Saturday, July 28, 2007

Interviews with Filmmakers No. 3: Ted Newsom

In March 2007, I conducted an interview for the web message board UNIVERSAL MONSTER ARMY with film producer, screenwriter, and actor Ted Newsom. His film THE NAKED MONSTER had been nominated for "Best Independent Film". Here is the interview as presented at the UMA:

Last year, the (probably) last feature-length film to be shot on Super 8mm film was given a national dvd release. Titled THE NAKED MONSTER , it features a bevy-- no, a mega-bevy-- of monster movie stars. Writer, director and producer TED NEWSOM was interviewed by the UMA's lovable drunken severed head, Max Cheney. Here's what was said:

Hi, Ted. In an interview for the M.J. Simpson cult movie website, you mention that THE NAKED MONSTER began from an idea you had of using Kenneth Tobey. You saw him reprising his character from THE THING. (And you wanted to craft a story that called to mind the characters he played in other monster films.) You stated you always saw the project as "a send-up". Did you ever think of writing the story in a serious way, once Tobey was available?

"Early on when I started doing print interviews, I deliberately sought out heroes of mine, particularly sci-fi guys like Ken Tobey, John Agar, and so on. When it came to thinking about a project with them hypothetically, I'd slot them in while writing the parts. That was easy with regard to Ken, since his persona is pretty consistent in his 4 genre films.

"Agar had a bemused, very laid-back Mid-America feel about him, which was at odds with the intellectuals he often played, so writing stuff for that sort of character was fun. Cornthwaite's Dr. Carrington is a classic performance, so imagining what a guy like this would say at any given instance was easy. This was all in early, feature-length drafts. Then, since it was all hypothetical, I imagined it was a real movie, with the actors on the same sets as each other... as opposed to
the way we ended up doing it.

"I never saw this project, in any incarnation, as serious, really. Some drafts had more serious situations, mostly because if the script was properly done (and not born, in the words of Benjamin Franklin about the US, 'half-improvised and half-compromised'), then you really do have to reach a point where a viewer can take a threat seriously. You see this in NIGHT AT THE OPERA versus DUCK SOUP, where they provide what's supposed to be a genuine dramatic low point.

"In the feature script, for instance, the monster is subdued and examined (which was sort-of done in our film); there was a huckster who wanted to exploit it, yada yada. And Hendry was basically cheated of his final face-off. He'd spent decades creating a flying monster-fighting plane called the X-112 for this purpose (it was named after an over the counter diet drug we used to do in Germany near the end of the month when nobody had money to score REAL drugs!). They find out it really is a genuine threat, and they have to turn to him again; he's morose, drunk, and bitter, but he comes around. The boys and Ken ride his long-hidden secret flying machine to snatch the monster up into the sky and head for a volcano that's erupted in the nearby harbor to drop him in. They've got a gigantic bomb aboard, too-- which gets tangled and won't descend, stuck in the bomb bay (like SATELLITE IN THE SKY). At the last minute Hendry asks the boys, 'This is the end. You boys want out?' They're sputtering along in this 40-year-old Jules Verne Meets George Pal craft with a giant net full of Monster hanging below them like a sack of angry potatoes, climbing up the chain to get tothem and a bomb right behind them ready to go off. And the boys say, 'No. We're with you 'til the end, sir.' Hendry says, 'Thanks, boys. That's what I thought.' And he pulls a convenient lever to eject them anyway. Then with the monster almost up the chain to the aircraft-- looking down in comical horror at the volcano below-- Hendry dives into the crater. 'See you in hell, partner,' he says. The bomb goes off, the volcano explodes, and Hendry saves the world. The boys parachute back to the airfield and everyone solemnly listens to General Mann give a patriotic eulogy (he keeps forgetting Hendry's name, like Karloff in COMEDY OF TERRORS). He drones on and on, and finally the radio crackles, 'Is this a long story?' and they look up. The X-112-- smoking, falling to pieces, battered-- comes in for a landing and Hendry gets out. Listen to the second half of the music cue on the old Dick Jacobs horror movie music album ["Themes From Horror Movies"] for THIS ISLAND EARTH and you can probably imagine what the scene would've felt like.

"Anyway, that was one variation of the more elaborate incarnation. Another was a notion of having him and the monster face off on a street, like a HIGH NOON
gunfight. It's all hypothetical. Elements of these things are still in the movie, a little.

"I did write a treatment and start a script which WAS more serious, a direct sequel to THE THING, in which a crop of people discover a landing in the Caribbean, and
Hendry is the older, private pilot who takes them down there. Only this time, there is a LOT of these things. I don't think I ever finished the script."

Did Tobey ever have any resistance to the idea of a send-up, or did he like the idea from the beginning?

"He said it was cute when he read the script. When we shot the scene where he puts on the old monster-fighting suit again, he asked, 'So you want to play this for parody?' No, I don't think he had a problem with DOING it; he had a problem with WATCHING it. He didn't tell me until years later. 'That goddamned thing,' is how he referred to it. 'Teddy, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I just don't think it's very good.' I understood where he was coming from. His career never truly hit the lows of, say, John Agar or Robert Clarke, in things that are nearly unwatchable. I'm sure this was the cheapest project he was ever in. In the end, though, I think his presence and talent are nicely presented and he comes through with his dignity intact."

You mentioned, too, a reunion of cast and crew members of RKO's THE THING that you put together for a screening of the John Carpenter remake. I can't resist asking you to share the reactions of the people connected with the first film to that of the remake -- did they like it, laugh at it, fall asleep, or what?

"The week before I put together the reunion, I arranged for Chris Nyby, Ken Tobey and Bill Self to see the movie, over at a multiplex in Tarzana that was managedby my friend Craig Muckler (he gets his head bitten off in the monster movie; he and Wayne made 'Microwave Massacre'). Nyby harumphed noticeably during the scene in Carpenter's film where they show the team encircling the saucer in the ice. His comment later on E.T. about it was, 'It's a good commercial for J & B Scotch,' which was prominently featured. Bill Self (long-time producer at Fox, like of Batman, etc.; he's the guy in THE THING who thaws the ice) said, 'I wish I would've been smart enough to remake it myself.' Ken's observations were on point. 'I wish they would've found a part in it for an old fart that I could've played. I thought Kurt Russell did a good job, and Carpenter made a good picture, but they really should've called it "Who Goes There?", the original story title, because calling it THE THING just invites comparisons.'

"I didn't like the film originally. I think I resented it. But through the years I've watched it again and again, and Carpenter did an excellent job, as did Bill Lancaster, the writer who adapted the novella."

You've said the film was going to be "AIRPLANE meets Godzilla". How did the success of Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers affect you? Was the plan for one of them to write, direct, or produce? When the deal to pair you with one the AIRPLANE trio fell through, did that necessitate changes to the script?

"Ken Tobey had just appeared in AIRPLANE the first time I interviewed him. I always thought, still think, AIRPLANE was a near-perfect parody. When I say 'Airplane Meets Godzilla' I'm speaking in phony-baloney Hollywood log-line pitch terms, descriptively, not literally. It was never the intention to use Godzilla as the monster, if that's what you meant.

"The deal that was aborning at CAA with one of the Zucker/Abrahams trio (I've no idea which one) would've been essentially a name-attachment. 'Joe Blow Presents--' so whomever it would've been would have been there in an advisory role, executive producer or something, rather than as producer, writer, director or whatever. The team at the time was me, Wayne Berwick and Mark Wolf. No one had suggested any of us move aside for a bigger name. But this only went as far as a couple of meetings. None of us ever met the Zucker or Abrahams we were supposed to have been partnered with."

At one point, another writer did a rewrite of your script that wasn't used. Can you share one of the unused gags suggested by others that you either strongly liked or disliked?

"I remember one elaborate thing that I suppose I could've used-- the monster steps on a huge flatbed truck of fruit-- watermelons, or bananas, which would've been even better-- and it zips out from underneath him, and he sails down the street like a skateboarder until he wipes out and smashes into a building. Late in the game, I thought about doing a Mothra gag, since I'd been given a present from a friend of a battery-operated little Mothra caterpillar. It would've sprayed him with silly-string or something, and we'd have the two fairies come up with the suggestion.

"There was a lot of character stuff early on, and later, that I had written for the sheriff and G-man characters along with Nikki, but since in the end Brinke was the only one to stick with me, that all went. I did shoot some stuff that I excised totally, because it was really tangential-- I mean REALLY tangential, in a movie that's nothing BUT tangents.

"Like the two mokes who show up ('That's disastrous,' etc.) During the nighttime destruction scenes, I had a shot of them looking up and off at the monster. One says, 'Awww, I'll bet it's just a guy in a suit.' And the other guy slugs him on the shoulder, 'Don't be a chump! Where would they get a SUIT that big?' I don't know if it would've gotten a laugh or not."

Do you still have the original, short, black and white version or any of the other demo versions? Why wasn't the original black and white version included as an extra on the DVD?

