Saturday, May 12, 2007

Interviews With Filmmakers No. 1: Don Glut

I've been getting requests to re-post an interview I did earlier this year with author/filmmaker Don Glut for the Universal Monster Army. (Previously I had posted a link to a site where you could download it.)

Mr. Glut's dvd release I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER was nominated for a 2006 Rondo award for Best Independent Film. He was inducted into the Rondo Hall Of Fame this year. It was a pleasure to interview him.

Photo: Don Glut with Paul Naschy.

Here's my conversation with Don (he insisted I not call him "Mr. Glut"):

I've always treasured your book THE FRANKENSTEIN LEGEND because I share your fascination with all things Frankenstein. What themes of the book (and movies based on it) still capture your interest?

"I too love just about anything having to do with the Frankenstein theme. And Mary Shelley’s theme of a father rejecting his child because of some physical flaw (the Monster was ugly) and then denying that child’s only desire (a mate) is certainly a powerful one. But unlike the theme that seems to capture the interest of most Frankenstein fans, I was not drawn to that story because I identified with the Monster. Some years back, the BBC interviewed me for some Frankenstein radio or TV special they were doing and tried prompting me to explain why I, ‘like everyone else,’ identified with the Monster. I kept struggling to come up with an answer and was ready to parrot the 'standard' answer - that, like we are, especially during adolescence, the Monster was misunderstood, awkward like teenagers are supposed to be, etc. Then it finally hit me. No, I identified with Victor, because he was the guy who was creating things, accomplishing things, getting things done."

Your research on FRANKENSTEIN has been prodigious. Have you ever written an article for an academic journal on the subject, or wanted to?

"No, I never have. My nonfiction writing - except for some of the writing I’ve done on dinosaurs - has been basically popular, not academic. In fact, I’ve read some academic works on the Frankenstein subject and, when I am cited, it’s usually not in any complimentary way. Guess I’m not high-brow enough (although Universal’s Frankenstein Monster did have a very `high brow’)."

When I was a kid, I used to read comics penned by you (mainly DR. SPEKTOR). I know that as a kid, you liked the work of Dick Briefer (FRANKENSTEIN) and Al Feldstein (EC Comics). What other comic book artists or writers from your youth still interest or influence you?

"I’m a huge fan of Joe Kubert’s work, especially his early 1950s TOR, about a caveman hero with noble ideals, living in a violent prehistoric world. I think TOR is still my all-time favorite comic-book series and Joe my favorite comics artist. TOR had a huge influence on my interest in things prehistoric and, along with the movie BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, really jump-started my life-long interest in paleontology. I wish TOR had had a longer lifespan. But it was, perhaps, a bit too far ahead of its time, a little off-mainstream, and then, of course, the Comics Code came in and we all know what happened after that to comic books deemed ‘too violent.’ Also, I was then and still am a big fan of Wayne Boring’s rendition of SUPERMAN, even though Boring did swipe some of his ‘classic’ Superman poses from Alex Raymond’s FLASH GORDON newspaper strip. And I really liked Jesse Marsh’s unfairly much maligned, Milton Caniff-inspired TARZAN, especially when he included dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters in his stories.

Like the members of the Universal Monster Army, you are a collector. What items do you prize most in your collection (and why), and what do you still hunt for?

"I don’t actively collect much anymore (except, unfortunately, bills). Most of my collection (as well as my home) consists of dinosaur-related items. But I suppose if I’d have to pick out a prized piece relating to your 'Army,' it would probably be my original one-sheet poster - the one with the big, front-on face of the Monster -- from THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, which I bought back in the late 1960s for a whopping two bucks. (It’s probably worth more today.)"

How have you been able to preserve all the props and costumes seen in your DVD release, I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER? (I know you've said your mom didn't discourage your interests, perhaps she was less likely to throw out your stuff than a lot of other moms!)

