Sunday, December 13, 2009

An interview with TOO MANY CREEPS writer Ted Newsom

With the interest shown in the play Too Man Creeps (exclusively presented here at TDSH), I thought I'd interview playwright Ted Newsom about the background of its conception. So by e-mail and by phone I conducted an interview and follow-up. Below (in italics) are my queries, followed by his answers. (As if you wouldn't have figured that out!)

Photo right: Ted Newsom

What inspired you to write Too Many Creeps?

I've been a fan of Lugosi forever, Karloff just as long, and Ed Wood since before the revival started by the Rudolph Gray book [Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.]- for a start. I thought the dynamic between Alex Gordon and Ed Wood must have been fascinating, for the time they did spend together in the early '50s-- Mr. Gordon, from what I hear and what I know of him, was a quiet, gentle little guy; Wood, marvelously self-deluded. I thought, that's really a classic Odd Couple set-up. Now, add a 70 year old Lugosi...

I did my video documentary for Rhino Video, Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora during the same time period as the Tim Burton film Ed Wood was being done. Our documentary came out simultaneously with their movie. (Intentionally-- so a little POS video doc ended up having the benefit of a ten million dollar ad campaign.) My friend the late Mark Carducci had already completed his Plan 9 Companion book by then. Obviously there was a lot of biographical material on Lugosi by then: the Richard Creme and Arthur Lennig books, primarily; Gary Rhodes' stuff, Greg Mank's research. Every one of them provided a little prism to reflect light.

I wanted to write a play, within the classic proscenium-arch limitations, basically a one-set piece. I'd never done that before, just films, articles, short stories, and so on. It started as the long opening scene with Ed, Alex and Bela. I did a draft of the confrontation with Boris, then put it all aside for quite a while. I vaguely knew what I was going to do, since it was a fact that Alex Gordon and Ed Wood had tried unsuccessfully to mount films like this in the early '50s. This was probably around 1994, about a jillion years ago. Bits and piece would come to me off and on, but I basically left it alone, promising myself I'd get around to finishing it one of these days.

How long did it take to write? You wrote the play some years ago.

Actually, when I gave it some thought, I've realized I finished it in, probably 2002. I think it was a couple years later that I decided to hold a table reading to see if any of it actually worked. When I finally got down to concentrating on it, after letting it cook and clot in my brain for so long, I think it took about six weeks.

Why did you decide to let it get published now?

First, Max Cheney leaned on me, and since he had the acetylene torch and the Polaroids, there was nothing I could do.

Second, it was time I got off my butt and did something with it. I thought some of the dialogue was fun, I liked the dynamic of the characters, and it was worth people reading it, anyway. And if I'm ever to actually see a play produced, I ain't gettin' any younger.

There were a couple of things that inspired me to do get this out there. I'm not the first person to want to do a play or script on Lugosi, Karloff or anyone else. So it was a question of getting my POS out there before somebody else's POS.

And I saw the DVD of Perry Shields' performance as Jack Pierce in the one-time-only stage show by Scott Essman. That was-- bless everyone concerned-- a non-theatrical, non-dramatic, non-cinematic fan work, which nevertheless had such extraordinary talent involved, and a huge cast for a "small" play. Perry was wonderful-- I saw him do an abbreviated version of the show live at Monsterpalooza this year -- and the make-ups and costumes were all so marvelously recreated.

Other friends of mine-- far more talented than me, of course, (I said with groveling false modesty) have written plays and put them on, and it was about time I tried. My friend John Goodwin, for instance, did a stage show which was basically his theatrical take on the movie we made together, The Naked Monster. His work was an interactive play with terrific William Castle gimmicks-- including a really giant snake's head that lunged out and ate people on stage. His template was The Giant Gila Monster, mine on The Naked Monster was Godzilla and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I could appreciate both versions. And my pal Richard Nathan-- prolific and very, very funny, clever writer-- keeps churning out sketches and Shakespearean parodies, one of which, A Night in Elsinore, I was lucky enough to be in. And I knew Ernie Farino-- primarily known as an FX expert and film director-- had directed a small play in one of the little Equity-wavier theaters down on Santa Monica Boulevard. All of this stuff made me think, "Well, why can't I give it a shot?"

If you were to cast Lugosi and Karloff in a film with parts of roughly equal size, who'd get top billing, and why?

I wouldn't. Since Karloff invariably got top billing, I'd do what they did on the posters and ads for -- I think it was-- Staircase, with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison: stagger them. The first billed would be slightly lower than the second on the posters. And do what they did with Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man: one guy billed ahead of the other on the ads, the other in the credits.

In your Lazlo Revik story about a forgotten horror star of the past, your fictional film star Revik plays a character called "Dr. Ghoul." In Too Many Creeps, the main character in the film script is "Dr. Voodoo." Was there a "Dr." character in genre films that you liked very much, one that your characters are an affectionate reference to?

