How two Hollywood screenwriters and a maverick director recreated the biopic.
Basking in the monochrome glory that is Ed Wood twenty one years after its initial release is somewhat of an otherworldly activity. To reflect upon the feature after all this time allows us to really see how influential, vital and groundbreaking a film it has become. Not only was it a turning point for director Tim Burton, along with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who conceived and developed the project), but it set a benchmark for ‘90s cinema, ushering in a new kind of character study; one which the writers have termed the ‘Anti-Great Man Film’.
To celebrate the anniversary of Ed Wood, I spoke with Alexander and Karaszewski to discover how it all came to be, how it affected their subsequent work, and why in the world they chose to focus on a relatively unknown B-Movie director who had been termed ‘The Worst Filmmaker Of All Time’.
There is also the matter of the recent Big Eyes, a film which sees the writers reunite with Burton to tell the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, whose paintings and turbulent fallout became part of the public consciousness in the ‘60s. While it may appear to the outsider that this reunification of creative forces has simply occurred after twenty years apart, the truth is that there has always been a strange, symbiotic relationship taking place behind the curtain, as we learn of the films which could have been.
First though, we need to jump back a few decades. WWII veteran Edward D Wood Jr. made his way to Hollywood in 1947, to embark on a career in the movies. Struggling and hustling his way through the next 31 years, Wood relentlessly tried to make a mark on the industry. His passions and eccentricities would fuel an individualistic creative drive; an outsider’s outsider. Wood’s universe was one of misfits, drug addicts, cross dressers and monsters. He longed for a better world; one which offered universal acceptance of such outcasts. This was, sadly, something he would not see before his premature death in 1978; prompted by a life filled with perpetual worry, drugs, hard liquor and countless cigarettes.
Wood formed relationships with some of the most colourful characters on the fringe of Hollywood life, including wrestler Tor Johnson, TV horror host Maila Nurmi (Vampira) and Dracula himself; Bela Lugosi. His cast and crew were comprised of his nearest and dearest and securing money from wherever he could, made bizarre, yet alluring films such as Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride Of The Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. While his career never took off in the way in which he had hoped, Wood’s movies found a new audience just a few short years after his passing; albeit they were laughing at him rather than with him.
The ‘Worst Filmmaker’ moniker was attributed to Wood by Harry and Michael Medved in their 1980 book, The Golden Turkey Awards. This was released around the same time that Alexander and Karaszewski were students at USC, where they initially bonded over a shared affinity for the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The pair, at one stage, concocted a plan to shoot and submit a documentary on Ed Wood for class, entitled The Man In The Angora Sweater.
Alexander and Karaszewski continued to compile extensive folders of research on the subject of Wood (something they continue to do with regard to their subjects), but it wasn’t until over a decade later, in 1992, that the possibility of making an Ed Wood movie started to look like a viable option. Strangely enough, this would come off the back of a Dennis Dugan comedy. The first script the screenwriters’ sold to 20th Century Fox ended up stuck in development Hell, but their next effort became the most profitable film of 1990; Problem Child. Their vision of the comedy, upon which they had a less than clement experience, was vastly different to what ended up on screen.
“We got fired and re-hired at least four or five times.” explains Alexander, “The final film was a travesty and I was really embarrassed. I was crying at the cast and crew screening. I just couldn’t believe that I’d finally got my first movie made and it was so terrible.”
The original intention of Problem Child was to create an antithesis to the barrage of kiddie comedies that permeated Hollywood in the mid to late ‘80s. Sadly, however, it was transformed into one. This sent the screenwriters back to their old idea about writing a biopic. Who would they choose though? Hitchcock? Welles? No. Edward D Wood Jr.
“People in the past were always making movies about Abraham Lincoln and Louis Pasteur and the great men who had conquered and saved the world.” Alexander continues, “We thought, well what if you just start making movies about all the screwballs in the margin? These are the guys that either nobody wants to talk about, or that nobody’s ever heard of, but who have had interesting lives.”
“This is a genre that had ignored these outsiders.” adds Karaszewski, “The biopic has always been obsessed with great people. At that time, there weren’t very many films of outsider characters.”
Both writers cite Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, as well as Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears as early examples of biopics about a ‘less than great’ individual, but as Alexander notes; “The guys in those movies are still a thousand times more famous than Ed Wood ever was.”
Having felt the brunt of the Tinseltown experience, the writers now looked at Wood in an altogether different light than they had done all those years before; not only from the Problem Child fiasco, but from their own personal on set experience as well. Alexander had spent time crewing low budget horror movies after his freshman year of college at USC. “My salary was $15 a day for a 16 hour day and I was working 7 days a week.” he recalls, “They were such a joyful experience and a lot of the moments in Ed Wood were lifted from time spent on those movies.” Alexander reveals that one of the first lessons that they learnt was that, even though they were writing a biography of someone else, it was possible to incorporate their own lessons into the script. “The more you can personalise a project, the more fun it is for you to write.” he adds.
