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, lacing them with poignant drama, quirky humor and insightful characterisations. I talked with Larry about the first biopic he co-authored with Scott Alexander, 1994's ED WOOD (1994), directed by Tim Burton. In the second part of our interview we spoke about the casting of the movie, Tim Burton's creative relationship with Johnny Depp, the decision to make the film in black-and-white, the mood on set, and the legacy of the film. 

Part one of the interview.

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. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.

No comments: