Interview with Curtis Harrington: By Gib Strange

 

The following interview with the late Curtis Harrington originally appeared in a fanzine called Halloween All Year (HAY) released several years back by my good friend Gib Strange. Gib released only one issue ofthe zine due to financial constraints. Of all the interviews Gib conducted for HAY, this one is my favorite. The history Gib digs out of Harrington on Hollywood’s Golden Era is amazing. It’s all there—from the magnificent (James Whale and Josef von Sternberg) to the infamous (Jack Parsons and Kenneth Anger). . Harrington blazed his own path as a filmmaker and wasn’t afraid to break from the underground film movement when he found it too codified for his liking. Gib’s love for Curtis has always stuck with me. By all accounts, Curtis was a dear man and I hope the following interview renews and broadens interest in his work.– Ryan Leach

The secret language of visual poetry in film seemed endangered with the advent of sound. Yet, in the midst of 1930s dialogue-driven plots, mysterious and striking moments created by filmmakers such as James Whale and Josef von Sternberg persevered and left an indelible impression on a young Curtis Harrington. As the American avant-garde film scene of the ‘40s began thriving, a teenage Harrington began making experimental films, including his breakthrough short Fragment of Seeking. It was rejected by his professors at USC, but Fragment of Seeking is a key piece of the early L.A. underground film movement.
Harrington independently raised the money to make his first feature Night Tide, a moody Val Lewton-inspired suspense picture starring Dennis Hopper. Many studio films followed in the ‘60s and ‘70s including two pictures with Shelley Winters, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What’s the Matter with Helen? The latter is a personal favorite of Harrington’s. The film cast Winters and Debbie Reynolds as the mothers of two convicted murderers in the 1930s. To escape threatening phone calls, they start over in—where else?—Hollywood. Reynolds, now looking like Jean Harlow, teaches the daughters of ambitious stage mothers to dance, while bible-thumping Winters accompanies her on piano. Things are beginning to look up for Reynolds when Winters plunges into madness, taking those she loves with her. Harrington directs with all the gloss of the period he knew well, mixing iconic imagery like the starlet dance routines with the horrors of Helen’s paranoia. He managed to keep the sickness subtle, lurking just beneath the surface.
When I met Curtis in 2004 we had a great conversation about the films he made and the people he knew along with his disdain for an increasingly committee-based film industry and the frustration he experienced with unreceptive American audiences. We also found ourselves recalling transcendent moments from film history that exist in works such as What’s the Matter with Helen?, but wasn’t written in Henry Farrell’s script. Curtis had devised it himself. He turned in the first cut of the film knowing the producers would chop anything that didn’t drive the story forward. He made his pitch for the scene that was terribly important to him. It was a sequence in which one of the little dancers is standing with her mother on the sidewalk when she suddenly sees a little person walking by—an old woman who stops and smiles at the bewildered child. Her mother scolds the girl for staring as we watch the child observe, for the first time, an adult who is her height. It is an inexplicably strange scene that would have made James Whale proud. That such moments meant so much to him is one of the things I loved about Curtis.

Curtis Harrington (September 17, 1926 – May 6, 2007)

Interview by Gib Strange
Photos courtesy of the interviewer

Gib:
Did you grow up around Los Angeles?Curtis: Yes. I was born right here in L.A.
Gib:
What did your parents do?
Curtis:
My father was an attorney and my mother was a housewife. When I was nine years old we moved to a town called Beaumont (in Riverside County). Have you heard of Beaumont?
Gib:
No.
Curtis:
I’m not surprised. [laughs]
Gib:
When did you know you were a filmmaker?
Curtis:
I wanted to be a filmmaker from about the age of twelve. I got my parents to buy me an 8mm camera out of a catalogue. I then got a job working as an usher at the local theater. I would see films over and over again.
Gib:
The first film you made was in your early teens, an adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher.
Curtis:
I did a version of The Fall of the House of Usher—a little 8mm film—when I was fourteen. To say that it’s crude is putting it mildly. I don’t like to show it. The only time I’ve shown it in recent years is when I took my new version of The Fall of the House of Usher to the Munich Film Festival about two years ago. They begged me to show the earlier version of it.
Gib:
And you gave in.
Curtis:
I gave in. People like the idea of seeing a film that I made when I was fourteen, then seeing a different version of it at 104 years of age.
