Larry Karaszewski and his writing partner Scott Alexander began their career with a huge success (1990’s PROBLEM CHILD) that left them dissatisfied, so they decided to reboot their career. They have found a niche in writing biopics of odd, strange, alienated public figures such as cult filmmaker Ed Wood, pornographer Larry Flynt and funnyman Andy Kaufman, and lacing them with poignant drama, quirky humour and insightful characterisations. I talked with Larry about his first biopic, ED WOOD (1994), directed by Tim Burton.
You always write with Scott Alexander. How did the partnership come about?
We were Freshman roommates at the University of Southern California, although originally, I had had a room all by myself. Occasionally, the college would have a problem student take the other bed. A couple of floors above me there was a room which had too many kids in it. One of those kids was Scott, and we met in line for something at the University. We got talking and quickly hit it off. We discovered we both had an affection for film and an interest in the work of another low-budget, 'bad movie' director called Herschell Gordon Lewis, who had invented the gore genre. I had seen all of his movies growing up in the Mid-West, but these movies had not played on the West Coast, and Scott was asking me all kinds of questions about them. He moved in and I was happy because his family lived in L.A. and that meant he would be going home a lot and I would have the room to myself! We became good friends, and in our senior year, we decided to write a screenplay together. We got lucky - we sold it a few weeks after we graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts. That project never got made, but our next script was PROBLEM CHILD (1990). It was a big hit, although it was hated by many people. We have been working ever since.
How would you describe the way you collaborate?
We are a team in the sense that we write everything together. We treat it like a job. We go to the office every day, with set hours and we get it done. One of the great things about having a writing partner is that on the days when he is low on energy, I can compensate, and vice versa. We riff off each other. Having a partner means you get less blocked creatively, and it takes away the solitary confinement of being a writer. On the other hand, you can just end up distracting each other, so you have to be careful.
How do you plan the writing of your scripts?
When we did ED WOOD, we felt the biopic genre needed a kick in the ass. There are many 'cradle to the grave' movies out there! With our biographies, what we focus on first is the structure, how to take a person's life and turn it into a movie. It's not an easy thing to do and many people tend to get it wrong. We always ask the question "Why are we telling this story?". The answer to that question is usually the climax of the film. We were telling the story of Ed because he was famous for making The Worst Movie of All-Time - PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959), and so him making the film was our film's climax. We treat the making of PLAN 9 as a triumph because even though it wasn't a triumph, it was the reason a Hollywood movie was made about him. He was also famous for his relationship with Bela Lugosi, which became our central story. We structured the film into acts depicting the important events of our story, eg. ten minutes into the film Ed meets Bela; at the end of the first act he makes his first movie; at the end of the second act Bela dies; and at the end of the final act Ed is able to carry on without Bela and make his dream project.
Why did you decide to write a biography on the life of Ed Wood?
When we were at So Cal, Scott and I had heard stories about Ed Wood and his relationship with Bela Lugosi - that this transvestite movie director had taken care of this old man when no-one else cared. We always thought that this would make a great film but that no major studio would ever finance it. The early '80s was the beginning of the 'bad movie' festivals, and Ed Wood was a figure who was very much being made fun of. He had been named as 'The Worst Director of All Time'. After PROBLEM CHILD didn't really turn out the way we had pictured it, we thought "Let's go back and try to restart our career. Let's go and make that small, independent movie that we wanted to make. Let's make ED WOOD."
We wrote a treatment and hooked up with the director Michael Lehmann, who had just done HUDSON HAWK (1991), a big film that had not been well-received. We joked that it would be funny that ED WOOD was going to be 'the director of HUDSON HAWK and the writers of PROBLEM CHILD making a film about the worst filmmaker of all-time!'. We would know what we were talking about! Michael really understood all of this, and what all of our experiences on those movies had taught us was how difficult it is to make a good movie and how nobody sets out to make a bad movie. We were now able to look at Ed's story a lot more sympathetically. If we had two mission statements on ED WOOD, No. 1 was 'Make this a love story betwen two guys, Ed and Bela' and No. 2 was 'Don't play up the badness of Ed's movies but focus more on his passion for making movies'. Ed clearly had a messed-up life but he loved movies, and he loved making them. His movies really were coming from a very sincere place.
I made a bunch of short films with other teenagers when I was growing up and Scott worked on some low-budget horror movies. When you're working on those kinds of projects, they almost always turn out badly but everyone is there for the right reasons, which is a love of film-making. You work eighteen-hour days with no pay or deferred salaries and you are there to just hold a boom mic which is actually hooked onto a broom handle, but you're there because you want to make a film. We really wanted to capture that spirit and that is why we wrote ED WOOD.
