Friday, October 23, 2020

A conversation with Robert Campbell – Part Two

In Part Two of this archival interview from 1987, the prolific screenwriter and novelist Robert Campbell talks about his days writing – and acting – for director Roger Corman, and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the Lon Chaney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957). You can read Part One HERE.

Above, Campbell (left) with Jonathan Haze in Roger Corman's FIVE GUNS WEST (1955).

WALLACE STROBY: What part did you play in FIVE GUNS WEST?

ROBERT CAMPBELL: I played a guy named Billy Candy, who was supposed to be this kind of deadly, quiet killer. And the funny part about it was I got sensational reviews, which made me laugh because I didn’t want to be an actor.

STROBY: FIVE GUNS WEST was Corman’s first film as a director, and your first film as a writer and actor. In an interview, Corman once said that he was nervous and sick to his stomach the whole time the movie was being shot and could barely make it to the set. What are your memories of the picture?

CAMPBELL: What I remember most about that movie was that we used to go out to Irison’s ranch to shoot and we were in the same dirty clothes day after day after day and they got filthier and filthier.

I also remember that I learned to ride a horse on that film. I was a city boy, you know. Ben Johnson was married to Fat Jones’ daughter, and Fat Jones was the guy who supplied all the horses for motion pictures back then. He had this big rental ranch with all kinds of stagecoaches and everything. So it was Ben Johnson who taught me how to ride.

I used to ride this little horse called Shorty, which was also the horse Jimmy Stewart always rode. He was a real nice little horse. One day, however, I arrived at the ranch and found out that Shorty had been put onto another picture. As a substitute, Ben brings out the biggest horse I ever saw. (I said) “Ben, what happens if I fall off that horse?” “Well,” he said. “You fall off that horse, you’ll never fall off again.”

Touch – his name was Touch Connors in those days – Mike Connors, also went riding with us. He learned how to ride there too. I remember one day his horse started to paw the ground, and he asked Ben what was going on. Ben said, in his Texas drawl, “He’s ‘bout to lay down.” “What’ll I do?” asked Mike. “Step out of the saddle,” answered Ben.

It was fun. I remember Roger well. Roger was always working on short change. He didn’t have any money, and some of the actors were unhappy with that, but, you see, I wasn’t an actor. After I did that first film, I wrote another picture for Roger (NAKED PARADISE 1957), and this time I got $400. I also told him I didn’t want any credit for it.

STROBY: How many films did you do with Corman?

CAMPBELL: Five or six. After that, Red Hershon took me on as a client. I had written an original screenplay that was sold to Kirk Douglas. That film was never made, oddly enough, but that was the picture that broke me out. The next picture I did was GUN FOR A COWARD (1957), which I sold to Warner Bros. Warners bought it for James Dean, but then Dean got killed. So we took it to Universal and it was made over there.

STROBY: In those days, working with Corman, when you were facing tight schedules, low budgets, scrambling for everything, were you enjoying yourself or was there too much stress to really do that?

CAMPBELL: It was fun. A lot more fun, I’m assuming, than it is now. I think what happens is that youth is a powerful sweetener of whatever you’re doing. Nobody was making any big career moves. But some of the older actors in FIVE GUNS WEST, like Paul Birch, got a little unhappy because Roger didn’t have it on the schedule to get in for the closeup.

I thought it absurd one day in a (scene) where I’m under the cabin and I’m shooting up through the floor to try to kill the hero, John Lund. Lund finally runs out of the house, across the porch, and I’m firing like this (points up). He scrambles in behind me and I was supposed to turn around and shoot at him.

Now, it had been established in the screenplay that I was a deadeye, that I could pick off a fly at 300 yards. The cameras are rolling and Lund, who wasn’t all that athletic, is supposed to be crawling around under there while I’m winging off shots. I must have shot six times and John never fired back. He was supposed to get me with one shot. Well, it looked silly as hell, but of course Roger never reshot because there wasn’t any time. That was a take.

I have to admit, that little picture made a lot of money for him for its day. He made it for spit.

STROBY: What kind of time frame were you looking at when you wrote a screenplay? How long did you have to work on it?

CAMPBELL: I could write a screenplay in about a month, that’s how long it took me. I don’t know why it takes people so long to write screenplays, except that everybody wants to get in on the act. And that was less true of Roger. The one thing that could be said of working with him is that Roger didn’t spend a lot of time romancing anybody or with nonsense. Roger would say, “Here on Page 20, I’d like to have some violence.” You’d say, “Roger, there’s no motivation for it.” “Well,” Roger would say, “Find a reason for it because it seems to me that it’s slowing down and the crowd that comes to our pictures wants to see a little something.”

