By Sven Mikulec
Edward Davis Wood, Jr., to most of the world known simply as Ed Wood, was an American filmmaker who spent the 1950s and the 1960s living and working on the outskirts of Hollywood, trying to catch his big break, until ultimately succumbing to alcoholism and dying in complete poverty at the age of 54. During his career, he made several films that would, years later, become true cult classics: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956) and Glen or Glenda (1953) first come to mind. What Ed Wood, the aspiring filmmaker whose love of movies far outweighed his actual talent for making them, failed to achieve in his lifetime, he marvelously accomplished decades after his wife found him in his bed with “his eyes and mouth wide open,” clutching the sheets, with the look in his eyes as if “he’d seen hell.” Partly thanks to American radio show host and author Michael S. Medved and his 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards in which Plan 9 from Outer Space was proclaimed to be the worst movie ever made, Ed Wood finally reached fame and recognition, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. For years now, he has been referred to as the worst filmmaker that ever lived, a popular question on pub quizzes all over the world. Ed Wood was an outcast; a man completely dedicated to making films, in such a passionate love affair with filmmaking that he seemed totally oblivious to the fact the rest of the world either ignored his work or reviled it.
Burdened with a completely unfair and ludicrous label, Ed Wood’s name still carries some of its notoriety, but a lot was changed back in 1994, when Tim Burton’s Ed Wood came out telling the story of a man who seems the least likely choice for a subject of a beautiful biopic of any sorts. In the 1980s, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander were roommates at the University of Southern California, where they were studying at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. They were fascinated by Ed Wood, and after a distressing experience with the movie Problem Child they had written the script for, they felt more close to Wood than ever before: their screenplay was dumbed down and simplified, they were fired from the movie and completely left out of the process, leaving them in a position to watch the project crash and burn with bitterness in their hearts.
“Before the Problem Child experience, we probably would have written a campy, mean-spirited Ed Wood film—the obvious approach. But now, after our critical lambasting, we looked at Ed in a different light. Sympathetically,” they wrote. After completing a treatment, they reached a deal with Denise Di Novi and Tim Burton to produce the film; Michael Lehmann (Heathers, Hudson Hawk) was set to direct, but since Burton wanted the shooting to start as soon as possible, Lehmann had to withdraw due to scheduling conflicts, so Burton stepped up to take over the director’s seat. Ed Wood was supposed to be developed at Columbia Pictures, but since Burton insisted on shooting it in black-and-white, the studio put it in turnaround. The interest was there, and the project got its second chance at the Walt Disney Studios, who were willing to grant Burton complete artistic control, encouraged by their previous collaboration on The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The filming began in August 1993, lasting for 72 days, and when Ed Wood was presented at the theaters in September of the following year, the critics adored it. A huge critical success was unfortunately accompanied by really miserable box office results, which made the picture the first Burton film to tank at the receipts. On a budget of 18 million dollars—which is more than all of Ed Wood’s films combined—the film heavily underperformed, not meeting the expectations of cinemagoers. And yet, almost a quarter of a century later, it’s unanimously hailed as one of the best movies Tim Burton has ever made, which means Ed Wood, the man, was paid an honor he most likely wouldn’t have anticipated even in his wildest dreams.
Tim Burton, who previously dropped out of Marry Reilly and hence opened up his schedule to make Ed Wood, considered the protagonist a soul he could relate to. As anyone remotely familiar with Burton’s filmography already knows, the filmmaker has always had a soft spot for outsiders, good-natured but misunderstood and underappreciated. “I’ve always had trouble with the words ‘reality’ and ‘normal,’ because what somebody sees as normal you see as abnormal,” he said back at the time when Ed Wood was made. “Every film I’ve ever done I always feel is real, everyone else just thinks it’s completely ridiculous.” This is a statement Ed Wood would probably understand all too well. Besides understanding Wood, Burton was also dazzled with Wood’s relationship with Bela Lugosi, the aging movie star who worked with Wood at the end of his career (and life, for a matter of fact: Lugosi died while shooting Plan 9 from Outer Space). Johnny Depp, on the other hand, perhaps didn’t feel the same connection with the undervalued filmmaker, but it still took him less than ten minutes to agree to do the part. And he does it marvelously, portraying Wood with enthusiasm, passion, complete dedication, bringing life to the man behind the infamous “worst filmmaker ever” tag, preferring humanity to cheap comedy points. Ed Wood had an outstanding supporting cast as well, with the likes of Martin Landau, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray joining Depp.