"Believe me, my Mom would have preferred it if I had, in fact, thrown out all that stuff, much of which - that robot from MONSTER RUMBLE is seven and a half feet tall when assembled! - still clutters up the basement of her home in Chicago (and also the attic of my California home). But I’ve always been a packrat and to this day have a hard time discarding anything, particularly when it relates to something I actually made or did. (I still have compositions, term papers, etc. I did from grammar school through college.) Now I’m glad I did save all those costumes and props, because they worked nicely, I think, into the I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER documentary. Something to show in addition to just another shot of my 'talking head.' Indeed, some of that DVD’s reviewers were both amazed and amused that I still had all of those items, which gave them something else interesting to discuss and even chuckle about in their reviews. But you only saw about half of the props and so forth that we actually shot for that documentary. I’d keep bringing up one thing after another - a fake gun, a prop `gas bomb,’ a toy rocket ship, whatever - but it got to be really 'too much.' That documentary, at an hour and 45 minutes, may be too long as it is. The original cut, which included most of those saved items, was about two and a half hours long! My editor Dan Golden, a fine movie director in his own right, kept joking that if we didn’t cut the documentary down we’d end up with a mini-series."

"I Was A Teenage Movie Maker" has been described as "a vanity project" and "pure monster kid comfort food". How would you describe it?

"Probably as both. With me having been described (including by myself) as a `shameless self- promoter,’ it certainly is “a vanity project” considering that it’s all about me, which no doubt went against the grain of a number of viewers. But then, aren’t some of the other recent (and somewhat-related) DVDs also `vanity projects’? Given their nature, and that they’re often about a single individual, how can they be anything else? The fact is that for decades, now, people have been after me to put those old home movies out on video or DVD. There was interest in those films because people had read about them in the monster magazines and elsewhere all these years but not seen them. Naturally they were curious; I’d have been curious, too, just was I was when reading about the movies made by other amateur film-makers. I wanted to see their films, too, and did so whenever I got the chance - which is why I’d so grateful for such recent DVDs as MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES and THE SCI-FI BOYS. So, vanity or not, I finally decided to satisfy the request of people who wanted to see them, even though most of the films are, I admit, pretty awful and even incomprehensible without their explanatory commentary tracks. The time seemed right to put the DVD out when our company (Frontline Entertainment) did, as there currently seems to be as much interest in what it was like being a monster-movie fan back in the 1950s and ‘60s as there was back then in those movies themselves. Coming soon, by the way, will be I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE-MAKER: THE BOOK (McFarland), another `vanity project,’ which will supplement the information in the documentary (as well as correcting the many mistakes I’d made by not reading from a script). As far as being `pure monster kid comfort food,’ that ultimately has to be determined by other `monster kids.’But since my old amateur movie-making life had involved (and was influenced) by so much stuff that I felt other `monster kids’ would find of interest or could relate to (e.g., live spook shows, the SHOCK THEATRE phenomenon, FAMOUS MONSTERS and Forry Ackerman, Bob Burns, rock ‘n’ roll, just being a teenager, and so forth), I tried to include a lot of that kind of material in my presentation. I wanted to show how so many of those things were connected in some way and how they affected my life and primary hobby, making amateur movies, at the time.

You've said, "As a kid, I wanted to be all kinds of things - paleontologist, make-up artist, movie director, cartoonist, ventriloquist, magician...I got proficient in a lot of those things.." How have your skills in cartooning, ventriloquism, or magic been put to use in your films?

"I assume you’re talking about my amateur films. As for cartooning, I did all the drawing that was required in those movies - for some of the titles, the animated bat transformations, some of the superhero flying scenes, and so forth. Also, by eventually becoming a professional writer of comic book scripts, I learned how to tell a story - and think - in visual terms. That led to my writing scripts for TV animation shows where, again, one had to think visually, and write such highly detailed scripts (including all cuts, camera moves, etc.) that they were virtually directed by the writer on paper. Of course, that made my eventual direction of professional movies that much easier. Not much can be said for ventriloquism, except that when I ran my silent movies I often 'dubbed in' live some of the voices as the film ran through the projector. (Of course, then I made no attempt to keep my lips from moving, although today I can say “A bottle of beer” repeatedly without moving my lips.) Magician? I suppose any misdirection or tricks involved in the special effects could be described as putting magic to work. And that’s what French magician George Melies did back when he was making all those delightful trick films over a century ago. Now, my professional movies are all in sound, so there’s no need for off-screen dubbing…and I hire people to do the artwork and accomplish the screen 'magic.'"