So okay, it was pretty cut and dried. You were a tailor that was telling a guy “You want purple pockets on your tan suit? It’s okay with me, babe. It’s not going to look good, but I’ll do it.”

STROBY: How did the MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES project come about? It may be your best-known film as a writer.

CAMPBELL: Producer Bob Arthur came to me and said he had been impressed by the fact that I had been able to establish a language in film that identified the era and the place, that had a great sense of the time in which the film was taking place. He was talking about, I think, the westerns that I had done. It was on that basis that I got the assignment.

There was one guy (Ralph Wheelwright) who got a screen credit for having done the notes as well. He had worked with Chaney and had kept all these notebooks. That was the basis for the story.

STROBY: While you were writing the screenplay, were you in a position where you had to do research into Chaney’s life or did you use those notes exclusively?

CAMPBELL: The guy was right there on the scene, so there was no requirement for research. But in those days the so-called harsh – well, the more candid, let’s put it that way – biographies that are done today were not possible.

I remember when I came walking up the aisle from a screening – a studio screening, and there were just a few people there. I didn’t realize it, but Lon Chaney Jr. was sitting in the back of the room. As I passed, he said to me, “You really whitewashed the son of a bitch, didn’t you?”

Lon Chaney Jr. had nothing to do with it. There were no consultations, no conferences, no discussions, no nothing. It may well be, for all I know, Bob Arthur may have had discussions with him, but I was never asked to get into it. I knew Lon from around the lot but I just saw him that one day when he was sitting in the back watching the picture.

STROBY: In your estimation, how much of the finished film is Hollywood and how much maybe accurately reflected Lon Chaney’s life?

CAMPBELL: I don’t know. I think it was probably ninety percent his life. Remember, what we’re talking about here too is a matter of attitude. Lon Chaney was apparently a very jealous husband, he was a very obsessive father. He didn’t like the idea that Lon Chaney Jr. wanted to go into the acting profession, for whatever reasons he had. Maybe he wanted to be the king of the hill, who knows, (maybe) he didn’t want competition from his own son.

On the other hand, you talk to the old-timers, if there’s any left – the grips and the electricians, and everything – and they’ll tell you that Lon Chaney would come driving along on the boulevard on the way to the studio in his great big gray open car. He’d see guys that he knew from the crew standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus, and he’d pile them in the car and take them to work. He was apparently a very generous, easy-going sort of a guy. It’s like anybody’s life. There’s no such thing as a life that’s all black or all white. It’s a matter of choosing details.

I don’t know what Lon Chaney Jr. meant about “whitewashing the son of bitch.” I thought we were being fairly accurate based upon this guy’s notes, that we were being accurate about his personal life. Of course, I had no access to hidden interviews that may have changed this guy’s opinion. He was a friend of Chaney’s. I don’t think he was out to do a hatchet job on him.

STROBY: Did you work with Charles Beaumont on Corman's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)?

CAMPBELL: No, what happened was Charlie was very, very sick. He had taken on a lot of assignments because he wanted to leave his family with some money (A prolific film and television writer – notably for THE TWILIGHT ZONE – Beaumont died in 1967 at age 38, from a degenerative brain disease linked to a childhood case of spinal meningitis).

Charlie was one hell of a writer. He was damn good, but he was under such stress and he had taken on so many assignments to provide for his family. What he had done was taken the Poe short story “Masque of the Red Death” and used that as the only source for the entire film, and that’s where the screenplay failed. There just wasn’t enough material there.

I was living in London at the time and Roger called me and said Vincent Price had read Beaumont’s script, and that if changes weren’t made by the time he arrived in London, he was going to take the next flight back to the United States. So then I got the idea of taking another Poe story, “Hop Frog.” and putting the two of them together.

Roger had already leased the sound stages and (art director) Danny Haller had already built some of the sets, some of which I think were borrowed from another film (BECKETT) that had also been shot there. So Roger asked me if I could write it – it was a castle set with a big clock on the wall and all. So I simply said, “Yeah.” I went over to Elstree (Studios) one day, I think that’s where we were shooting, and I got the physical layout in my head and I went home and wrote it in ten days. When Price arrived, they went right into production. I never even met Charlie.

STROBY: Some people consider it Corman’s best film (as a director). There were a lot of talented people involved, like cameraman Nicolas Roeg.

CAMPBELL: It was one of his classics. It had a lot of elegance and it had a hell of a lot going for it. Danny Haller did a great job art directing on that thing ... Yeah, it was a good one.

PART THREE: Francis Ford Coppola, young racers and teenage cavemen.

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