As we’ve already stated, the film was shot in black-and-white, and the master behind the camera was the Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns maestro Stefan Czapsky. Despite working with Danny Elfman on his previous six films, Burton chose Howard Shore to compose the score, while the editing was handled by the two-time Academy Award nominee and Midnight Run editor Chris Lebenzon. Following through on a delighted critical reception, Ed Wood went on to win two Academy Awards, with the golden statues landing on Martin Landau (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and Rick Baker, Ve Neill and Yolanda Toussieng’s shelves.
The beauty of Ed Wood lies not only in Burton’s masterful direction, fine acting performances or the beautiful visuals; the main strength of the movie can be found in its screenplay. Even though it’s not really a biopic in the full sense of the word, as it’s semi-fictional account of five exciting years of Wood’s life based on Rudolph Grey’s 1992 Wood biography called ‘Nightmare of Ecstasy’ and inspired by Ed Wood’s very own letters, choosing Ed Wood as the subject of a biopic could have resulted in a completely different kind of film. Screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander didn’t opt for ridicule, as ridiculous as Wood, the artist, might have been. The sympathetic approach, in which Wood is presented as a real person, with emotions, aspirations, hopes and indestructible optimism, resulted in one of the most touching films we’ve ever seen. We, of course, didn’t know Wood. But as a filmmaker who lived and breathed movies, who had an unstoppable urge to make them, who dreamed big even as he was met with laughter and disdain, who stuck with his vision and style despite what the rest of the world had to say, we’re pretty sure Wood would be proud of how Burton and his team presented him to the world.
Screenwriter must-read: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay for Ed Wood [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
ED WOOD: PASSION AND PROPHECY
To celebrate the anniversary of Ed Wood, Colin J McCracken spoke with Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski to discover how it all came to be, how it affected their subsequent work, and why in the world they chose to focus on a relatively unknown B-Movie director who had been termed ‘The Worst Filmmaker Of All Time.’ The following is an excerpt from that interview. Read the full interview at Colin J McCracken’s website.
Having felt the brunt of the Tinseltown experience, the writers now looked at Wood in an altogether different light than they had done all those years before; not only from the Problem Child fiasco, but from their own personal on set experience as well. Alexander had spent time crewing low budget horror movies after his freshman year of college at USC. “My salary was $15 a day for a 16 hour day and I was working 7 days a week,” he recalls, “They were such a joyful experience and a lot of the moments in Ed Wood were lifted from time spent on those movies.” Alexander reveals that one of the first lessons that they learnt was that, even though they were writing a biography of someone else, it was possible to incorporate their own lessons into the script. “The more you can personalise a project, the more fun it is for you to write,” he adds.
With a concept to develop a feature on Ed Wood, they wrote a brief treatment and shopped around for potential directors. Two names that were suggested in those early days were Michael Lehmann and John Waters. “We envisioned Ed Wood as more of an indie style picture, because we had written two big Hollywood hits that we were very unsatisfied with,” says Karaszewski, “and even though they had made money, they weren’t the kind of movies that we really wanted to have a career making. We thought that we could reboot ourselves and start our careers off in the way we really should have gone.” The writers felt that they should have gone the American Independent route, making low budget films instead of selling their first script to Hollywood. Ed Wood was designed from the very start to be a much smaller event. “That’s why we initially went to Michael Lehmann,” Karaszewski notes, “He had done Heathers, and we thought that it was exactly what a smaller kind of movie should be. It had a spirit and a fight to it.”
Alexander and Karaszewski felt Lehmann would appreciate the material, because he had just made Hudson Hawk, a notorious disaster, both financially and critically. “We thought, hey, the writers of Problem Child with the director of Hudson Hawk making a film about the worst filmmaker of all time!” laughs Karaszewski, “All three of us had been through the experience of working really hard at something and having it not turn out well and being received in a negative light. This allowed us to look at Ed in a different way. That was one of the breakthrough points, in having us look at Ed in a sympathetic manner, as opposed to a mocking one. We knew Lehmann could do that.”
Things progressed and Lehmann took the writers’ ten page treatment to Denise Di Novi, with whom he had worked on Heathers. It was then presented to Tim Burton, to acquire some form of associative credit to assist with funding. “We weren’t even asking Tim to work on Ed Wood, just to put his name to it,” says Alexander, “We said ‘Would you mind coming on as a producer or a presenter, just to help us raise our financing?’ This was so that we could say Tim Burton Presents…” Burton, an aficionado of low budget drive in cinema, grew up loving Plan 9, and liked the idea so much that he expressed an interest in directing. Lehmann became involved with his next film, Airheads, and so the change in directors wouldn’t be problematic, but Burton was poised to start work on Mary Reilly, and so Alexander and Karaszewski knew they had to act fast.