I chose the "Dr. Voodoo" title because I think there really WAS an Alex Gordon/Ed Wood project called Dr. Voodoo. In any case, it's a singular-name title, which implies that it's a one-star vehicle. And that would immediately cause a problem if the story is designed around two leading actors instead of one.

It's not that I was overwhelmed with nostalgia about Dr. X, Dr. Rx, and Dr. Cyclops. My screenplay "Alias Dr. Ghoul" came after I'd finished the "Creeps" play-- again, it was the germ of an idea I'd nursed for a long time-- and the play's "Dr. Voodoo" influenced creating the equally fictitious Dr. Ghoul-- though the characters and stories are nothing alike.

Did you cut any dialogue or business, and if so, why?

I think I considered having a gorilla in it at one point, but I thought, how difficult is that going to be if you're trying to stage this in Butte, or Oklahoma City, or Bangkor? In 2006 (I think), I tried trimming it, because in my opinion the reading was too long, at two hours. I didn't kill any big plot points or jokes, just trimmed lines, dropped out a lot of extraneous "Well," and "Oh," and shortened a lot of sentences. It didn't get all that much shorter.

What were the comments of those who performed the table reading you held? What moment got most laughs?

They all chuckled to the last page. It's tough to gauge. I can't remember any particular lines that caused guffaws, titters or yuk yuks. I know the Peter Lorre stuff always went over well. He was so easy to write for. And Carradine, at least here, is such a wonderful buffoon.

Can you think of any modern day actors that you think could play Karloff, Lugosi, Lorre and Chaney?

I wouldn't try to-- at least not for this. People have done fantasy casting, like Karloff as if played by Liam Nelson. Bela Jr., first time I met him, when I had written a script about his father, brought up Laurence Harvey as a possibility (except that Harvey was already dead.) That wouldn't have been bad. In a perfect world, I think Claude Akins should have played Lon Chaney Jr. in Man of a Thousand Faces, for instance. In 1957, he would have looked and been just perfect. Think about Martin Landau as Lugosi: really, there's no resemblance physically. But the script was right, the Rick Baker make-up was right, and the part was extremely well-written, so you accepted it.

The thing I bear in mind here is, the play's the thing. Richard Nathan's A Night in Elsinore, for instance, is Hamlet, as done by the Marx Brothers. Groucho is Hamlet, Chico is Horatio, Harpo is the Ghost of Hamlet's Father; Laurel and Hardy are Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern; the players are The Three Stooges. It's such a brilliant parody-- entirely true to Shakespeare, but also precisely true to the movie comedians' characters. And when we did it, obviously we all tried to emulate the screen characters, but it was the behavior of the characters within the story which was more important than dead-on impersonations. And his play has been put on in a number of places, in a number of ways-- including an all-children cast, with no actor over 14, and some as young as 7 or 8. Clearly, that's a lot different from the version we did in Pasadena, but apparently it worked great.

It would be good if the play worked without doing impressions. If it still was dramatically and comedically valid if, for instance, some group decided to play the Lugosi character as a non-accented Midwesterner, or Karloff as a New Yorker. That's when you'd know if the play itself worked without the gimmick of using recognizable icons.

At one point, about 2003, an actor-producer I knew, John Clark, read the play and wanted to do it with Ron Jeremy as the Ed Wood character. John wanted me to rewrite it into a generic sleazeball film maker to make it more Ron Jeremy-esque. Well, I actually have a great deal of respect for Ron Jeremy's comedic talents. This did not work out, and I didn't seriously consider it, certainly did no revisions-- but it was not such an insane idea, to think out of the box.

Which of the real people portrayed in the play did you have to invent the most? In other words, who did you have the least material to create your character from?

Alex Gordon and Ed Wood are probably the two characters least bound to published quotes (which is not what you want to hear. You want to know what monster man has the most Ted Made It Up dialogue). Of the historical personages, actually, the Peter Lorre character probably is based less on actual quotes than any of the others. It just SOUNDS like stuff you'd expect Peter Lorre to say.

You get to spend time with ONE of the characters in the play. Who would it be, and why?

Since Peter Lorre often wrote his own dialogue-- that clever ad-libbing fellow-- I'd think he'd be the most fun to spend some time with.

It's been fun spending some time chatting with you about this play. Anything I haven't asked that you would like to tell about?

How about "Are there any plans to stage this?"

I'll bite. Are there any plans to stage this?

Funny you should ask. There ARE some people expressing interest. We'll see.

Good luck!



toyranch said...

There is a song from the 80's by a band called the Bush Tetras called Too Many Creeps.

Max the drunken severed head said...

Oooh! Thanks for the link!

All my friends are creeps-- but I mean that in the NICEST way possible! Woo hoo!


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