Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Spending A Little Time With Mr. B.I.G.

I was reading an old issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG this morning, when I ran across Dave Del Valle's interview with filmmaker Bert I. Gordon. Although Gordon (also known, for obvious reasons, as "Mr. B.I.G.") was one of the most prolific and popular (if not necessarily talented) genre directors of the 1950s, he has, to the best of my knowledge, given only two major interviews of any great depth. One was Del Valle's, published by VW in 2000. The other was with me in 2003. 

Though my Q&A with Bert Gordon has been available on the Interweb tubes for a few years, I have neither mentioned nor linked to it from this blog. It's a piece I'm quite proud of, so I thought I would dust it off and introduce it to a new audience. What follows is my original introduction to the interview, which took place in February 2003 and was posted in March 2003 on the original Mobius Home Video Forum

ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE. THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. FOOD OF THE GODS. These films rank among the most fondly remembered “monster movies” of their eras. And the man responsible for them--the man who served as director, producer, special effects master and often writer--is Bert I. Gordon, one of science fiction’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers. 

I met “Mr. B.I.G.“ at the University of Illinois' 20th Annual Insect Fear Film Festival. Each year, the U of I’s entomology department shows three films, sometimes mixed with a few shorts, with insect themes, usually of the science fiction/horror variety. This year's slate was BEGINNING OF THE END, EARTH VS. THE SPIDER and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, and as a special bonus, the man who directed all three, Bert I. Gordon, was in attendance as a special guest. 

Earlier in the day, I got to interview Mr. Gordon, sitting down with him for about an hour and fifteen minutes and discussing his entire career. For a man in his eighties, he looks incredibly young. His memory was spotty on occasion, not surprising considering some of these films were made more than fifty years ago, but he was alert, quite affable and often candid during our conversation. Even perhaps too candid in some moments when he asked me to turn off my tape recorder so he could tell a juicy story off the record. Although he wasn't terribly talkative, and maybe even shy, Gordon’s face would really light up when he got into a story about creating a particular special effect or getting into a scene, just like when he was a kid making shorts in his backyard in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He smiled and laughed often during our conversation, and I was glad he was having a good time. 

Although Mr. Gordon was friendly and open during our conversation, he informed me beforehand of a couple of ground rules. He didn’t want to discuss his career in terms of “years” or “how long ago” anything was, and he refused to speak about his family, including his former wife Flora and daughter Susan, both of whom worked on many Gordon films in various capacities. I, of course, respected his wishes. 

Marty McKee:  You were born in Wisconsin.  How does a young man from the Midwest end up in Hollywood making movies?

Bert I. Gordon:  Beginning when I was six years old, I always wanted to make movies.

Q:  Were you a big fan of movies when you were a kid?

A:  Totally.

Q:  Do you remember the first movie you ever saw?  Or the one that first captivated you?

A:  They all did.  Even the ones I didn’t like.  I was fascinated by the whole procedure, the process of making movies.

Q:  How about KING KONG?

A:  I saw it--not when it first came out.  It came out when I was a boy.  In fact, I used a piece of KING KONG in one of my films.

Q:  As stock footage?

A:  Yeah.

Q:  Do you remember what film that was?

A:  No.  I remember getting it from RKO.  They sent me the film.  

Q:  Did you make short films at home when you were a kid?

A:  Yes.  Trick films.  My aunt gave me a camera when I was about 8-9 years old, and I would do tricks with it.  Like have someone standing in the scene and then stop the camera and have them walk out so they’d “pop” off.  

Q:  So you were into special effects even when you were a kid?

A:  Yeah, yeah.  Or I’d do “ghost” things, where I’d wind the film back in the darkroom.

Q:  Did you write your films then too?

A:  Well, they didn’t have stories.  They were just little things.  Then I went and attended the University of Wisconsin.  I originated a campus newsreel that were theaters of talent screened on the weekends.  And so I filmed campus activities--all the parties and football games and everything.

Q:  What drove you to go to Hollywood?

A:  I didn’t go from college to Hollywood.  As I said earlier, I always wanted to make films as a boy, and I made films.  I always wanted to make movies.  I finished school, and then I started a little company making industrial films.  I made a film for a sports magazine, HOW TO TRAIN A HUNTING DOG.  I also did television commercials.

Q:  Do you remember any of those?

A:  No, I don’t.  But that movie HOW TO TRAIN A HUNTING DOG stands out, because I really enjoyed that I went up to Canada and they fortunately had a big hunting lodge and I had my hunting dog and I hunted before that anyway.  So I took my hunting dog and had a great experience up there.  But anyway, I always wanted to make movies.  And one day I woke up and I said, “I’m making movies, but these aren’t movies.”  So I said, “I’m going out there.”  To Hollywood.  I had no contacts, I had nothing.  I had no place to stay.  Nothing.  