The screenwriters met with Burton, who reiterated his interest in the project. They were working on spec, as there was no deal in place, but with Burton agreeing to seriously consider the script, the pair locked themselves away working 14 hour days, seven days a week for six weeks, until a draft was ready. It was a gamble, but a necessary one. In an almost unprecedented turn of events, Burton agreed to shoot their first draft. Ed Wood was to be made. A deal was established with Lehmann, who would now produce, and the film was taken on by Columbia Pictures. The film had click here gone from a small indie production to an entity of blockbuster proportions. Burton had just come off his second Batman film and would bring with him a leading man; Johnny Depp.
Depp was intrigued at the story of Ed Wood, as well as his misappropriated reputation. He felt that without Wood, there would have been no John Waters, no David Lynch and, for that matter, no Tim Burton. To come up with the energetic and wide eyed portrayal, he amalgamated the boundless enthusiasm of Ronald Regan with the salesman like shtick of Casey Kasem, all wrapped up in Jack Haley’s version of the Tin Man. Frenetic, jittery and ever optimistic, Depp’s portrayal of Wood has become one of his broadest, and most memorable performances. Playing alongside him would be Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi; their relationship being something that the writers wanted to accentuate. As Alexander and Karaszewski have noted in the past, a man does not live his life in three acts, nor did they wish to tread the well-worn path of the ‘birth to death’ biopic. During the writing process, they whittled it down to focusing on five specific years of Ed’s life; his most prolific and successful. Using Bela and Ed’s relationship as a key narrative device within the film not only served to create pathos, but also mirrored in many ways Burton’s personal relationship with Vincent Price.
Alexander and Karaszewski found that they were embraced as part of the production in a manner that doesn’t usually occur in Hollywood. “On Ed Wood, we were the experts.” says Alexander, “We were the guys who knew everything, as we’d done all the research.” Karaszewski also feels incredibly attached to the film to this day. “With Ed Wood, which is one of my proudest achievements, I feel like that before our film it was impossible to look at Glen or Glenda and not laugh” he explains of the manner in which the movie altered people’s perception of its subject. “It was this total camp, crazy movie about a transvestite with Bela Lugosi. What wasn’t known was how much of a personal statement this film was. When you find out what went on behind the scenes it gave you so much more sympathy for the movie. Now when you watch it, you can see it as an avant garde film. People don’t laugh at it as much because it’s a man baring his soul. I mean he’s even got his real girlfriend in there. He’s playing a version of himself. There’s a lot of this really odd, interesting stuff going on that would probably get him into Sundance today.”
Their approach to the Anti-Great man film was something which they would explore further in their collaborations with Milos Forman, a working relationship which resulted in two of the greatest films of the ‘90s; The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man On The Moon. Ed Wood had given them the clout they needed to lay their own path; like Wood himself, Alexander and Karaszewski were giving the outsiders a chance to make themselves heard; to get their moment of glory. “The problem with the great man movie is that the guy is great.” surmises Karaszewski, “Sometimes it’s hard to see what the opposition is. What these outsider characters do is create a new angle. You almost sympathise with the Baptists in Ed Wood. They’re not really asking for much. They’re just looking for continuity.” Using potentially obscure protagonists can cause friction during the developmental stages however. “This is what happens on a lot of our projects.” continues Karaszewski, “Someone comes in and says; ‘You know that lead guy is not that accessible. What if we told the story through his friend’s eyes?’ There was a very small period on Larry Flynt, where a director was circling it and the studio said ‘Well what if we told it through the Ed Norton Lawyer character?’” —Colin J McCracken, Ed Wood: Passion and Prophecy
The following is an excerpt from the New Beverly Cinema, written by Kim Morgan, ‘Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.’
Ed Wood shows a Los Angeles underground, three, four, five steps away from the real stars, a story that’s not told enough but one that exists to this day. There’s Ed Woods all over the place. And that L.A. is exquisitely shot in black and white by Stefan Czapsky, reveling in the high-low beauty of Hollywood—highlighting the drama not just narratively, but cinematically, how anything can happen in this town. A splendidly lit, famously made-up scene shows Wood (in drag) frustratingly drinking at Musso and Frank where he spies his idol, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), alone in a booth. Wood approaches as a fan, introduces himself, sits down and is offered this bit of advice from the genius: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” It’s a lovely moment, and doubly poignant considering how much fighting Welles had to do in his career. It also, again, never happened but… it could have. You still never know who you’ll run into at Musso’s. Alas, later in life, Wood probably didn’t frequent that place much anymore. He couldn’t afford it.
