Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Here's Morgan

I came across this rare clip on YouTube of an episode of David Letterman interviewing one of my favourite radio personalities, Henry Morgan. He goes into detail about his very bitter divorce which has, in the past, marked him as a misogynist. Although, if I had to move from my home to escape an arrest warrant, I would hate women too.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interview with Ed Naha

Here's a longer version of my interview with Ed Naha that ran in Uptown.

Writer Ed Naha is, in his words, "a professional schizophrenic."

Starting out with Roger Corman's company, he wrote everything from comedy to fantasy before pairing up with Stuart Gordon for one of the best killer-toy movies ever made, Dolls, and the original version of Honey I Shrunk The Kids. Speaking with Naha about his latest project, a computer-animated version of The Ten Commandments, out now from Alliance Films, it's clear this writer will never be pigeonholed.

What were the challenges of adapting a well known story?

It’s weird because a lot of people who know the story of The Ten Commandments will tell you things they think were in the Bible, but they’ve seen the DeMille movie so many times that they’re convinced that it’s the real deal. For instance, the character Ramses in the Bible isn’t named, he’s just Pharaoh. Ramses came about with DeMille and now he’s in there.

So you were you influenced by both the Bible and the DeMille film?

I think you can’t help but be influenced by the Demille movie. We were all in agreement that our Moses should not be Charlton Heston, because Moses in the Bible is a very hesitant prophet. He tries to weasel his way out of the gig when God speaks to him in the burning bush. “You know I’m not really good with people” and God saying, “No, you’re the one.” My first thought was Jimmy Stewart because he usually played reluctant heroes like in Destry Rides Again. So I just blurted that out in the first meeting we had, and everyone got it. So we took it from there and tried to put a lot of things in our movie that were in the book of Exodus that weren’t filmed before. We tried to tell the entire story of Moses. We had to do it in a way that wouldn’t be four and a half hours long.

How did you get involved in this project?

Sheer serendipity. I had met Cindy Bond of Promenade Pictures, and we were just talking about all the movies we saw when we were kids and how that type of movie isn’t really made anymore. Sometimes they’ll be made for television but most of the movies now aren’t that character driven, and much more FX oriented. You don’t really go to see Night at the Museum because you’re a Ben Stiller fan, you go to see all the things that come alive. I said, if there was anything you think I’d be good for, give me a call. So she called me a month later, and said that we’d like to do an animated family version of The Ten Commandments. And my jaw dropped so hard that it ricocheted because there is nothing in my background that would suggest I’d be good for this unless I was going to shrink Moses. So they scheduled a meeting, and the director, and the producers ,and Frank Yablans who’s like Mr. Movie – the man ran Paramount. I go in there and I’m approaching geezer status - I have a beard and ponytail I kind of look like the Hummel version of the lives of the Saints - and I was expecting to be hit by lighting because I’m not anyone’s idea of someone who carries around a Bible. We chatted and it was a great meeting, and they said, go ahead and do up an outline. I read the biography of Moses that was written a few years back and I had 3 or 4 different versions of the Bible whose language changes from version to version. I figured since this was going to be a family movie, why not make it about Moses and his family? Both his real family – his brother Aaron, and his sister Miriam - as well as his extended family, which would be the Chosen people. We were off to the races and we tried to have some humour in it.

Did writing for animation free you up at all?

Actually, it was really cool, because you get to describe the scenes which is really neat for a writer. You always have it in your head and because I was writing for this director –John Stronach – who co-directed the film with Bill Boyce – but Stronach was amazing. He approached this as a movie as opposed to an animated film. John loves all those big vistas and wide shots that are like 1956 Cinemascope Technicolor, so I could write those shots, and it was just really neat. It was disgustingly fun. We were just complementing each other - it was like Alphonse and Gaston – “Oh, you’re great! “Oh no you’re great, oh no no no, you are.” They were the loveliest bunch of people I’ve ever worked with.