"I didn't think it was fair to Mark Wolf, the original effect guy, to present his stuff. He's done some very nice things, like SLAVE GIRLS FROM BEYOND INFINITY, which has some marvelous effects. And the original animation was just done so cheaply, it would not represent how good he could do something under the right circumstances. On top of that, since the first version was never done for commercial purposes, we used a lot of recorded music that we'd never be able to clear with regard to rights."

Are there any really nice gags or effects shots that fans of THE NAKED MONSTER have not gotten to see in the film or deleted scenes included as an extra? In the Simpson interview, you allude to unfilmed sight gags that would have used Kevin McCarthy, Whit Bissell, and Jeff Morrow.

"I think I did write a scene for Whit Bissel in which he plays a pompous, pipe smoking academic who -- in the middle of the monster tearing the hell out of the city-- explains it all away as mass hysteria, swamp gas or indigestion. And then he either gets flattened or runs off in terror. The Kevin McCarthy gag I still regret not doing, but I didn't really know him, and I had so much in the movie already, there just wouldn't have been a lot of room. Another night-time monster-destruction scene. Then we see a high angle down on some barely moving cars, honking, and McCarthy's running through them, yelling at the drivers. 'It's here already! It's coming! You've got to listen to me!' And then a giant close-up of his face, 'You're next, YOU'RE NEXT!!!' Then he looks straight up to the top of frame and sees a giant monster foot coming down, and looks back at camera and screams, 'I'M NEXT!!!!!' Ker-flump."

What are your favorite classic comedies, and what more contemporary comedies do you admire?

"Too hard to choose. Anything with the Marx Brothers, I love the best Stooges, and heck, I think Cary Grant is hysterical when he wants to be. I think Charlie Sheen is a wonderful dead-pan comic actor. Compare him in those Zucker-style spoofs to Val Kilmer in TOP SECRET, which I find not nearly as funny as it should be. HAROLD AND KUMAR was wonderful. And, heck, I get a big kick out of the silliness of Fred Ray's bikini comedies. Laurel & Hardy. I can't tolerate the late Our Gang stuff and Hugh Herbert leaves me as cold as Brown and Carney.

"Personally I find THE GAME an utter riot, and since I used to be writing partners with one of the writers and know him, I've always seen this as a comedy. I was laughing hysterically when I saw it, but several hundred people in the audience probably thought I was nuts, since I guess they thought it was supposed to be a serious thriller. Joe Dante's LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION had so many wonderful moments."
Our members love the classic Universal monster movies, and many collect vintage toys, games, books, comics, records, and magazines featuring Universal's classic creatures. What are your favorite Universal horror films and film actors? (Heck, you can talk about working with Peter Cushing, if you want. We won't mind!)

"Oh, who doesn't love them? If they don't, they're obviously communists. I have never really collected seriously. My sister sent me a miniature Frankenstein toy for Christmas several years ago which I prize; it was a duplicate of a set that came out in about 1964, with the Creature, the Wolf Man, etc., about six inches high. And I still have the prop Creature skeleton hand I assembled and painted for a prop in THE NAKED MONSTER.

"I've never really treated myself to collecting. Most of my stuff reflect people I've loved working with, photos with me meeting someone I adored-- like Clayton Moore, Lucille Ball, Cushing, Lee."

And as a kid, what monster "stuff" did you have and enjoy?

"The Aurora kits-- the originals, not those Johnny-Come-Lately glow-in-the-dark jobs. C'mon, glow in the dark? If you paint them the right colors, you mask the phosphorescence, and if you don't they look like-- like glow in the dark toys! Comics-- wow, TALE FROM THE TOMB, a Dell one-shot-- and the Dell one-shots of The Mummy and Dracula and the Creature and The Wolf Man (well, maybe not so much THAT one). Games, playtoys... Munsters and Universal Monster soap containers... later on, 8mm cutdowns of stuff, Castle, Ken FIlms, and impossible Americom 8mm."

Actress Brinke Stevens plays the core character in THE NAKED MONSTER, and she and Ken Tobey give the film its depth (such as it is, ha ha!) Any anecdotes about her relationship with the classic monster films of yore, and when will we see your next project with her, IDOL PURSUITS?

"I have always adored Brinke and have thought that when given the chance, she's such an excellent actress. A performer is often at the mercy of the script and director, and if something isn't particularly well-written or logical, or if the production value is so cheesy it interferes with enjoying the movie, it's easy to dismiss an individual's participation. When she's got a nicely written role, she's so good. The mysterious woman in GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE. The lead in Fred Ray's HAUNTING FEAR. I think in that, she probably gives her most relaxed, naturalistic performance. TEENAGE EXORCIST, which we co-wrote, with her in mind, and later on when she's possessed, does a terrific comedy turn. Her stuff with Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer in SORORITY BABES, very, very funny and sweet, with the Mr, Hyde-ish dominatrix coming out later.

