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A Trip Through Ed-Woodsville

Director Brett Thompson discusses his documentary, THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR.

By ANDREW HERSHBERGER     August 15, 2002

With the wide variety of Ed Wood documentaries available, one might find themselves in a pickle when deciding which one to rent or purchase. While I can't state for certain, I will make a guess that this pickle must be at least a few inches longer than the length of your body and have a diameter that is capable of encompassing the entirety of your width. Some super fertilizer possibly enhanced with radiation was probably used for its growth with extensive genetic enhancements along the way. I couldn't even begin to speak on its ability to swallow a human form while said form is contemplating which Ed Wood documentary to rent (or purchase) as opposed to which basketball documentary or, possibly, which downtrodden youth documentary nor could I comment on its ability to do so in a stealthy manner (I mean, after all, it would take a real space cadet not to notice a giant person-eating pickle sneaking up on them). In fact, let's just drop the pickle thing entirely and concentrate on the Ed Wood documentary.

I have [IMG3R]to say folks that of all the Ed Wood documentaries that I've seen, THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR. stands as the best (and don't just take my word for it, Kenneth "I wrote HOLLYWOOD BABYLON" Anger says the same thing!). Bringing together several familiar faces from Ed Wood's entourage like Vampira, Dolores "I wrote some kick-ass Elvis Presley tunes" Fuller, Conrad Brooks, Paul Marco, Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi, Jr. just to name a few to talk about their experiences with Woody, and also filming them in beautiful sets indicative of their personalities is just the start of what makes this Ed Wood documentary so compelling.

Behind it all is the multi-talented Brett Thompson. A producer/writer/director, who many might remember from a previous film called ADVENTURES IN DINOSAUR CITY, Thompson has crafted a film that is one of the better documentaries of the '90s. Recently Cinescape had a chance to talk with Thompson who used to drive Tim Burton, yes, the Tim Burton, to Cal Arts for three years about THE HAUNTED WORLD. But before you go on, ask yourself, "Can your mind stand the shocking truth?!"

When talking to Thompson the first thing one might ask is how the project came about. "Very serendipitously," says Thompson, "the way the whole project unfolded. I had an attorney here in Pasadena who was representing Crawford John Thomas and he kept asking me [if I] would meet with him." Thomas "had an unfinished film [from] the 1940s" which turned out to be Ed Wood's first, albeit unreleased movie, CROSSROADS OF LAREDO. Thomas was Ed Wood's first business partner, who on top of having possession of the unfinished CROSSROADS also possessed some of Ed Wood's early television commercials.

This first meeting with Crawford proved quite memorable. "It was a rainy night," recalls Thompson, "and I sat in this den that was at his house [and] the room was like forty years old. It was like a shrine to Ed Wood. [Crawford] had lots of photographs on the wall and big frame blow-ups from CROSSROADS OF LAREDO. He was obsessed with completing [CROSSROADS]. It was like he had to close this chapter [of his life]. I saw the film, and thought that the images were very compelling [but] the soundtrack had been lost. I decided that night to help him."

Though the project initially was to restore CROSSROADS OF LAREDO, and get a few interviews to "round out the show" to hopefully an hour's length, things started to grow.

"The first [IMG2L]person we tried to interview," says Thompson, "was Vampira [actress Maila Nurmi]. We wrote her a letter - she didn't have a phone - and I remember there was a message on the machine a couple of days later. She had called from a payphone and said, 'This is Vampira and I'm not calling back.' I knew then this was going to be a very challenging project. A lot of the other people, when we started, did not want to be interviewed because they'd all been made fun of and they were tired of [that]. After the Vampira interview, [they] started to talk among themselves and they heard that this was going to be a nice thing and a serious thing."

One of the many striking aspects of the documentary is the use of sets presenting the idealized backgrounds for the various personalities from the Ed Wood "gang." "I decided that the approach would be like they were successful and that this was a documentary looking back on their fabulous careers," continues the director. "We decided to build these sets to make the whole thing have a faux patina to it. It fit into the whole thing about the fake. I went for a fake world, almost like a David Lynchian type of alternate reality. I felt this was a documentary about people coming to Hollywood and wanting to make it, so we would shoot as much as we could on a sound stage with sets, because that was the predominate way those movies were shot in the '40s and '50s. The whole film was cut on film, no computers were used at all, it was all hand spliced. I wanted to cut the way they cut in the '50s."

These artistic touches did take their toll. "It was about four years from beginning to end," says Thompson. "We started even before they wrote a script [for Tim Burton's] ED WOOD. We were the last [Ed Wood] documentary and it hurt us in the marketing of the film because these other documentaries were already in the marketplace. Within the last two years it's really turned around. People are really recognizing the film as the document that it is. That part is very gratifying, but you know these are tough roads. I'd like to do more documentaries, [but] I don't know [if] I could go through what I did on this one. I put my heart and soul in this film for over four years."

After four years of work and over 20 hours of footage how did Thompson finally put together his final cut? "The British Film Institute invited us to come and screen the film at the BFI in London," recalls Thompson. "We screened it as a work in progress. The screening was sold out. I thought everybody was just going to tear it apart. I got up at the end of the film and said, 'What would you like us to cut, what was boring?' Everybody said, 'Nothing was boring, don't cut anything more.' I remember going to a pay phone after that and calling my film editor and telling him we're basically done."

Was Thompson [IMG4R]an Ed Wood fanatic? Seeing as he spent over four years of his life documenting the infamous auteur, one might expect that to be the case. "I was drawn to it, because I met Crawford and Crawford was so passionate about finishing [the CROSSROADS film] that had been started thirty years before, and I just felt there was a story in that and I knew who Ed Wood was and I knew the films that he had done and I felt that this was a very interesting story. I was very lucky that I had a lot of investors who loved the project and supported it."

With the film completed over six years ago, why so long a wait for a DVD release? "We waited for the right relationship," says Thompson, "because I wanted to do a huge supplemental section to the film. I wanted to go to our files and show everything that we collected and really make it a definitive piece of filmmaking on the man. [Image Entertainment] was excited and they wanted to do it."

So what does the future hold for Mr. Thompson now that THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR. has finally made it to DVD? Well, it's certainly a busy period for the director/writer/producer. Currently he's doing a re-write on a television movie tentatively called TORNADO WARNING. There's a dramatic film called WARNING OF WAR: THE TRIAL OF PEARL HARBOR, a true story about Admiral Kimmel, who the government tried to blame for Pearl Harbor. There is NEVERLAND, the true story behind the writing of Peter Pan, and for this Thompson is working with Ken Russell (SAVAGE MESSIAH, ALTERED STATES). And next year will mark the DVD debut of Thompson's ADVENTURES IN DINOSAUR CITY.

Looking back on THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR., Thompson says, "From a filmmaking standpoint, it was just one of those things that clicked from beginning to end. It was absolutely wonderful, a great experience, and it was a lot of fun. I couldn't wait to interview these people. The tenth anniversary of the film will be 2006. I was thinking of doing something where we go back and see where they are today. Unfortunately [some] of them have died. We [do] have more material - we have 20 hours of interviews that never made it into the film."

For more of Brett Thompson's reflections on THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EDWARD D. WOOD, JR., Cinescape highly recommends the commentary tracks, of which there are several, on the Image DVD release of the film.

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think at feedback@cinescape.com.


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