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Remind Me

Ed Wood

At first glance one of the least likely people to have their life story filmed is Ed Wood, the flamboyantly bad filmmaker sometimes called "the world's worst." But however awful his films might seem initially, they do hold up to repeated viewings almost as surely as Citizen Kane (1941), but for completely different reasons - the sheer ineptness is fascinating, often reaching inspired peaks of lunacy. Wood's life was also quite unusual and at times deeply depressing as he scurried for decades around the fringe of Hollywood. So it was only a matter of time before Tim Burton added the director to his gallery of outsiders in a film simply titled Ed Wood (1994).

Ed Wood was a fascinating figure. For years he wrote numerous scripts and cheap paperback originals, sometimes even getting the chance to direct. He's remembered today primarily for a trio of stupefying, low-low budget films: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958), Glen or Glenda (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1956). All are mind-blastingly ramshackle concoctions but also genuinely entertaining and constantly fascinating. (Wood also directed several other films such as Jail Bait, 1954, and the tawdry thriller The Sinister Urge, 1961, but these are actually dull in comparison with the unholy trio mentioned above.) On top of that he was a WW2 veteran (he participated in the invasion of Tarawa, a bloodier event than D-Day) who liked to wear women's clothing. He even had a girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, who later wrote songs for Elvis Presley.

This is more or less the world that Burton explores in Ed Wood. The director admits he wasn't aiming for strict faithfulness in his portrait of Wood. "I wasn't there with these people, I don't know them, but I have a feeling about them. So that's what I'm doing. I'm doing my feeling," he told Mark Salisbury in the book-length interview Burton on Burton. Burton remembered seeing several Wood films when he was a child but didn't watch them again while actually shooting Ed Wood. Burton worked hard to achieve the delicate tone of the film. "The movie is dramatic, and I think there are some funny things in it, but it's treading a fine line because I never wanted it to be jokey. Never. I'm with them. I'm not laughing at them." (This attitude is typical of all of Burton's films.)

Before Ed Wood, Burton was in the planning stages of Mary Reilly, an adaptation of Valerie Martin's novel that postulates the Jekyll and Hyde story from the viewpoint of a maid (to be played by Winona Ryder). However, when the studio decided to make it more commercial by putting Julia Roberts into the title role, Burton was replaced. (That film eventually appeared in 1996.) That's when Burton came across a ten-page story treatment about Wood written by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, previously known for the two Problem Child movies. However, the duo wanted to avoid being typed as children's writers. (They would later write more biopics: The Man on the Moon, 1999; The People vs. Larry Flynt, 1996; and the forthcoming The Marx Brothers.)

Karaszewski and Alexander had originally approached their USC school chum Michael Lehman, director of Heathers (1989), and he in turn took it to Heathers producer Denise Di Novi. She originally planned to co-produce Ed Wood with Burton. However, Tim, who was between projects, decided to step in as director as well. Surprisingly, Karaszewski and Alexander took only six weeks to produce a 147-page script that Burton agreed to direct without any further changes. (Though apparently Burton later incorporated material from Rudolph Grey's superlative Wood biography Nightmare of Ecstasy.) Burton later claimed one reason he responded so quickly was because he was then living in Poughkeepsie, New York, Wood's hometown. Another obvious reason is that Wood's relationship with Bela Lugosi parallels Burton's own with his longtime idol Vincent Price.

Next came the hardest part. Ed Wood was being developed by Columbia Pictures, but when Burton decided the film "had to be in black and white" - generally considered a commercial no-no - the studio decided to drop the film only a month before filming was planned to start. Other studios were quickly interested but Burton finally went with one who offered him complete control, which, perhaps surprisingly, was Disney. Burton had started his film career as an animator at Disney and they did The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with him so he felt comfortable working with the company.

With a budget of $18 million, shooting finally started in August 1993. Burton brought back some veterans of his earlier films like Johnny Depp (who'd played another Ed in Edward Scissorhands, 1990) and Jeffrey Jones (from Beetlejuice, 1988). Burton was particularly inspired in his other casting choices, which mirrored the eccentricities of the people that hung out with Wood. Saturday Night Live's Bill Murray was given an early chance to prove what a surprisingly versatile actor he can be, while Burton's biggest coup was getting Martin Landau as Lugosi. ("I think he just could relate to it," Burton remembered, "and had been through enough ups and downs to understand Bela Lugosi.") Landau's spooky performance nabbed him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Landau's daughter Juliet (a familiar face to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) also appears. Others include Sarah Jessica Parker (of HBO's Sex and the City series), Patricia Arquette (True Romance, 1993) and in a small role as Vampira the Unknown, Lisa Marie who would shortly become Burton's real-life girlfriend. There are even some actors who appeared in actual Wood films like Gregory Walcott (a film backer), Conrad Brooks (a bartender) and Paul Marco.

Ed Wood ends right after the premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1959 without chronicling Wood's real-life descent into alcoholism and pornography. The film gathered two Oscars (a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Martin Landau and one for Best Makeup), and favorable reviews from Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Leonard Maltin and others. Still, this wasn't enough to pull viewers into the theaters, so Ed Wood became Burton's first film that didn't make money even though it's considered one of his best.

Producer: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Production Design: Thomas A. Duffield, Richard Hoover, Michael Polaire
Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Costume Design: Colleen Atwood
Film Editing: Chris Lebenzon
Original Music: Howard Shore
Principal Cast: Johnny Depp (Ed Wood), Martin Landau (Bela Lugosi), Sarah Jessica Parker (Dolores Fuller), Patricia Arquette (Kathy O'Hara), Jeffrey Jones (Criswell), G. D. Spradlin (Rev. Lemon), Vincent D'Onofrio (Orson Welles), Billy Murray (Bunny Breckenridge), Lisa Marie (Vampira), George "The Animal" Steele (Tor Johnson), Juliet Landau (Loretta King).
BW-127m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Lang Thompson