Untangling Many Threads

There’s a reason Harrison Ford makes $25 million dollars to play Indiana Jones. Ford is one of the most underrated actors out there, and he has a rare ability to wrench emotion out of a badly written scene, which happens often in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. He also adds humanity into the action scenes and makes them more plausible.

Consider a brief moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones has just stayed up all night rescuing the Ark of the Covenant from its resting place, escaped a nest of snakes and saved his girl from a bunch of mummies. He’s exhausted. The Nazis are about to load the Ark on one of their flying wing airplanes and Indy has to stop them. A giant of a man (Pat Roach) comes up to fight him. Jones waves him off for a moment and then stands up, falling to his knees again, and then stands up to start the fight. His body language tells us that he’s exhausted and is summoning the last bit of energy he has.

It’s just a little slip of a moment, but it tells us a lot about Jones and his character. I’m sure it wasn’t in the script and was just a bit of business that Ford added.

It’s this humanity that made Indiana Jones a popular character. One review noticed that the “de-aged” Indiana Jones in the first part of Indiana Jones V was obviously CGI because it didn’t move like Ford. “Harrison Ford acts with his whole body,” the reviewer said.

So we already know what artificial intelligence, CGI movies will be like, because we have them now. A little plastic, very staged, and kind of lifeless. And we know already what artificial intelligence scripts will get us. All we have to do is watch Batman Vs. Infinity Wars Part 6: A New Beginning to see what that will be like. Those scripts are basically written are by committee, which is really what artificial intelligence is, and any sense of individual expression has been carefully squeezed of of them. The producer wants to hit the main points he wants and then move on. He’ll keep hiring other writers until he gets his way.

We don’t blame the producer for this, but we should. Let’s remember that the job of the producer and a studio head is not to create good movies. They want to create profitable films. If they happen to be good, too, then so much the better.

This is why you can almost predict what a movie is going to be before going into the cinema. This is especially prevalent in Disney pictures of late. We have a new lead female character, strong and assertive, a panoply of supporting characters of different races, and we try to erase the old lead characters from the story. This is what happened in the Star Wars post-quels. We killed off Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. And only Luke had a fitting sendoff, but even that was unnecessary. Leia’s death was more understandable in the wake of Carrie Fisher’s actual demise.

This is why it’s entirely plausible that the new Indiana Jones film was going to end with the death of Ford’s character and his replacement with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character. I know, it’s been denied in the press by no less than director James Mangold, but if you watch the film, you can see that it was set up in just that way, and test audiences hated it, causing a reshoot. It’s not just that Indiana Jones died, but the death was pointless and, for heaven’s sake, do we have to do this SAME PLOT AGAIN?

Indiana Jones V is actually better than the Disney Star Wars series, because it does manage to have something to say and it uses its characters well. Disney’s Episode VII was almost a direct remake of Episode IV. Episode VIII was at least strongly influenced by Episode V, and Episode IX was an even closer remake of Episode VI, to the point that they even had a clone of the same villain. The philosophy and charisma of the older characters is completely gone.

But they gave the fans what they wanted, they hit on all the key points, just as their Indiana Jones film did. Instead of snakes we have eels. Check. Nazis. Check. Fight on a plane. Check. Ancient booby-trapped temple. Check. It’s all there, not all that great, but it goes where you expect.

And this is the antithesis of art. The idea of art is to be self-expressive and do something new and challenging. Instead, Hollywood wants to sell us a Big Mac. When it came out, Star Wars was new and challenging. Empire Strikes Back took it deeper. Indiana Jones was a fun diversion from standard action pictures. But now it’s a Big Mac.

Let me explain. Let’s say you’re driving long distance at 11pm. You’re hungry. You can stop and get Stevie Acropolis’ Custom Gyros or get a Big Mac. But you’ve never heard of Stevie Acropolis and you don’t know what his Gyros is like. It’s unknown. The Big Mac is maybe not the best thing in the world, but you know what it is, and it will get the job done. It’s food, but it’s not art. It’s a commodity.

Producers want to make films a commodity. They want them to be exactly predictable and fall within certain guidelines. Artificial Intelligence and writing-by-committee does this for them. This is why they are trying to get rid of those pesky artists.

That way we can have paint-by-number scripts (there’s a book called Save the Cat! that basically rolls out a formula for scripts, something that makes me gag) and avoid paying those “greedy” actors. And the producers get what they want, right?

But you see, the problem here is not the “dire warning from the future.” It’s already here. Indiana Jones has underperformed at the box office. Mission Impossible Part Whatever isn’t doing that well. Disney is complaining that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not making the money they expected. There are actually rumors that they may sell it off. Those scripts might not have been by AI, but they might as well have been. And some of the actors were AI.

Warners is having similar problems, and their CEO is an accountant bottomliner just like Bob Iger. It’s not about art. It’s about commerce.