Q:  Did you ever do local television or any episodic television when you got out there?  Or any time in your career, did you do television?  

A:  Well, I did a pilot for MGM and ABC, partnered in financing it.  I finished it and went to New York with it.  And I got a sponsor--it was Gillette.  Toni Home Permanent, which was by Gillette.  And I came back, but they didn’t put it on, because they had made a deal with Fox to buy their movies for television for a certain amount.  Part of the deal was that Fox would get three of their series on, and that cut me out.  So I said, “Fine, I’ll go to another network.”  ABC said, “You won’t for a year because the contract says...” Anyway, it was killed.

Q:  I’ve never read anything about you working in television.  Do you remember when that was?

A:  No.  I don’t like to think of years.  But it was on television about two years ago.  There was a series of pilots that never made it or something like that, so it played.

Q:  What was it about?

A:  Oh, it was a fun film.  It was TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER.  Two salesmen came down from Mars to open up new territory here.

Q:  It was a comedy?

A:  Yeah.

Q:  Who was in it?

A:  A very well-known, at that time, television actor whose series ran out.  In fact, here’s something interesting, now that you mention it.  When I was trying to set the deal, they liked the script, MGM and ABC, but they said, “We’ll only do this with this actor because we like him.”  So I said, “Fine, I’ll make the pilot with him.  I’ll make a deal with him.”  I went to talk to his agent.  The actor was in a play in Chicago.  I said (to the agent), “Let’s have him fly back.  It’ll just take a week (to shoot the pilot).”  The producer of the play in Chicago said no.  “He’s in the play, period.”  The studio said, “Forget it, we’ll do it again next year.”  I said, “No, no, you wait next year, there won’t be a ‘next year’.  Forget it.”  So I talked the studio into letting me go to Chicago to talk the producer into letting him go.  So I went there, and this man was a real jerk.  He made an appointment with me after the play, and he kept me waiting for about two hours.  It was about midnight when he finally showed up.  He said, “What do you want?”  You know, a real A-hole.  Anyway, I told him.  He said no.  Absolutely not.  No, no, no.  “You wasted a trip.”  I said, “What time does he report to go into the play?”  He told me such-and-such a time.  “I see.  What time is the play over?  I see.  OK.  Bye.”  So you know what I did?  Every single night, the play’s over.  I flew him to Los Angeles.  Got a limo to meet him at the airport.  To a room across the street from MGM.  Shot, got him back to Chicago, every single day.  I made the pilot.

Q:  Wow!  That’s exhausting.  Can you tell me who the actor was?

A:    What the hell was his name?  Maybe I’ll think of it.  But a good actor.  His series ran a long time, and that’s why they wanted him.  And that’s how I made the pilot.

Q:  Can we talk about SERPENT ISLAND?  As far as I know, that was your first Hollywood picture that you produced.

A:  Yes.  I didn’t produce that though.  I filmed it.

Q:  You were the cinematographer? (The Internet Movie Database lists Gordon as both cinematographer and producer of SERPENT ISLAND.)

A:  My industrial films and the University of Wisconsin and when I was a boy growing up making films, I learned camera.  In fact, I had my own camera, a 16mm from the industrial (films).  I brought it with me (to Hollywood).  I was ringing doorbells with it everywhere trying to get a job.  Trying to get someone to talk to me.  Agents don’t want to talk to you.  Nobody wants to talk to you out in Hollywood.  Unless you’ve got some money, they’ll talk to you then.  (Laughs)  Anyway, someone saw me with the camera.  “Is that a 16?  Do you know how to operate that?”  I said yeah.  “How would you like to work on a movie?  There won’t be any money.”  (Laughs)  I didn’t get paid.  But it was great.

Q:  You got a credit.

A:  Oh, yeah.

Q:  No money, but that was your start.

A:  You bet.  It was good.

Q:  And was KING DINOSAUR after that?

A:  Yeah.

Q:  How did that come about?

A: There were two men who made SERPENT ISLAND.  One of them approached me and said, “How about becoming partners?  We’ll make a movie.”

Q: You made the movie in how many days?

A:  I don’t remember the days, but I remember the money.  $18,000.

Q:  Was it a hit?

A:  I shot it in 16mm and edited it and directed it with Sonny Tufts (Tufts was actually the star of SERPENT ISLAND; he was not in KING DINOSAUR).  Every day we had he gone now?

Q:  I think he is. (Tufts passed away in 1970.)

A:  Okay, well, I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but he was usually drunk.  Many times, we had to get him out of bed, go over to his apartment.  (Laughs)  Nice man.  So, uh, what was your question?


A:  Oh, yes, yes.  So we went to the lab, and the lab financed us.  Gave us the 18 thousand.  When we were finished shooting in 16mm, we blew it up at the lab to 35, made a deal, and played the theaters.  

Q:  That was the first Hollywood film that you made...

A: a producer/director...

Q:  ...with the theme of giant animals.  So many of your films have that theme, and I’ve always been curious as to why that interested you.

A:  I also did small too.

Q:  Yeah, yeah.

A:  (INVASION OF THE) PUPPET PEOPLE.  And I also did supernatural.  And I’ve done comedy and I’ve done adventure.  I’ve done a lot of pictures.

Q:  Yeah, I know you’ve done a lot of different genres, but I’ve always wondered why that (giant animals) was so interesting to you.

A:  (Pause) I don’t know.  (Laughs)

Q:  Did you ever see a picture called DR. CYCLOPS (1940)?  With Albert Dekker?

A:  Yeah.  He had thick glasses.

Q:  Why did you do your own special effects?  Not many directors do.

A:  I don’t know of any.  You know, I figured out when I was fooling around with the 16mm camera I have, which was professional before I ever went to Hollywood.  It had all types of gadgets.  Kodak made it.  You could have mattes in it.  You could put little slides in.  You could back it up.  So, for instance, I could shoot you off the tripod.  Then with a matte blocking this side off.  Take the matte out, put it on the other side, you sit there, and I could have you talking to yourself.  So I learned, I fooled around.  Then in making television commercials, I did more tricks.  Like I did some animation.  I got an artist who knew how to do it, this woman who had been in Hollywood for a while.  So I did all that stuff.  Some of it a limited amount, but it fascinated me.  So when I came out here and I wanted to make things large--like, for instance, on KING DINOSAUR--you couldn’t get in the door of a special effects house.

Q:  Because you were new in town?

A:  No, because I had $18,000 to do a whole movie.  (Laughs)  So in the very beginning, I was using a visual effects house, but midway through the movie, I stopped, because they were experimenting, and for the money, I could do it myself.

Q:  Do you like doing the special effects better than the actual directing of actors?

A:  I like seeing the results of the visual effects.  It’s fascinating, you know, wow.  But I’ll tell you very truthfully, I really like every facet.  I enjoy writing, because I’m all alone.  In the middle of the night, I write.  It’s a fascinating procedure, all the creativity.  I enjoy writing.  Then when the script is done, I put the writing hat away, and I put the producer hat on to get a deal together, either with a studio or private money, which I’ve done twice.  Make the deal, and then I’m the director.  I love it all.  The visual effects, which I’ve enjoyed writing about, then putting them on the screen and saying, “Wow.” The big thrill is going to the theater, and you’re sitting in the back waiting--let’s say a sneak preview--and knowing they’re supposed to laugh at this.  “Please laugh!”  And then WHAM!

Q:  It’s fun, isn’t it!

A:  Fun!  Or if they’re supposed to scream in fright, and the spider (is sneaking up on its victim) and you’re waiting, waiting, and the sweat is building up, and all of a sudden, it happens, and they scream!  That’s what it’s all about.  I love it.

Q:  You’ve worked with iguanas and spiders and rats...  How do you get these animals to do whatever it is you want them to do?

A:  With different animals, different things.  With the rats, we trained them.  I set up my own unit of trainers of university students that were interested in insects.  And we had fun training them.  

Q:  Of course, insects you can’t train.

A:  No, no, not that I know.  But what you do is you put them in a situation and hope they’ll do what you want.  Then you try this or that or get a heat lamp on ‘em...  With insects, you waste a lot of film--you’re shooting at high speed, because you want to slow it down if you want to make them big--and they just sit there.  You’re shooting film, (but) you throw it away, you don’t have it processed.  But, eventually, they do something.

Q:  So sometimes you just have to wait.

A:  That’s right.  And sometimes you have to improvise and say, “Oh, they did that.  I’ll change the script.”

Q:  And in editing, you try to make it all fit.

A:  That’s right.  But that’s another thing that’s fascinating about visual effects.  To see the finished product where you have the people interacting with the insects and you made it work.  Like the insects in EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, we went down to the jungle in Panama and shot ants there.  We brought ants back to the hotel, and we eventually got them to do what we wanted them to do.

Q:  Earlier in your career in THE CYCLOPS, you worked with one of the great genre actors, Lon Chaney Jr.

A:  Yeah.

Q:  By some reports, he was a nice guy, drank too much, maybe a little moody.  Is that how you found him?

A:  No, no, he wasn’t moody.  And he didn’t appear drunk.  They kept telling me, “We found another bottle of gin.”  (Laughs)  And then later, “We found another bottle of gin.”  (Laughs)  An empty bottle.  But he never appeared drunk.

Q:  Was he good to work with?

A:  Yeah, yeah, loved him.  Another one they told me that I was going to have an awful time with was Orson Welles.  We got along beautifully.  We went on vacation together and everything.

Q:  What was it like to direct a great director like Orson Welles?  (Welles starred in Gordon’s NECROMANCY, released in 1972.)