Gib:
[laughs] Did you go to film school?
Curtis:
Yeah. I went to USC. For someone like me, it was largely just going through the motions. I made my first films—one of my key films— Fragment of Seeking when I was at USC. My friend at that time, Kenneth Anger, made a film called Fireworks. Both of these films were very personal so USC had nothing to do with them. I remember when I showed Fragment of Seeking to a couple of USC professors, I might as well have shown them a blank screen for all the reaction I got. The film was just meaningless to them. It’s a film that’s created a lot of interest over the years. Generally speaking, my work has been much better understood and appreciated in Europe than in America. In Europe, I get instant responses to everything I do, even the new version of Usher. No film festival has any interest in it here in America. But in Europe I’ve already been invited to several marvelous film festivals and everybody loves it and they write about it. The separation from the European mentality and the American one is weird. They have no interest in artists in the States. When I went to USC film school, you talked about Citizen Kane; you didn’t talk about Doris Day in The Glass Bottom Boat. Everybody wanted to do something different back then. Now people go to film school to learn how to make very commercial movies, real Hollywood stuff. That’s what most of them are in there for; they want a hot job. And today they have plenty of opportunities to make these utterly inane teenage movies. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Gib:
The target audience is bored fourteen year olds with too much of their parents’ money.
Curtis:
Yes. Steven Spielberg makes his films for the same audience.

Gib: You were making experimental films in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but tell me about the origins of your first feature film Night Tide. You wrote and directed it, right?
Curtis:
I wanted to make feature films. Some of the so called avant-garde filmmakers, like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren, they never really wanted to make commercial features. I always did. I wrote the Night Tide script which was very influenced by Val Lewton’s films. I tried to find some money to make it and Roger Corman helped me put the money together. But before he found the funding, I went to so many people before him. My landlady at the time introduced me to a punch-drunk prize fighter from Brooklyn and he said [affects Brooklyn accent], “Yeah, Curtis, I know some guys that might put some money in your film.” The next thing I know I found myself at the Old Brown Derby in Hollywood with about six very handsome, dark-haired Italian gentlemen. It didn’t take me long to figure out I was with various mafia people. Fortunately, I didn’t get any money from them; I might’ve been down at the bottom of a river. I’ve had many little adventures in this business.
Gib:
Was it looked down upon by the avant-garde crowd that you wanted to move into films with narratives?
Curtis:
The only question the avant-garde crowd had at the time, specifically Jonas Mekas, was “Is Curtis Harrington selling out to Hollywood?”
Gib:
Was Dennis Hopper attached to Night Tide from the beginning?
Curtis:
Not from the beginning, but Dennis had come to see a program of my short avant-garde films I was showing at a coffee house in Los Angeles. There was a period there in the late fifties where they started the idea of coffee houses—now we have Starbucks—but in those days it was where people could gather and drink coffee. He came and he liked the films. Dennis was an up-and-coming young actor. He had just been in Giant. When I was ready, I gave him the script and he agreed to do it.
Gib:
What can you tell me about the mysterious (Marjorie) Cameron who appears in Night Tide and whose paintings you documented in (the 8mm short film) The Wormwood Star?
Curtis:
She was a friend of all of the people I was friendly with. She was a very strong personality. Have you read Sex and Rockets? (John Carter’s Sex and Rockets is a biography of Jack Parsons. Parsons is also mentioned in Mike Davis’ seminal City of Quartz.)
Gib:
Yes I did. Did you meet her husband, rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons? (Parsons followed Aleister Crowley.)
Curtis:
No. I knew Cameron only after he died. I never had any involvement in her Sex and Rockets period. I knew about her involvement in the occult, but I have no interest in the occult other than an intellectual interest. My interest in her was as a painter and I cast her in Night Tide because of her on-screen presence. I needed someone with that quality and she had it. It’s not easy to find. Casting Marjorie Cameron is an example of selecting someone for their presence and their soul, not because they’ve been in acting class half their lives. It’s a very different approach. I’m very glad I made the film about her and her paintings.
Gib:
Tell me how you came to know James Whale.