The problem here is less the pandemic, less the doomsayers’ “DEATH OF CINEMA” and more that the audience is getting sick of Big Mac movies.

And so telling actors and writers that they are irrelevant is exactly the wrong thing. We are at a crossroads of art and commerce that the producers are trying to win. Now, I’m not going to go all “union or die” on you, or all the “producers should be respected because they’re the money people.” What I am going to say is that a steady diet of cinematic Big Macs gets old after a while.

Years ago, about 1/3 of the Twilight Zone episodes and another 1/3 of the Star Trek shows were warnings of what would happen if computers replaced people. Most of those were silly speculations and overly paranoid. Most of the jobs computers have taken or replaced were the kind of repetitive jobs that, at least in the long term, are not particularly missed.

But art is the great human expression. They are the stories we share and tell ourselves. All AI can do is mimic what it’s seen. Coming up with a new idea or a new trend is not what it’s good for. It’s not going to come up with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or Harrison Ford stumbling from exhaustion, or a wonderful script like Being John Malkovich. And we need those. They provide our joy and humanity.

So the producers are ultimately going to lose this fight, because we need the art. The creative people are going to win. They are producing the goods we need and the producers are just expensive gatekeepers.

And if you don’t believe me, look what’s already happened in publishing. You essentially can’t get a book out through a major publisher anymore unless you’re an established author. And you can only get established now through self-publishing. That’s where movies are headed. You can rent out a theater for your movie (already happening) or do something on YouTube.

The producers and studios will be irrelevant. The publishers already are. After all, the producers are really only there to make sure $$ happens and to say NO.

AI is really good at that. Maybe AI should replace studio heads and producers, not artists.

Getting Creative With Carrie

I’ll paint you a little picture.  There was this little neighborhood in Indianapolis called Broad Ripple.  Today, it is a victim of its own success.  What made it wonderful is all gone now.  There used to be unusual restaurants, art galleries. You name it, it was there.  There was plenty of parking, and it was free because it was then a low-rent, depressed area.

Broad Ripple Steakhouse. Carrie used to play in the lower left corner

Now it’s a high-rent area with no art and all fancy bars, and 100% paid parking.  Developers managed to build lots of apartments to capitalize on an arts district that no longer exists.  But for a few brief years, Broad Ripple was a wonderful place.

Back in the late 80s, early 90s I was a struggling college student.  I’m kind of an odd duck.  I was an engineering student, but I liked arts.  The dean told me that I was the only engineering major who took English electives.  Engineers are supposed to be cold and analytical.  I can be that way, but I like arts too.  I like to use both sides of my brain.  Call me crazy.

And I was being driven slowly crazy in those days.  I consistently seemed to draw a 5:30-7 class.  It was taught by the most boring person who ever lived.  He was so boring that I learned to do an impression of him. I was good: I got requests to do the voice several times a week.  Remember Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?  This guy was a lot worse.  I’m serious.

So I was always desperate to get out of this guy’s class.  On Wednesdays, Carrie Newcomer used to play at the Broad Ripple Steak House.  It’s now gone.  I had to rush out of the 38th Street campus of IUPUI (now also gone) to make it in time.  I was always in a huge hurry, and most of the time, stupid people would drive slowly in front of me and I would scream at them to move.  In those days, my air conditioning didn’t work, so I always had my windows rolled down.    One time, my friend Sam told me that he and my friend Joe could hear me coming a couple of blocks away.

Carrie in her natural habitat

And it was all to see Carrie Newcomer.  Carrie is a small woman.  I hate to call her frail or waif-like, because I know she eats, although she never eats meat (the irony of her playing at a steak house is not lost on me.)  But you’d see Carrie trying to remove speakers from her car that were almost as big as she is.  Her car wasn’t very big either, and it looked like her guitar, speakers and amp were just about as much as it would hold.  Often we’d help Carrie set up, which got us more music time and helped her out, too.  

It’s difficult to describe Carrie’s music.  At times it has a yearning, soulful quality to it not unlike some early Cat Stevens.  But Carrie writes about some of the most common things in the world: folding laundry, the length of her arms, facing hardships together.  She writes songs that no one else would ever write.  I love them.  They just hit me in the right place.

Remember I said I’m kind of an odd duck?  Well, I’m that way about music, too.  You know Sturgeon’s Law, that 90% of everything is junk?  For me, 99% of music is not that great.  (Except disco, which is 100% garbage.)  A piece of music has to really speak to me before I give it a second listen.

But then there’s Carrie’s music. It strikes an emotional chord in me that I can’t explain.  I heard it first at Indianapolis’ The Vogue, when her then-band was fronted by probably the worst opening act I’ve ever seen.

Is it something personal?  No.  I’ve known Carrie for 30 years, but not very well.  I may see her 3-4 times a year and in all that time I’ve probably spoken fewer than 500 words to her.  I’ve frankly spoken to her daughter a little more, but she was seven at the time I knew her and was drawing angels (she was quite good actually.)  