This was a low budget movie. I started in low budget, when I first started I was doing fantasy, and comedies for Roger Corman. So I knew what it was like to write for a budget and then having worked in syndicated television (The Adventures of Sinbad), you never have enough money. I mean, it’s like, “Do we have a scene, or do we have a sandwich.?” You’re always making choices. The nice thing about this, since it was a little movie, everyone on this gave 110%, it was just phenomenonal what they came up with the money they had. Everything from the score to the actors – I was so happy with the cast. It was one of the few times I’ve been thanked by the actors. When Ben Kingsley says thank you for the words, Christian Slater calls up and says ‘great part dude’ You know It was really not to belabor the word, miraculous. And I still haven’t been hit by lightning.

I was working for TV in 5 years, and it was interesting to see your work on the screen immediately. If 60% of what you wrote got on the screen, you felt like putting on a party hat. And it was just wonderful when I did Ten Commandments, when I saw the first cut with the music by Reg Powell, who did a beautiful score. I sat at the director’s house, which is odd in the first place, it’s usually like the Hatfields and the McCoys - and I’m sitting there with three of the producers and I was just stunned. I never had anything that was actually filmed the way I wrote it, and I’m getting to be a geezer, and I was just flabbergasted. I’m speechless now, just thinking about it. I was just so pleased and it was like the antithesis of some of the surprises I got seeing a movie I made in the 80s. Dolls being the exception, but when I saw Troll, or Honey, or went to see some of the Corman things, you would just sit there and want to have Advil pate. Ten Commandments just blew me out of the water.

I don’t know if that often happens with animation. We’re doing Noah’s Ark now, and they put down the vocal tracks already and then we’ll be doing David and Goliath, but maybe it’s just animation, I don’t know. It was beautiful. The wide shots in certain scenes, and it’s funny, some of the movie reviews, accuse of us cheating because when Ramses and his army comes over the ridge to the Red Sea, that’s obviously live action. And it wasn’t! They were criticizing us for being too real.

It’s really tricky stuff, especially now, religion has been politicized, and everyone has preconceived ideas of what Christianity should be and what is valid and what is not. And you have to have that in the back of your noodle when you’re doing these, because you don’t want to offend anybody. And at the same time, you want to reach everybody. And in the 50s and the 60s when they did biblical epics, they had a little more wiggle room, you could have love triangles that weren’t in the Bible, and you could introduce a lot of characters and subplots who weren’t in there either. If you tried to do that today, you’d be called on it. It’s almost like people are more rigid now, which is a shame.

I give a lot of credit to Christian Slater. He really delivered on this. As the character Moses grows more comfortable in his role as leader, Christan’s voice grows more confident as well. It’s a really very good acting job. Alfred Molina as Ramses, blew me away. And Eliott Gould! Is he a cool God or what? I was raised on Elliott Gould movies, MASH, and stuff like that, and he just nailed it. He played it as God, the Father, he was very paternal. I read one review, who said God wasn’t hateful enough! Can you imagine thinking God was too nice! We should have got a wrestler, but then we got Elliott Gould.

How did you interest in movies begin?

I was a pre-geek, geek. When I was a kid, I used to see five horror movies a week on TV plus there would be what they call kiddie matinees every Saturday. And for a quarter or thirty five cents you could see two horror movies. So I’d be there all the time and I’d take notes. I was one of those guys – (putting on a kid voice) “In the movie Konga, I was offended by the fact that you could see the zipper.” And that turned into to be my first book, Horrors From Screen to Scream. Before the internet, that was the first encyclopedia of horror movies. And it was based on a lot of notes I took when I was a kid. I used to clip out reviews from the papers back in New York and New Jersey, and I loved horror movies. I guess my favourite monster film is Bride of Frankenstein. I think it just covers all the bases. My favourite big critter movie would have to be a tie between King Kong and Jason and The Argonauts. Ray Harryhausen did the effects, and that was the cool thing about working for Fangoria. I just did the first issue when it was going to be a one off magazine. The publishing company did Starlog, Future Life and eventually Fangoria. At Starlog, I think I was the managing editor, but I had a dozen different names so it made it look like we had a bigger staff. I was co-editor of Future Life, and I was the editor of Fangoria. The nice thing about working at all those magazines is that I could go out to California, or get on the phone and interview all these people like Harryhausen or George Pal, and Bert Gordon, who filled my life with wonder when I was a kid and introduce them to people who were too young to remember. It was just really neat, and I eventually wrote a book about Roger Corman because I interviewed him so many times. I got to turn all my geeky kid interests into an adult career. And I’m kind of disgusted that started remaking all of his movies. They remade Bucket of Blood with Anthony Michael Hall! It’s like when they start remaking stuff like 13 Ghosts, House of Wax, just stop it. The Sci-Fi Channel did Jason and the Argonauts; it was like four and half hours of catatonia. Go out and watch the original.