Curtis:
I was always a great horror film lover. I knew somebody who knew Whale. I told this person that I really wanted to meet him and that I loved his films. This was long before television. Old films were really difficult to see and there weren’t a lot of film students and film buffs around, so he was astonished that I had any interest in his films. The attitude toward film that people like you have, just didn’t exist in those days. Anyway, he was a very generous and kind person and we became friendly. Did you see Bill Condon’s film, Gods and Monsters?
Gib:
Yes.
Curtis:
That film, of course, is not a true story but it does reflect his life and his lifestyle. James had two maids—not one—and he had a great sense of humor. He loved to introduce them because their names were Anna and Yohanna [laughs]. And he’d say, “This is Anna and this is Yohanna.” And he lived in a beautiful house in the Pacific Palisades. He loved cigars and he was a man of great personal charm and a wonderful sense of humor.
Gib:
A lot of people have linked you to horror masters like Val Lewton. However, I see a humor and sense of artifice that’s closer to Josef von Sternberg. Did he influence you?
Curtis:
He was by far the biggest influence on me! I got to know Joe quite well. Joe was an extremely difficult personality. I’ll give you a really good example. Joe wrote his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, and before it was published he had sent a few chapters to Gavin Lambert at Sight and Sound in London. Gavin was a friend of mine, so when Gavin finally came here for a visit he said, “I just really want to meet Josef von Sternberg.” I knew Josef by then so I said, “I’ll call him and see if we can go see him.” So he invited us over and he knew how I felt about his work. He certainly knew how Gavin Lambert felt about it, having published chapters from his book. So here we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with a million questions to ask the great Josef von Sternberg. We walked into his home and after we sat down he said, “Now, gentlemen, I want you to understand that I have no intention of discussing motion pictures.” So we sat there just talking about the weather. That was Josef von Sternberg. He was very perverse. Oh, he was very difficult. I remember once there was a period of time where I kept running into Josef at bookstores and I always wanted to talk to him more than I ever had a chance to. Every time I ran into him he’d say, “Hello Curtis…well, why don’t you call me. I’d love to see you.” So knowing how perverse he was it was like bait that I didn’t want to take it, but at the same time I wanted more than anything in the world to go talk with him. So after he said that at least three times, “Call me, come over,” I finally got up enough nerve to call him and he said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly see you, I’m much too busy.” [laughs] The most interesting experience I had with Josef—he made a film called Jet Pilot with John Wayne. Von Sternberg’s career pretty much came to an end by the ‘40s. He lived in New Jersey for quite a while. I wrote about him in a chapbook put out by the British Film Institute called An Index to the Films of Josef von Sternberg. It was the first historical and critical writing that I’d done. It took a lot of research to complete it. I got Paramount to run a lot of von Sternberg’s films for me. He checked over the manuscript and he approved of the book. Anyway, a little bit of time went by and Howard Hughes—who owned RKO studios at the time—gave him the job of directing Jet Pilot with John Wayne. He came out to the coast to make that film at RKO. The costume designer of that film was a friend of mine named Michael Woulfe. I had yet to meet Josef von Sternberg at that point. I knew he was aware of my name because he’d approved of the manuscript that I wrote. So I said to Michael Woulfe, “Mention my name to Mr. von Sternberg. Say hello for me.” Michael came back and said, “Von Sternberg wants to see you. He said to call him.” This was before I knew anything about his perversity that I mentioned earlier, so I called his office and his secretary said, “Mr. von Sternberg would like to invite you to lunch.” I was really thrilled and the next thing I knew I was sitting in the commissary at RKO having lunch with Josef von Sternberg. When I first went to Joe’s office, he had numerous copies of my book on his desk—An Index to the Films of Josef von Sternberg. He was so proud of it. He was obviously handing them out to friends. Josef told me that I could visit the set any time I wanted to, so I did. I spent quite a bit of time on the set with John Wayne and Joe. One day, because of the Index, I got an offer from a magazine to write an article about Joe. Now that I was seeing Joe on a regular basis, I wanted to ask him a lot of questions for my article. I told him about the article and asked if I could talk with him. Joe said we’d have to have lunch together again, so I once again found myself in the RKO commissary with him. In order to write the Index, I had to talk to a lot of people he’d worked with—numerous stars, film editors, and cameramen. The moment we sat down, the first thing Joe said to me was, “Why do you attack me?” Now, I had written pages and pages of praise. He then said, “How dare you ask an actor about my work. If you want to know about a trumpet player, do you ask the trumpet?” And that continued for a good hour and a half. He just reduced me to shreds. So from saying, “You’re welcome to visit my set anytime you want to,” and then to the pile of the Indexes, it was like I’d done something really terrible. That’s perversity. Then I’ll never forget—he let me get about two sound stages away after lunch. I was heading out to the gate when suddenly I heard him say, “Curtis. Oh, Curtis.” I turned around and I said, “Yes, Mr. von Sternberg?” He said, “You forgot to thank me for lunch.” So that will give you a little insight into this very complex and difficult personality. Nevertheless, I admired his work more deeply than anyone else’s filmmaking.