I think what Carrie’s appeal to me is much more intangible.  John Cleese speaks about creativity and “the open mode,” and despite the fact the Cleese is a renowned smartass, his commentary on the way the brain works is some of the most lucid I’ve ever heard.

For whatever reason, I find Carrie’s music extremely calming, and it puts me straight into Cleese’s “open mode,” the creative, visualizing part of my brain.  I don’t know why.  There are actually times that I need to hear a Carrie song two or three times before I actually hear it.  The first couple of times, I’ve crawled into my brain and am having conversations with myself.

As squishy and touchy-feely as that sounds, it’s true.  Now, remember, I’m not your average bear.  I’ll sit and tell you that there’s not much difference mentally between solving a difficult math problem and doing art or creative work.  It’s just that artists are taught that technology is too complex and scientists are taught that art is unstructured and worthless.  Neither of these claims is true, but we believe them as facts for some reason.

I seem to have a particularly strong sense of creative visualization.  I was once doing some work on a technical problem at my job, and I was stuck.  Suddenly, on my way home, my creative brain had solved the problem: it was a calculus max/min problem and the definition of a derivative.  My conscious brain was unable to do it, but my creative brain figured it out and was forcefully explaining it to my analytical brain.  I was so consumed by this solution that I could literally see the graph before me.  I had to pull the car off to the side of the road.

To this day, Glory-June Greiff will see me “zone out” occasionally and she’ll say I’m “doing calculus.”  That may not be strictly true, but at those times I am tuned into my creative brain and visualizing a solution.  It may even be me figuring out the order of my various work sites for that day, but I do get that glassy-eyed stare.

Carrie sometimes teaches classes on being creative.  I sat in on one once.  It was quite interesting.  I remember telling her that I had always wanted to write novels even though I was in engineering school.  I still remember what she said.  “You can tell it to go away.  You can do something else.  But it still comes back.  It still calls to you.”  She was right.

So my relationship with Carrie’s music really got me creatively motivated, and in a way you wouldn’t suspect.  At the time, I was finishing the third or fourth draft of a time travel novel that I’ve never been able to adequately call “done.”  But I also worked on another project.  I became fascinated with the idea that vampire stories were all about curses and evil, that they saw sex as a hot metaphor for disease transmission.  I challenged myself to write a story that had completely un-erotic sex and a vampire we could root for.

Listening to Carrie’s music could immediately draw me straight into the creative world of my novels while also relaxing me.  I was exercising that creative urge that she warned me would never go away.  I would often write quite a bit after I got home those evenings.

So Carrie Newcomer, the most peaceful person I’ve ever known, a devout Quaker, inspired me to start a vampire novel.  It’s true.

I am kinda weird.

Interview With a New Author

The cover for Eric’s new book.

This is a real departure for the Dr. Film blog, and we’re not going to do this very often, but, well, just this one time.

Here’s an interview between Dr. Film and his alter ego Eric, about Eric’s new book. If you haven’t followed the podcasts, Dr. Film is Eric’s utterly hostile, completely film-centric alter-ego.

Dr. Film: Hi, Eric, nice to see…er… be you.

Eric: Nice to be you, too.

Dr. Film: I hear you have a new book coming out.

Eric: Yes!

Dr. Film: Well, it’s about film, right?

Eric: Nope, not really at all. There’s only one section in it that has a film reference. It’s a joke, that only film geeks will get. It’s called “Pardon Me While I Have a Strange Interlude.”

Dr. Film: Then why are you wasting our time with something that’s not about film?

Eric: Because I already have an audience here, so I might as well.

Dr. Film: I see. So tell us about the book.

Eric: It’s called A Fearful Thing to Love. It’s a weird science-fiction/horror sort of story about a young woman who’s turned into a vampire. But not your standard vampire. It’s also a romance and sort of a science-gone-wrong story.

Dr. Film: Wow. So it could be a movie.

Eric: Well, I hadn’t thought of it as a movie. I suppose it could be. It would probably be expensive, since some of it is set in 2091, some of it during WWII England, and some of it in late 1600s France.

Dr. Film: So she lives a long time.

Eric: Yes, a very long time. It’s been compared to the Twilight Zone story Long Live Walter Jameson, by Charles Beaumont, but others have found elements of The Andromeda Strain and other things in it, except those aren’t about vampires and this is.

Dr. Film: OK. What made you write this?

Eric: I got tired of reading the standard vampire story about curses and evil and stuff, and all the religious trappings. I get that out of the way early in this one, and it doesn’t come up again. This is more like an unfortunate disease.

Dr. Film: How is it that people who have known you for years have never heard you talk about this?