A:  I’ll tell you a little story to preface that question.  Everyone warned me that when I would be directing a scene with Orson Welles, “Forget your directing, because he’s going to direct.  Forget it.”  But it was worth it to me, no matter what.  If he wanted to direct the whole film, just to have Orson Welles, okay.  

Q:  So you were a big fan of his, obviously.

A:  Oh, yes, yes.  CITIZEN KANE, everything.  So the day before he was supposed to report for his first day of shooting...

Q:  Where did you shoot NECROMANCY?

A:  Part of it was in Los Angeles in a mansion, and then part of it we went on location north near San Francisco, a little, little town called Las Gatas.  It was a supernatural film, and Las Gatas--I didn’t use it in the film or anything--but it was sure coincidental, because it had all the things that I wanted.  So we went up there for location work.  (Anyway) the day before filming, his secretary called my secretary and said, “Would you tell Mr. Gordon I have a message from Mr. Welles?  He does not report on the set before 10:00 am, and does not work after 4:30 pm.”  I was ready for it, of course.  Everybody had warned me, “Orson Welles?  Forget it.”  So now I’ve got to psych this man out, I’m thinking.  So what I did was, in Los Angeles, we had this mansion--a big mansion--and we were going to be shooting there several days, so we had designated for the stars certain bedrooms to be theirs for makeup and stuff and to rest between shootings.  I put his on the patio, and I arranged for a barbecue outside on the patio.  I arranged for a refrigerator next to that filled with all kinds of food that I researched, that I knew he loved.  The kind of steaks he loved.  I got ribs from Chicago.  And I had a chef with a hat.  (Laughs)  Honest to God.  Really.  

Q:  You treated him like a star, which he was.

A:  A superstar, you know, like that.  And then I said to this chef, “You stay right there next to that door.  I don’t want you lounging around.”  So it’s the first day of shooting, and I’m directing a scene with someone else, and I yell, “Cut!”  I look over on the sidelines and there’s Welles.  I walked over and said, “Orson.”  He said, “I know my secretary called you yesterday with a message.  Please disregard that.”  (Laughs)  And he was like a baby the rest of the way.

Q:  No problems?

A:  No problems.  It was easy to figure out that he wanted his ego...his whole thing was that he was an important man--and he was an important man.  I treated him like that, and there was no problem with the rest of it.

Q:  Did he tell you all kinds of stories?

A:  One thing that he didn’t talk about--and I was warned by someone who knew of him and his reputation--never mention CITIZEN KANE.  They said, “Don’t say it’s your favorite film.  Don’t ask him how it was with...just don’t mention it.”  Because that’s a terrible thing for him.  Because he was screwed out of its success by (William Randolph) Hearst.

Q:  You also worked with Pamela Franklin on NECROMANCY.

A:  Yes.  I did two films with her.  The other one was FOOD OF THE GODS.

Q:  So you must have enjoyed working with her.  She’s a good actress.

A:  Very good.

Q:  BEGINNING OF THE END, which we’re going to show here tonight, takes place right here in Central Illinois, and it uses the names of actual towns--Urbana, Ludlow, Paxton.  Did you know the area?

A:  I’m from Wisconsin, and I went to Chicago a lot.

Q:  A lot of fun of watching that film is seeing towns that I “know” being destroyed by giant locusts.  Now I’ve heard that they’re grasshoppers, but they’re locusts, aren’t they?

A:  They’re from a plague in Texas.  That’s where I got them.  

Q:  Peter Graves was in that picture.  How was he to work with?

A:  Terrific.  Most of the actors I worked with were wonderful.  They really were.  Basil Rathbone.  Chuck Connors.  Don Ameche.  Estelle Winwood.  Peter Graves.  Peggie Castle.  Orson.  But there were a few people who were full of themselves.  

Q:  You know who gives a wonderful performance--and he’s not as big a name as some of the others you’ve worked with?  Glenn Langan in THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN.  How did you come to cast him?

A:    I don’t remember.

Q:  Did you generally audition actors?  Did you write with an actor in mind?

A:  Sometimes, like with Orson Welles.  I had him in mind right from the beginning.  But usually I didn’t, and I would have a casting director who would make suggestions.  They would break down, “Okay, for this part, Glenn Langan...”  And then we’d go from there.  John Hoyt was in one of my films.

Q:  ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE.  I like that movie.  It’s fun.

A:  Thank you.  You know, about three years ago...he died last year; I think it was last year.

Q:  Not too long ago, you’re right. (John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991.)

A:  He made a...  First of all, he was a wonderful man to work with.  But he said the favorite film that he worked on was PUPPET PEOPLE.  He said because he felt a sensitivity, an emotion that he could identify with.

Q:  He was the villain, but he was a very sympathetic villain.

A:  Yeah, yeah.

Q:  A lonely man who wanted friends, and I think that’s why that movie works.