With a concept to develop a feature on Ed Wood, they wrote a brief treatment and shopped around for potential directors. Two names that were suggested in those early days were Michael Lehmann and John Waters. “We envisioned Ed Wood as more of an indie style picture, because we had written two big Hollywood hits that we were very unsatisfied with,” says Karaszewski, “and even though they had made money, they weren’t the kind of movies that we really wanted to have a career making. We thought that we could reboot ourselves and start our careers off in the way we really should have gone.”
The writers felt that they should have gone the American Independent route, making low budget films instead of selling their first script to Hollywood. Ed Wood was designed from the very start to be a much smaller event. “That’s why we initially went to Michael Lehmann,” Karaszewski notes, “He had done Heathers, and we thought that it was exactly what a smaller kind of movie should be. It had a spirit and a fight to it.”
Alexander and Karaszewski felt Lehmann would appreciate the material, because he had just made Hudson Hawk, a notorious disaster, both financially and critically. “We thought, hey, the writers of Problem Child with the director of Hudson Hawk making a film about the worst filmmaker of all time!” laughs Karaszewski, “All three of us had been through the experience of working really hard at something and having it not turn out well and being received in a negative light. This allowed us to look at Ed in a different way. That was one of the breakthrough points, in having us look at Ed in a sympathetic manner, as opposed to a mocking one. We knew Lehmann could do that.”
Things progressed and Lehmann took the writers’ ten page treatment to Denise Di Novi, with whom he had worked on Heathers. It was then presented to Tim Burton, to acquire some form of associative credit to assist with funding. “We weren’t even asking Tim to work on Ed Wood, just to put his name to it.” says Alexander, “We said ‘Would you mind coming on as a producer or a presenter, just to help us raise our financing?’ This was so that we could say Tim Burton Presents…”
Burton, an aficionado of low budget drive in cinema, grew up loving Plan 9, and liked the idea so much that he expressed an interest in directing. Lehmann became involved with his next film, Airheads, and so the change in directors wouldn’t be problematic, but Burton was poised to start work on Mary Reilly, and so Alexander and Karaszewski knew they had to act fast.
The screenwriters met with Burton, who reiterated his interest in the project. They were working on spec, as there was no deal in place, but with Burton agreeing to seriously consider the script, the pair locked themselves away working 14 hour days, seven days a week for six weeks, until a draft was ready. It was a gamble, but a necessary one.
In an almost unprecedented turn of events, Burton agreed to shoot their first draft. Ed Wood was to be made. A deal was established with Lehmann, who would now produce, and the film was taken on by Columbia Pictures. The film had gone from a small indie production to an entity of blockbuster proportions. Burton had just come off his second Batman film and would bring with him a leading man; Johnny Depp.
Depp was intrigued at the story of Ed Wood, as well as his misappropriated reputation. He felt that without Wood, there would have been no John Waters, no David Lynch and, for that matter, no Tim Burton. To come up with the energetic and wide eyed portrayal, he amalgamated the boundless enthusiasm of Ronald Regan with the salesman like shtick of Casey Kasem, all wrapped up in Jack Haley’s version of the Tin Man. Frenetic, jittery and ever optimistic, Depp’s portrayal of Wood has become one of his broadest, and most memorable performances.
Playing alongside him would be Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi; their relationship being something that the writers wanted to accentuate. As Alexander and Karaszewski have noted in the past, a man does not live his life in three acts, nor did they wish to tread the well-worn path of the ‘birth to death’ biopic. During the writing process, they whittled it down to focusing on five specific years of Ed’s life; his most prolific and successful. Using Bela and Ed’s relationship as a key narrative device within the film not only served to create pathos, but also mirrored in many ways Burton’s personal relationship with Vincent Price.
Alexander and Karaszewski found that they were embraced as part of the production in a manner that doesn’t usually occur in Hollywood. “On Ed Wood, we were the experts.” says Alexander, “We were the guys who knew everything, as we’d done all the research.”
Karaszewski also feels incredibly attached to the film to this day. “With Ed Wood, which is one of my proudest achievements, I feel like that before our film it was impossible to look at Glen Or Glenda and not laugh.” he explains of the manner in which the movie altered people’s perception of its subject. “It was this total camp, crazy movie about a transvestite with Bela Lugosi. What wasn’t known was how much of a personal statement this film was. When you find out what went on behind the scenes it gave you so much more sympathy for the movie. Now when you watch it, you can see it as an avant garde film. People don’t laugh at it as much because it’s a man baring his soul. I mean he’s even got his real girlfriend in there. He’s playing a version of himself. There’s a lot of this really odd, interesting stuff going on that would probably get him into Sundance today.”
Their approach to the Anti-Great man film was something which they would explore further in their collaborations with Milos Forman, a working relationship which resulted in two of the greatest films of the ‘90s; The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man On The Moon. Ed Wood had given them the clout they needed to lay their own path; like Wood himself, Alexander and Karaszewski were giving the outsiders a chance to make themselves heard; to get their moment of glory.