Eric: Because there’s nothing more boring that an author talking about a book he hasn’t written, unless it’s a filmmaker talking about a film he hasn’t shot.  People write you off really quickly; they can’t be part of your vision because they haven’t seen it.  It’s like the people I used to see at Star Trek conventions asking me if they’d like me to read their story about Mr. Spock.  NO!  RUN!

Dr. Film: So is there a lot of sex and violence in the book?

Eric: Some. Not what you’d call a lot, and it’s not explicit, except some at the beginning. It’s more a character study and an exploration of ideas.

Dr. Film: OK, you have a female vampire, so that means we have to have lesbian scenes with hot chicks in it, right?

Eric: (looks at audience) I’m sorry, folks. He’s a politically incorrect idiot, but what are you going to do? I see that’s what you’re expecting. Well, this is written to go counter to your expectations. If you’re looking for Stoker or LeFanu, or even Hammer’s Countess Dracula, you’ll be disappointed.

Dr. Film: I’m trying for the hard sell and you’re making it tough here, dude.

Eric: Think moody, think more Outer Limits or maybe a lighter version of Charles Beaumont or Lovecraft, and you’ll be closer to what this is.

Dr. Film: Well, that’s something, I guess. How is it that you have time to do this with all your film work?

Eric: Good question. I didn’t. I get calls and emails all the time so it’s impossible to concentrate on something like this. I gave up writing seriously in about 1990 or so, because I just wasn’t producing the results I wanted. I worked on this during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years for the last several years, the three days of the year that no one pesters me.

Dr. Film: What made you dig it up after all these years?

Eric: Easy answer. I’ve been pestered relentlessly by Glory-June Greiff, my co-conspirator on the Dr. Film show, to do something with this. She liked it better than I did.

Dr. Film: So does that mean you have more fiction writing that we haven’t seen?

Eric: Yes.

Dr. Film: What is it?

Eric: Let’s see how this one does.

Dr. Film: No hints?

Eric: No.

Dr. Film: A sequel to this one?

Eric: Not in the works, no.

Dr. Film: So this is a different sort of vampire story, written to counter your expectations. What else can you tell us about how it’s unexpected?

Eric: It’s deliberately structured to go counter to the standard English teacher way of laying out a novel. It’s not in 3 acts, but rather 5. And instead of escalating action and danger, it has less as the story progresses. And the last act is almost a comedy, with a happy ending.

Dr. Film: A happy ending in a vampire story? That’s weird. You’ve still disappointed me that there isn’t a lesbian scene in it.

Eric: I didn’t say there wasn’t a lesbian scene. There is one, but not with hot chicks, and there’s absolutely no sex in it.

Dr. Film: You have a lot to learn about marketing.

Eric: Spoken by the genius.

Dr. Film: Does this mean that you’re going to be doing less film work?

Eric: Not necessarily. It just means I’m not a one-dimensional cliche character like you are.

Dr. Film: I represent that. What sort of film work do you have coming up?

Eric: That’s more of a question for you, isn’t it?

Dr. Film: I suppose it is. Well, there are two projects that may be coming up soon, but I can’t tell you about them.

Eric: Yeah, I can’t either. But maybe soon. I had some time with no film projects and I put it into getting this and the podcast done.

Dr. Film: Those podcasts are cool.

Eric: Yeah, you would say that.

Dr. Film: We get a lot of requests to restore more film. Why aren’t you doing that?

Eric: Because our dear market isn’t strong enough to support the sales of these films, and a TCM sale fell through when Filmstruck collapsed. If I’d sold more copies of Little Orphant Annie, I’d be working on more film projects.

Dr. Film: So the fact that you’re doing this book is because you didn’t have enough work otherwise?

Eric: I suppose you could say so.

Dr. Film: Does that mean that you’re going to be polluting my sacred film space with promoting your junky book?

Eric: No, I would never do that to you. I know how it would hurt you. If I write a film book, then that’s another story. I’m planning one; it’s about halfway done.

Dr. Film: Well, is there a place that people can go to discuss this book?

Eric: I’m glad you asked. There’s a new Facebook forum for it. It’s here: https://www.facebook.com/graysontext/

Dr. Film: I feel better already.

Eric: I knew you would.

Dr. Film: Any other film tie-ins on this book? You know how I am about that.

Eric: The cover art was done by Larry Blamire, the creator of the Lost Skeleton series, a talented director and author in his own right.

Dr. Film: Wow, so another hyphenate. But it’s a great cover.

Eric: It’s a fantastic cover. I may ask Larry if he can make small posters of it available.

Dr. Film: I think you should plug our new podcast again.

Eric: That’s a great idea. We’ve only been working on it since 2015. It’s here: podcast.drfilm.net.

Dr. Film: Available on most mobile and desktop services!

Eric: Well, we should wrap this up before it gets too boring.

Dr. Film: Too late.