Gib: Can you tell me what happened to the von Sternberg film that Charlie Chaplin produced?
Curtis:
It’s called The Woman of the Sea and it was destroyed.
Gib:
By?
Curtis:
By Chaplin
Gib:
Good god, why?
Curtis:
Tax purposes, so it could be a total write off. That’s the legend. I actually asked Mr. Chaplin about it in person when I was very, very young. I went to my first Hollywood party and there were a lot of big stars there—Charlie Chaplin and Arnold Pressburger, who produced The Shanghai Gesture—so I spoke to him about working with von Sternberg. I was very busy at this party, you know, to be in the presence of these people I’d only read about [laughs]. Anyway, you can read about The Woman of the Sea. The famous documentary filmmaker John Grierson wrote a book that covers it. He’s one of the few people who saw a sneak preview of it. He describes what an incredibly beautiful film it was. Robert Florey, the French film director, he also saw it. He wrote about it in his book but it’s only available in France. The Woman of the Sea is one of those little legends. It starred Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady. It joins the list of remarkable films that have been destroyed. The other destroyed film that is a great loss to the history of cinema is a film called Walking down Broadway, directed by Erich von Stroheim in 1933 while at Fox. It was his only talkie as a director and it’s completely destroyed. They did try to salvage a little bit of the footage in a different film by another director, so you can see one or two scenes in that film, but that’s all that’s left of it. It must have been a remarkable film. ZaSu Pitts played a leading role, a character called a mortophile. A mortophile is someone who loves funerals and goes to funerals all the time, so all throughout the story she states, “Oh I just saw the most beautiful funeral.” She just went around from funeral to funeral. A mortophile, you don’t meet too many of those [laughs].
Gib:
Jack Smith said that von Sternberg had perfected a language of images that spoke volumes more than any of the dialogue in his films. Do you operate in a similar way?
Curtis:
I try to. I try to be as visual in my work as possible and Sternberg is the most visual of all the American directors. He has a kind of personal repertoire of imagery that’s very eloquent and very beautiful. When I first saw The Scarlet Empress I was about five years old. Later on, I couldn’t remember anything about it except for one image—a very erotic one. It’s interesting that I would remember that. It’s the moment when the Scarlet Empress is getting dressed and she has a hoop skirt but she hasn’t put the skirt on, it’s just the hoop. It’s got crossbars; it’s like a cage, like her legs are in a cage. That’s the image I remember from my childhood. Do you remember that?
Gib:
Yes. Of course I always remembered the famous scene in Blonde Venus when Dietrich takes off the ape mask, so she’s there with an ape body.
Curtis:
The beast and the beauty, yeah. I think to me the height of his art was in The Devil Is a Woman. That, to me, is the epitome and, of course, the least commercial of his films with Dietrich.
Gib:
That’s the last one they did together, right?
Curtis:
Yeah. It’s like the story of his relationship with Dietrich. She was the sadist; he wasn’t. She wouldn’t become just his but—at the same time—his ego would not permit him to have a woman who was screwing around on the side. I spent an evening with her once talking about that. She told me that on the last day of shooting of that film he just turned on his heels without saying a word to her and walked off the set. She said, “I felt very badly about it.” Obviously, they continued to be friends after that. I have a picture of her on the set of one of his least interesting films, Sergeant Madden. She visited the set.
Gib:
You met her when you were thinking of casting her in Games?
Curtis:
No, no. I met her before that. I just wanted to cast her in Games. I wrote Games for her but Lew Wasserman, who was the head of the studio, famously said no one would be interested in seeing her. That was a big mistake on his part.
Gib:
My favorite film of yours is What’s the Matter with Helen? How did that picture come about?