“The problem with the great man movie is that the guy is great.” surmises Karaszewski, “Sometimes it’s hard to see what the opposition is. What these outsider characters do is create a new angle. You almost sympathise with the Baptists in Ed Wood. They’re not really asking for much. They’re just looking for continuity.”
Using potentially obscure protagonists can cause friction during the developmental stages however. “This is what happens on a lot of our projects.” continues Karaszewski, “Someone comes in and says; ‘You know that lead guy is not that accessible. What if we told the story through his friend’s eyes?’ There was a very small period on Larry Flynt, where a director was circling it and the studio said ‘Well what if we told it through the Ed Norton Lawyer character?’”
The screenwriters’ most recent movie, also being made by Tim Burton, is Big Eyes. Such an exciting creative collaboration certainly warrants inquiring as to what led to the revival of this working relationship after so long.
“It appears that it’s been twenty years in between Ed Wood and Big Eyes, and that suddenly we just called him up again,” states Alexander, “but we’ve had this weird secret ongoing relationship with Tim which has probably been invisible to the world.” This extends to Mars Attacks!, on which Alexander and Karaszewski worked extensively. “Because Tim got brainwashed by Ed Wood, he subsequently went and made the ultimate Ed Wood movie.” Laughs Alexander, “In Hollywood, you have script arbitration and whether or not you get credit is down to all these rules. That is the one arbitration in our career that we feel really sadly about how it went. There was only one other writer, Jonathan Gems, and we had actually agreed on a shared credit. It was due to a series of weird technicalities that we ended up not getting ours. That really killed me, because we worked on Mars Attacks! for so long, I mean, half the characters are named after my relatives! The President and the First Lady are Jim and Marsha; those are my parents! Annette Benning is playing my mother in law. It’s like a family reunion.”
Another collaborative project which made it to pre-production and was about to start shooting was Ripley’s Believe It or Not? “This would have been the biggest thing we’d ever worked on in our lives,” laments Alexander, “it was a big $170m extravaganza with Tim directing Jim Carrey as Robert Ripley. There was a little bit of the spirit of Ed Wood in it, with a guy leading a band of misfits.”
It is revealed that Ripley’s misfits were all kind of sideshow freaks. “Then it becomes more of a big Raiders of The Lost Ark kind of adventure, which took place in NY and China in the ‘30s; it was a huge undertaking“. Alexander continues. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not? was in heavy pre-production in 2006 “I can remember all the drawings for the sets and the casting. It was really far along when the movie was shut down and that was so painful. We were in London working with Tim on that and it would have been so great.”
Two or three years ago the pair wrote an animated stop-motion Addams Family script for Burton. “I think between Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows, it probably had too much overlap with those two projects.” notes Alexander, “So we’ve always had this ongoing relationship with him but to the world it’s going to look like we made a movie with him in ’94 and then twenty years later we called him up again.”
Regardless, Big Eyes was released on Christmas Day 2014 to critical acclaim. It was very much a tonal return to the world of Ed Wood for the director, as well as the screenwriters, who have served as producers on the film, which tells the story of reclusive artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, a man who purported her work as his own, selling it across the USA. This led to a high profile court case, which is cinematic territory that Alexander and Karaszewski know well.
“Big Eyes was a project that Larry and I were trying to make for years and years” elaborates Alexander, “We started eleven years ago. I stumbled across a one page article about the Keanes, which I just thought was astonishing; then, as always, we started doing research. We went into the UCLA research library which has all the microfilm of all the old newspaper stories”.
The writers tracked down Margret Keane and for the first time in their lives paid for the rights out of their own pockets.
“We described the project to our agent and he said ‘That’s fantastic; you should just do this on your own. You should direct. No studio is going to touch it, because they don’t make these movies anymore. ‘He said to get two great actors for the parts and that they’d find the money. We then spent three and a half years working on the script on and off in between paying jobs. We never got paid on the movie, but we finally got a script that was ready to go and we started putting together a plan.”
The process of Big Eyes has been one which has taken over a decade of hard work, heartbreak and false starts for Alexander and Karaszewski, who have seen the film go through several permutations and planned outcomes over the last few years. At one point, they even had two leads in Ryan Reynolds and Reese Witherspoon (who dropped out after getting pregnant). They had almost given up hope of ever getting it made until they went to Burton once again, to acquire his name as a producer to attain some clout in getting it made. History repeated itself and Burton signed on to direct.
Oscar winning Django star Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams appear as the Keanes, with Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp taking on supporting roles.
Although as we reflect on the life and work of Alexander and Karaszweski, as well as Burton himself, one thing becomes clear. None of the spectacular movies we have mentioned so far could have been possible were it not for the vision of one man; Edward D Wood Jr. “Tim now looks at Ed Wood as being the parallel universe version of himself.” concludes Alexander, “If there had been just one chromosome different; Tim’s life could have turned into Ed’s life.”
Thankfully for all of us it didn’t, and we may be equally thankful that Alexander and Karaszewski took the risks that they did; ‘90s cinema wouldn’t have been the same if they hadn’t.