Again, that book link is here:  http://www.lulu.com/shop/eric-grayson/a-fearful-thing-to-love/paperback/product-23899576.html

10 Questions With Larry Blamire

Back in 2003 or so, Mike Schlesinger was promoting a trailer for a movie that Sony had just picked up.  I saw the trailer and howled with laughter.  Mike told me that it was a real trailer for a real movie.  I asked him if the filmmakers could keep that pace up for the length of a whole feature, and he assured me that they did.  It was a little film called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,  and I bugged Mike mercilessly to find me a theater where it was playing.

Making a movie is a tricky thing, and independents doubly so.  It’s almost a delusional state, or a psychological malady.  You need to have a crew of at least a dozen people working together on a project that the odds say may never be seen outside of the 2am-4am time filler slot on TNT.  Most don’t make money, and most lose their investment entirely.

This is why I’m often enchanted with the can-do spirit of 1950s filmmakers.  As much as we like to make fun of him, Ed Wood was a successful filmmaker.  He beat the odds.  He got films made and released.  Roger Corman was and is a successful filmmaker.  His films hit theaters and TV.  Were they silly?  Sure!  Cheap?  You bet!  But they got made… and the directors came back to make more.  I’d guess that 90% of movies that are started are never finished, and maybe half of those that are finished are ever released in some fashion.

I sensed an immediate bond with writer-director Larry Blamire’s creation when I finally got to see it.  A lot of people don’t really understand what he was trying to do.  The most clueless critics (I’m not going to link to a clueless review… find it yourself) say that Larry is spoofing 1950s-60s movies and making a deliberately bad film.  He’s not.  He’s making a tribute to those films, and he’s even limited in much the same way they were.  Sure, it’s funny, and it’s a little more over-the-top than the originals were.  But it’s clear that Larry loves movies, low-budget or not.

One of the marvels of Lost Skeleton was the way Larry aped that poetic but tin-eared dialogue that we know so well.  Ed Wood is famous for it, but you can hear it ring through epics like The Conqueror and most of the Roger Corman films of the period.  It’s the sound of “Get it done by tomorrow morning so we can shoot this.”  Larry nails it.

And it takes a special kind of actor to be able to read that sort of dialogue without sounding like he’s an idiot.  John Wayne couldn’t do it, but Charlton Heston could.  Lyle Talbot did it in Glen or Glenda.  But all of Larry’s talented stock company does it brilliantly.  It’s a joy to watch these folks tear their way through the film, with innovative reaction shots, and clever but not-quite-hammy portrayals.

When Larry premiered Lost Skeleton Returns Again at a convention in Kentucky,  I drove for several hours to see it.  I did it again to see his cut of Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  (I even resisted the chance to throw spitballs at Mike Schlesinger when he won the Rondo award, and that was self-restraint, people.)

But now Larry is spearheading a brilliant and innovative Kickstarter campaign to make the third Lost Skeleton film.  I couldn’t let this opportunity go without talking to him about it.  Most Kickstarter campaigns are pretty static and dry (like mine was),  but Larry has a new video or hook every couple of days.  It’s quite cool.

For the record, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is a project I endorse wholeheartedly.  But then again, I’m that guy who has a popular blog for a TV show that he can’t sell!  Still, we all must do our part, and this is mine!

I INTERVIEW NOW!  (Did you see what I did there?  Well, if you didn’t, then skip it.)

Writer/director/actor/producer Larry Blamire
Writer/director/actor/producer Larry Blamire

Q1. You’ve done some clever satires of popular genres.  Your first picture was Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. That’s been discussed to death, but I’d like to talk to you about the pictures that inspired it.  It has a very Bert I Gordon/Roger Corman/even 50s Universal feel to it.  These pictures have a feel of “Wow, these poor guys had nothing to work with.  It’s amazing that the film even got finished.”  You seem to celebrate that spirit.  Would you discuss that feel of 1950s filmmaking and maybe give us some films that gave you some inspiration?

LS1LB: I wrote a play in the late 80s, a comedy-with-heart called Bride of the Mutant’s Tomb that had an Ed Wood-like director scrambling to finish his film in Bronson Canyon while everything seemed to go wrong.  I didn’t realize that would be me several years later.  Although everything wasn’t going wrong for us of course, it was still a mad scramble and that now almost seems a “method” approach to what we were emulating.  My relationship with 50s low (or medium) budget scifi is complex; I chuckle with respect.  That is to say no matter how unintentionally funny some of them were (and plenty weren’t) I still admire that they got it done.  It’s almost heroic.  And I love when a film like my oft-mentioned Attack of the Crab Monsters conveys genuine atmosphere, a sense of doom.  It’s crazy.  They often touch a surreal vein in me, the incongruous imagery they present, whether consciously or not.  The reversed footage of The Blob running up the old man’s arm, giant eyes crawling around snowy mountaintops, even that skinny big-headed monster in Fire Maidens of Outer Space lurking in a lush natural Eden-like setting.  Unconscious strangeness is still strange.