A:  In fact, his last line is, “Don’t leave me.  I’ll be alone.”

Q:  And John Agar was in that picture.  Did you only work with him that one time?

A:  Yeah.

Q:  Because he made so many science fiction pictures.  Did he enjoy doing those pictures?

A:  I have no idea.  I can’t remember that.  He was fine (in the picture, though).

Q:  Is AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN the one picture people ask you about the most?  Because it’s got that great title and a great gimmick and it’s got that giant hypodermic needle.

A:  (Laughs) Isn’t that funny?

Q:  I don’t suppose that exists anywhere today.  Is that in your garage?

A:  No, I gave it to the man who made it.

Q:  Was that Paul Blaisdell?

A:  Yeah.  I don’t know...different people ask different things.  I’ll tell you a question that I’m asked very often--and I was asked twice today--what is my favorite film?  And my favorite film is my next one.

Q:  (Laughs)

A:  It’s true.

Q:  Someone else I wanted to ask you about is Albert Glasser, who composed the scores to many of your pictures.  Some of them are on compact disc now.

A:  Oh, yeah.  He’s been selling them on the Internet.  

Q:  Was he a choice of yours?

A:  Yeah, sure.  Actually, I heard he was selling them, so I called him and said, “Al, you’re selling my movie scores.”  (Laughs)  He had no right to do this.  He said, “Yes, but I’ll split it with you.”  I said, “No, Al, you keep it.”

Q:  (Laughs) And when you did the sequel to THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, Dean Parkin was the colossal man.

A:  For some reason, they (AIP) couldn’t get Glenn.  I don’t remember (why), but I know that was the reason (he wasn’t in WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST).  I wanted to use him.  Parkin wasn’t as good as Glenn.

Q:  Why did you shoot the last scene of WAR in color?

A:  Because the distributor didn’t want to put up enough money to shoot it all in color, so I figured, “Well...”

Q:  (Laughs)  So you figured you’d get part of it anyway!  And that was American International, right?

A:  (Laughs)  Yeah.  

Q:  What were they like?  They’re legendary, of course.  (Samuel Z.) Arkoff and (James H.) Nicholson.  Did you work with one more than the other?

A:  In the beginning, it was Nicholson and Arkoff.  Nicholson was on top.  Then Nicholson fell in love with a young 21-year-old.

Q:  Susan Hart (an actress who appeared in several AIP films, including the title role in THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI).

A:  Susan Hart.  In his divorce, he lost part of the company to his wife.  And the next day, Sam’s name was up at the top.  (Laughs)

Q:  (Laughs)

A:  The next day!  And it was Arkoff and Nicholson.  

Q:  Sam was always dealing.

A:  Yeah, the next day, as soon as it happened, because now Jim didn’t have 51%.  Then after Nicholson died (in 1973), of course, it was all Sam.

Q:  Did you work more closely with Nicholson, because he seemed to be the creative one?

A:  He was.  He was, definitely.  

Q:  AIP was famous for their outrageous titles and their amazing one-sheets.  Were you involved with those?

A:  A little bit, yeah, with the posters, but 99% was the artist.  I forget his name, but I think he’s brilliant for this type of film.  What happened with this man is he made a deal with a company that was just starting in the restaurant business.  They said, “We want something different.  You design our logo, and we’ll give you a certain percentage of the company.”  He did that, and he retired right after that hit.  They’re a big chain now, a pancake house.  What is it called?

Q:  International House of Pancakes?

A:  That’s it.  And he wouldn’t do any more films after that.  I called him, begging him, please.  I was no longer at AIP.  I was with United Artists.  I said, “Please do my poster.”  He said, “I’ve got all the money I’m ever gonna need.”  And it was rolling in.


A:  No, that one (WAR) was theirs.  That was Jim’s.  Jim was the creative one.

Q:  What was your title?

A:  What did I make up?  PUPPET PEOPLE.  (EARTH VS.) THE SPIDER.  Of course, FOOD OF THE GODS I made a deal later, but that was H.G. Wells’ title.  Just about all my films, I made up the titles.  BEGINNING OF THE END.  EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, that’s H.G. Wells.  THE COMING, which was that witchcraft film (with Orson Welles and Pamela Franklin).  All my titles.

Q:  Somewhere in there you made THE BOY AND THE PIRATES, which was a little bit different than what you had done before.  Was that a conscious choice?  To do something new?

A:  (Thinking back) Let’s see, why did I make that?

Q:  You also did TORMENTED in there, which was a ghost story.

A:  Yeah, that one too.  THE BOY AND THE PIRATES is a pretty good film.

Q:  I haven’t seen that one.  It’s about pirates, right?  A pirate picture?

A:  Oh, yes.  There was a boy and a little girl.

Q:  And it was different?

A:  Oh, yeah, totally.  100%.

Q:  Why did you decide not to do another science fiction picture?

