Friday, October 23, 2020

A conversation with Robert Campbell – Part Three

This is Part Three of an archival interview conducted in 1987 with prolific novelist and screenwriter Robert Campbell (1927-2000). You can find Parts One and Two HERE and HERE).

WALLACE STROBY: What do you think was the best film made from one of your screenplays? Do you have a personal favorite?

ROBERT CAMPBELL: Yeah, a little film called QUANTEZ (1957). Harry Keller directed it, and it starred Fred MacMurray and Sydney Chaplin. That was a lovely experience, probably the nicest experience in terms of working conditions as well. It was a very laid-back set. There were not a lot of egos flying around, and nobody was trying to hammer anybody else into the ground. Everything was realized that I wanted to be said in that little screenplay.

STROBY: Were you often on the set when you were working on a Corman film? Was it his policy to have writers on the set to do rewrites, or did it end when you handed in the script?

CAMPBELL: It ended when you handed in the script, but this is true of most of Hollywood. They would rather the writer get off the set, and they don’t want him around. For one reason, they feel that actors will come up and agitate him for an improvement in their role or long discussions about this or that. In fact, there was one occasion when I was in Dubrovnick, Yugoslavia, when a picture of mine (THE SECRET INVASION) was being shot. The actors kept coming up to me with just those kinds of things and I put it to them bluntly. “I’m here on holiday. I didn’t come here under Roger’s auspices. He didn’t pay my way.”

They were appalled by that. They thought I should be there, and as long as I was there Roger should put me on the payroll. But, of course, Roger would never do that.

STROBY: Is it true THE YOUNG RACERS (1963) came from Corman bringing everyone to Europe on a holiday?

CAMPBELL: No. What happened was, one of the ways he attracted people to the idea of doing the picture was the way the races themselves were set up. There were circumstances where you’d be at Elstree, you’d shoot the races for that day or the day of practice, so you’d be out there with cameras for those two days. They would shoot what they could on locations around Elstree and then, of course, there’d be a three-day wait for the next race in Spa or someplace. So everybody just sort of took off, for sometimes four or five days.

I went with Francis Ford Coppola (a Corman protege and soundman on THE YOUNG RACERS) to Ireland, and that’s where I introduced him to this producer, Raymond Strauss, who put up the European half of the money that Francis shot DEMENTIA 13(1963) with. He asked my brother to star in it, and the English actor Patrick Magee, who was also in THE YOUNG RACERS. In fact, Francis got most of his crew from people who worked on that picture. He also called up some friends of his.

STROBY: You had a fairly large role in THE YOUNG RACERS yourself.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I played my brother’s brother. I was an awful actor. At the time I did THE YOUNG RACERS I had an excuse for it, because I had developed Bell’s Palsy so part of my face was paralyzed, and it was very difficult to act with half your face. But I never thought much of acting as a means of living your life. It’s a pretty boring process.

Later on, when my brother did CELL 2455, DEATH ROW (The story of “Red Light Bandit” Caryl Chessman, based on his memoir) for Columbia, they wanted somebody who looked enough like Billy to play him when he was younger. It ended up I co-starred in that picture with my brother, and most people didn’t even know there were two actors, so I must have done a pretty good job. But I never wanted to act.

STROBY: Do you miss those screenwriting days at all?

CAMPBELL: No. I’m sure there are some screenwriters – Robert Bolt and others – who have had prestigious assignments right from the beginning and have managed to get in a group that works well together and frequently. My career didn’t go that way.

Most screenwriters will tell you of their bitter frustration, even though they are the initiators of the material that allows everything else to go forward, they are treated as third-class citizens and they are the low man on the totem pole. Their opinion counts very little.

STROBY: And yet, some of Corman’s best films had screenplays by you – MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, MACHINE-GUN KELLY...

CAMPBELL: Going back to what I said before, Roger – even though he paid so little money – was probably the least intrusive of any director I ever worked with. Roger didn’t have any personal artistic ax to grind. Roger was out there to make films that were going to make him money. That’s what his interest was.

Now, in more recent years with all the publicity Roger’s gotten, I’m sure he considers that he always did have a game plan artistically, but I don’t believe he did. I think Roger was simply trying to make films as efficiently as he knew how for as little money as he could.

Roger was a guy who knew how to make pictures lean and mean. And I was a guy who knew how to write dialogue and make concise characters very fast. Not stereotypes, they were characters with unique possibilities, but there they were and you could roll. His career would have been much different if his films had budgets which could support huge stars.

STROBY: By the same token, you wrote what many people considered a very thoughtful, maybe thought-provoking, script called “Prehistoric World,” and when it came out it had the exploitation title TEENAGE CAVEMAN.

CAMPBELL: Yeah (laughs). I was in London at the time when they called me about the name change. I just laughed because, as I say, right from the very beginning I grew a very thick skin.

Later, I met Robert Vaughan in a coffee shop on the Sunset Strip and we were talking. I asked him about his latest effort. He mumbled something about having just completed filming a screenplay called “Prehistoric World,” “an allegory.” I said, “You mean TEENAGE CAVEMAN?” “That was regrettable,” he said. Bob is a very serious fellow, you know. So I said, “I know, Bob. I wrote it.”

That wasn’t the most serious injury done me on that film. The whole thing was an allegory, as you know, about the destruction of the world by atomic power. And here is mankind trying to struggle out of it, building all the myths, the taboos, doing all the things that were supposed to preserve the remnants of the race long enough for it to survive. And when Vaughan’s character goes stumbling off into the lush forest, when he goes daringly out there – which is also allegorical, that somebody sooner or later is going to turn their back on the teaching of the elders and find out that what was said was not true – he was supposed to come upon this spaceman in what I envisioned as a marvelous, elaborate spacesuit, you know, Victorian, sort of like the kind of stuff Disney did in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

Well – and this is why I say Roger really had no artistic intent about most of what he did – instead of this, he came up with this lizardman suit he’d found. Here this was supposed to be this elaborate spaceman, and he’d come up with this lizardman suit. I think he said it cost $65 (laughs).

(Robert Campbell's – mostly – complete filmography can be found HERE.)<

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