Q2. I really loved that your sequel to Lost Skeleton was not just a rehash of the original, but it was a much bigger-budget production that went in a completely different direction.  From an artistic standpoint, tell us how you like to approach the idea of sequels.  I know that a lot of the 1950s sequels don’t do a good job of changing direction and become rehashes.  One particular film that does it well is Revenge of the Creature, which is quite a different film from the picture that spawned it, Creature from the Black Lagoon.  On the other hand, the Godzilla pictures really started to get old quickly after a promising start.

LS2LB: I agree.  And Revenge of the Creature is a great example.  I enjoy that film as much as the original (though every time I watch it I do want just a little more monster-on-the-loose action).  I do dislike sequels that rehash.  I only did the second Lost Skeleton movie because I had a different idea, and I went from dead set against it to “I gotta make this movie.”  Even the music reflects something entirely different; from the low budget scifi style production music to the Herrmannesque feel of Morgan and Stromberg’s score.  I love both but the latter reflected the matinee adventure perfectly.  Expedition, jungle, monsters–I still love that formula.  And guess what–it still worked for my favorite Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic Park 3, another example of a sequel treading different ground.  Hell, it was more fun than either of its forerunners.  Do a sequel if you have something different up your sleeve, otherwise don’t bother.

Legendary Bob Burns with gralmanopidon (Frank Ippolito) for Lost Skeleton Returns Again
Legendary Bob Burns with gralmanopidon (Frank Ippolito) for Lost Skeleton Returns Again

Q3. As everyone knows, you’re currently trying to finance the third Lost Skeleton movie, which I understand is a departure from the last two.  Your Kickstarter campaign is really brilliant.  What did it take for you to get this going?

LB: Well, thank you and it’s taken a lot of work.  I tried to start it up last year but I was taken away by other projects.  Several months ago I began making the videos that I felt were necessary to try and get across that we do some wacky and different stuff.  It started with the “lost” footage from the original “silent” Lost Skeleton, which was created to be only one small part of the faux documentary A World Without Lost Skeleton.  And that piece was a (something) load of work for me, some pretty intensive editing.  But I have to say I was as happy with the outcome as anything I’ve created.  It sets up the conceit of the Lost Skeleton being at war with me, which I thought might be an amusing arc to keep the Kickstarter interesting.  Add to that exec producer Mark Stuart’s mighty effort with the pledge incentives and you’ve got a lot of work put into this.  As to The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us, once again the story came to me and presented something very different from its predecessors; the characters living in the suburbs circa 1963, with Dr. Paul experimenting with atmosphereum while a series of “radiation murders” is going on, and the Lost Skeleton moving in next door as he seeks to get his full power back.  It reaches new heights of absurdity, which is always of interest to me.

Q4. You made a number of episodes of Tales from the Pub, which are quite hilarious.  Those are great spoofs of 1950s “spooky” shows, particularly One Step Beyond and even some of the John Nesbitt shows.  I particularly like the way that you have a nasty film-like splice in the credits of every episode, just like a bad syndication print would have.  Can you talk a little about the 1950s shows that inspired you for this?

LB: We were having meetings in Dan Conroy’s basement pub like once a week, looking to plan our next project and it came to me as something of a creative outlet; these perfect little economical pieces that we could shoot on our own and post online just to keep ourselves sharp, and of course have fun.  I’m pretty sure I had just seen a fairly creepy episode of Lights Out (I think it was) called “The Martian Eye” that had something of a claustrophobic paranoia to it.  These were infectious for me; the more I wrote the more came to me–and I really enjoyed the challenge of having to tell a story in just a couple pages.  The cast was game and everyone chipped in wearing different hats; shooting, lighting, etc.  One Step Beyond was probably the closest model, but like our movie parodies I hesitate to add that I really do enjoy that show.  It’s nothing like, say, spoofing something cause it’s “bad”, it’s spoofing it because it’s fun.

Production designer Anton Tremblay with his  old dark house model for Dark and Stormy Night
Production designer Anton Tremblay with his old dark house model for Dark and Stormy Night

Q5. I almost feel that your spoof of “old dark house” pictures, Dark and Stormy Night has too much material to spoof, since it’s never really been done before.  You caught everything in these pictures, from the scheming relatives to the rigged seance, the dumb “wait, that’s impossible” character identity switches, and the hidden gorillas in the basement.  I’d like you to talk about this genre a little and how it inspired you.  Give us some specific vintage titles you’d recommend.