How did Tim Burton end up coming on board?
Denise Di Novi had produced Michael's first film, HEATHERS (1989), and was now working with Tim. Michael had the idea that if we could get a credit that read something like 'Tim Burton Presents ED WOOD', it would make it easier to get the $1 or $2m we needed to make the movie. We got the treatment to Tim and he flipped out over it. He knew all about Ed's movies, and he himself had had a long friendship with Vincent Price whom he took care of in a similar way to how Ed had taken care of Bela. He really identified with the material and wanted to direct it himself. Michael told him that if he agreed to make it as his next film, he would step aside and be one of the producers. The film would have a much better chance of getting made if Tim agreed to direct.
Tim had six weeks to decide whether he was going to make MARY REILLY or not for Tri-Star, so Scott and I locked ourselves in a room and quickly did a first draft, which ended up too long at about 140 pages. We got it to Tim on a Friday and then we got a call on the Sunday saying Tim had dropped out of the other movie and was doing our movie. Tim had no notes at all, and his intention was to simply shoot our first draft, which is exactly what he did. We were very lucky. Not much got changed.
You wrote the first draft knowing that Tim was interested in directing it. How did you tailor it for him?
We put in a cemetery scene and Gothic imagery, but funnily enough, those were the scenes that got cut! We knew we were going to focus on Ed and Bela, but once we knew Tim was likely to do the movie, bearing in mind his relationship with Vincent Price, it gave us the confidence to really hang the movie on the Ed/ Bela relationship.
What changes were made to the script during filming?
Bill Murray's character, Bunny Breckinridge, got tweaked. Bunny was not such an important character and was originally just one of the gang in the script. But when Bill got cast it didn't make sense to just have him standing in the background! We took Bunny out of some scenes and gave him some more funny lines in the scenes he was in. There was a six or seven page section before Ed meets Kathy (Patricia Arquette) where Ed goes off the rails and has a quickie marriage to someone else. It was very entertaining but the screenplay was running long and it was an obvious lift that didn't hurt anything on either side.
Did you have any specific actors in mind when writing the character of Ed?
What's weird about the biographies we have written is that you think less of the actor when you're writing them, because you are focussing on the real people. When we wrote THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996), Bill Murray was in the back of our mind for Larry because he has that ability to say something and you don't know whether he is being sincere or not. That quality was perfect for a character whom you weren't sure was really interested in the issues he raised or more interested in creating a spectacle. That was the only time we have ever written with a specific actor in mind.
Did you have any say in the casting?
Tim asked us who we had in mind, but it was pretty much him all the way. One of the things we like about making these biographies of obscure people is that you become a little more involved in the filmmaking process. On a family comedy like PROBLEM CHILD, the writer can be disposable because they can take your script and do what they want with it, or even bring in other writers. When we write movies about obscure people, we become like the historians or the keeper of the archives. On films like ED WOOD, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and MAN ON THE MOON (1999), we got calls from the production designer and the costume designer for example, and so we were involved in the production side much more than is usual for a writer in Hollywood. We enjoy that quite a bit, and it is one of the reasons that we have continued doing biographies.
Were Tim and Johnny already a close-knit team at this point?
They were already a team, definitely. Sometimes you work with people and you just know right away. They had those mental shortcuts. Tim is not a particularly verbal person and people who work with him again and again learn how to read his mind and body language. We were able to read what he wanted, which made it an easy collaboration.
Tim right off the bat wanted Johnny for the part of Ed and wouldn't even consider anybody else. There was a brief period where it might have not happened, and I really don't know if Tim would have made the film without him.
What was the mood like on set?
It was very relaxed and very happy. Everyone involved was there for the right reasons and recognised that they were making something special. It was a nice litle community, like a family. They also realised that we were getting away with murder! We were being allowed to make this interesting, strange film on a scale that was just terrific.
Johnny was terrific and is a nice gentleman. Martin Landau saw his role as a treasure and took it seriously. We all had that feeling that he was going to get an Oscar. Landau's own career had had some ups and downs, from being in the Actor's Studio and working with Hitchcock to working with the Harlem Globetrotters on 'Gilligan's Island'! He understood Bela really well.
Do you have any anecdotes from the shoot?
We basically filmed ED WOOD in a four block area in Hollywood Boulevard, and that's where Ed and a lot of his friends had lived. Because this was our first biopic, we didn't really contact any of the original people when writing the script. Eventually the lawyers had to in order to get clearances of course, but we didn't have a relationship with any of Ed's family or friends. Scott was on set one day and a production assistant came over and said "There's a woman over there by the bus stop who said she was walking home with her groceries and saw our signs. She told me she used to be married to Ed Wood. " The woman was walking off and Scott asked the PA what her name was. The PA told him she said it was Kathy Wood, Patricia Arquette's character in the film.
