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Cinematic Pleasures: Ed Wood

by j.d. lafrance

For those of us who have always loved to watch movies, Ed Wood (1994) is a gloriously atmospheric, black-and-white love letter to cinema. Tim Burton's film recalls a bygone era when one could see movies in theatres with palatial stages and grandiose art deco architecture. He understands that for the devoted cineaste, the best moments in life have often been spent in a darkened movie theatre being enveloped by a film and becoming one with the environment it creates for two hours. Watching a movie is a form of escape from the harsh realities of the real world and Ed Wood argues that making films can also do the same thing. Of course, Burton's movie takes this idea to an extreme. The characters that populate the movie are perhaps a little too devoted to their craft -- so much so that they develop an intense denial towards the awful elements in their own lives.

No one understands and appreciates this devotion to cinema more than Burton. From Beetlejuice (1988) to Mars Attacks! (1996), his films are lovingly crafted homages to the horror and science fiction B-movies that the director enjoyed in his childhood. With Ed Wood, Burton indulges this obsession completely by telling the story of a man who loved to create and watch movies.

Initially, Ed Wood may seem like a rather odd vehicle in which to celebrate a love of movies. What does the infamously touted "worst filmmaker of all-time" have to do with what makes movies so great? As Burton's film amply demonstrates, what filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. lacked in technical merits to make a good movie, he more than made up for with heart and enthusiastic perseverance.

Ed Wood spans a period of six years in which he made his most celebrated movies. Starting with the autobiographical Glen or Glenda (1953) and climaxing with the release of his most famous film, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Burton's film eschews the traditional biopic format for a looser, more impressionistic take on Wood's life. This approach is necessary because many of the details of the cult filmmaker's life are contradicted by those who knew him or are simply not known. Burton opts for a more intimate character study of the director and his small but dedicated crew. He never puts these people down, but rather celebrates their intense love of making films.

The origins for Ed Wood can be traced back to two men. During his sophomore year at the University of Southern California, Scott Alexander wrote a proposal for a documentary about Ed Wood entitled The Man in the Angora Sweater. Fellow classmate and screenwriting partner, Larry Karaszewski remembers that they had "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." The two film students were not interested in "making fun of Ed Wood the way most traditional things written about Ed up to this time had done," Karaszewski recalls. "What's interesting is 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."

Alexander and Karaszewski went on to write the Problem Child films but the Ed Wood film was always in the back of their minds. Out of frustration of being pigeonholed, they wrote a 10-page treatment for film school buddy Michael Lehmann with Karaszewski's tongue-in-cheek pitch, "the guys who wrote Problem Child and the guy who directed Hudson Hawk making a movie about the worst filmmaker of all time." Lehmann showed the treatment to his producer, Denise DiNovi, who in turn showed it to Tim Burton. The trio struck a deal where Lehman would direct and DiNovi and Burton would produce the film.

Burton originally was going to take the role of producer because he was set to direct Mary Reilly (1995), a version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story but told from the perspective of the doctor's housekeeper. However, the studio backing the movie was interested in speeding up the production faster than Burton wanted and they also rejected his casting of Winona Ryder as the housekeeper in favour of Julia Roberts. Frustrated, Burton left the project and regrouped at a farmhouse in Poughkeepsie, New York (ironically Ed Wood's hometown). He started reading Wood biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey in preparation for the movie. The more he read, the more interested he became in Wood and his world, to the point where he wanted to direct the film.

Burton was attracted to Wood's unusual hopefulness. He recalled in an interview about how he was attracted to the man's "extreme optimism, to the point where there was an incredible amount of denial. And there's something charming to me about that." The filmmaker also identified with the Wood-Bela Lugosi relationship as it mirrored, in some ways, his relationship with Vincent Price. "Meeting Vincent had an incredible impact on me, the same impact Ed must have felt meeting and working with his idol."

However, no screenplay had been written at this point. So, Alexander and Karaszewski worked 14-hour days, seven days a week for six weeks writing what would eventually become a 147-page screenplay. For the two writers, there was a certain level of desperation that inspired such a large output in such a short span of time. Alexander told Film Threat magazine that "there was a bit of 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 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." This angle paid off as Burton liked their first draft so much that he agreed to direct and use said draft without any revisions -- a practice virtually unheard of today where screenplays are re-written and doctored to death.

Ed Wood was in development with Columbia Pictures but this soon changed when problems between the studio and Burton arose. The director wanted to shoot the film in black and white with total creative control. Karaszewski remembers at the time that "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." Columbia responded by putting the film in turnaround a month before principal photography was scheduled to start. Almost immediately Warner Brothers, Paramount and Fox became interested in optioning the film but Burton went with Disney because they agreed to give him complete creative control and a $18 million budget but only if he worked for scale.

After working on large-sized, multi-million dollar productions like Batman Returns (1992), Burton saw Ed Wood as a chance to be more instinctive in his filmmaking approach. "On a picture like this I find you don't need to storyboard. You're working mainly with actors, and there's no effects going on, so it's best to be more spontaneous." This attitude towards the filmmaking process results in Burton's most accomplished movie to date. Ed Wood is a perfect blend of the filmmaker's unique visual style and his pre-occupation with what Gavin Smith calls "the irrepressible outsider who will not be denied." Wood fits in with other Burton protagonists, like Pee-Wee Herman, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, who do not fit into normal mainstream society but struggle to achieve their dreams anyway.

