“From the time I first interviewed actor Ken Tobey in 1978, I wanted to do a send-up of ‘50s sci-fi monster films. I told him, ‘One of these days, I want to make a movie where you’re an old military guy, and some punk comes up with a way to kill the monster, and you say, “Son, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been fighting monsters since before you were born.”’ He smiled and said, sure.
“I’d always loved Tobey’s work. Whirlybirds was one of my favourite shows, and I’ve got this wonderful prenatal connection to The Thing - my mom and dad went to see it in Portland, Oregon before I was born - hell, I think it was before I was conceived. And they remember at one point, a big guy, a seven-foot giant, rose up from his seat and walked up to get popcorn. Everybody screamed. I’m sure it was a plan, a William Castle type ballyhoo gag.
“I wrote at least three or four variations on the script over the next few years, the constants being setting at least some of the story in the desert a la Jack Arnold’s films, the other being Tobey as a grumpy old Patrick Hendry. I know now that all of those scripts were flawed (the same could be said for the final film, I suppose), but the central idea never radically changed. It was going to be Airplane meets Godzilla. On an Ed Wood budget. And there’d be a grumpy, retired monster-fighter.
“I put together a reunion of The Thing in 1982 because the remake was coming out. There was a screening at the Fox Theater in Venice, California, and we had Ken there, and Robert Cornthwaite, Bill Self, Chris Nyby (who flew in from Hawaii for it), George Fenneman, several of the tech crew guys, and the husband of Margaret Sheridan and their two daughters. Maggie had died about three months earlier.
“In 1984, a guy bet me I couldn’t do a movie for $2,500. I hauled out the old scripts, took gags and lines, and did 25 page script, which condensed things to manageable size. That version of the project was designed as a half-hour short which could be shot in about four weekends (plus the time for effects). On that basis, I asked Wayne Berwick to direct it, since I was ‘producing’ (I put it in quotes, because I never saw myself as a cigar-chomping William Castle type) and had drawn the storyboards for both the live action and effects shots. I had enough to do. I also wanted to snare actors Les Tremayne and John Harmon, who were close friends with the Berwick family. Wayne’s dad Irv had been one of my teachers (Irv made Monster of Piedras Blancas), and I thought the request would be stronger if it came with that pedigree. And Wayne had done things I hadn’t, like actually directing a feature (Microwave Massacre) and a neat little short called The Shooter. Both of those were a lot slicker than any little films I’d ever done, and he’s great on a personal and technical level.
“I rewrote the female lead with references to Brinke Stevens in mind, and I knew she’d begun a career in marine biology before modelling and acting. For the early drafts I had my pal Ron Wilson in mind as a deputy sheriff, a sort of comic-relief character, which you probably don’t need in a comedy, but what the hell. Knowing his enthusiasm and improv comedy talent - and his availability - I rewrote the script with him as the male lead, the handsome, stalwart sheriff instead. The Rex Reason part, or Charles McGraw. The gag being that Ron looks nothing like that. The third corner of the triangle was a Richard Carlson investigator who thinks he’s 007-cool. I asked John Goodwin, ‘Do you want to be in a monster movie with Kenneth Tobey?’ That was all it took.
“So within the original parameters, what we started to do could’ve been shot in about eight or nine days, so, three or four weekends, over the summer of 1984.
“Originally, the idea was to do a film that would visually emulate something you’d see at 3.00am on a UHF channel: black and white, scratched, grainy, muddy sound. We shot on Super-8 film stock, primarily for cheapness (16mm would’ve cost about four times as much), but also because the image would roughly match the grainy, dupey 16mm stock footage. I killed the colour-burst on the videotape early on, though our film footage (except for the effects shots) was on colour stock. I never wanted to shoot on tape, since it would have looked like tape, not film.