Curtis:
I made Games at Universal. I was put under contract there. And then after Games my producer George Edwards and I met with Henry Farrell, who wrote Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and we asked him if he had some other story of that genre. He gave us the outline of a story called “The Box Step,” which was the basis for What’s the Matter with Helen? We had the studio backing, hired him, and he wrote the first draft of the script. But then I could never get a cast to the studio’s satisfaction. We needed an aging actress who had done dancing. Before I offered it to Debbie Reynolds, I offered it to Shirley MacLaine, but she wouldn’t do it. I had the idea of Joanne Woodward, who was a friend of mine. She also wouldn’t do it. She always got advice from her husband Paul Newman who advised her against doing it. I have no idea why. At one point we had a friend who knew Rita Hayworth and we had a meeting with her, which was one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had with anyone. Of course we all know that she finally developed Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t know at what point she was at when we had this meeting, but we met at her house and we had a wonderful time. We were thrilled to meet her. She still looked very good and we sat out by her pool and chatted with her and then finally George and I left. We were both very pleased with the meeting, but suddenly at the doorway she just collapsed. She crumpled and said, “You’re laughing at me aren’t you? I know you’re laughing at me.” It was a horrendous moment…so that obviously didn’t work out. Debbie Reynolds liked the script, one thing led to another, and she agreed to do it. And that’s how it came about. We made it independently.
Gib:
What is the matter with Helen?
Curtis:
[laughs] I was trying to show the Bible Belt mentality, which is, of course, smothering us today; the kind of people who insist that they’re going to vote for the worst president in the history of the United States. And they’re absolutely impervious to any sort of logic or any kind of intelligence. And that’s what I wanted to convey, was that kind of repressed personality. I mean she was a latent lesbian and it turned out she killed her husband and it was all unconscious.
Gib:
Is Agnes Moorehead’s character Sister Alma based on famous evangelist preacher Sister Aimee Semple McPherson?
Curtis:
Only in pictorial style and not the real personality because I don’t know what the real McPherson was like. It was just that idea of the evangelistic female preacher. It was ideal casting. I couldn’t have cast it any better. Aimee Semple McPherson was the most famous one out here in Los Angeles. I never saw her but my parents said they saw her once. They just went out of curiosity to hear her give a sermon. They said, and I’ve heard this before, that at the time of the collection she said, “I don’t want to hear the click of coins. I only want to hear the rustle of paper.”[laughs] Really putting it on the line during the depression when everyone was starving.
Gib:
You cast a menacing Timothy Carey as the bum.
Curtis:
I was one of the few directors who really admired Timothy Carey and would give him a part from time to time. I was thrilled to have him in the movie. But when I first met Timothy Carey I was absolutely terrified of him. He was about 6’ 4” and he was just like he was on the screen. He was very scary. I remember that my casting director, a very sweet lady named Caro Jones who had to engage him for the part, said, “Curtis, I get so nervous when I’m talking to him… You know what he said to me? He said, ‘If I don’t get this part, I’ve got a lot of vicious dogs that I’m going to sic on you.’” [laughs] So that was Timothy Carey. There were a lot of people in Hollywood who refused to work with him. I just loved him. Stanley Kubrick used him, too. I remember I used him in an episode of Baretta because Bobby Blake highly approved of him. But, even in that, he had a scene where he beat up a guy, and he beat him up so badly that the actor filed a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild.
Gib:
That’s hilarious. I also like all the little starlets in the film.
Curtis:
Yes. I thought the “Nasty Man” number was particularly effective, with the little girl doing Mae West.
Gib:
JonBenét Ramsey! The first film of yours that I saw was The Dead Don’t Die. I think I was six or seven and the scene where the corpse comes to life and walks toward the camera frightened me. That scene and the hallucinations in Carnival of Souls really scared me as a child.
Curtis:
Well, I had that wonderful horror actor, Reggie Nalder. I was very happy to get him and I had Joan Blondell in that film. That was a big thrill for me. I loved working with those ladies of the past, you know? She was so nice.
Gib:
Another intense actor you worked with was Anthony Perkins in How Awful about Allan. How was that?