A:  (Thinks a long time)  I don’t know.

Q:  (Laughs)

A:  (Laughs) It was United Artists.  I had made a film, THE MAGIC SWORD, for them.  They liked it, and we came up with THE BOY AND THE PIRATES.

Q:  You wrote that one too.

A:  Oh, yeah.  I think I had it polished by somebody else.  I’m not sure, but I wrote the original (draft).  

Q:  THE MAGIC SWORD was also something different.  A fantasy picture, like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS?

A:  Yeah, St. George and the Dragon.

Q:  And that was with Basil Rathbone.  And Gary Lockwood.  Had he done much?

A:  Not too much.  I don’t remember.

Q:  He came in during the normal audition process?

A:  Right.  And Estelle Winwood was in that.  She was great.  And the dragon was great.

Q:  (Laughs)

A:  A fire-breathing dragon.

Q:  He was fun to work with?

A:  Yes, he was.  (Laughs)  You know, I built a big dragon.  On the screen, he was like 25 feet tall, but in actuality, it was about 11 feet tall.  I couldn’t make it any smaller, because otherwise the fire wouldn’t look real.  I could have burned in the fire later with visual effects, but that wouldn’t have looked real.  I wanted to use real fire.  So I had Fox build that, their effects department.  And then we shot real fire out.  We made that larger, and it still looks like real fire.  

Q:  Did you shoot THE MAGIC SWORD on Fox’s soundstages?

A:  Part of it.  I think all of it.  Another film I shot there was THE BOY AND THE PIRATES.  Century City took part of the Fox studios; they bought it and built Century City.  They had a lake in the back of Fox studios called Serson Lake, a big lake.  I was the last film to shoot on that lake.  I had miniature battleships shooting at each other.  That was fun!

Q:  (Laughs)

A:  “Fire one!”  With the remote control and the special effects!  Oh, and the waves!  You know how they made the waves?  They had big paddles that they would move and make the waves, and another one that made the wind waves.  We would yell, “Waves!  Waves!”  And they would (move those paddles).  “Fire one!  Fire two!”  

Q:  I love the way you get all excited about it.

A:  That’s why I made imaginative-type movies.  

Q:  Is it like being a kid sometimes?  Out in the backyard?

A:  Yeah, of course, of course.  It was just like I’m saying now, like playing with boats.  Now I have a big boat back there in Los Angeles.

Q:  (Laughs) On PICTURE MOMMY DEAD, you worked with Don Ameche.  I don’t know if he had worked in awhile.

A:  No, he hadn’t.  

Q:  Was he eager to get back into acting?

A:  Sure.

Q:  Zsa Zsa Gabor was in that picture.

A:  She wasn’t my first choice.  I had signed Hedy Lamarr.  

Q:  Oh, really?

A:  For a comeback, yeah.  Got a lot of publicity.  We were ready to shoot the next week, and she got arrested for shoplifting.  Arrested.  Taken to jail.  Terrible.  What was I going to do?  Her lawyer called me, “Don’t get excited.  Don’t fire her.”  “Where is she now?  I’d like to talk to her.”  “She’s in a rest home.”  “When can I talk to her?”  “She’s all right.  She’ll report (on time).”  I talked to the company that was backing me, and I told them what was happening.  They said, “For the publicity, she’s worth it.”  It was Joe Levine at Embassy Pictures.  I said, “Joe, I love her.  Great name.  The comeback.  Everything.  But if I lose her in the middle of the picture, if something like this happens and she freaks out, will you split the loss of the scenes that I shot with her?”  Which was a fair question, and he should have taken it.  “Okay, we’ll split it.”  But he said no, it’s all yours, you take her.  Joe said, “I want her back, but you’ll have to pay if she doesn’t show.”  So I said forget it and went for Zsa Zsa.  Well, the publicity when I fired Hedy...all over the world I got a front page.  Chicago Examiner.  My picture, and it says, “Film Boss Fires Hedy”.  (Laughs)  I still have these clippings.  She sued me, but she couldn’t win.

Q:  Can I ask you about your sex comedies?  I’ve never seen them, and I’ve never heard from anyone else who has either.  HOW TO SUCCEED WITH SEX is one.  

A:  On HOW TO SUCCEED WITH SEX, they made us change the title to HOW TO SUCCEED WITH THE OPPOSITE SEX.  

Q:  Okay.  (Laughs)

A:  Let me tell you about this film.  This film I wrote and made, and I think it’s one of my favorite films.

Q:  Really?

A:  Yeah, honestly.  The reviews I got were fantastic.  I should have stayed in comedy or in porno or something...

Q:  (Laughs)

A: wasn’t porn.  I have the reviews in VARIETY and HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, they don’t just say, “Oh great this, great that.”  They said, “Here’s a man who’s made a sexual film that’s in good taste.”  