“My then-partner John Brancato and I got a job writing Spider-Man for Cannon. During that time, Cannon announced a project called It Ate Cleveland, which was the same spoof concept, but it had nothing to do with our film; no one had seen it. I did discuss our project with one of the execs there, trying to convince them that ours would be funnier, or at least get better press because of the cast (a la Cannon’s House of Long Shadows). I didn’t think their script was funny, but I knew the market for giant-monster spoofs was slim, and if they did one, ours would be dead in the water. As it turned out, they didn’t do theirs, of course. And naturally, I poured my Spider-Man money back into finishing our monster movie.
“Overall, there were about 18 days of shooting, though a lot of those were days in which we’d shoot for two hours then quit. The animation effects took about four or five months. That version was essentially finished in late 1984. We had the first screening at a now-gone place in West Hollywood called EZTV. Agar was there, Robert Shayne, and about forty people. Shayne was in his eighties, nearly blind and hard of hearing, sitting right in front. About a half-hour into it, he turned to his wife Betty and said (loudly enough for everyone to hear), ‘Is there a plot to this?!?!’ That got a laugh, and it should have told me something. But we got laughs at the right places, and people clapped and cheered when the boys helped Ken Tobey on with his old monster-fighting suit. As far as that version of the concept, it was finished.
“In the wake of that was: ‘Okay, what now?’ We were all jazzed that this could be a ‘real’ movie, that we could pitch it to a company and do it on some sort of real budget, with 35mm film instead of Super-8, real crowds instead of stock shots, and so on. I sent a few copies out and got nice reactions. Leonard Maltin wrote back an encouraging letter (from which I pulled a quote for our box years later). Joe Dante got a kick out of it and said, ‘You ought to cut it down to 20 minutes and send it out on video.’ That hurt, because it indicated it was too long (and he was right). Joe, as you know, later did the same sort of film within Matinee, using Bob Cornthwaite as a scientist.
“Off and on, we pitched a professional remake of it to several places, with near-success, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath us each time. Soon after the one-hour version was finished, we had a very ‘up’ meeting at CAA, one of the hottest agencies in Hollywood, with a fledgling agent named Richard Lovette, who went on to be the company president. He wanted to package us and the project with one or the other of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker boys from Airplane, who were going their three separate ways. He asked how soon I could deliver a feature-length script and I - foolishly - said, ‘Two weeks.’ I should have said six, or eight, or whatever. But I hurriedly did an expanded script based on the material we had, and frankly, it wasn’t very good as a script. Lots of gags, but not a lot of plot or character.
“A while later we pitched it at New World, which would have been perfect. The executive we dealt with, Tony Randell, was the guy who thought of using Raymond Burr in Godzilla 1985, and Tony got the jokes. The production head was Steve White, a brilliant, funny guy, who in fact was an old mate of Ron Wilson’s back in their improv comedy days. And it was going to happen - except that another executive at New World, Margaret Lescher, thought a sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes would be a better shot. They did that instead, and from many aspects, she was right. That was a funny movie, and spun off into a profitable TV show for them. Pissed us off, though.
“We were about to make it at Trans World, where the script coverage (the classified in-house synopsis and analysis) was very positive. Their head of production was Paul Mason, who also got the jokes. His first gig was writing the script for the US inserts for King Kong Vs Godzilla. Paul was receptive, and among other things, suggested Marie Windsor for a role, which was right in line with my thinking. Instead, Trans World did Killer Klowns from Outer Space. You notice a pattern here?
“There was a producer who’d worked with Crown International, Mike Castle, who had me and John Brancato rewrite the script. I don’t know how serious he was in pitching it. Via Mike, there was yet another producer, an older guy named Vernon Becker, whose most notable credit was Dagmar’s Hot Pants for AIP, and Nocturna, which… well. He thought it would be a perfect vehicle for Don Ameche as the old monster fighter. ‘He’s the right age, and he just won the Academy Award!’ I felt he was unclear on the concept. The point wasn’t that the character was old, the point was people like Ken Tobey would bring the same air of verisimilitude to the project as John Wayne brought to The Shootist.