As Alexander and Karaszewski had stated, this is not a success story, the hero is not going to make it big by the end. Indeed, in real life, all of Wood’s lovable enthusiasm and hope would end with a guy dying a hopeless alcoholic at 54, kicked out of his dangerous, fleabag apartment on Yucca and Cahuenga. Reading Rudolph Grey’s oral history of Wood, ‘Nightmare of Ecstasy’ (from which the picture was adapted), you take in many of the sordid details, noting how much the alcoholism took over the man’s life. As sad and as wretched as his life became, you’re still impressed—impressed that he actually continued to create anything, whether sleaze films or porno books or even that he managed to get across the street to the Pla-Boy liquor (which still stands, as does Wood’s old apartment) alive (he was continually robbed). Wife Kathy Wood said of when he died, “As long as I live, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. He had this awful expression… It looked like he’d just seen hell. What do you suppose he saw in those last few moments? What do you suppose he saw?”
He didn’t see the magnificent Ed Wood coming. But, who knows? No one is a reliable narrator, so perhaps, at one point, he did. Honored in all of his terrible/good/bad/great glory, Ed Wood is a love letter to a man, and to everyone, really, who persists with their real selves intact, in this impossible town. In Plan 9 from Outer Space, Criswell’s intones: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” Perhaps Wood’s endless dreaming and believing in himself, no matter how desperate and awful his life became, made him have confidence that a kind of notoriety could be possible. Wood continued on, after all, in various conditions, and no matter your opinion of the pictures, his soul and hopes and singularity seeped into them so much that they projected an imperishable power that carried these works into the future, protecting them from total oblivion. Take his films however you like, but they will not be forgotten. And, all these years later, from Glen or Glenda of 1953 to Ed Wood of 1994 to the 2017 of now, neither will he. —Kim Morgan, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood
An interview with Tim Burton.
Why did you chose Ed Wood as a character?
The first film by him that I saw was Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958). It had images I never forgot. Later he was elected ‘worst director of all time.’ How can someone be elected as the worst? There are so many bad filmmakers. I started reading about his life and about the bizarre characters that surrounded him, like Bela Lugosi. Wood was always positive, even in the worst circumstances. When you read his letters, you realize he thought he was making great films, he thought he was making Citizen Kane. In a letter from his final days, Wood wrote that he led a great life and made great pictures and in fact, he was abandoned and dying of alcoholism. That’s what fascinates me about that character. He was very weird. I think it would be easy to copy an image by Alfred Hitchcock, not with his mastery, but it is possible to imitate it. But copying an image by Ed Wood is so hard. His images were very weird. You don’t know how he did them. Wood was something more special than just bad (laughs).
How decisive was the character of Bela Lugosi, since you had already celebrated another horror myth before, Vincent Price.
Vincent was fundamental to my decision of making films. There was a resemblance between them, but the differences are striking. Vincent had a much more positive end. Bela got old taking morphine and drinking formaldehyde. Vincent was much less bitter about Hollywood.
The film would initially be in color. Why did it turn out to be black and white?
When we began doing the makeup tests with Martin Landau, me and makeup artist Rick Baker asked ourselves: what was the color of Bela Lugosi’s eyes? I never saw him and no one’s ever seen color images of Lugosi. Him, Vampira, Thor Johnson are black and white icons. It was such a simple decision, without any aesthetic pretension. It just seemed right.
Filming in black and white doesn’t bring difficulties in Hollywood today?
It is difficult, even if you’re fortunate and successful. It’s difficult to put up any project. I always thought it would become easier. I was wrong.
Where does this gothic obsession from your films comes from?
I think partly it comes from the environment where I was born. The south of California is very colorful and shining, and I had do compensate that. I try to do things not too dark because I like the combination of dark and light, humor and sadness. I never feel on of them alone, they always come together.
Tim Burton and the surreal expression of an outsider who feels misperceived.
Interview with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on Ed Wood.
Tim Burton directs Johnny Depp in behind the scenes of Ed Wood.
Martin Landau and Rick Baker talk about the makeup and processes used in transforming the actor into Bela Lugosi for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood for which Baker wins his 3rd Academy Award for Best Make-Up. This documentary short was created in 2002.
THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW: ED WOOD JR.
The Incredibly Strange Film Show was a series of documentaries presented by Jonathan Ross focusing on the world of “psychotronic” or B movies. Each episode was focused on the lives of filmmakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Sam Raimi, Doris Wishman, Ed Wood Jr, Jackie Chan and many other notable filmmakers who had their own interesting style of filmmaking and had made worthy contributions to the world of cinema. Weird movie genres, like Mexican wrestling films and Hong Kong horror films, were also examined in the series. The show was first aired on 5 August 1988 on Channel 4. A second season renamed Son of The Incredibly Strange Film Show was also aired the following year. The show was also aired in the US on The Discovery Channel in the early 90’s. It was followed by another show, Jonathan Ross Presents for One Week Only which featured filmmakers including Alejandro Jodorowski and David Lynch.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Photographed by Suzanne Tenner © Touchstone Pictures. Please visit the website and support: The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in[newsletter]