What Can We Steal From the Feature Film Ed Wood?
Title of Work and its Form: Ed Wood, feature film
Author: Directed by Tim Burton, written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film was FINALLY released on DVD and can be purchased through the usual outlets. (Go do that now. The movie is literally awesome.)
Bonuses: Here is Roger Ebert’s review of the film. The film was discussed on a very cool podcast: An Hour With Your Ex. Mr. Burton will reteam with Mr. Alexander and Mr. Karaszewski for his next film. I will be there! And here is a Halloween podcast that features both of the scribes!
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: EVERYTHING
I was an adolescent in 1994 and knew very little about the world or about myself. What I did know is that I loved writing and the creation of art made me happy. I cherish the memory of my father taking me to see Ed Wood in the theater; it’s one of the first times I fell in love with anything. The writers and director tell the story of Edward D. Wood Jr., another man who loved sharing his creativity. Are his films any good? That’s not the point. Ed Wood poured his heart and soul into his work and laid his soul bare for the audience. The film begins as Wood debuts his new play, The Casual Company. The reviews were as bad as the production values. A simple twist of fate: Ed Wood happens to meet and befriend Bela Lugosi, who has a terrible drug problem and needs money. Wood talks his way into directing his first film: a fictionalization of the Christine Jorgensen story. Why must her name be taken off the picture? As producer George Weiss says, “That bitch is asking for the sky.” Glen or Glenda is released…kinda. It loses money. The rest of the film details the creation of Bride of the Atom and Plan 9 From Outer Space, easily two of the worst films ever made. Wood went to extreme lengths to get the movies made: he was baptized by church people who had money, he sweet-talked a meat distributor into giving him money and even gave a plum part to a woman he believed had money. (He was wrong.) When Lugosi dies, Wood wonders how he will finish Plan 9. Why, with a body double, of course! Just as all seems lost and Wood reaches his breaking point, he meets Orson Welles, who speaks with him filmmaker-to-filmmaker. “Is it all worth it?” Wood asks. Welles replies:
“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”
Plan 9 is finished, guided by Wood’s creative instincts. Howard Shore’s superlative score swells and the hero has won the day.
Like I said, this is my favorite movie of all time and is objectively one of the best of its era, if not of all time. I understand up front that this essay will fall short of what I want to say about the film. You know what? That’s okay. Ed Wood may not have created any towering works of creative genius, but he created. He wrote novels, directed films, wrote scripts… he produced. Many writers allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. How many of us are ever going to create a Hamlet or a Superman or a The Godfather or an “Annabel Lee”? Not too many of us, sadly. The important thing is that we feed, honor and collaborate with our muses as much as possible.
Although Wood takes them in stride, he is challenged by numerous obstacles, both internal and external.
|Artistic self-doubt||Societal distaste (and worse) for transvestites|
|The need to be accepted||Societal misunderstanding of transvestitism|
|The need to be accepted for who he really is||Inability to “fit in” with the normal Hollywood crowd|
|The need to tell the stories dictated by his muse||The inherent difficulty in getting films financed|
|The desire to employ Bela against the need to exploit him||The inherent difficulty in making a great film (or any great work of art)|
|Dolores’s lack of understanding in their romantic relationship|
|The difficult task of motivating other people to work in the interest of your work|
|Bela’s poor health and advanced age|
One of the reasons that the film is so great is that Wood is cast as the successful underdog, even though his movies didn’t turn out very good. You may not be a transvestite, but there are still times when your identity causes problems for you. The audience has someone to root for in Wood, no matter who they are. In constructing the character of Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski follow the advice Polonius gave to his France-bound son:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Ed Wood is so compelling because the massive obstacles don’t stop him from being a dynamic character. Just about every character in the film, in fact, is the same way. Bela keeps working (as though he had a choice) and Wood’s crew overcomes their fatigue to finish their films. The overall point seems to be this: a powerfully dynamic character needs a lot of conflicts to overcome. Hamlet. Harrison Bergeron. Carrie Bradshaw. These are oversized personalities who require oversized obstacles. Who wants to see LeBron James play one-on-one with a five-year-old? (Or Aaron Carter with Shaquille O’Neal?)
Another one of my favorite parts of the film is the whip-smart dialogue. Alexander and Karaszewski demonstrate their ability to write world-class comedy dialogue in the film. (As they did in their previous classic Problem Child. Seriously.) It’s certainly true that the actors are responsible for their stellar line readings. But they wouldn’t have anything to say if Alexander and Karaszewski hadn’t put fingers to keyboard.
Look at one of the first scenes in the film. The cast and crew of The Casual Company are reading the review of their show. Their faces go from excitement to disappointment. Then:
Oh, what does that old queen know? She didn’t even show. Sent her copy boy to do the dirty work. Screw you, Miss Crowley.
Do I really have a face like a horse?
What does “ostentatious” mean?
Hey, it’s not that bad. You can’t concentrate on the negative. Look, he’s got some nice things to say here. “The soldiers’ costumes are very realistic.” That’s positive!
The exchange is so great because it is hilarious, but the lines are also deeply rooted in character. Bunny’s gender is…well, he’s not quite sure. And that’s okay. Dolores is a beautiful young ingénue who later breaks up with Ed because of the perception of others. Paul is an insecure actor who isn’t exactly the best-educated guy around. And Ed is an optimist at heart.
Comedy works best when the punchlines are derived from the characters who deliver them. Why? I think because the audience has lots to go on. Not only are they laughing at the construction of the joke, but another part of their brain is factoring in their established understanding of the character. Even better, you’re using more than one tool from your writer’s toolbox. In this case, Alexander and Karaszewski are getting laughs while establishing character and dropping in exposition.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to the great transition to the following scene. Wood reassures everyone they’re doing “great work.” A second later, he’s in bed with Dolores. A thunderclap reverberates as he says, “Honey, what if I’m wrong? What if I just don’t got it?” Although an optimist, Wood is a kind of realist.)
Ed Wood is an all-time classic that, to me, represents one of the artistic high-water marks in the careers of those involved. I have no idea if Alexander and Karaszewski were aware of what they were doing, but the character of Ed Wood is a shining example for writers of all kinds and his story (both the true version and the fictional) is an ideal to which we should all aspire.
What Should We Steal?
- Believe in your work and in yourself, no matter what. Should you get cocky about your talent and make risky life decisions? Maybe not. Or maybe you should…
- Match the character’s dynamism to their level of strength and motivation. A story may not be compelling if the dragon is slayed too easily.
- Derive your comedy from your unique characters. Give your reader the context that allows them to know why they should laugh.
- Surround yourself with great people. Remember the timeless wisdom of Ed Wood:
Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t pass judgment on people.
That’s right. If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.