Scott quickly ran after her, and they got talking. Kathy asked if she could meet Johnny. Scott assured her it would be okay and they walked to his trailer. As they got there, Scott realised that Johnny was about to shoot the scene where Ed meets Orson Welles whilst at his most extreme, in full drag with smeared make-up. Scott went in the trailer to speak to Johnny, and Johnny was like "I really want to meet her but if she sees me like this she is going to think we're making fun of Ed. This is a terrible way to meet for the first time. " Finally Tim called for the cast and Johnny had no choice but to leave the trailer. When she saw him she looked up at him and said "You look just like my Eddie!" Kathy actually went home and brought back Ed's wallet and gave it to Johnny. So for the rest of the shoot Johnny had Ed's wallet and ID on him at all times.
Did you have any creative disagreements with Burton?
No, I'm pretty happy with the film. Looking back now, if there is a weakness in the film, it's a weakness in Ed's life - there was too much fund-raising! But that's not necessarily Tim's or our fault, it's just what the film ended up being. If I was to do the film again now, I would try to figure how to take out three minutes from the fund-raising section of the movie, but that's about it.
Why did Tim decide to film in black-and-white?
We were doing camera tests for Rick Baker's make-up on Martin Landau, and no matter how much make-up we put on him, he looked hardy. We were looking for which angle Landau looked most like Lugosi and of course the monitor was in colour. We had never even seen a colour picture of Lugosi. At one point, the cinematographer Stefan Czapsky walked up and switched the monitor to black-and-white, and it was like "Bingo!". Everything just clicked.
Columbia was against filming in black-and-white, and tried to convince Tim to film the movie in colour and change it to black-and-white later. Tim felt he would get screwed over if he did that and would be talked out of his decision, so he stuck to his guns.
How worried were you when Columbia put the film into turn-around because Tim stuck to his guns?
I don't remember being worried. I don't think we felt that it wasn't going to happen. We were confident that another studio was going to step in. I would be worried today! I will always remember the headline in Variety when Mark Canton put the stops on the film - "Canton Chops Wood!".
When Tim decided the only way to do it was in black-and-white, we knew it was going to be commercially challenged. Another memory I have is of calling my sister in Indiana and telling her the film was going to be in black-and-white. She replied "I am so sorry"! It was as if I was telling her it was going to be a porn film or something!
We were lucky that Tim was producing THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) at Disney, and they wanted to create a home for him there. ED WOOD was produced under their Touchstone Pictures label.
What do you think the film being in black-and-white brings to the movie?
Well, it is a form and content thing. It really feels like an Ed Wood movie. We showed it a few years ago at the American Cinematheque and it was an old print that was crappy and scratchy and full of jumps and splices. As opposed to being upset by this, I was very intrigued because it really felt like an Ed Wood movie! It was kind of like the effect Tarantino was going for with GRINDHOUSE (2007)!
It's a gorgeous looking movie and scenes like Ed watching Bela's last footage in the screening room are touching. Stefan Czapsky really did a great job.
How did you feel about the reception the film got?
Critically, I couldn't have asked for anything better. It played at The New York Film Festival and Cannes, it was one of the best reviewed films of the year, it won two Academy Awards, and Landau won about every award you can imagine. It totally put us on the map.
It was a drag that people didn't come out to see the film, and the film was not a financial success. It was the reverse situation to PROBLEM CHILD - that was a commercial success that I never get stopped on the street to talk about or have people writing to me about. This was a flop that people still want to talk to me about. Over time it has become a classic to many people.
Because of the heat we got off of ED WOOD, we managed to get THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT made. We knew we had a very brief window in which we could get another film made within the studio system about an odd, strange figure, and we chose Flynt because we were intrigued by his court case when we were in University. We realised that ED WOOD got made because it landed with the one filmmaker it made sense with, and so we went the same route with FLYNT. We went to Oliver Stone because he was a political filmmaker who was unafraid of taking on controversial or odd topics. Oliver eventually made NIXON (1995) instead and the film ended up being directed by Milos Forman, who had a real affinity with the material and did an incredible job. The film was a bigger movie and had more ups and downs than ED WOOD, but it was another example of people feeling blessed to be working on a great project.
I think ED WOOD, THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT, MAN ON THE MOON (1999) and AUTO FOCUS (2002, which we produced) form a loose quartet of 'anti-biopics'. We are proud of them and there really aren't any movies out there quite like them.
Larry was interviewed by phone on 12th June 2012. I would like to thank him for his generosity and candour.