Ed Wood

Buena Vista Pictures

With the popularity of films like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and Sharknado (now with a 2 behind it!), it seems that some people tend to like bad movies more than they like good ones. However, long before Tommy Wiseau or James Nguyen were directing films, and before Tara Reid was even born, there was a magical man named Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Even with his terrible sense of plot, sequence and cinematic structure, Ed Wood managed to give his own flavor to his films, culminating in the granddaddy of all bad movies: Plan 9 From Outer Space.

In 1994, Tim Burton directed Ed Wood, telling the story of the infamous director and how his friendship with horror movie legend Bela Lugosi helped breathe some life into both of their careers. The 2004 DVD release of the film includes a commentary with Burton, edited together with his filmmaking cohorts, which delivers a comprehensive look at the film’s creation.

It has been 55 years since the release of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and it’s been 20 years since the release of Ed Wood. Before Burton really hit the skids with movies like Planet of the Apes and Dark Shadows, here’s a brighter (even in black and white), more inspirational time in his career that we can all learn from.

Ed Wood (1994)

Commentators: Tim Burton (director), Martin Landau (actor), Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (writers), Stefan Czapsky (director of photography), Colleen Atwood (costume designer)

1. Because Tim Burton grew up near a cemetery in Burbank (which is where many of Ed Wood’s films were shot), he felt Wood’s movies looked more real to him.

2. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski met at a tribute to legendary horror movie producer Herschell Gordon Lewis.

3. Alexander was first introduced to Plan 9 From Outer Space by Michael and Harry Medved’s book which awarded the film the “Golden Turkey.” When he was in college, he put together a proposal for a documentary called The Man in the Angora Sweater, for which he wrote fake letters of endorsement from Vampira and Lyle Talbot.

4. Karaszewski was introduced to Ed Wood’s films at the drive-in, where he would get his divorced father to take him during his one-day-a-week custody. His father would fall asleep while Karaszewski watched cheesy movies all night. One of the films in rotation was Bride of the Monster.

5. Many of Wood’s films were picked up for distribution by smaller companies which quickly went out of business. This helped keep his films alive because if someone had a print, they could show it without paying royalties to a distributor.

6. In order to change their image, Alexander and Karaszewski developed this project after writing the Problem Child movies which had type cast them as kiddie film writers. They considered their hand in the Problem Child movies akin to Ed Wood making bad films as a stepping stone.

7. Originally, Michael Lehmann was set to direct after he fell in love with the script, which he related to after the studio and audience problems he had while making Hudson Hawk.

8. Tim Burton was originally only going to produce the film, but after reading the treatment, he wanted to direct. Alexander and Karaszewski wrote the script in six weeks so that Burton could sign on before he officially signed on to direct Mary Reilly.

9. The writers delivered their script to Burton on a Friday, and by Sunday, he agreed to direct the movie with no changes to the screenplay.

10. The final hurdle to get the film made as Burton wanted it was the decision to shoot in black and white. Burton was able to finally convince a reluctant Disney to let him do it during the screen tests for Rick Baker’s “Bela Lugosi” make-up for Martin Landau. Because there were no color photographs available for Lugosi, they didn’t know what color to make his eyes, and the consensus was the make-up wasn’t working quite right. While watching the dailies, Burton turned the color down on the monitor, the make-up looked perfect, and he got the go-ahead.

11. Stefan Czapsky’s only demand as director of photography was to process the black and white film at DuArt in New York City.

12. Burton purposely did not want to prepare too much for the movie, including shot planning or set-ups, because he wanted the spontaneous and less-polished look of an Ed Wood film for his Ed Wood film.

13. Landau was originally reluctant about the role, not just because he had to play a Hungarian, but because all the comedians he knew would do Bela Lugosi impressions. He did not want to play a caricature. He aimed his performance to be sad and funny at the same time without making fun of the iconic actor.

14. Landau watched the film Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla three times because he was fascinated that Lugosi would perform in such a terrible movie.

15. Instead of making a full biopic of Wood’s life from childhood to death, the writers wanted to focus solely on the Lugosi years, which they considered the heart of the picture. This is why movies like Jail Bait and The Violent Years, which were made during the time frame, are left out of the film.

16. The only notes Burton gave the writers on the treatment was to “be careful with the cross-dressing.” He did this not because he was afraid of people’s reaction to it, but rather he did not want it to become a farce or a joke. The writers called the film “a cry for tolerance” and didn’t want to sensationalize the cross-dressing by making a film like Some Like it Hot or The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert.

17. Johnny Depp borrowed slips to wear during pre-production to get used to wearing women’s clothes.

18. Many Lugosi purists – including his son and publisher Forrest J. Ackerman – were upset with Lugosi swearing about Boris Karloff. The writers took these instances from the book “A Nightmare in Ecstasy,” in which they admit there might have been some paraphrasing by John Andrews, who tended to swear a lot.