Curtis:
That’s right. Oh, it was great. Tony was a consummate professional. I had two great people in that film: Julie Harris and Tony. Tony was just wonderful. Always knew his lines, always on the set on time, never any trouble, and not temperamental. You’d think he’d be temperamental but he wasn’t. He was just wonderful. A very interesting thing in How Awful about Allan—you know he played a person that has hysterical blindness. We had a tight schedule and there was no real rehearsal time. Tony wore contact lenses on his own for his own vision. He had special opaque contact lenses made. So in all the scenes where he is blind, he really is blind.
Gib:
Wow.
Curtis:
He had to be lead onto the set. Tony—he had a great sense of humor, very wicked.
Gib:
So tell me about your latest film, Usher.
Curtis:
I play Roderick Usher and then the credit for the sister is like in The Bride of Frankenstein: it’s a question mark where everyone can figure it out for themselves. The attitude that you find in the movie business is fascinating. People are absolutely bewildered—“What market did you make it for? What did you have in mind for distribution?” Nothing. I made this film because I’m a filmmaker. I love to make films and this is a very personal film. No commercial purposes whatsoever. It was shot using short ends in 35mm. I was very fortunate and I had a lot of volunteer talent because the film was made for the cost of the materials, except I had to pay the negative cutter. When I went to prop places to rent props, I would say I’m making a student film. They might look at me and say that’s a little peculiar so I said, “I’m the senior advisor for a student film.” So I’d get student rates for everything. The most amazing thing—I can’t explain it, it’s almost metaphysical—one of the most important props that I had to get for this film was the grandfather clock with an open case. And I discovered that grandfather clocks with open cases are very hard to find. I went to a prop shop where I had rented props many years earlier for my film Games and they had just the clock that’s in the film. I gave them my spiel about being a student and we needed it for at least a week and a half. Ordinarily, I think it would’ve been pretty expensive but to my amazement, when I asked how much it was going to be, the guy working there said, “You can have it for nothing.” I don’t know why, I just lucked out. Gary (Graver) was able to get a free camera from the Panavision people and a lot of things like that.
Gib:
You dedicated Usher to Jean Epstein. Were you influenced by his silent version?
Curtis:
Remotely. The Epstein version has wonderful atmospheric qualities but it has a ludicrous plot. Epstein betrays the intention of Poe but at the same time captures the Poe feeling wonderfully. So I have very ambivalent reactions to that film. I don’t know what was in his mind. I never got to talk to him about it. But he was a very interesting semi-avant garde filmmaker in France. I heard a rumor that Luis Buñuel, who is certainly one of my favorite filmmakers, worked as an assistant on that film.
Gib:
No one has really come close to the images in (Buñuel’s) Un Chien Andalou. Nothing like it before or since.
Curtis:
No, it’s a very special film. It’s a true Surrealist film. The principles of its execution…it’s very remarkable. But I like a lot of his feature films that he made later. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? I particularly like that one. To me, that is a film of his later period in which he put every theme and idea from his earlier films together. It’s like a summing up of all that Buñuel meant to the cinema.
Gib:
That is a great film. I love his satire of and contempt for the wealthy and the religious….What can you tell me about the never released Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind? You acted in it?
Curtis:
Yeah, I play myself in it. He did a scene at a party. You know the leading character is a film director.
Gib:
The John Huston part?
Curtis:
Yes, but Orson had this scene where I guess he’s sort of moving around at a party and he talks to various young film directors. He filmed that part before he cast Huston, so off screen he was playing the Huston part and that was improvised. He asked me questions and it was all improvised.
Gib:
What’s holding it up?
Curtis:
The daughter, Beatrice, is a huge troublemaker. She’s always trying to get money. She has no rights to this film at all, but she’ll threaten to sue if anyone does anything about it. Gary Graver is working with Oja Kodar and they’re still hoping that they’ll get backing that won’t be afraid of Beatrice. She’s a real, little bitch and she’s harming her father’s work. That’s the terrible thing. When they did the final version of Touch of Evil she was threatening to sue Universal, yet she has no rights of any kind.
Gib:
Which films of yours stick out as favorites?
Curtis:
One of my personal favorites is What’s the Matter with Helen? I’m very proud of that film and also my first feature, Night Tide, which was my own script and a film I raised the money for. Ironically enough, I’ve never been able to raise a penny since.
Gib:
Are there any recent filmmakers that interest you?
Curtis:
Yes, but very few. The only American is David Lynch.
