, and one kid hit the floor and was paralyzed. He turned around and sued the school district, claiming that this was an unsafe roof to climb on at two in the morning. Larry and I started talking about it, saying that this can be made into a comedy, and we extrapolated from this and turned it into a story about a thief robbing a suburban home owner’s house. He falls through the roof and then sues the home owner for negligence. We simply though, Wouldn’t it be fun to write a script? We had no ulterior motives at all. It was just a goofy thing to do, and we wrote the script about a week after graduating and then sold it to 20th Century Fox.” Fresh out of film school and these two Herschell Gordon Lewis fans are already sharing office space on a major studio lot.

Problem Child Blues
While their first script languished in development hell at 20th Century Fox, their second script had the good fortune of being made. Although it wasn’t Citizen Kane, their sophomore script, Problem Child, did happen to be the most profitable film of 1990, though you wouldn’t know it from Larry and Scott’s profit statements, which they would be pleased to show you.

Problem Child wasn’t conceived as a dumb kiddie comedy. Scott explains that “it wasn’t supposed to be a kid’s film. The genesis for the movie was that there were all these baby-loving movies of the mid-‘80s: Baby Boom, Three Men and a Baby, For Keeps, etc.

“Meanwhile, Larry and I were thinking, All these movies are saying how wonderful these little children are, how they change and enhance people’s lives. We wanted to do a movie that was the antidote to that, saying that kids are a pain in the ass.” Basically the truth.

Bad is Good
We all know that Problem Child wasn’t necessarily what we at FT call high art, but so what—the film grossed gangloads of cash. Very hated by the critics, but incredibly successful. “Entertainment Weekly referred to it as a ‘freak hit,’” explains Scott. “A real backhanded compliment.” The next year was spent turning down an endless amount of kiddie garbage films like Cop and a Half. But at least they were getting offers, and to a writer, any offer is a good offer.

Larry Doesn’t Type—Ever
With every writing team there is always the issue of who is going to do the typing. With the case of Scott and Larry, the answer is always the same: Scott types, Larry reclines. Plain and simple, no fuss, no fight.

Biopic for a Loser?
It all started with Scott’s proposal for an Ed Wood film back in his sophomore year at USC. “It was a preproduction class about getting grants for projects—you’d put together a whole proposal to make a movie, and my package was for a movie called The Man in the Angora Sweater,” Scott explains. “I actually faked letters from Lyle Talbot and Vampira, saying that they would be happy to cooperate with the project.”

Larry goes on to say that “Scott’s proposal was for a documentary on Ed Wood, but we always talked about what a great biopic it would be. But we figured there would be no one on the planet Earth who would make this movie or want to make this movie, because these aren’t the sort of movies that are made.”

But Ed Wood? A man whose films have been called the worst films ever made? What was their initial reaction to these films? “Boredom,” both Larry and Scott answer. Larry claims, “I’ve seen his films a thousand times apiece since, and you begin to appreciate them the more you watch them. There’s a difference between Ed Wood-style filmmaking and other people who make these kind of movies in the sense that Ed had a real passion. When you watch the movies, you can tell that the guy behind the camera truly believes 100% in what he’s doing.” Scott believes that “the movies are almost more interesting to watch now than they were then because now people know more about Ed. Once you know about the cast and all their screwy stories and Ed’s troubles making these movies, it allows you to read more into the films, it gives them more context.”

Do these guys have a favorite picture? Larry says, “Glen or Glenda has always been my favorite. It is a mondo piece of filmmaking. There’s all of the jumping back and forth from the guy telling the story and then the dramatization of a transsexual’s nightmare. It’s all really good stuff.”

Pitching Wood
By this time Scott and Larry have somewhat of a personal connection to Ed Wood in that their Problem Child films were almost as hated as Ed’s films were. Some of the endless negative reviews read “script wasn’t written, it was fingerpainted, or written by a demented proctologist.” With the sequel critics even stated that “the end of the world is near if Problem Child 2 is a sign.”

Larry explains what his state of mind was like after the nonstop assault of their first features. “At this point we knew what it was like to be hated for what you do. We knew that it took just as much hard work and energy to make a bad movie as it does to make a good movie, so we were able to look at Ed Wood from a different angle. We were able to look at the possibility of doing an Ed Wood movie and not making fun of Ed Wood the way most traditional things written about Ed up to this time had done. What’s interesting that since Ed Wood was so on the fringe of Hollywood, the story became one that was more about someone who wants to be a film director than about a guy who actually is a film director.”

But did Hollywood remember who Ed Wood and his crew were? And did they care? Scott comments that “when we wrote this script people literally didn’t know who this person was, and when the draft first went out, people thought it was fiction. People thought everyone was made up except Bela Lugosi.”

Larry recalls their meeting with British director Jonathan Lynn (My Cousin Vinnie). “We were walking out of the meeting, and somehow it slipped that it was a true story and he couldn’t believe it. He kept saying, ‘You’re kidding me.’” Kind of figures when you think about how little most people in Hollywood truly know.

Meeting Tim Burton
Initially Larry and Scott thought this would be a great project for their old film-school buddy Michael Lehman (Heathers). Larry figured they would approach it in a very nonformal way. He explains their viewpoints at the time were basically “Wouldn’t this be hysterical, the guys who wrote Problem Child and the guy who directed Hudson Hawk making a movie about the worst filmmaker of all time.” They wrote a ten-page treatment for Michael, who, after reading it, finally got the idea for the picture. Michael in turn took the treatment to his Heathers producer, Denise DiNovi, to see if she and Tim Burton would be interested in producing this picture for them. Denise was a little baffled by this so she passed it along to Tim, who, according to Scott said, “Yes, this is great and I’m looking forward to directing this movie.” Denise had to inform him that it was for him to produce, and Michael was going to direct it. Tim then put his foot down and said, “No, Michael is going to produce it and I’m going to direct it.”

Working 14-hour days, seven days a week, Scott and Larry punched out the script in record time. Although the script came in at 148 pages, somewhat epic as far as scripts are concerned, Tim loved it and went ahead and shot the first draft. Scott explains, “We were scared. We finally got the script down to 148 pages and we were saying that it’s still too long, but we just got to give it to him. There was a bit of a mercenary attitude behind the script in the fact that we were trying to appeal to Tim’s instincts. He’s a very personal filmmaker and everything with him is on a gut level—he either responds to it emotionally or he doesn’t get it at all. We knew we had one shot, and so we tried to put in scenes that would work for him on an iconographic level or would parallel his relationships. We certainly tried to stress the relationship between Ed and Bela because it was so reminiscent of Tim’s relationship with Vincent Price.”

Tim’s Take
Obviously everything didn’t go as planned when shooting began. Tim’s take on cetain scenes was far from Scott and Larry’s. “What’s funny is that a few things blew up in our faces,” Scott explains. “One was a total kiss-ass scene in the script, which will not be in the movie, where Ed and Bela were riding through a cemetery at night. Bela’s dressed up for Halloween and his cape is flapping through the wind, and they’re drinking and running through tombstones. We had written really visually—we had oil wells pumping in the background, it was all very visual, very elaborate, and we could even picture the music playing just like a Tim Burton moment, and everyone was saying that it was such a Tim Burton moment. They drove down to Long Beach, found a cemetery with oil wells pumping in the background, they lit this whole thing, and Tim did two shots and said, ‘Okay, let’s go home.’ That was it! We envisioned this as a major set piece in the movie. Clearly, he just wasn’t responding to it. He did the two shots, he went home and that was the first scene that was cut when they started editing the movie. In some ways you can’t second-guess someone.”

Landau Becomes Bela
When deciding who was to play Bela Legosi, it was Tim Burton who spent the night brainstorming and came up with Martin Landau’s name. According to Scott, Tim flat out said, “Look at his face—it’s Bela, it’s Landau, it’s Bela.”

Black-and-White or Color?
At this point the Ed Wood crew went to Rick Baker to do a makeup test on Landau. Larry explains their first encounter with the world-renowned makeup genius: “Rick Baker designed a whole Bela makeup thing for Landau, and we shot a makeup test, which was shot in color. We got back the dailies and they looked great, they looked amazing, but we kept on saying something was missing, and it dawned on us that none of us had ever seen a color photograph of Bela Lugosi. I think it was from that moment on that Tim started saying, ‘Black-and-white, black-and-white is the only way to do this movie. These are black-and-white people.’” Scott goes on to add that “stylistically it would all an overlap between the movies that Ed was making and Ed’s life, otherwise the movie would be bouncing back and forth between color and black-and-white.”

How did Columbia Pictures react to the fact that Tim wanted to shoot it in black-and-white? “They were vomiting,” explains Scott. “They have contracts when movies get made and their contracts said color. They were saying, ‘Look, we can’t get our cable money, we can’t get our foreign video money, we won’t be able to exploit the movie in a lot of markets if it’s in black-and-white.’”

They did it Tim’s Way!
But did any of this stop Mr. Nonconformist himself, Tim Burton? Of course not! Larry explains that at the time Tim was basically saying, “’I don’t care. It makes me happy—why can’t I do it?’ He refused to make it in color. The studio was saying, ‘How about if we shot it on a color negative and released it here in black-and-white, but then later on if the film is not that successful we could make it a color video?’ Tim said no way.”

A Low-Budget Burton Movie
By now Columbia was backing out of the project and Ed Wood was being put into turnaround. Everyone in town had a couple of days to put together their offers for the next Tim Burton “Black and White” film. Scott states that “Denise DiNovi put together a locked budget saying, ‘We could make the movie for $19 million, you can’t touch the script, you have no control over the film, you can have it next summer, who wants it?’ A number of studios stepped up, and Disney offered the best deal.” Larry explains that “Tim does everything by gut instinct. With this movie he was really trying to get away from the big-budget-type Batman movies, where you have 14,000 people telling you what to do. Before he began he said, ‘I wonder if I’m a crybaby. Can I make a movie like this after spending $70 million on movies, can I just go and make a $19 million movie?’ It sounds like a lot of money to us, but it was one of those things where he was asking whether he could do it without some of the frills.”