You also wrote the movie Dolls, which is one of the better killer toy stories.

I still love that movie. Stuart Gordon and I are still friends and we did the commentary track for the DVD a couple of years ago. That was fun. They had a screening down in Los Angeles a few years ago and there was a line around the block. That was another little movie with no money. They literally had to stop the movie a couple of times because they’d go out and raise more money for the special effects. Then they’d go back, do more stop motion, run out of money and do it all over again.

And you wrote Honey I Shrunk The Kids when it was originally attached to Stuart Gordon to direct.

That was the probably the biggest personal disappointment I ever had because Stuart and Brian Yuzna and I all came to Disney together and it was really the first time I worked at a major studio and it was like the Ironman competition. It took forever to be in development and at the very end, there was a lot of pressure, and Stuart wound up getting ill. Then Brian left, and they brought in all new people. I think it’s a good movie, it’s a fun movie, but I think it would’ve been a more heartfelt movie had Stuart and I stayed with it.

What was writing the movie Troll like?

That was interesting. You can look at anything as being interesting, like “I’ve been shot” would be interesting too. My mom and dad liked it a lot. But having seen some of the dailies, I knew I didn’t have to polish up my Oscar speech. The coolest thing was a whole bunch of us went down to the theater to see it together, and it was just one of those things, where you go “oh my God”, and afterwards there was a studio executive there who said, “You know, if you closed your eyes, it sounded like a good movie.” I just said, “Great, I can write for radio.” It’s known today for having the lead’s character named Harry Potter. A lot of people like it because it’s so over the top.

It also has that crazy scene where Michael Moriarty dances by himself.

The infamous Blue Cheer Summertime Blues scene. I wrote him to play air guitar, but I didn’t exactly envision it going on for what seems like an hour.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Right now, what I’m happiest about is The Ten Commandments. I’ve done a lot of bizarre things, but it’s nice to be given a chance to do one good thing. Right now, I could point to this movie as one good thing. Not because it’s going to win an Oscar, not because it’s broken box office records or anything like that, but because it’s going to be around for a while. I have a little sticker here in this room that passes as an office, and I love Laurel and Hardy, and there’s a picture of Laurel and Hardy on it, and it says ‘talk happiness, the world is sad enough.’ I can point to this movie and say I’ve done something good because in this sad world we live in, here’s something that can not only make you happy but maybe give you a little bit of hope. I’m hoping that each one of these little animated films can do that. It’s a nice feeling.

Living down here, and I have a political blog, and it’s just every day, you pick up a newspaper, and it’s a combination of Orwell, Kafka, and Looney Tunes. And this passes for news. It’s nice to retreat from that a little bit. Rather than focus your energy on all this bad stuff that’s going on. Try to conjure up some good stuff. For an hour and half, you don’t have to deal with what passes for contemporary life.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Michael Dudikoff's Action Adventure Theater

Cannon and Michael Dudikoff made sweet music together with this line of direct to video action movies. Plastering the American Ninja's star on the cover of these Italian made clunkers was a way to trick customers into renting B grade titles. Smart, Cannon, real smart.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wanna See Something Really Scary?

With Creedence Clearwater Revials' The Midnight Special playing sinisterly over a Californian mountain road, Twilight Zone The Movie is my pick for best anthology wraparound story.

Dan Aykroyd presumably plays a hitchhiker Albert Brooks picked up along the way, and they sing along with The Midnight Special as anyone on a road trip would do.

But of course, since the tape player belongs to Albert Brooks, it breaks down.