How did you happen to meet Hollywood actors like Glenn Strange, Roy Barcroft, and Kenne Duncan, and get them to be in your amateur films?

"I met Glenn Strange through `Honorary Big Brother’ Bob Burns. Bob and his wife Kathy were like family to Glenn and his family. Glenn’s cousin Billy Strange, of Nancy Sinatra’s BOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKIN’ and THE MUNSTERS theme (the version recorded on the 45 rpm single) fame, was having a July 4th (1963) barbecue and Bob and Kathy were invited. As I had become kind of like family to Bob and Kathy, they took me along. Glenn was a very nice and friendly guy, so I just asked him - or maybe Bob asked him for me, I can’t recall exactly -- if he’d be in my amateur movie called THE ADVENTURES OF THE SPIRIT and he said he would. A day or so later, I think it was Bob who, at my request, asked Glenn if he’d play the Frankenstein Monster in that movie. Later, having recently seen the serial THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES on Chicago TV, I looked Roy Barcroft up in a San Fernando Valley telephone directory and found him listed. Having been impressed by his performance as the Purple Monster, I rang him up and invited him to a get-together that Bob was having at his home in honor of actors who’d played in the old movie serials. Glenn Strange was one of the guests. Roy invited his long-time friend Kenne, another veretan of PURPLE MONSTER, and they both showed up. As it turned out, Bob had already known Roy from years back. I was about to make my Superman student film for a USC cinema class, and I just asked them if they’d play crooks in it. Like Glenn, they said Yes. Great unpretentious guys, those actors who primarily did serials and B-Westerns -- and what stories they could tell about working for Republic, Universal, etc.!"

You've mentioned elsewhere your "hippy days". A lot of former hippies wound up doing a 180 degree turnaround when they got older! How are you still like your old hippy self, or have you become someone very different from that time?

"Hmmm…when I was going through my 'hippy' persona, I was still, despite the long hair, bell-bottoms, etc., carrying some baggage left over from my former, late 1950s `greaser’ JD persona. I think now I’m probably pretty much the same…part greaser and part hippy, only older, although my politics have changed somewhat in the conservative direction. And I no longer ride motorcycles. That part of my life unfortunately ended when California made it illegal to ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, a law I’m still against (don’t get me started here). But I still love playing rock ‘n’ roll!"

The rock music used in the films seen in I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER was written and performed by you, with titles like "Fangs, Fur and Fenders" and "Shock Hop". I enjoyed these very much. Are you into monster novelty records, (Zach, Bobby Pickett, Frankie Stein, etc.) or stuff like eerie surf rock, psychobilly (a/k/a shockabilly), or Goth rock?

"Thanks for noticing that the music was original, which many people who have watched that DVD didn’t seem to pick up on. Actually, all 12 songs, now available on a CD album from CD Baby, were written and performed by both David Price (with whom I played with during the late 1960s in a rock band called the Armadillo, an outgrowth of the Penny Arkade, hence the name Arkadillo) and me. I played bass guitar and keyboards (including the synthesized sax, etc.) on those songs. And I’m very glad you enjoyed the music. Yes, I like the monster novelty songs and also a lot of Goth music. In fact I’ve used a lot of the latter in my recent 'Countess Dracula' movies. With the original music done for MOVIE MAKER, Dave and I wanted to do songs that sounded like they actually might have been recorded back in the late 1950s to early 1960s by guys like Link Ray, Duane Eddy, Scotty Moore, and so forth. Our intent was to make the songs 'cool,' so an adult non-monster or non-Goth listener wouldn’t be embarrassed playing them at a party. Surf rock, by the way, whether eerie or not, I’ve always hated, with the exception of some Ventures songs and the legendary 'Surfin’ Bird.'"

You've written about age bias in the entertainment industry, and how that forced you into working as an independent film writer, director, and producer. As the Baby Boom ages and the median age goes up, how will that "ageism" be affected?

