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.
Part two of the interview.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.