Musicless, the guys entertain themselves by playing 'Guess the TV theme tune'

This inevitably brings up the topic of The Twilight Zone's memorable theme song, and a discussion of favourite episodes. Even people who don't enjoy self referential humor will get caught up in this story. I won't spoil the rest of the opening, but suffice it to say, it's terrifically creepy. Kudos John Landis!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Interview With John DeBellis

Here's a longer version of my interview with John DeBellis that ran in the April 10th issue of Uptown Magazine.

John DeBellis knows comedy. This is evident in an interview I did to promote the release of his first film, The Last Request, which hits DVD on April 22. He was a part of the New York stand up scene in its heyday alongside Bill Maher and Larry David, (“We used to go down and watch Larry bomb because he was so funny when he bombed - he would yell at people.”) and his writing skills were honed on shows like Saturday Night Live and Politically Incorrect. His work on television taught him discipline and the ability to improvise scenes on the spot. During the run of D.C. Follies, a Spitting Image like political satire produced by Sid and Marty Kroft, DeBellis explains, “At times guests wouldn’t show, and we’d have to go walk on the lot, and find a guest. We’d essentially have 15 minutes to write the sketch, so it becomes second nature to improvise.” DeBellis has fond memories of working with the legendary creators of Land of the Lost and HR Pufnstuff. “The writers’ guild went on strike, and at the time, I was getting good residuals from that show – and I love the Krofts – but Marty is kind of like one of those guys, almost like Danny Devito on Taxi, that you love to hate. You know he’s going to do something ornery. And so half way through the strike, all of a sudden, the residual cheques stopped – Marty had taken all the money and gone to Cannes. He took all of the writers’ money, and we had to go to court to get it back, but you couldn’t hate him! There was just a loveable side to him, you’d just say ‘oh yeah, that’s Marty’. He’s the same guy, when one of the writers thought he was having a heart attack – it ended up being a panic attack – but Marty took him to the hospital and was screaming at the doctors to look at him. He would give you everything. You forgive that scoundrel part of him because he would go to the wall for you on a lot of other levels.”

His first feature, The Last Request is a broad comedy in the best possible way; Danny Aiello plays a dying stand up comedian whose sole wish for a grandchild is unfulfilled when one of his sons literally dies trying to accomplish the request. This leaves his only other son, played by T.R. Knight of Grey’s Anatomy, no other choice but to drop out of seminary school to make pop happy. Knight’s character is thrown head first into the singles scene, and goes on a series of disastrous dates that includes jealous conjoined twins and a threesome between a hand puppet and a Rosalind Russell channeling Mary Birdsong (Reno 911). The film also has a sweet side to it, and is most successful detailing the relationship between Knight and his co-worker Sabrina Lloyd, at Encore Acres, a rest home devoted to retired actors. Tony Lo Bianco, frequently cast as streetwise cops or thugs in movies like The French Connection and God Told Me To, plays against type as a classic movie star with elaborate remembrances of his old career. Last Request’s ensemble also includes Barbara Feldon, Gilbert Gottfried, Joe Piscopo and Mario Cantone. DeBellis told me, “We got lucky. Buddy Mantia, the creative producer, knew most of the actors, so we were able to get great cast. We originally had Robert Loggia as the father, and because of a pilot commitment, he dropped out. Buddy knew Danny for over 30 years, so we drove over to his house with the script. We knew if we got him reading and laughing, he would do it.”

Shooting on a low budget in 19 days was a daunting task, but DeBellis says it’s easy if you have good crew. “Our director of photography, Dan Karlok, was amazing, and has won a couple of Emmys. He shot on 24p video, but it looks like film, you could never tell the difference.” When they realized they needed a top notch editor to fine tune the movie in postproduction, they were helped by no less than Woody Allen. “Woody recommended Bob Reitano, who had done Sleepless In Seattle and a whole mess of big films. Bob did it for half of the money he gets because he liked what he had seen, and he did a great job.” He went on to say, “I don’t believe in that whole thing ‘it’s a film by’. It’s never that, it’s a group effort. It takes a good group of people to make a film. The real ego is the film, everything else is secondary. If you have a good dp, a good editor, and good writing, you basically need a bad director to screw it up.”