"Another pair of guys pushed it for a while, Bill Blaylock and Peter Rae, who had made Grandview USA with Jamie Lee Curtis, which was a terrific little film. Again, I rewrote the script to incorporate their suggestions, we cut a promo trailer from the footage we had - and again this went nowhere. And Luigi Cingolani, the guy who produced Spaced Invaders, had it for a while, wanting to do the monster effects in CGI, which was just then coming to the fore. I thought that was way too high tech for the concept and by that time I didn’t want to rewrite the script for the tenth time. He hired a young guy named Robert Coffee to do a rewrite. He’d done uncredited work on a Troma film, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD. He came up with some funny gags, but off-point as far as I was concerned. And that went nowhere. I didn’t end up using anything Robert added, but he was a nice guy. I later suggested him as a writer and he got a magazine gig or two.”
In choosing the footage from films and trailers, did you know what you wanted and where to find it, or did you ‘browse’ movies looking for clips that could be used in some way?
“I knew that most pre-1978 trailers and a lot of older features were in the public domain, and figured this would be the only way to get some ‘scope’ to what was otherwise a little backyard film. A friend of mind, Eric Hoffman, had a collection of about five or six hours’ worth of 16mm monster trailers, and I borrowed them all and transferred them to tape, figuring how to use it in conjunction with new live action or effects shots. Some of the stuff was generic, like crowds fleeing or things exploding, but the best stuff was specific action which indicated possible funny variations. For instance, there’s a bit in the Gorgo trailer where the ranting religious nut with a signboard gets trampled by the crowd. Okay, a line of voiceover and it becomes: ‘Scientology! Scientology! Get your free personality test - Aaaggghhh!’
"Likewise the crowd fleeing over the bridge in Reptilicus. We did a shot of Ron as the sheriff calmly directing the frightened crowd in the correct screen direction, right to left, to match the stock shot, and set up the gag with one line of dialogue (‘Stay calm! Everybody! Over the bridge!’). In that shot, by the way, I’m one of two guys running in the background carrying a sofa. We shot that in an alley behind the effects guy’s house, and someone had thrown the couch away. It just struck me as goofy that two guys in a crowd would take the time to steal furniture at a time like that. There was a lot of military footage from the 1950s, which was designed to be in the public domain from get-go. So a lot of our fleeing crowds, the atomic bomb, cannons, tanks, was courtesy of the US Government.
“The good part about shooting in black and white was that the stock footage became slightly less obvious, but only slightly. That changed in The Naked Monster, of course, since we were dealing with colour. Abe Lim, who was the colourist and a good film maker in his own right - he made the film Roads and Bridges - did a yeoman job balancing the 10,000 different colours and film stocks. I don’t know that the haphazard mismatching of types of stock shots would work in any other type of film. Here, at least, there was a precedent. Stock footage from that era is usually incredibly obvious, like in Invaders from Mars and Plan 9.
“I went overboard, the equivalent of over-writing with imagery. I’d see a stock shot and then ask the effects guy to do a monster-turn to match it, often, with no particular funny thing in mind, just more destruction. While we were editing, it was Ron Wilson’s comment that got me back on track. He said, ‘It’s not funny. It’s just the monster knocking over another building.’ So at that stage - late 1984 - we cut the running time down by about 15 insufferable minutes.”
By the same token, how did you know when the film was finished? Were there intermediate cuts produced during those decades that you weren’t happy with?
“For kicks, about 1992, I slop-edited a version of the old show together using the original colour footage, although the FX shots were still in black and white. I wanted to see if it looked any good. That stuff was from a VHS copy done at a photo store, and looked dreadful. And by the time I dealt with Cingolani’s company, Cinergi, I felt like I was letting myself fall in love with the same woman over and over again, Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. Every time, every damned time. Never again. I just tried to put the project out of my head and moved onto other things. By then I had a stock footage business, I was doing documentaries like 100 Years of Horror and Flesh and Blood, and I needed to move on. Several of the older actors had died, like Bob Shayne and John Harmon, which was disheartening. Ken Tobey was 67 in ’84 when we shot his footage and his back was already in bad shape. By 1994, he was using a walker. So shooting a remake was just impossible, at least with the cast I wanted - my original cast. I considered trying to colourise the animation shots, but by then the effects guy and I weren’t talking, and getting him to generate new footage was as much out of the question as paying $5,000 a minute to colourise old Super-8 black and white film.