dasnLB: I really do love old dark house pictures–Jen [actress Jennifer Blaire] and I have been known to binge on them–and it’s sad to think we may be (incredibly) running out of ones we haven’t seen (I’m still hoping Columbia’s 1933 Fog, which sounds like an old dark house on an ocean liner, may turn up).  I decided it would be absurd fun to incorporate every ODH setup there is (some of which you mention), combining the will, stranded travelers, washed-out bridge, curse, escaped lunatic, etc.  When Jen and I watch them we have strict criteria; for instance if the night lasts only one act, or if the police arrive and the setting is no longer so isolated, we’re inevitably disappointed.  If there’s no storm, that’s a letdown–at least give us some howling wind for crying out loud.  In fact, atmosphere might just be the most important ingredient for us.  And even though DASN is a comedy I wanted it to have some of that.  Just to rattle off some favorites: The Phantom of Crestwood, The Bat Whispers, Night of Terror, Menace, Rogues Tavern, One Frightened Night, House of Mystery to name a few.  The Old Dark House is wonderful of course, though highly atypical, and Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None is probably the classiest, and a wonderful film in any category.  Of the made-for-TV movie heyday, the best would have to be the excellent but unfortunately titled She’s Dressed to Kill (1979).  Of course I love the alternate venues, like the old dark baseball stadium in Death on the Diamond or old dark movie studio of The Preview Murder Mystery.

Larry with his wife, actress Jennifer Blaire
Larry with his wife, actress Jennifer Blaire

Q6.  I know you’d rather not be typecast as “that Lost Skeleton guy” because you have a lot more ideas to offer.  Please discuss Steam Wars and what you’re doing with that.

LB: Steam Wars is my epic and it’s coming into its own, starting with the first three books of a graphic novel, the first of which is almost at the printer, followed by action figures–all leading up to a movie (and possible franchise).  I’m partnered with Jerrick Ventures on this, which is Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz.  SW incorporates everything I love about big action movies, swashbucklers and cliffhangers and involves massive Victorian fighting machines shaped like armored warriors and manned by crews.  It’s steampunk, though I was developing it before there was such a term.

Teaser trailer for Steam Wars
Q7. Rumor is that you’ve worked a little with Ray Harryhausen… I’ll tip my hand and admit that I am a big fan of Ray’s.  Just because I’m a fan… tell me a little about that experience…

LB: Well, I would never say I worked with Ray (if only!).  However just to have his blessing on Trail of the Screaming Forehead, in that we were using traditional stop-motion, was a thrill for me.  Hell, hanging with him on several occasions was a thrill.  One of my boyhood inspirations and idols, the last true cinema magician.  The Cyclops emerging from the cave in 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a defining moment for me.  I’m proud to have Trail called a “Ray Harryhausen Presents.”

Andrew Parks blazing The Trail of the Screaming Forehead
Andrew Parks blazing the Trail of the Screaming Forehead.

Q8. Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a departure from the Lost Skeleton genre, but a subtle one.  It’s more of a bright Technicolor film, much like some of the color 1950s and early 60s fare. Can you discuss the different artistic “feel” of Trail and what films inspired you on this?  I keep thinking of Invaders From Mars for some reason…

LB: Definitely, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Small town residents gradually taken over until the heroes become more isolated and paranoid.  I wrote it immediately after the first Lost Skeleton and it just came to me; again, a need to do something quite different but with a similar humor.  This one had no “strings showing” though.  It looks slick and polished, as though made by different folks in the early 60s.  Mike Schlesinger calls it Douglas Sirk meets Body Snatchers or something like that.  It definitely has that look.  Are you familiar with that great book Still Life, with those ridiculously rich color photos from 1950’s movies?  Like that.

I should also mention I’m writing the audio Adventures of Big Dan Frater, with Brian Howe, Dan Conroy and Alison Martin reprising their Screaming Forehead roles in a series of outrageous tales. The great Philip Proctor (Firesign Theater) is narrator. These will be available soon, and ongoing.

(Dr. Film responds: I’m not familiar with Still Life.  I suppose I should be.)

Q9. I know you shoot digitally, which is a particular preservation problem.  The version of Final Cut Pro that you used to cut Lost Skeleton is now unsupported and obsolete!  Do you have any plans to preserve your films so that the master materials are not lost?  (I didn’t make a pun about the Lost Skeleton becoming lost, so you’re welcome…)

LB: Thank you for that.  No, you know, I really don’t.  But I should.  Definitely.

Q10.  I often get interviewed by people who have no idea or understanding about what I do, and I think they don’t ask questions that are entirely relevant to the point.  What question should I have asked that I didn’t ask, or what would you like to answer that I didn’t ask?

LB: I actually really liked these questions because they’re somewhat different than what I’ve gotten before.  The only thing that comes to mind is something like “what are you watching now?” which may or may not be of interest.  I just finished With Fire and Sword, Jerzy Hoffman’s 1999 epic that wraps up his trilogy set in 17th Century Poland, which I found beautifully entertaining and richly satisfying.  It might even edge its way into my top ten favorite movies which changes gradually over time. René Clément’s Les Maudits made it on there not too long ago.  Blowup  may always be at the top for me.

Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People

I get really upset about people showing movies or running video with the wrong screen shape.  I’ve been warned that this forum should stay a “math-free” zone, so I won’t mention ASPECT RATIOS and use numbers, but we shouldn’t need them.  While I rant about this–and expect me to go on about it–let me interrupt with an aside that’s particularly telling.

I went to a screening of The Quiet Man (1952) a few years ago.  Maureen O’Hara was in attendance before and after the film, but she went out to dinner during the showing itself.  She said she’d seen the movie enough and didn’t need to see it one more time.  I was dismayed to see the picture start with the grand Republic Pictures logo, an eagle over a globe… this time only to say A Republic… (without the Picture.)

You see, the projectionist had decided not to do his homework on this film, and he ran it in widescreen format.  If he’d bothered to check, he would have known that in 1954 the industry switched from conventional “Academy-sized” format (almost square, like most tube-TVs), to widescreen (much like your newer flat-screen TVs).  The problem is that if you run an older film in widescreen format, you cut off the top and bottom of the image, which is what was done with The Quiet Man


I found this highly annoying, since it ruined much of the movie’s great photographic composition.  I plotted my revenge against this idiot projectionist until it dawned on me that I might have a much more powerful ally.  Ms. O’Hara did a nice Q&A session with the audience, and I saw that this is a woman who takes no guff.  From anyone.  Ever.  She’s very nice about it, but whenever someone said something stupid or wrong, she corrected the error.

I wanted the projectionist to be in big trouble for screwing this up (after all, they’d taken my money for the show), so I figured the best thing I could do was to tell Maureen O’Hara about it.  I waited until the Q&A was over and went to the reception.  Gingerly, I approached her and introduced myself.  (Forgive the numbers here… but I am reproducing what I told her…)

“Are you aware that they ran that entire picture at 1.85?” I asked.

Her eyes flashed.  “What?  That’s not a widescreen picture!”

I was happy that she knew exactly what I meant without explanation.  She went on…

“What about the scene when Duke is dragging me across the glen?” she asked.

“You were off the bottom of the screen during the entire shot,” I answered.

“I ruptured a disc on that scene!  I’m going to speak to them about this!”

I reported this story to a friend of mine who’s in “the industry,” and he was amazed.  This fellow had met O’Hara as well.  He had only one question:  “What did she do with the bodies?”

The projectionist had decided that they had a wide screen, and he had to fill it.  I’ve heard the quote from people before: “I paid for a wide screen, and I’m going to fill it up.”

And you can do that, but you’ll have to stretch, crop, and malign the image so much that any artistic intent of the original filmmakers is completely lost.  In this case, the projectionist cropped the image.  This annoys me in the extreme.

The problem is that there are several different screen sizes, and they literally do not fit with each other.  The rectangles are different shapes.  That’s why they call the newer formats “widescreen.”

These are the notable ones:

1) Movies 1894-1954 are generally in what’s called “Academy format,” which is a narrow rectangle slightly wider than it is high.  (Yes, film geeks, I’m aware that silent aperture is different, and I project them properly, but that gets a little technical, so don’t bug me.)

2) Movies 1954- adopted a widescreen format that is wider.  In America, this is a bit wider than in Europe, so there a European widescreen and an American one.

3) Cinemascope/Panavision (1953-) uses a special photographic process to squeeze a widescreen image into the older Academy format and that yields an even wider screen. (Yes, I know that’s not quite accurate, film geeks… lay off!).

4) Finally in the 2000s, TV got into the act, adopting another screen size that is between the size of American widescreen and European widescreen.

The upshot of this is that we have to mix and match screen sizes all the time.  If you run a widescreen movie on a narrow Academy screen (like old TVs), then it doesn’t fit, so you either have to crop off the sides (ick) or “letterbox” it, where we see black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

These black bars aren’t there because we’re masking off part of your narrow screen, but rather because the narrow screen isn’t wide enough to accommodate the picture.  See what I mean here:

The opposite problem is now occurring because we have widescreen TVs that are showing older Academy programs.  That, properly shown, would leave black bars at the sides of the image, like this:
Instead, the vast majority of TV owners opt to stretch out the narrow image to fill the black bars, like this:


I HATE THIS!  When the picture is stretched out this way, thin people look fat and fat people look enormous.  I call it “the egg people,” because everyone has an oblong, egg-shaped head.

Here is a brief animation showing how the image is stretched in your TV to create egg people:

I’ve had people tell me that “you get used to it,” and that they like the screen filled up.  Well, I don’t get used to it, it’s wrong, and don’t expect me to get used to something that is wrong.  I hate watching movies and sports this way.

I’m telling you all that if you don’t reset your TVs to eliminate the egg people, I’m going to send Maureen O’Hara out to your house.  She’ll do it for you.

And she’s not as forgiving as I am.