With wins for Best Film at The New York Independent Film And Video Festival and Best Director at The Drake at the International Film Festival in Naples, DeBellis couldn’t be more happy with the movie. “The whole design was to do a real simple story, and just make you laugh. I feel like we’ve succeeded. Anytime we’ve seen it with a full audience, it’s exploded.”

Check out John DeBellis' site here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Anthony Minghella 1954 - 2008

I was shocked to hear of director Anthony Minghella's death. While I haven't enjoyed all of his films, I will always appreciate his adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the only movie I have had an honest to God crush on.

I had read the Patricia Highsmith novel a year before the movie came out, and was instantly enamored by the sociopath Tom Ripley and his calculating ways; the desire for a cultured life and the willingness to do anything for it. The novel is particularly insightful by recounting Ripley's attempts at acceptance; at parties he trots out stories about a fictional psychiatrist he's visiting and as a regular punchline, uses "I can't make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I'm thinking of giving them both up," until one day, some oaf, sick of hearing the line, tells him to shut up.

What I admire about Minghella's Ripley, is while he retains the novel Tom's less than admirable qualities, he humanizes him by making him a broken soul who has never known love. By emphasizing the homoeroticism that was only hinted at in the novel, Minghella fleshes out the simple want of happiness as a plausible reason for Tom's crimes.

Further sympathy for Tom is grown in the first act by showing him in his miserable basement apartment with paper thin walls that don't block out the screaming of fighting neighbours. The music lover, who can only afford a paper keyboard to practise on, has a job as a lowly bathroom attendant in a concert hall, that in the after hours, affords him a rare chance to play on a real piano. Subbing for a friend at a small recital, Tom meets a rich shipping magnate, Herbert Greenleaf. Donning a borrowed Princeton jacket, Tom pretends to have known Greenleaf's son, Dickie, in school, and accepts a mission to bring the wayward heir back to New York from Italy.

Minghella uses music as the ultimate narrative device. Ripley is a staid classical lover, who upon learning of Dickie's preference for jazz, dives head first into Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to use as "in" if needed. Jazz, is in fact, the reason why Dickie accepts him as a friend, and the pair bond over a late night concert that ends up with the two Americans singing on stage. What seems like a promising friendship soon turns sour as Dickie grows tired of Tom like an old toy, and treats him as such. There's an argument, and Tom ends up killing Dickie more or less by accident. To help cover up the crime, Tom pretends to be Dickie, but ends up using the identity theft permanently. He's finally accepted into the privileged life, even if it as Dickie Greenleaf. Tom buys himself a piano, attends operas as a patron, and has the life he's always wanted. Everything is perfect until another American expatriate Freddie Miles, clues onto his deception and must be murdered. The police find his body and finger Dickie as the prime suspect, but also tack the murder of Tom Ripley onto the charges. To avoid jail, Tom has no choice but to return to being himself. He writes a note that implies Dickie committed suicide and escapes to Venice.

Here, Minghella adds a love interest for Ripley; Peter Smith-Kingsley, a fleeting character in the book, to help Tom defend himself from police questioning after Freddie's death. Peter is an opera impresario who sets Tom up in Venice, and also shares his love for classical music. So this pair too, bond over music, but this time Tom doesn't have to pretend. He genuinely loves Bach and cries over Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Peter (as openly gay as you could be in the 1950s) appreciates this. So it becomes a doomed love story now, because Tom is ultimately broken over the murders and lies he's committed. This is where Highsmith's sensibility would suit me nicely - her Tom is at complete ease with his crimes, and this duo could live happily ever after if given the chance. Alas, this is Hollywood, and Tom is eaten up by guilt, and a chance encounter with someone who knows him only as Dickie ends the charade. In the most devastating murder scene of the film, Tom kills Peter, which in turn ends any trace of Ripley, as he is now committed to the deception of being Dickie Greenleaf.

Highsmith wrote four sequels to her novel, but Minghella leaves no room for this, because his Ripley no longer has a soul. Highsmith's Ripley ends up with Dickie's inheritance and sets up a home in Europe - he becomes an art forger, hit man of sorts, and marries for even more money. He enjoys Lou Reed's Transformer album and plays the harpsichord in his spare time. They're both great characters, but Minghella's version is the one that breaks your heart.