Q:  Is it like a bedroom farce?

A:  I’ll tell you what it was.  A parody.  In other words, people are playing it totally straight.  It was an excellent film.  It played on Broadway.  It’s terrific.

Q:  Is it a lost film?

A:  The man who ran the company--I can’t remember his name--but it was an independent company, a major one in those days.  He went bankrupt.  I don’t even have a print of (HOW TO SUCCEED...), but I have all the clippings and the ads and everything else.  You wouldn’t believe the reviews by name reviewers.  “The GONE WITH THE WIND of Sex Films.”  Judith Crist, I think, wrote that.  It amazed me.  Then LET’S DO IT! I did with Sylvia Kristel.  

Q:  That was after she’d already been in EMMANUELLE, so she was a big star at the time.

A:  She did EMMANUELLE after that. (Kristel actually starred in Gordon’s THE BIG BET, which was released in 1985, eleven years after EMMANUELLE.)

Q:  As far as I know, these films haven’t emerged anywhere.

A:  They were in video stores.  I know they played everywhere, because I have the clippings of the theaters they played in.  I’ve been looking for prints.

Q:  I hope you find them.

A:  I think I’ll go to the Internet.  Maybe I’ll find them there.

Q:  And THE BIG BET?  Was that similar in tone?

A:  Yes, they all were.  Well, the one with Sylvia Kristel wasn’t.  That was straight.  But THE BIG BET was another parody.  I liked it.

(At this point, Gordon asks me to turn off the tape recorder, so he can tell me an interesting and bawdy story about Kristel.  I promised him I wouldn’t print it.  So I won‘t.  Sorry.)

Q:  My favorite of your pictures is THE MAD BOMBER with Chuck Connors.  One reason I like it is because, like John Hoyt in PUPPET PEOPLE, Connors is a very sympathetic villain.

A:  I like that film.  That film got me into the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  To get into the Academy, you have to be suggested by a member, and then they want to look at one of your films.  That’s the film I gave them.  

Q:  It worked.  It got you in.

A:  It worked, right.  I like that film very much.

Q:  The opening scene is perfect.  Chuck Connors walking down the sidewalk, and the man litters.

A:  (Laughs)  Yeah, yeah!

Q:  What was Chuck Connors like?  

A:  Well, he had a temper, and when we screened the print in my home as soon as it was done--he liked to drink, and he had a drink in his hand.  And he said, “I don’t like that scene!”  And--whew--the glass went flying against the screen!  (Laughs)  Certainly nice to work with, but he was eccentric.

Q:  It’s also interesting in that the hero of the film played by Vince Edwards is less likable than the villain.

A:  Oh, yeah!  I wanted to make the villain sensitive like in PUPPET PEOPLE, and you can’t have everybody sensitive, because then what have you got?  You have no conflict if everyone’s a nice guy.

Q:  The heroes in these things are always nice guys, but in this one, Vince pushes people around and curses.  Neville Brand was also in it.

A:  Yes, he was good.  And his method of choosing (his victims) and putting composites together, at that time, was quite innovative.  It was a nice movie to make.

Q:  And Jerry Gross released that through his company, Cinemation, as THE POLICE CONNECTION, which is the title on the version I have.  Do you have any stories about him?

A:  No, I really don’t.  That film is one of my favorites too, except for one thing that happened, and that is there was a four-way partnership to make that film.  Everybody worked for scale.  There was the man who put up the money--it wasn’t Jerry Gross--Vince, Chuck and me.  And after the film was finished, the man who put up the money just didn’t talk to us anymore.  So we wanted to sue.  Chuck and Vince called me--and I made a mistake, I said, “Okay, let’s sue.”  But in Hollywood--it’s such a small community--I just didn’t want to do it, and I lost totally everything.  I didn’t have any of the profits.  They made money on that film.  

Q:  How do you feel about that part of the job?  Before you make the film, when you have to find the investors and round up the money.  Do you enjoy that part?

A:  No.  

Q:  But it’s got to be done.

A:  It’s got to be done.  So you either get a studio to do it, or I did five or six films with private money.  But if you get a major studio, that’s the best.  But some of them cheat you too.

Q:  Did you ever use any of your own money?

A:  Yes, on TORMENTED.  

Q:  Did you get any of that back?

A:  Sure.

Q:  Several of your films were based on works by H.G. Wells.  Did you read a lot of Wells and other science fiction?

A:  Sure.

Q:  As a kid you did?

A:  Oh, yes.

Q:  What about now as an adult?

A:  I just read for the second time FIRESTARTER (by Stephen King).  

Q:  What was it about Wells that made you want to adapt his work?

A:  Imagination.  I don’t think that much of his narrative--it’s sort of episodic.  It isn’t plotted properly, I feel.  It’s more idea than plot.

Q:  But you just took ideas of his anyway.