“I drove by a place called Super-8-Sound every day on the way to work, and stopped in one afternoon. I saw a sample reel of stuff they’d done, transferring Super-8 film to tape on a high-end Rank Telecine apparatus. It looked great, as good as 16mm, so I decided to re-transfer all of the old footage. I already had the heart of a movie in the original footage, and the cast of veteran character actors I wanted. I had the notion to reunite the three principals for some new scenes, and I’d shoot all-new effects. I’d spent several thousand dollars on the transfer, and additional dough on toys and props and miniatures, having gotten all three to shoot for a week at SAG low-budget scale. As it turned out, my pals Ron and John abruptly decided they were busy after committing to it. Brinke stuck with her word, and I rewrote the new material around her character. Other gags that I’d envisioned giving to Ron and John’s characters, I just did with two anonymous guys (most of which I ended cutting out, anyway.)
“I paid JR Bookwalter a small chunk of change for the use of editing facilities, long enough to sync all the sound back up to the BetaSP video masters. Every goddamned line had to be individually placed, since we recorded with a separate audio recorder (or, later, a video camera) and it never, ever stayed in sync with the film image. Even know, there are plenty of places where the sync is a little wonky.
“Editing was always going to be a problem, because I didn’t have the equipment. I slop-edited the VHS copies together at home, but that’s problematic. This was before you could buy cheap editing systems. But when my friend Dave DeCoteau introduced me to Charlie Band and I started working for him; that gave me access to their editing system, which was absolutely first rate, high end, and cost nothing. I did a lot of the effects there myself, through trial and error. The errors are usually apparently in the final film. Given that a system like that usually rents for about $200 or $300 an hour and I worked on the movie for months, I got quite a deal.
There must have been some dark nights of the soul when you thought the thing would never be complete. How did you overcome these?
“There’s a big, famous mansion in central California built over a period of several decades in the 19th century. The sole heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune, a dotty old lady, was told by her spirit guides that all the souls of all the Indians killed by bullets from Winchester repeating rifles were uneasy, and would come and get her and kill her when she finished building her mansion, since her family fortune was tainted with their blood. Being a sensible soul, she figured out a way around this by never finishing the house. She had contractors, carpenters, designers and plumbers work on it continuously, adding wings, adding floors, putting in hallways and doors that led to nowhere, as long as they kept building. It’s a crazy tourist site. They call it the Winchester House of Mystery.
“When I started shooting again in 1994, Brinke dubbed it the Winchester Video of Mystery. ‘As long as Ted keeps shooting, he’ll never die.’
“The biggest series of disappointments was during the time we were pitching it and then getting let down. I’d go through times when I was flush and spend money on it, then slow down to a crawl when I was low on cash and needed to move on, then come back up to speed when more money would roll in, but after I made the decision in ’94 to use what we had, I never had any real downs, just some patience severely tried.
“Had we ever been able to do it with any sort of budget, I would not have had to do most everything myself: the camerawork, the budgeting, supervising the transfer, making the effects, editing, and so on. That was trying, because there’s only one of me.”
What aspects of the film have changed the most over the course of its epic production?
“It’s in colour, for one thing. Some people say it was ‘funnier’ in black and white, like Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. I came to the conclusion that b/w would work against it in the marketplace - if it ever got there - and that it’s a comedy first, a tribute to the period second. The music is changed; now it’s almost all from the Ronald Stein Perma Music library, with which I was associated with for a couple years. And I had a wonderful sound mixer, Maui Holcomb, who did the best anyone could do with the audio.
“The length changed, of course. I ended up with a film I thought I was happy with, at 100 minutes. After a screening in Boston, that changed. Now it’s 86, and that’s closer to the mark. It’s still too long for some people, and others loved it at 100 minutes.