"With me, it was a combination of things, ageism being one of them. I was around 50 (an age when so many A-list directors have already retired, either voluntarily or the opposite) when I seriously started even thinking about directing a real movie. That was because the opportunity to direct what evolved into DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS was presented to me. Also, I’ve always been a rather 'independent' kind of guy, not a 'company man,' and I had no solidly established connections in the business. Age bias is very real in the movie and television industries. I have friends - younger than me -- who had directed blockbuster and Oscar-winning movies but now, because of their age (which they admit), are basically doing the same thing I’m doing…pounding the pavement trying to raise money for (hopefully) another project. I think there may still be a class action suit by SAG against the industry because of age bias. And the Writers Guild of America magazine has repeatedly warned it members, myself among them, not to list credits on their resumes that will reveal their age, if they’re older than, say, in their mid-30s. But also, this business is largely based on personal relationships…not what or even who you know, but who knows you. So many of the successful people in the industry got there because someone already there - a relative, a boyfriend, a spouse, a close friend - literally brought them in. Just watch the Oscar and Emmy awards on TV and see how many of the winners were literally born into the industry. I never had any such person, so for me it’s been a neverending uphill struggle and a lot of hustling and refusing ever to give up.”

You've said in one interview, "I even like it sometimes when I have to throw out five pages of script and improvise something on the spot because the sun is going down or a prop hasn't been made or an actor hasn't shown up." Can you give an example of this happening that was enjoyable for you?

"Saying `liking it’ may have been somewhat of an exaggeration, although it often happens for the best. One example, though it surely wasn’t enjoyable at the time, involved a scene DINOSAUR VALLEY GIRLS. I’d written a fairly involved scene, comprising quite a few pages and a good amount of gabbing, in which the hero was teaching these cavegirls how to use more modern weapons, a kind of training session scene. We had less than an hour to shoot it. After that, my first AD informed me, the sun would have set and we’d lose our light. At the end of that day we’d also lose our location. I had to think fast, sometimes working my best when under pressure. The options were somehow to get the scene shot before the sun went down, leave the scene out entirely, or try to raise more money to come back to the same location with the cast and crew on another day. There was only one reasonable thing to do. Stepping off to the side, I quickly read those pages and - thinking like a producer instead of a writer - realized that the scene could serve its purpose if I threw out most of the action and reduced the dialogue to two lines and a reaction smile. We got it with a minute or two of sunlight to spare. In retrospect, I think the scene as written would have gone on way too long anyway. I’m glad I was forced to condense the whole thing. At least that time I was glad!"

I found this quote by you: "I'm not trying to make films that will win awards or save the world." If I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER win the 2006 Rondo award for Best Independent Film, will you be pleased? What do you think people responded to that made them want to suggest your film for a Rondo?

"I would be utterly delighted and flattered if it won a Rondo, although it’s up against some stiff opposition. Winning a Rondo would mean that the project was enjoyed and appreciated by its intended audience, that it achieved its goal. Quite a few people, some of whom trashed it severely in reviews, simply weren’t among that audience and didn’t `get it.’ One reviewer just couldn’t understand why I’d put out such amateurish films or why anyone would want to see them. But by that quote I meant that winning awards, such as those given out at film festivals, is not among my primary reasons for making movies today. I make movies - not the old amateur ones -- for two basic reasons: You can make a lot of money making motion pictures. But perhaps, more importantly, making movies is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, my almost life-long passion. It’s rare when your “day job” is something you loved doing as a child, a hobby becoming a career, kind of like playing and getting paid for it. I can’t say why people respond in certain ways to specific things. However, what I tried to do with I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER, both in the documentary and also in showing all 41 of those films (the worst along with the best) -- and which I hoped viewers would respond to - was the fact that a kid who knew nothing about making movies could figure things out and learn along the way and achieve something. And with the proper encouragement and help from people like Bob Burns, and by never giving up, even so far-out a dream as making movie could certainly become reality. Already a number of people have told me that they found the project `inspirational.’ Indeed, if just one person would be inspired by my DVD, someone living in some remote part of the country with a dream and some talent, just one person who would pursue that dream, give it his or her best shot and then achieve their goal, that would give me a nice feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment."

Have you seen any of the other films nominated for a Rondo, and what comments do you have about them?