19. In the casting of Tor Johnson, the production invited anyone to send in a video tape audition. They received hundreds of tapes from fat, bald men.

20. George “The Animal” Steele played Tor Johnson more feral, and possibly with a mental deficiency. The real Tor Johnson, though known as a brute wrestler, did not have that public persona.

21. While much of the film is based on letters and recordings from and about Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, the more intimate moments were invented for the film. Specifically, these were the scenes about Lugosi’s drug addiction. Most of the letters and recordings talked about failed projects that they were trying to get off the ground.

22. The scene during which Lugosi blows his lines on TV was based on a real instance with Red Skelton. In real life, Lugosi was hard of hearing and often could not hear the lines leading into jokes and responses.

23. The shot of the studio audience in that scene is actually taken from the Plan 9 From Outer Space premiere at the end of the film. A few members of Wood’s crew can be seen in the shot.

24. Because he was poor, Lugosi took whatever job he could, including attending the premiere of House of Wax, even though he was not associated with the movie in any way.

25. The real Loretta King did, indeed, claim she was allergic to water.

26. One of the scenes cut from the production schedule involves Wood getting married after Dolores dumps him. He marries a girl he just met, and on their wedding night, Wood removes his tux to reveal that he’s wearing a bra. His new wife screams and runs off, ending the marriage. This scene was cut from production because the line producers were begging Burton and the writers to lose five pages. This was a “clean lift,” which meant they could remove it completely and not have to rewrite anything to make it work.

27. Ed Wood did, indeed, walk around set with a megaphone, even when it was not necessary.

28. Depp based optimistic performance of Wood on a mixture of Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

29. In the second Brown Derby scene, the real Gregory Walcott (who played the hero in Plan 9 From Outer Space) plays one of the potential investors standing next to Loretta King (Juliet Landau). He spent much of his career embarrassed by the original film, which he was involved in only because he sang in the Baptist church choir.

30. Burton’s favorite scene to shoot was the octopus shoot in Griffith Park because it mirrored the original shoot for Bride of the Monster. They shot the scene near where the original scene was shot; also Burton and Depp kept running up and down the hill to talk to the actors and the cinematographer.

31. The organist at the Bride of the Monster wrap party was Korla Pandit, a contemporary of Wood’s and an L.A. celebrity at the time the film takes place.

32. It is true that Wood lost his teeth in World War II while fighting the Japanese. He was hit in the face with the butt of a rifle.

33. According to the writers, Lugosi did try to talk Wood into a double suicide.

34. The house that appears in Plan 9 From Outer Space belonged to Tor Johnson, not Bela Lugosi.

35. The only line that Landau wanted to change was the one about him being the first celebrity to check into rehab. He did not want to say “rehab” because it was not a term used in the 1950s. So, he coughed during the line so it made sense but sounded like he was going to continue to say “rehabilitation.”

36. During production, Wood’s second wife Kathy Wood showed up as a bystander. The production learned this and invited her onto the set. She asked to meet Johnny Depp, who was in full drag with smeared make-up. When she met him, she said, “He looks just like my Eddie.”

37. Though known by many fans, it’s worth repeating that Lugosi did turn down the role of Frankenstein’s monster because he felt it wasn’t romantic enough. In regards to Dracula, he only played the character on screen twice — in 1931’s Dracula and 1949’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – yet is still tied inexorably to the role.

38. When Lisa Marie met Vampira for lunch in order to research her, Vampira showed Marie her underwear collection.

39. When Wood meets Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), Welles says that Universal is forcing him to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican. In reality, Heston was the one who got Welles the job of directing Touch of Evil.

40. The codas at the end of the film which told what happened to the different characters were not originally in the movie. They were added after the first test screening, and Howard Shore had to re-score the ending for the longer sequence.

Best in Commentary

  • Burton: “The badness of [Wood’s films] was also part of what made them special and good. It was the first thing that made you realize there was a razor’s edge between something that was good and bad.”
  • Landau: “I think of the word ‘fuck’ as a term of love.”
  • Alexander: “This is the one scene in the movie that’s pretty much complete baloney from start to finish.” (regarding the scene in which Wood meets Orson Welles in a bar)

Final Thoughts

While I will agree that Burton has not consistently made the best movies – especially recently – I cannot deny that Ed Wood is one of my favorites. As someone who loves bad movies, and has seen more of Wood’s filmography than I would recommend, it’s great to see a film made with such love.

Landau (or someone doing a good impression of him) introduces each commentator in the Bela Lugosi character. This helps make up for the Frankenstein nature of the commentary. However, I also forgive this technique of editing together multiple commentaries because we all know how thin a Burton-only commentary can be.

While many of the stories – from Lugosi turning down Frankenstein to the stealing of the octopus from Republic Pictures – are common knowledge, it’s cool to see them leak into the discussion over the film. If anything, watching this commentary has inspired me to re-watch Ed Wood as well as some of Burton’s better (or at least more tolerable) movies.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives


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