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.