“The effects changed, obviously. Although they’re certainly dorky, they’re a lot more sophisticated than the original stop-motion, primarily because I was dealing with video imagery and could do split-screens, mattes, and so on. There’s more interaction between the monster and the rest of the world - he picks a guy up like Konga did with Michael Gough, there are shots with him and a real background and a foreground miniature, I could key-in fire and explosions, and so on. We were limited on the first version by the medium. I did do some simple double-exposures with the Super-8 version, explosions, smoke, and so on, but you couldn’t really manipulate the images that much. And I did have fun making my own rubber monster suit. I aspired to the level of expertise seen in a typical Bert I Gordon movie. If you set your sights low enough...
“I need to tell you this silly thing. When we first started, Cathy Cahn (who played the sheriff’s secretary) asked me, ‘How are you going to do these monster effects?’ Little me, oblivious to the idea that not everyone was immersed in fanboy sci-fi movie tech talk, launched into an explanation, ‘Well, we’re considering stop motion, since it would be right for the period we’re spoofing, but I’m leaning more to a man in a suit, since we can generate footage faster.’ And she looked at me like I had two heads. ‘Is that going to be scary?’ ‘Well, of course, since it’s a comedy, we have some leeway, but if we use a man in a suit, we can do perspective shots and can use bigger models, and we won’t have to create miniature sets, so a man in a suit is probably the best.’ And she just shook her head, with this incredibly blank, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ look on her face. Finally I got it. When I said, ‘man in a suit,’ she was visualising some giant guy in a suit and tie running amok. The Amazing Colossal Businessman. Which was pretty funny.”
Was there anyone or anything you were hoping to include in the film which you weren’t able to use?
“I’d called Jeff Morrow when I was first coming up with gags and cameos for the script. He demurred pleasantly, since it was a non-union project. In any case, at that time in his life he had a grandfatherly beard, and I’m not sure anyone would have recognised him. Whit Bissell was another. I sat down with him and had a pleasant conversation of about an hour at his home, but he didn’t feel he was physically up for acting in anything. Forry Ackerman had suggested Ann Robinson, who was a doll and I did use her, but he also suggested Susan Cabot, whom I never contacted. My rationale was, she was never in a giant monster movie; maybe next time. That was too bad for me, because I would have gotten to meet her before her son bludgeoned her to death. Ah, me. Later on during the reshoot, I came up with scenes for Kevin McCarthy, and had Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze in mind for two soldiers on the patrol in the woods to hunt for the monster. Miller was ill at the time and I really didn’t think Seymour Krelboin without Walter Paisley was that big a draw, not that Jonathan Haze isn’t a nice guy, which he is. But I didn’t need it for the story. Out it went, but it’s in the supplemental material. There was a silly sight gag I wanted to do, which of course had little to do with anything - the monster steps on the empty flatbed of a truck and skids, then careens down the street like a skateboarder, then wipes out.
“The ‘big budget’ version also had a completely different ending. The A-bomb is used in the same way electricity is used in the film as it is; it doesn’t kill the monster, they just think it’s dead. I came up with an idea (John Goodwin made the initial suggestion) that Colonel Hendry should have a secret weapon he’s been hiding all these years, a Jules Verne type device. I dubbed it the X-112, after some over-the-counter nicotine-based speed we used to buy in the Army in Germany, when funds ran low at the end of the month and you couldn’t afford real drugs. Hendry and the boys take this leaky, delta-winged, flying thing and fight the monster, snaring him with a net and flying to a nearby volcano. He ejects the boys and flies himself, the X-112 and the monster into the volcano - ka-boom. Everyone stands around the airfield at night, sad, eulogising him (although General Mann keeps forgetting his name). Listen to the second half of the This Island Earth track on the old Dick Jacobs album Themes from Horror Movies and you can here the music that inspired the last scene. You’ll ‘hear’ the scene where Hendry’s X-112 suddenly comes into view. He’s not dead after all. He did the impossible. Of course. Hendry’s still alive.
“But enough was enough, or too much, according to some people.”
What were the differences and similarities between making this film and making one of the documentaries for which you are better known?