Gib:
The Nuart is playing a midnight showing some supposedly unrated version of Wild at Heart.
Curtis:
Oh, well I’ll have to go to that. Isn’t that the one that has that wonderful actor playing Bobby…
Gib:
Peru. Just like the country.
Curtis:
Who could ever forget that? Willem Dafoe, one of the most vivid characters, and he played it so well, with those teeth. I loved it and I loved him in it… Have you seen a film that I admire so much and practically no one has seen? It’s called Liebestraum.
Gib:
No I haven’t, but I like some other Mike Figgis films.
Curtis:
Wonderful, just wonderful. The film has been totally ignored by audiences and critics and has no stars in it with the exception of Kim Novak who plays a very tiny part. It’s a very interesting film. I’d love to know what you think of it. Rent it. But I haven’t seen anything else of his that I liked nearly as well as Liebestraum. I’ll tell you my personal favorite film of the last—I don’t know, it may have been made more than twenty years ago now—time goes so quickly. My favorite big commercial movie of the last twenty or twenty-five years is Blade Runner. I really love it and I’m so disappointed in the director. I don’t think he has any high ambitions, it’s not that, but he certainly hasn’t made anything close to Blade Runner since it was made… One whose work I hate, a lot of young people think he’s really cool. I can’t remember his name. I can never remember the names of people I don’t like.
Gib:
What did he do?
Curtis:
Magnolia.
Gib:
Oh, Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t like him either.
Curtis:
I think his work is pretentious.
Gib:
What do you think about the state of the horror film today? Is there even a future for horror?
Curtis:
[laughs] Well, it all depends on the evolution of special effects. [laughs] I don’t think we’re going to get over that anytime soon. I just wish they were put to better use. I like character-driven horror and that’s very old fashioned. I think the only slightly interesting thing in the horror genre, and I’ve just read about them, are these Japanese horror films that are being remade in America. I thought The Ring was interesting, but I have a feeling I’d like the Japanese version a lot better. I always like Japanese horror films. I remember them from years ago. I used to go to the Japanese theater downtown. There were no subtitles or anything but they were always wonderful. The Japanese have a real wonderful sense of horror. I think it’s very hard for an individual filmmaker to get anything done. They’re all committee-made films. And most films are just animated demographics. The casting is all demographic and it’s nothing to do with the integrity of the film. I’m not interested in seeing films that are for built-in demographics. For example, films that have to have fourteen-year-olds who solve the world’s problems, you know? Spielberg was always doing that in his films; it’s always a kid who comes in with a computer. If I see that scene one more time I will puke. The worst director currently is Joel Schumacher. He’s the total pits. Remember he made that little, crappy teenage vampire movie a few years ago?
Gib:
I don’t remember. I probably blocked it out. All those movies are like watching someone else play video games… Have you ever considered writing an autobiography?
Curtis:
I’ve written four hundred pages. The title is Nice People Don’t Work in Hollywood. [laughs]
Gib:
Great title.
Curtis:
I haven’t shown it to anyone yet. I still have a lot I want to do, but I am proud of myself because I don’t write ordinarily. What I’m trying to do now, I have an idea for another short Poe film and I want to do that in the worst way and then put that together with Usher. That way I’d have enough running time to call it Two by Poe for a video release.
Gib:
Which Poe story is it?
Curtis:
The one I want to do is basically a story called “The Man of the Crowd.” It’s one of his lesser-known stories.
Gib:
Oh yes, that’s the one that has a voyeuristic feeling to it.
Curtis:
Yes. Very cinematic, the basic idea. What I want to do thematically is add elements from two other Poe stories, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” andWilliam Wilson.” It will be using the basic story of “The Man of the Crowd” to embellish the incidents from other Poe stories, thematically. That’s what I want to do. I’m working on the script now.
Gib:
Oh that sounds wonderful.
Curtis:
But this time I’d have to get some money. I made Usher for practically no money at all, and a very kindly film director friend of mine gave me the money to finish Usher. He doesn’t like me to tell who he is, so I won’t.
Gib:
Gosh, I think I’m out of questions.
Curtis:
You’ve seen Citizen Kane?
Gib:
Of course.
Curtis:
Remember when Kane says to the reporter, “Anything else? Come on, young fellow!”
Gib:
[laughs]
Curtis:
Remember that moment?