A:  Yeah, except FOOD OF THE GODS, which is fairly close, but with more plot, because Wells didn’t have that much plot.  

Q:  That one had Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ida Lupino...  Did you have any problems working with a lot of stars instead of just one or two?

A:  No, no.

Q:  I just saw EMPIRE OF THE ANTS on DVD.  Have you seen any of the DVDs of your work?

A:  No, but I’ve seen them in the store.

Q:  I love the giant ants, of course, but I really love the twist when you find out the ants are brainwashing people?  Where did that come from?

A:  I just made it up.  

Q:  You had Joan Collins in that one, getting all muddy and dirty, which is not very “Joan Collins”.  Did you have any problems getting her all mussed up?

A:  She was not one of my most cooperative stars.  

Q:  Where did you shoot?

A:  Florida.  There was this river that looked just like Africa with real alligators.  For one scene, Joan was supposed to go in the water, and she didn’t want to go in.  I took all the precautions.  I had grips gathered around the perimeter.  I told her, “The alligators are out there.  They don’t want you anyway.”

Q:  (Laughs)

A:  I had a hell of a time.  I finally pushed her in.

Q:  (Laughs) I wanted to ask you about Robert Forster.

A:  Terrific guy.

Q:  You worked with him on SATAN’S PRINCESS.

A:  I made it at Universal as MALEDICTION.  Universal distributed it in foreign countries as MALEDICTION and domestically as SATAN’S PRINCESS.  Did you ever see the film?

Q:  Yeah, I saw it on cable several years ago.  The girl with Forster is Lydie Denier.

A:  Gorgeous.  You have a good memory.  She is gorgeous.

Q:  Yes, she is.  And Forster was a good guy to work with?

A:  Oh, yes, yes.  In fact, I’d like to do something again with him.  Excellent, and his cooperation was excellent.

Q:  You haven’t done any films since then.  Have you retired?

A:  No, no, no, no.  I’ve been working on writing and developing projects, and finally I came up with this new screenplay that I’m now talking to studios about.  It’s a parody of the type of film I’ve been doing, like AIRPLANE! or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN where actors play perfectly straight, but the situation is funny.

Q:  Do you see a lot of movies?

A:  Sure.  I get a lot of screeners from the studios, especially during Academy Award season.  

Q:  What have you seen recently that you liked?

A:  CHICAGO.  I ran that twice.  Loved it.  Terrific.  GANGS OF NEW YORK.  THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

Q:  Do you see genre pictures like the ones you used to make?

A:  No.  

Q:  Do you know for whom you’re voting in the Academy Awards?

A:  They’re already nominated.  The nominations were in last week.  I’m going to vote for CHICAGO as Best Picture.  It’s really a fun picture.

Q:  What’s it like to come to Champaign, Illinois and be celebrated for these films you did in your younger days?

A:  Three years ago, fifteen of my films were shown at Sitges in Spain at a festival.  Not a horror film festival, but a regular one.  So they honored me, I was the guest of honor; I guess it was about four years ago.  It was over several days and they would bring me on stage.  That was really great.

Q:  And you had better weather then too.  (Champaign was in the middle of a raging blizzard the day of this interview.)

A:  Oh, it was wonderful.  I said, “Maybe I should think about moving here.”

Q:  It’s too bad we had to hit you with a blizzard.

A:  I don’t mind.  In fact, I’d probably be disappointed if you didn’t have one, so I could remember my childhood in Wisconsin!

Q:  Did you ever think that one day there would be an entire festival dedicated to you?

A:  I’ll tell you honestly.  I enjoy making films so much, that’s all I can think about--making films.  I love making films.  Every phase of it.  Except setting the deal.  That’s a pain in the ass.

Q:  Have you ever thought about writing your memoirs?

A:  Oh, yeah.  But I’m not ready for the ending yet.  (Laughs)

POSTSCRIPT: Del Valle's Gordon interview is in VW #56. Re-reading both, I noticed several of my questions are similar to Del Valle's (though Gordon's answers are sometimes different). While I had certainly read Del Valle's piece long before my meeting with Gordon (and I probably read it again during my pre-interview research), any similarities are, I assure you, completely coincidental. I urge you to read the VW piece if you can, since it covers some material that mine doesn't (and vice versa).

P.P.S. Bert I. Gordon died March 8, 2023 in California. He was 100 years old, making him 80 when I spoke to him in Champaign-Urbana. And he did write those memoirs, by the way.

1 comment:

Steve Johnson said...

Hi, Marty. I've been on a BIG kick lately, and just ran across your interview. Nice to spend time with the guy, and nice to read your sympathetic and well-informed questions. His films have a naive, possibly juvenile tone -- even his sex comedies. (Could he be the exploitation Jerry Lewis?) As a result, they also display a conflicted attitude toward women. Any idea why he refused to talk about Flo? He seems to be making the convention circuit with Susan, now.