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Feature: What would Ed Wood do?

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Oct. 27, 2004 at 6:36 PM
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- The new DVD release of the 1994 feature "Ed Wood" is drawing new attention to the man who is widely regarded as the worst movie director ever, and prompting the question -- what kind of filmmaker would Ed Wood be if he had access to all the digital equipment available today?

The movie -- the second collaboration between actor Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton -- featured a cast that included Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray and Martin Landau, who won the Best Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi. The screenplay was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who went on to write "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Man on the Moon."

From a production standpoint, it had everything going for it that Ed Wood could only dream of when he was making such memorably awful pictures as "Glen or Glenda," "One Million AC/DC" and "Plan 9 from Outer Space" -- which is almost universally derided as the worst film ever made.

Wood constantly labored under inhospitable conditions -- primarily a lack of funds to acquire the proper equipment or pay competent actors. Still, he made nearly four dozen movies before his death of heart failure at 54 in 1978.

In an interview with United Press International, Landau said Wood included so many oddball takes in his finished movies because he didn't have enough money to buy film stock -- just to buy unexposed ends that had been discarded by other filmmakers.

"Everything he did was on the fly," said Landau. "A car would come into the shot and miss the mark and half of it would be out of the frame, and he would say, 'That's OK, it's real.'"

Wood managed to come up with $1,000 to pay Lugosi for "Plan 9 from Outer Space," which turned out to be Lugosi's last movie -- if you can really call it Lugosi's movie. The one-time horror-picture star shot a minimal amount of film for Wood before he died of a heart attack at 63 in 1956, but Wood carried on with "Plan 9," expecting audiences not to notice that an actor he was passing off as Lugosi bore very little resemblance to the star of the classic Universal Pictures "Dracula" movies.

"Ed Wood" recreates several of the scenes in "Plan 9," including one that probably illustrates as well as anything how far Lugosi had fallen -- the one where he wrestles with a foam-rubber fake monster in a pond in the middle of the night.

"We actually shot that in the exact spot where Ed Wood shot it in Griffith Park," said Landau. "It sounds crazy, but we were there all night."

Burton's company also, no doubt, had a proper permit from the City of Los Angeles -- an arrangement that Wood typically did not make for his location shoots.

"Ed Wood" avoided any temptation the filmmakers might have had to treat their subject as an object of derision. To be sure, he comes off as a comic figure -- but a central theme of the movie is Wood's love for his work and the unbounded optimism that motivated him.

Burton's movie -- and the performances of Depp and Landau in particular -- are informed by an obvious admiration for Wood and Lugosi.

"Kathy Wood, Ed Wood's last wife, came to the set and she came up to me with tears in her eyes," said Landau. "And she said it was just like Bela was there. She also loved Johnny. Johnny was wearing high heels and a blonde wig and an angora sweater when he met her, and he was terrified, but she said he was just like Ed."

Landau was nominated for two other Oscars -- for his performance as Abe Karatz in Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker," and for his work as Judah Rosenthal in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

He said the challenge of playing Lugosi was multiplied by the fact that, by 1994, audiences the world over had become more familiar than ever with Lugosi's screen persona due to the expansion of home video. That raised the stakes for him, as an actor, to disappear into the role.

"I told Tim (Burton), if the audience is saying, 'Landau's doing a good job five minutes or 10 minutes into this movie, we're dead,'" said Landau.

He also got immense help from Hollywood veteran Rick Baker, who won the Oscar for makeup with Ve Neill and Yolanda Toussieng. The DVD includes a feature, "Making Bela," about the Landau-Baker collaboration. It also includes a feature, "Pie Plates over Hollywood," about Tom Duffield's production design for "Ed Wood."

To be sure, Wood would not have been able to afford specialists of the caliber of Baker and Duffield. But if he had been able to make his films using the type of equipment that is commonplace today -- hand-held digital recording gear, ideally suited for his approach to filmmaking -- what might he have been able to accomplish?

"He would have made lousy movies better," said Landau.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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