Why write a movie about Ed Wood? The screenwriters explain...

One year after the release of Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, Faber and Faber published the screenplay with an introduction by its writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. In it, they detail the notorious director’s appeal, their approach to create an Anti-Great Man Story, and the cosmic parallels that mirrored their own career failure.

by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

Why write a movie about Ed Wood?

Orson Welles never got a biopic. Alfred Hitchcock never got a biopic. So why go to the trouble of glorifying a guy who’s famous simply because he’s no good? Well, this requires a bit of explaining…

In the 1950s, Edward D. Wood, Jr. began making movies.

Working in  a world of grade-Z programmers intended for drive-ins and grindhouses, Ed didn’t actually produce useable exploitation. His films were less concerned with entertainment value than with getting his obsessions and strange passions expressed on the screen. Angora, dead bodies, space monsters, old cowboy actors, pleas for universal tolerance, stock footage… Ed felt compelled to make cloth out of these burning issues. And if the result was bewilderment and boredom… so be it.

Unfortunately, Ed’s six features were more than flops; some weren’t even released. Potential backers became nonexistent. Disheartened, he slid into pornography and heavy drinking. The ‘60s and ‘70s were rough on him, and when Ed Wood died in 1978, he was penniless and forgotten.

However, whimsical Fate had special plans waiting for him. Thus, a mere two years later, Harry and Michael Medved wrote a book, The Golden Turkey Awards, in which Ed was proclaimed The Words Director of All Time. Suddenly, he became a  brand name overnight. Fan clubs and bad movie festivals sprang up everywhere. Ed Wood was now a superstar, but with a heavy price to pay: people were laughing at him, ridiculing his incompetence, crossdressing and pathetic lifestyle.

At the time, the two of us were college room-mates, and like others, astonished at the Wood phenomenon. One of us (Scott) even proposed an Ed Wood documentary, ‘The Man In The Angora Sweater’, for a film class. The teachers weren’t impressed. As our screenwriting career began, we often joked about an Ed Wood biopic, collecting every article and scrap of information about him we could. But until 1992, it didn’t seem enough to pursue.

That year, we had a career crisis. After writing the enormously profitable Problem Child films, we had become trapped in a kiddie movie ghetto. Nobody would hire us to write anything else. This was quite frustrating, since our original script had actually been an adult black comedy. But we had been fired, and the project had been systematically ‘dumbed down’. Although the final result made buckets of money, it was universally reviled - and our reputations were quite shaky. It’s hard to garner respect when you have critics saying the script ‘wasn’t written, it was fingerpainted’, or ‘it seems to have been written by a demented proctologist’.

After this nonstop assault, we knew what it was like to be mercilessly ridiculed. People didn’t care that it takes just as much hard work to make a bad movie as a good one - maybe more - and we started identifying with Ed Wood.

We conceived Ed Wood as a rebuttal to the usual film biography: The Great Man Story. We saw Ed as an Anti-Great Man, a loser who could never get things right. In most people’s eyes, he is a nanosecond blip in world history - unworthy of study. Yet we saw a subversive purity, a screwball who wouldn’t compromise his vision, even though he was ferociously wrong. An Anti-Great Man presents enormous drama, because he is constantly irritating everybody. The conflict is inherent. The story suddenly presented fascinating ironic challenges. Our job was to get the audience rooting for Ed to make his movies badly - because that’s why he was loved and remembered.

The process was exhilarating. We were writing from the heart, creating something strange and unusual. We wanted to create a cast of fruitcakes, drug addicts and outcasts, dreamers on the absolute fringe, then make them loveable. At this point, we also brought in our old friend Michael Lehmann, cajoling him into getting involved as director. Michael was just coming off the Hudson Hawk debacle, and we thought, ‘Isn’t this hilarious - the director of Hudson Hawke and the writers of Problem Child making a movie about the worst filmmaker of all time? How apropos!’

But it made sense. We were in similar funks, and it seemed like a way to get back to our creative roots, by doing something small and independent. Knowing we would need help to get this crazy movie made, Michael suggested taking the treatment to Denise DiNovi, who had produced his film Heathers. At the time, she was partnered with Tim Burton, and his involvement as producer would surely help get financing. So Tim read the treatment - and flipped. Not only did he want to produce it, he wanted to direct it! After many discussions, he and Michael made a deal: they would swap roles. Tim could be director, contingent upon Ed Wood being his next film.

We had a brief meeting with Mr. Burton. He loved our odd tone, a balance of funny and sad. His only note was quite simple: be careful with the crossdressing. Finally, terribly excited and eager, he turned to us and said, ‘When can I see the script?’

We hadn’t been hired, but we had a world-class director promising to read our next script. And if he liked it, he would be able to get it made. But was about to commit to directing another film, Mary Reilly. Our only hope was to get there first and knock it out. The clock was ticking…

Working in a feverish isolation, seven days a week, we cranked out our opus. Working on spec was a big gamble, since we didn’t have the rights to Ed’s life - if Tim hated the result, we would be stuck with a finished oddball script that would be extremely difficult to peddle, to put it mildly. So we tailored the screenplay to our perception of Tim’s interests. Tim is completely intuitive, a completely personal filmmaker, and we wanted it to strike him on a gut level.

Both Tim and Ed used repertory companies of eccentric actors, and so we played up this angle. We introduced gothic visuals and bizarre locations whenever possible. But most importantly, we focused the story upon Ed’s relationship with Bela Lugosi, since there were fascinating parallels with Tim’s relationship with Vincent Price. Both Ed and Tim had worshipped the respective horror stars when they were young boys. Then they had met the actors and finally gotten to work with them at the end of their lives. This gave our movie an emotional foundation with which we felt Tim would empathize.