"We came up with an idea to do something neither of us had ever done, a romantic screwball comedy. I think she's excellent in double roles, and I wanted her to get a chance at a riff like Barbara Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE, someone pretending to be someone unlike themselves, who's actually JUST like their real self. And since I presume very few people would ever think of me if they were casting a part like Cary Grant in BRINGING UP BABY, I figured this would be a good chance for me. So we started shooting, and have actually shot about half of it. What little feedback I've gotten from the very few people I've allowed to see the rough cut, is positive. We do have a great deal of production value in the stuff so far: locations in Sedona, Arizona (including a scene shot in a biplane), aboard a cruise ship at sea, on location in Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan. I think it could be very sweet and fun, but she's eternally busy with other things, as am I. Hey, look, it took me twenty years to do the monster movie, and a year to do my WHISPERS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE (which took another 8 years to get released)-- the game's not over yet. I always considered IDOL PURSUITS a labor of love, and I know she did, too."

There was a period in your life where you were not sober. I've always admired people with the strength to successfully cope with alcoholism, a horrible disease. Any thoughts on the actors or directors of classic horror who struggled with a drinking problem?

"Some of us cannot handle drink or drugs in moderation. We just don't know how. It doesn't necessarily mean you can't function before that first shot of rye in the morning, although I've known people who did have it that badly. The insidious thing about alcoholism is that it's cunning. The decision-making side of your mind changes, sometimes drastically, sometimes subtly. And I'm not talking about just when one is bombed or even slightly lit. Even when you're sober, your focus is often off several degrees, misdirected. I've been lucky enough to have been sober for most of the last 23 years-- and unlucky and dumb enough to let myself get un-sober twice, both times for about six months, and both times enough so that I screwed up relationships, parts of my professional life, friendships, and so on. You do what you can to make amends, and do the only thing you can-- you don't drink or do drugs. There are really only three ways you can end up: in jail, in the hospital, or dead. It may take a week, or maybe twenty years, but it'll happen, and you do damage to yourself and those around you, especially people who genuinely care for you.

"I just had a friend die, who I loved so much, and for so long. When we started going out, part of our social life was AA meetings. We were long since 'just pals,' but she was ill and decided, 'What the heck, I'm dying, I'm already on heavy pain meds, who cares if I drink, too?' And since I was terribly sober, it killed me to see this. The changes in her were really like Jekyll and Hyde. The 'bad' side of her was hurting my friend, the 'good' Allyson. No, it wasn't a multiple personality, just the darker side of her, the self-destructive side, the part that hurt people badly and preemptorially, because she 'knew' that they'd hurt her if they got the chance. It killled me to watch this.

"Yeah, as you go through things in life, it does-- or should, anyway-- give you a little insight on otherwise baffling things like Lugosi's pain and drug use, Chaney's boozing. It becomes sad rather than shocking."

About the the title, THE NAKED MONSTER. You mention on the dvd's bonus documentary about the movie that you thought of calling the film ATTACK OF THE B-MOVIE MONSTER. Why did you change your mind, and what other titles did you consider?

"I wanted something that did NOT immediately type it as a 'B-movie,' because in the minds of most people other than us hard core fans, B means Z and Z means Crap. At one point in the script stages I called it 'PLOTZ! The Amazing Gigantic Colossal Creature' or something like that. I never really was happy with 'Attack of the B-Movie Monster,' because it could sound like it was a monster that came out of a movie, or something. But I needed SOMEthing to put in the title. Another possibility was THE BIG MONSTER. But I think I do explain in the commentary, I thought, 'Assuming this ever gets into stores and they put it on a comedy shelf, what would I want it near? The Naked Gun. Duh!!!'"

I wish I could come up with the perfect last question that would give you a chance to provide an amusing coda. I'll just say "Thanks for our conversation, Ted, and best of luck for THE NAKED MONSTER. "

"We'll come up with a tag. Somehow....some daaaayyyyyy... some-wherrrrre...."

1 comment:

Hermanos Encinas said...

Great interview about a great monster fan director.

I´m in the making of a book about the stop moton animator Dave Allen and I find his name in the credits of The Naked Monster. Do you know why? or Do you have a e-mail address of Ted Newsim to ask him?
Thanks a lot

My e-mail:


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