"If you mean in the category I’m in, I’ve seen a couple and am actually in at least one of them, THE SCI-FI BOYS. I think Paul Davids, who did an excellent job with his project, and I had slightly different approaches to our subject matter. Paul’s was technically certainly the superior production, while mine is still on the `home movie’ side. I wanted to keep that `home movie’ feel, going so far as using my original Premier Title Letters title-making set for my documentary’s opening credits. And I tried, by not working off a script and talking directly to the camera, that I was having a friendly and informal one-on-one chat with the viewer, leaving in flubs and mistakes. Paul’s show was largely about how Ray Harryhausen and Forry Ackerman inspired and influenced so many of us. I really wasn’t inspired by either of them per se, although I was inspired by Ray’s movies and Forry’s writing. At the time I didn’t really know how Ray’s effects were done and had not yet heard of stop motion animation. Forry’s magazine certainly gave me a forum to show-off my own work and get in contact with other fans. But I’d never even heard of Ray Harryhausen until that article appeared in FM stating how many times he’d seen KING KONG. In my case, I was inspired by the movies I’d seen in theatres and on TV and wanted to make my own versions of them, so I could show them at home on own projector and screen whenever I wanted to. Since Castle Films hadn’t yet put out their first science fiction title IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and there were no VCRs or DVDs yet, I had to figure out ways of making such movies myself. And remember, I started making amateur movies back in 1953, long before there was ever a FAMOUS MONSTERS, with its many articles revealing how special effects and monster make-ups were done."

You're a self-taught expert on dinosaurs. I was curious if you welcomed the trend of depicting dinosaurs as colorfully patterned as modern-day reptiles and amphibians, or prefer the old approach of making them one or two colors, and not so flashy.

"We’ll never really know what colors dinosaurs were, so I’m not against portraying them colorfully adorned. Modern reptiles, also mammals and birds, come in all kinds of colors and color patterns. However, one thing to remember is that very large animals, including reptiles like crocodilians, which are closely related to dinosaurs, and Komodo dragon lizards, which are more distantly related, tend not to be colorful. As predators, being very big and standing out like a rainbow, would make hunting prey more difficult than if those animals physically blended in with their environment. So, personally, I suspect that the more visually colorful dinosaurs were the smaller ones. But until a real dinosaur - not counting birds, which seem to be dinosaurs, albeit highly derived (or evolved) members of the group - walks up and lets us check out its color and color patterns, we can never know for sure."

Have you ever mixed dinosaurs with any of the classic monsters in any of your projects? And what's the latest news on your upcoming monster rally film, TEENAGE MONSTER RUMBLE?

"I did combine dinosaurs, other prehistoric creatures and even Tor (the name from the title of Joe Kubert’s comic book), my very own giant gorilla from my amateur films, with my favorite non-dinosaurian monster in the novel FRANKENSTEIN IN THE LOST WORLD, recently published (unfortunately, with zillions of typos) by Dennis Druktenis as part of my `New Adventures of Frankenstein’ series. Eventually, I do want to make TEENAGE MONSTER RUMBLE. But that film requires a much bigger budget than the recent movies I’ve been making. It’s set in 1959, therefore requiring vintage cars, motorcycles, etc., also clearances on records of the era that I want for the soundtrack (a la AMERICAN GRAFFITI), not to mention a whole gang of 1950s-style monsters. And it’s hard enough just raising the money to shoot the very low-budget movies I have been making without all those additional costs. Also, when I first wrote the script back in the late 1970s (it’s been revised many times since), I wrote Zacherly in as a character, hoping that John Zacherle would play himself, as did Wolfman Jack did in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. His character is still in the current version of the script. But don’t give up on this one, as I haven’t and won’t. As they say, all things come to the one who waits."

Man, I hope these questions don't suck!

"Not at all! And I certainly hope my answers don’t. But, in fact, you asked some really good, challenging and original questions (for a change). You can’t imagine how tired I am of being asked 1. why did I think the dinosaurs died out?, and 2. how did I get hired to write the novelization of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK?"

Thank you for your time, Don.

"And thank you, too. It’s been fun."

Right: A teenage Don Glut as Frankenstein's Monster.

Don Glut's website:

COMING SOON: An interview with writer/director/actor Mark Redfield!

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