“The monster movie predated all of the clip shows I did. In fact my first compilation show, Monsters and Maniacs, came out of those Eric Hoffman 16mm trailer reels, along with a one-hour reel of Hammer stuff I got from Bill Longen of Trailers on Tape. And Brinke’s the hostess, with Ron Wilson as a masked killer in one sketch.
“Work-wise, it’s pretty much the same procedure. You look at the existing footage, put your thinking cap on, and figure out ways it should cut together, and what you need for interstitial material. (A great word, that. It means ‘between the stitches.’ I never knew that until I had to call the Turner headquarters for some clips, and they said ‘You have to talk to the Interstitial Department.’ I thought it was a surgery clinic.)
“I did a couple of patchwork jobs for Fred Ray (who’s a great guy, and I really should have had him in my movie, in the place of... well...), The Alien Within and bits of Fatal Justice. Same deal - look at what’s there, figure out what’s the most time-effective and cost-effective way of linking scenes, shoot it and cut it together.
How has The Naked Monster been received by audiences and critics?
“Most of the reactions have been very nice, very favourable. They get the jokes: Washington Post, DVD Talk, DVD Savant, Journal Now, CD Universe, IMDB, Green Briar Picture Shows.
“The major exception was a marathon sci-fi fest they had in Boston. A guy had seen it in a festival in Seattle and they actually requested it - then scheduled it for 1.30 in the morning, about 10 hours into an all-weekend marathon. The reactions on their website were about 90 per cent excoriating. Too long, cheap, stupid, unfunny, waste of time, unwatchable, and essentially, I was damned for wasting their valuable time. I thought, ‘Jeeze, I made this for sci-fi fans, and these people hated it. It’s got to be shorter.’ More than any personal worry I had about the length, that was the clincher. They’d run it in the annual Manchester fest, too, but again, it was a late-evening thing, 10 or 11 at night, and most everyone was apparently bagged or half-asleep, not exactly the best way to watch a comedy.”
What precisely does Ted Newsom do? Actor? Director? Editor? Have you got any sort of career path?
“I always figured I’d start acting again in my ‘middle age,’ since I was never a leading man type, and too young to be a character actor. I like it - no heavy lifting, no worries except hitting your marks (!) and remembering the dialogue. I had a blast playing a serial killer for Ron Ford in Dead Season, and have done three films for Fred Olen Ray just this year: head of the MIB, an English bobby, and a Cushing/Price style witchfinder, all in bikini comedies. And last year I started shooting a film with Brinke Stevens I call Idle Pursuits, a screwball romantic comedy aboard a ship, with elements of Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve. She plays a double role, and is as sweet and nerdy and sexy and nasty as I’ve ever seen her. I figured, I wouldn’t get a lot of chances from other people to play Cary Grant (in horn-rim glasses), so I’d better do it myself.
“I’m working on a Sinbad script with Ray Harryhausen, and that’s taking a long time; he lives there, I live here. I re-narrated the series Victory at Sea recently, which was a gas. It’s a brilliant show.
“Career path? It twists and turns. I thought I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: make monster movies. Now that I’ve done it a number of times, a number of ways, it’s not enough. Now I’m not sure what I want to do when I grow up.”
“I always liked telling stories one way or the other. I drew when I was a kid; taught myself how to read, essentially, by reading comics. Loved movies and realised that that might be a neat thing to do when I grew up. Dabbled in theatre in my teens and twenties, off and on since. Moved to California with my dad when I was about 23, because, y’know, they don’t make a lot of movies in Portland, Oregon. Or Reno, Nevada. Had no relatives in the industry, which was a drawback. Got married, started writing for newspapers and magazines, became a magazine editor for a couple years, then I partnered with John Brancato, convinced him we should write movies, and started back on the road to perdition. Got divorced, got sober.”
Finally, what are your memories of making Flesh and Blood, the Hammer documentary which was Peter Cushing’s final credit?
“That, surely, is another story, for another time. I’ll say this, though: I’m re-editing the show for UK distribution even now. And as long as I keep working on it, I’ll never die.”