With this in mind, it seems only fitting that Burton cast Johnny Depp as Wood. It was the second time that the two had worked together (the first being Edward Scissorhands) and further reinforced the belief by many film critics that Depp was actually Burton's cinematic alter-ego. For Depp, the appeal of Ed Wood was the era that the filmmaker and his crew lived in:

"There must have been a kind of optimism that we lack today. People wore suits then. People wore overcoats and hats. Somehow that meant something to me. People cared. There was a kind of enthusiasm about the country. That was the big thing that had to be put across. It was an innocent time."

Depp portrays Wood as a nave dreamer who loves the movies. He even gets ideas for movies from discarded stock footage that a stagehand runs for him. "Why if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie out of this stock footage," he says as he dramatically constructs an absurd tale from a montage of completely unrelated footage that could only come from his brain. There is something contagious about this approach that makes you root for Wood to succeed -- even if you are aware of the director's eventual downward spiral into poverty and obscurity.

To play the pivotal role of Bela Lugosi, Burton cast legendary character actor, Martin Landau. For the director, Landau was his only choice. "Martin has done great movies. He's done weird cheesy horror movies. He's done it all." The veteran thespian was no stranger to genre films and immersed himself completely in the part. The first thing he did was make-up tests with Rick Baker to capture the external essence of Lugosi. Baker didn't use extensive applications on Landau, just enough to allow the actor to use his face to act and express while also resembling Lugosi physically. As Landau remembers, "I could then react, not as I would react, but as Lugosi would react. Ultimately I walk differently, I behave differently and I sound differently."

To augment the rather Method style of getting into character, Landau also did extensive research on his subject, watching 25 of Lugosi movies and seven interviews with the man between the years of 1931 and 1956. From this research Landau constructs a Lugosi that is a gruff, grumpy old man who spits out obscenities when provoked. He's the jaded counterpoint to Wood's youthful optimism. At one point he says, "this business, this town, it chews you up, then spits you out. I'm just an ex-bogeyman." He underlines perfectly one of the most important unwritten rules that governs Hollywood: you're only good as your last movie.

And yet, Lugosi also talks about what's wrong with modern horror films: "they don't want the classic horror films anymore. Today, it's all giant bugs. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers. Who would believe such nonsense?" For Lugosi, the older films were "mythic, they had poetry." Even though he is talking about horror films of the '50s, Lugosi could easily be talking about the horror films of today where subtlety and imagination has been replaced by sterile, state-of-the-art special effects and formulaic stories. The clunky effects of these older movies, with their rubber-suited monsters and fake blood, have a certain texture to them that you can almost touch. There is something comforting about this because you know that it's real. Computer effects, for the most part, lack any real textures and are too perfect looking - they lack any kind of personality.

If Ed Wood is a loving homage to movies, it is all the more fitting that Orson Welles, the patron saint of cinema, is celebrated throughout. From the obvious touches, like the poster of Citizen Kane (1941) that hangs in Wood's office, to the use of deep focus photography (where the fore, middle and background are all in focus) and low angle perspective shots favoured by Welles, his presence is felt everywhere. This culminates in a meeting between the auteur and Wood at Musso and Frank Grill, a famous West Coast eatery. With his stocky build and deep voice, Vincent D'Onofrio bears an uncanny resemblance to Welles. As he and Wood share a drink and commiserate about their struggles to get films made, there is a particularly important exchange:

Wood: Mr. Welles, is it all worth it?
Welles: It is when it works. You know, the one film of mine where I had total control - Kane - the studio hated it. But they didn't get to touch a frame. Ed, visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?

Triumphant music plays in the background as Welles delivers this sage advice and it inspires Wood to go back and finish Plan 9 his way, right of wrong. For Burton it was important to include this scene even though it never actually happened because Wood often equated himself with Welles.

Ed Wood ends with a triumphant screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space at the same theatre where Bride of the Monster (1956) failed. Even though this never really happened it is a nice way to end the movie - on a high note instead of what really happened. Wood became an alcoholic and was reduced to making schlocky nudie films. Burton clearly means to celebrate the man and his love of movies and so this bit of revisionism can be forgiven. After all, there are many articles and books that document the less savory aspects of Wood's life.

With Ed Wood, Burton transforms the filmmaker into the ultimate cinephile. Wood criticizes Vampira for not giving Lugosi's movie the proper amount of respect and mouths the dialogue to movies as he watches them - totally enraptured in the experience. Unfortunately, mainstream movie audiences did not feel the same way and Burton's movie tanked at the box office. It was a bittersweet pill for him to swallow. "I love the movie, I'm proud of it. It's just that no one came. I guess if I was like everybody else, I would just blame a bad marketing campaign. But that's too easy."

And yet, Ed Wood has endured. It went on to win two Academy Awards (one for Landau's performance and one for Baker's make-up) and a slew of critics awards. The movie has also become a favourite of film buffs everywhere, which is rather fitting considering that this is exactly its target audience. Sadly, Burton went on to make Planet of the Apes (2001), a paint-by-numbers action film with expensive computer effects that lacked any of Burton's distinctive personality - the complete antithesis to Ed Wood. Hopefully, he has not become completely absorbed by the Hollywood system and that there is still some of the spirit of Ed Wood left in him.

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article

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