There are no deleted scenes on the DVD of The Talented Mr. Ripley, but shots cut from the film appear in the music video 'My Funny Valentine'. I can only imagine what the rough cut of the movie was like, and sadly, will now never know. Minghella also wrote a book on the making of the movie called Getting Away With Murder that I have yet to read, but judging from the man's talent, must be fascinating to read.

Image of the week

I hope this comic is as awesome as it looks.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Single White Female - A Love Story

Single White Female reminds me of The Talented Mr. Ripley in that it tells the story of pathologically lonely people who find the object of their desire doesn't love them back.

After New York businesswoman Allie (Bridget Fonda) puts an ad for a new roommate after she dumps her fiancee (Steven Weber) for sleeping with his ex-wife, she finds Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a polite and plain girl from a small town eager to find a cheap place to stay in the big city.

After a getting to know you montage, it seems Allie and Hedy are best of friends. They share each other's clothing, fix up their apartment together, and are inseparable.

There's a momentary hiccup after Steven Weber tries to make amends with Allie. Hedy places doubts of his fidelity into Allie's head and distracts her attentions with the addition of an adorable puppy and things are great again.

There's nothing more romantic than falling asleep together to a Rita Hayworth movie.

This scene truly marks 'The End' of Hedy's happiness. Hedy turns out to be a sociopath who hasn't forgiven herself for her twin sister's accidental death, and when her bond with Allie is threatened when Steven Weber reenters the picture, she resorts to murder to keep Allie to herself. It's strange to see a film made in the 1990s keep 1950s sensibilities - Hedy must be punished for her love for Allie - and uses violence in place of sex much like Strangers On A Train did. Hedy and Allie have a knock down drag out fight in the last act with lots of head banging and stabbing.

The movie ends with Allie killing Hedy, and moving on with her life.

I suppose this end shot of a photo of the two actress' combined is meant to imply they're the same person - but the movie never really supported this claim. It followed the mainstream studio idea of 'bitches are crazy' more than offering any psychological insight. Hitchcock's POV shot of Farley Granger punching out Robert Walker at the dinner party in Strangers On A Train is a much better execution of this idea.

It's a very Patricia Highsmith like story, and I'm curious to read the novel by John Lutz to see if there were any major changes for the movie. In any case, it's an example of my favourite kind of romance - obsessive love gone wrong

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Image of the Week

A 1001 Anachronisms

TCM just aired 1945's A Thousand And One Nights as part of their 31 Days of Oscar - (Nights was nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects), and the reason it's better than any other Aladdin movie is because of Phil Silvers. Silvers plays Abdullah, Aladdin's pocket picking best friend, and he injects (then) modern humour into this classic tale of magic lamps and princesses. You know this ain't your typical fantasy when Silvers wears a fanciful version of his trademark specs throughout the movie, and is allowed to use zany one liners. The genie (played by the lively Evelyn Keyes) is also a spitfire, insisting Aladdin calls her Babs, and sabotaging his wedding to the princess when she gets jealous. Why Aladdin (played by the oh so boring Cornel Wilde) didn't fall for this hotsy totsy genie is beyond me. That's all beside the point, because the character I'm most interested in, Abdullah, gets a happy ending of his own. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but Silvers gets the "Frankie" treatment - a glorious head of hair, perfect vision and an audience of real bobby soxers to sing to. This last scene of the movie is glorious on its own and uses a real recording of Sinatra singing All or Nothing At All. It's one of the great final gags.

Monday, January 21, 2008

R.I.P. Allan Melvin

Allan Melvin, character actor extraordinaire, has passed away at the age of 84 on January 17.

Melvin, on the very right, as one of Ernie Bilko's (Phil Silvers) collaborators Cpl. Henshaw.

Melvin was a staple on many TV shows during the 60s and 70s including The Brady Bunch, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show and All In The Family. He was the voice of Magilla Gorilla and many other bit characters in Hanna Barbara productions like The Banana Splits, Dynomutt Dog Wonder and The Kwicky Koala Show.

To me, he was Henshaw on The Phil Silvers Show, one half of the duo that made Sgt. Bilko's schemes possible on the best TV comedy show ever produced. He will be missed.

Image of The Week