Tim does it “Ed Wood” Style
So Tim sets out to make his film in the vein that Ed Wood would have done it in. Scott talks about what life was like before shooting began. “A location scout would come in and say, ‘I think we’re going to need this many sets for this location and it’s going to cost this much money,’ and Tim would say, ‘No, it’s too much, we’re doing it Ed Wood style.’ They’d say we need 50 extras that day and Tim would say ‘No, we only need 20.’”

Re-Creating Bad—On Purpose
Don’t expect to see lush, elaborate Tim Burton sets in this film. Larry explains, “The art director thought he was working on a Tim Burton movie so all of the sets he designed were done to look really cool and neat, and Tim would just go through and say lose the plant, lose this, lose that. And when you got back to it, it was an Ed Wood set. It was two plants and a couch.” Scott goes on to say, “In particular, when you see the movie, a couple of Ed’s apartments in the film are really absurd-looking because they look like Ed Wood sets. They’re so cheap-looking.”

Dressing up Johnny
We’ve all seen Johnny Depp’s charm shine through in Edward Scissorhands and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but can he bring that humble, sincere quality to the role of a cross-dressing anti-auteur? Scott believes so. “Johnny’s incredible sweetness makes this movie really accessible. You’ll really like it, Johnny’s such a good guy.”

But Depp in drag? “The cross-dressing is unusual in this movie, whereas in most movies it’s cute and funny and corky, in this movie it’s played totally straight,” Scott says. “I don’t know if it’s ever been presented this way in a movie before. It’s just Johnny sitting in his apartment, drinking a beer, and he just happens to be dressed as a woman, without commenting on it. It’s not even slightly sexualized, and it’s not Robin Williams being cute either.” Hey, and how could he play it wrong? When you have Kate Moss and Winona Ryder giving you pointers, dressing as a woman is probably as easy as directing a bad movie.

During preproduction, word around La-La land had rumors of Depp doing research for his role by wearing women’s clothing out and about. Scott explains, “He was trying it out. He said that when he was wearing his angora sweater he would grab the little hairs over his nipples and just try to twist them around, absentmindedly, while he was pacing around.” Larry continues “that Ed Wood felt so comfortable wearing women’s clothing that Johnny wanted to get to the point where he felt comfortable. Also, Ed was very big on not trying to be a woman, he was trying to be himself in women’s clothing. So Johnny wanted to be able to still do his walk and not be swoshy. So I think Johnny was really trying out his heels—I don’t think he was wearing women’s underwear. He really had to get used to walking in heels, which is not an easy thing to do.”

We all know that Johnny’s a very versatile thespian, but can he truly strut his stuff in pumps? According to Scott, Johnny was capable of everything. “An amazing moment is when he does the scene from Glen or Glenda with Ed walking down the street, window shopping in drag, and he’s walking like a man—like a man who doesn’t even know he’s dressed like a woman. It’s so funny because he looks completely natural about it, he’s completely unaware of the fact that he’s dressed as a woman. Johnny really nailed that.”

Drones of Wood-Aholics
Little does Hollywood know, but there are people out there who actually like seeing Ed Wood flicks. Larry explains, “I think there’s this whole army of Wood fanatics, there’s this underground army flying under the studio radar. They don’t realize how many people out there went to Plan 9 From Outer Space every weekend, how many people go to Fangoria conventions. I think there’s an audience out there that they are unaware of.”

Ode to Ed
Will America, and the world, understand this film? Will they take it into their hearts and call it their own And what do Scott and Larry want America to get out of this picture? All Scott wants his audience to do is root for a guy who went against everything America stands for. But Larry feels it’s a little more than that: “I think that Ed is really symbolic of the American dream in a sense that sure he’s a cross-dresser, sure he’s a freak, but he did it his way. He fought for what he believed in, and I agree with Scott—if you can get an audience to root for a guy who is sitting there in an angora sweater, directing an aging heroin addict, and get the audience to realize that these people are lovable, that they’re not really freaks, they’re normal people, then you’ve done your job. They just need to be understood.”

Hell, Orson Welles spent his entire career fighting the Hollywood system, and he didn’t even wear a dress.

Writers’ Profiles

Larry Karaszewski
Larry’s your typical Midwest kind of guy who got involved with making movies at an early age. Born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, Larry picked up his first Super 8 camera at the age of ten. He worked on a “Second City for young kids”-type TV show called Beyond Our Control. After that, he decided to move to Los Angeles, go to film school and start writing.

Scott Alexander
Scott, on the other hand, has far less culture than Larry. “I have lived in Los Angeles every minute of my life. I’m one of only seven people alive who can make that claim. I’ve never lived anywhere else. Went to USC, local school, married a local girl from the Valley, started making Super 8 movies in high school.”

-- donated by Theresa