As we wrote, we were faced with huge choices. A man doesn’t live his life in three acts. We had to look over Ed Wood’s fifty-four years of existence, and find the story within that interested us.

First, we decided that most film biographies were boring. They seem compelled to follow the subject from cradle to grave. We felt this was too much to cover. Why is somebody’s death important? The result often ends up quickly skimming the surface and being uninvolving. So we were determined that we would only cover five years - the period that Ed was actually ‘famous’ for.

Then, as w examined the Ed/Bela relationship, an obvious three-act structure popped out. Page 10, they meet. End of act one, Ed makes his first film, using Bela’s name. Act two, they struggle. End of act two, Bela dies. Act three, Ed has to figure out how to keep going, though Bela is gone.

Next was deciding what events to keep, and what to leave out. It was extremely important to us to be accurate and true to these people - yet many elements were dropped, for storytelling reasons. Ed’s non-Lugosi projects were ignored. Bela’s son and Bela’s fifth and final wife were omitted. Two early Wood business partners, Alex Gordon and John Thomas, were left out. We had nothing against these people. But we wanted to focus on the Ed and Bela symbiotic bond, and these folks would have diluted that. These decisions seemed fair to our sense of biopic ethics.

Also, we avoided the bane of the genre: the ‘composite characters’. All of Ed’s scripted friends and extended family are real people. The beauty of Ed Wood’s life is that truth literally is stranger than fiction. His story gave us the freedom to get away with absurdities that a normal screenplay never could. How could anyone complain the script was too wacky and bizarre? We could simply retort: It happened! Tor weighs 350 pounds and is bald. True! Ed wears his girlfriend’s clothes. True! Bela wrestles a broken octopus. True! Ed’s buddies get  baptized in a swimming pool. All true!

As we started ordering the anecdotes which we found interesting, we were struck by a problem: we didn’t know how Ed met anybody. These people were so obscure that the information had just fallen off the face of the earth. Even our principal source, Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy, a book of interviews with Ed’s friends, didn’t help. So we started inventing ‘meet cutes’ for most of the characters, as Ed accumulated his Magnificent Seven. As a sidenote, it’s amusing to see how fabricated myth becomes fact - numerous magazine articles have since described how the real Ed Wood met Bela Lugosi in a mortuary, although we made up the entire thing.

We also compiled massive lists of Fun Facts. Every character had a page printout of random  notations about the real person: funny things they had said and peculiar character traits. Then as we started writing a given scene, we would pull out each other’s Fun Facts sheet. The goal became to cram in as much real information as we could: Ed wears dentures… Cameraman Bill is colorblind… Criswell bought his Cadillac from Mae West… At times, this data is overwhelming, but nobody can accuse the script of skimping on details. Also, this process often led to good drama> Bela revealing that he could have played Frankenstein, while in the middle of being humiliated in the octopus swamp, is a perfect example.

Finally, we had to figure out how to create a satisfying third-act climax and resolution. In a perfect world, Glen or Glenda would have been Ed Wood’s final film - the man cranks out numerous silly monster movies, before learning his lesson, turning to personal honest film-making, and creating his autobiographical valedictory masterpiece.

But unfortunately, Glen or Glenda came first. So we had to turn Plan 9 from Outer Space into a climax. After much thought, the solution hit us, simple and elegant. The bad guys would become the Baptist moneymen, who want nothing more than a coherent film. All they are asking for is what any rational person would: continuity and logic. It is irony on top or irony. In the world of Ed, the impudence makes them villains. How dare they compromise him!

Then, to tie everything together, we invented one major fib. After establishing Ed idolized Orson Welles (which he did), we made the two icons run into each other. The juxtaposition was ludicrous and thematically pleasing: both men were scrambling to raise money, shooting films haphazardly in pieces, and having their work recut by others. The greatest film-maker in the world and the worst film-maker in the world had landed in the same boat; they had identical problems. What greater way for Ed to have an epiphany then commiserating with the guy who made Citizen Kane?

After six weeks of writing, we had a 147-page script. This was substantially longer than the normal 120 - but we were afraid to cut anything, not knowing what Tim would respond to. Also, losing pages takes time, and we didn’t have any. So, we took a gable and handed him this epic first draft.

Tim received it on a Friday. On Sunday night, the phone rang: ‘It’s great. I’m gonna make it. And I don’t want to change a word.’

Incredible. And he stayed true to his promise. Columbia Pictures acquired the project, and we never received a note from anybody. Then they lost interest when Tim decided to shoot in black-and-white, and Disney took over production. Still no notes. Then a start date became imminent, and finally the line producer began pleading for cuts, just to lower the schedule and budget. We looked at Tim, and he shrugged: I don’t want to lose anything. But if you guys can find something…

As a reluctant sacrifice to the Gods, we cut Ed’s shotgun wedding sequence, plus a couple other pages. We also simplified the locations. Then when Bill Murray joined the production, we juggled his lines a bit, for scheduling reasons. But other than that - no changes were done. Incredibly, Tim Burton had the courage and confidence to willingly shoot a first draft.

The movie is a huge tribute to a man who never achieved any recognition in his lifetime. But Ed Wood’s glory was that he had integrity. He was never a Hollywood hack, indifferently creating ‘product’. Ed put his soul on the line with every film even when it wasn’t necessary. When you watch his movies, you can feel the passion and personality of the guy behind the camera. If Ed’s films fail on practically any barometer of artistic achievement, that’s beside the point. The man was trying. It’s a classic American success story: an eccentric individual achieves immortality, simply because he wouldn’t bend to tradition.

October 1994