“There are times in history, like
-- Tim Burton
For those of us who have always loved to watch movies Ed Wood (1994) is a gloriously atmospheric, black and white love letter to cinema. Tim Burton's film recalls a bygone era when one could see movies in theaters with palatial stages and grandiose art deco architecture. He understands that for the devoted cineaste, the best moments in life have often been spent in a darkened movie theater being enveloped by a film and becoming one with the environment it creates for two hours. Watching a movie is a form of escape from the harsh realities of the real world and Ed Wood argues that making films can also do the same thing. Of course,
No one understands and appreciates this devotion to cinema more than
Initially, Ed Wood may seem like a rather odd vehicle in which to celebrate a love of movies. What does the infamously touted "worst filmmaker of all-time" have to do with what makes movies so great? As
Ed Wood was born in
Wood and Lugosi became friends and when he finally scraped together enough financing to make Glen or Glenda (1953), he gave Lugosi a role as an omniscient master of human fates. Wood gave Lugosi a larger role in Bride of the Monster (1955), despite the actor’s increasing ill health. Lugosi’s various drug addictions and his bad health finally took their toll and he died on August 16, 1956. Wood was crushed. However, before Lugosi’s death, Wood shot some generic footage of him in a cemetery and outside his home. This footage became the basis for Wood’s most infamous film, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). He made Plan 9 for only $6,000, armed with stock footage and a script he had written in less than two weeks. The film barely got a distributor, made no money and was shortly pulled from theaters. By the 1960s, Wood was reduced to writing trashy novels and making low budget sex films. He died from a heart failure on December 10, 1978 in
Ed Wood spans the six year period in which he made his most celebrated movies. Starting with the autobiographical Glen or Glenda and climaxing with the release of Plan 9 From Outer Space,
The origins for Ed Wood can be traced back to two men. During his sophomore year at the
Alexander and Karaszewski went on to write the Problem Child films but the Ed Wood movie was always in the back of their minds. Out of frustration from being pigeonholed, they wrote a 10-page treatment for film school buddy Michael Lehmann with Karaszewski's tongue-in-cheek pitch, "the guys who wrote Problem Child and the guy who directed Hudson Hawk making a movie about the worst filmmaker of all time." Lehmann showed the treatment to his producer, Denise DiNovi, who in turn showed it to Tim Burton. The trio struck a deal where Lehman would direct and DiNovi and
However, no screenplay had been written at this point. So, Alexander and Karaszewski worked 14-hour days, seven days a week for six weeks writing what would eventually become a 147-page screenplay. For the two writers, there was a certain level of desperation that inspired such a large output in such a short span of time. Alexander told Film Threat magazine that "there was a bit of mercenary attitude behind the script in the fact that we were trying to appeal to Tim's instincts. He's a very personal filmmaker and everything with him is on a gut level . . . We knew we had one shot, and so we tried to put in scenes that would work for him on an iconographic level or would parallel his relationships." This angle paid off as Burton liked their first draft so much that he agreed to direct and use said draft without any revisions — a practice virtually unheard of today where screenplays are re-written and doctored to death. Lehmann, who was originally supposed to direct, was developing the screenplay for Airheads (1994) into a movie and so he and
Ed Wood was in development with Columbia Pictures but this soon changed when problems between the studio and
After working on large-sized, multi-million dollar productions like Batman Returns (1992),
With this in mind, it seems only fitting that
“There must have been a kind of optimism that we lack today. People wore suits then. People wore overcoats and hats. Somehow that meant something to me. People cared. There was a kind of enthusiasm about the country. That was the big thing that had to be put across. It was an innocent time."
Depp portrays Wood as a naïve dreamer who loves the movies. He even gets ideas for movies from discarded stock footage that a stagehand runs for him. "Why if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie out of this stock footage," he says as he dramatically constructs an absurd tale from a montage of completely unrelated footage that could only come from his brain. There is something contagious about this approach that makes you root for Wood to succeed — even if you are aware of the director's eventual downward spiral into poverty and obscurity.
To play the pivotal role of Bela Lugosi,
To augment the rather Method style of getting into character, Landau also did extensive research on his subject, watching 25 of Lugosi movies and seven interviews with the man between the years of 1931 and 1956. From this research Landau constructs a Lugosi that is a gruff, grumpy old man who spits out obscenities when provoked. He's the jaded counterpoint to Wood's youthful optimism. At one point he says, "this business, this town, it chews you up, then spits you out. I'm just an ex-bogeyman." He underlines perfectly one of the most important unwritten rules that governs
And yet, Lugosi also talks about what's wrong with modern horror films: "they don't want the classic horror films anymore. Today, it's all giant bugs. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers. Who would believe such nonsense?" For Lugosi, the older films were "mythic, they had poetry." Even though he is talking about horror films of the '50s, Lugosi could easily be talking about the horror films of today where subtlety and imagination has been replaced by sterile, state-of-the-art special effects and formulaic stories. The clunky effects of these older movies, with their rubber-suited monsters and fake blood, have a certain texture to them that you can almost touch. There is something comforting about this because you know that it's real. Computer effects, for the most part, lack any real textures and are too perfect looking — they lack any kind of personality.
If Ed Wood is a loving homage to movies, it is all the more fitting that Orson Welles, the patron saint of cinema, is celebrated throughout. From the obvious touches, like the poster of Citizen Kane (1941) that hangs in Wood's office, to the use of deep focus photography (where the fore, middle and background are all in focus) and low angle perspective shots favored by Welles, his presence is felt everywhere. This culminates in a meeting between the auteur and Wood at Musso and Frank Grill, a famous West Coast eatery. With his stocky build and deep voice, Vincent D'Onofrio bears an uncanny resemblance to Welles. As he and Wood share a drink and commiserate about their struggles to get films made, there is a particularly important exchange:
Triumphant music plays in the background as Welles delivers this sage advice and it inspires Wood to go back and finish Plan 9 his way, right of wrong. For
Ed Wood ends with a triumphant screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space at the same theater where Bride of the Monster failed. Even though this never really happened, it is a nice way to end the movie — on a high note instead of what really happened. Wood became an alcoholic and was reduced to making schlocky nudie films.
With Ed Wood,
Ed Wood had its world premiere at the 32nd New York Film Festival at the
Reviews, however, were highly positive. Roger Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, "Burton has made is a film which celebrates Wood more than it mocks him, and which celebrates, too, the zany spirit of 1950s exploitation films – in which a great title, a has-been star and a lurid ad campaign were enough to get bookings for some of the oddest films ever made." USA Today gave the film four out of four stars and declared it, "
And yet, Ed Wood has endured. It went on to win two Academy Awards (one for Landau's performance and one for Baker's make-up) and a slew of critics’ awards. The movie has also become a favorite of film buffs everywhere, which is rather fitting considering that this is exactly its target audience. Sadly, Burton went on to make Planet of the Apes (2001), a paint-by-numbers action film with expensive computer effects that lacked any of Burton's distinctive personality — the complete antithesis to Ed Wood. Hopefully, he has not become completely absorbed by the
Special thanks to the Depp Impact site for the stills from the film. Here is a page dedicated to film from the best website dedicated to Burton and his films. This is actually were this article was originally published.
Val brought to my attention a wonderful short film that Vincent D'Onofrio directed called Five Minutes Mr. Welles that debuted at the 2004 Venice Film Festival and addresses his performance in Ed Wood as Orson Welles and how his voice was actually dubbed over.