THE MAZE: Interview with William Cameron Menzies’ biographer James Curtis

Photo Credit: Ritz-Carlton Pictures - Exhibitors Herald (Dec. 1924 - Mar. 1925) 
Interview with William Cameron Menzies’ biographer James Curtis
By Scout Tafoya

James Richard Curtis is a figure inextricable from the lives of artists. He’s a biographer, one of the most thorough we’ve got, and as such he carries a heavy responsibility. He has to carry and gift to his public the facts of artists known to us only through images, and he has to recreate people in the flesh who are known to millions through insinuation. It can’t be easy to dispel myths and create new ones out of facts in the same keystrokes. Curtis, however, is undaunted and humble about his work. His books have found fans in Martin Scorsese, Judith Crist, and Kevin Brownlow among others. He has written about Mort Sahl, James Whale, and for our purposes William Cameron Menzies, the director of Invaders from Mars, Things to Come, and the man who coined the term “production designer”. Team Ignite has interviewed Curtis for the blu-ray release of Invaders, and so we’re giving you a little window into his process as a primer for the release of the disc. 

Scout Tafoya:
You’ve been an active and important biographer for some time now. As anyone will tell you preservation of film is a very important part of film culture, but the work you do is equally important in getting the stories behind the great works of art. How did you get into this line of work?

James Curtis: I actually kind of fell into it. Back when I was in college and I became interested in James Whale as a subject, not necessarily to write a book about him, but there was a festival that ran for a long time in Los Angeles called Filmex, and it was a mix of foreign and domestic stuff and a lot of retrospectives as well. In 1975 they did a tribute to James Whale and ran 8 or 10 of his films. At that point I’d only seen the three that you usually see on television. The two Frankenstein films (Frankenstein 1931, Bride of Frankenstein 1935) and The Invisible Man (1933), and I got to see a broader range of his output and became quite fascinated by it and by the mystery surrounding his death. So I was motivated to talk to some people; I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Kind of fell into it. David Lewis, who I met through Carl Laemmle Jr. (former head of production at Universal), encouraged me to take on a book, which I had never conceived or dreamt of. That was the start of it. (pause) 45 years ago! (laughs)

ST: You’ve written about Whale and a few other people from genre cinema, do you have a special relationship to sci-fi and horror?

JC: Well early on I enjoyed the sci-fi and horror stuff because it was readily available to me on Los Angeles TV. We had seven UHF stations when I was a kid. There was a time on Saturdays where you could watch back to back horror films until about midnight. They were prevalent and easy to access and so I got a crash course, which ones were good, which ones weren’t so good. It was something that fascinated me in the sense that kids are naturally fascinated by such things.

ST: Menzies is an important figure, but not really someone with a reputation of someone like, to use one of your other subjects Buster Keaton, what drew you to him? 

JC: It started by seeing Invaders from Mars on television when I was a kid. It scared the shit outta me! (laughs) It was in black and white and interrupted by car commercials but I was at the perfect age to be taken by the idea that this was told from a child’s perspective. His name remained in my head. It may have something to do with his name being three parts and in the credits it’s stretched to the edge of the frame, one end of the screen to the other, so I was able to remember his name. I became vaguely familiar with the other work he did as time went on and was able to see in the other work he did when his name came up that he had a definite fingerprint. You can look at a film and after two or three minutes seeing how the shots were composed and tell it was a Menzies film. His work just had a different look to it. He was kind of like Orson Welles in that respect. Nobody else’s movies look like the ones Menzies designed. That goes for the various directors he worked with, Hitchcock or Sam Wood. Menzies had a distinctive visual style that made him memorable, let’s put it that way, especially to an idiot kid like me. All I knew at the time were the people on camera. James Whale was another one who stuck in my head when I started to look into this stuff for the first time, those were the figures I was most interested in. There were no other books out there so if I wanted to know about them I had to ask people. 

ST: In learning about Menzies you get such a crucial look at so much important American film art, what is the process by which you help us to get to know who someone we’ll never meet because they’re long dead? There’s more to just the work, there’s an impression of the man himself. What’s the process of giving us a look at the figures themselves as human beings?

JS: Well staying in period is very important. A lot of times people don’t understand fully is that when you’re talking about, for instance something in Buster Keaton’s life and how it went down in the year 1921, you’ve gotta be conscious of what he was seeing and doing in 1921. I’ll give you an example, a minor one. Keaton during his early days of filmmaking, he was partnered with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Roscoe had a dog named Luke. Today we’d look at him and say he was a pit bull, but I wanted to know what he was considered in 1921 when he was alive. Some of the designation that later came about for dogs like that weren’t around then. So I spent a lot of time figuring out how you’d describer a breed like that in the 20s. Or someone else gave me some grief one time about referring to Bayview as being on Long Island. They said “No, it’s Queens, no one calls it Long Island.” Well I’d gone back into the New York Times to see how Bayview was referred to in 1921 and it was “”Bayview, Long Island.” I think little efforts like that lend to the authenticity. 

Striving to talk to people and reading as much as I can in the first person from my subjects, you develop a sense of how the wheels turned in their head, their perspective on things. Menzies for instance was a chain smoker, and when I wrote in my book about the filming of the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, I knew for instance when he was a chain smoker especially under pressure. So there’s one point at the end where they’re filming the burning of Atlanta in Culver City and I said “after it’s over with he lit a cigarette”.  I don’t have documentation that he lit a cigarette but knowing how he was it was clear that he would have lit a cigarette (probably a couple dozen)! Ultimately that’s one of the things that killed him, his smoking habit.There are a lot of little things you can put into an account that creates a level of intimacy between the reader and the subject. That’s what I strive to do. I wanna put you beside them as they’re going through that and I want to take myself out of the picture. There are little tricks and techniques, to do that and control the narrative as well as I do. That’s just a matter of learning how to do it and developing a style over time. 

ST: Insomuch as you feel qualified to say so, if William Cameron Menzies were in the room with us now, what kind of a figure would he cut? How would he behave and carry himself?

JC: He’d be down to earth, he had no pretensions to speak of. A guy that was easy with people in terms of being able to tell stories and anecdotes and get you through the day in effect of understanding how he did how he did and at the same time demystifying it. I think he would be a comfortable guy to be around. An unpredictable drinker, as we know, I think if he’d had a few he’d be a different sort of guy. If he wasn’t drinking and was in a congenial mood you would have gotten a warm, good impression of him. Someone in absolute command of what he did so well and uniquely.

ST: What surprised you most about Menzies in your research?

JS: I guess I never had a sense of the enormity of what he did. How busy he was. In a sense he worked himself into an early grave. I think what he did was so nerve-wracking in certain respects because he had to visualize an entire film from beginning to end before anything ever got in front of a camera and on top of that he was telling directors like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock where the camera should go. In collaboration, I’m sure, but when you’ve got major people, an Orson Welles someone like that it becomes a collaborative effort. Everything he did in terms of filling the screen he’s got a reason for every element that’s in there in terms of how the composition is laid out, why you’re positioning an actor where he or she is, the other things in the room, why is the lamp important on the desk. He could explain all this to you. Hitchcock could too, tellingly he started as an art director like Menzies. Hitchcock in a way did the same thing but he was better suited to being a director than Menzies. Menzies had no vocabulary to speak of when it came to talking to actors. Jimmy Hunt (the young star of Invaders from Mars) told me about that. I asked if Menzies was talking to you and he wanted you to do something differently would he try to give you the emotional focus of the scene? What you’re supposed to be feeling? He said no, he’d say “Make your eyes wider.” (Laughs) so that was the difference. A great actor’s director like Sam Wood apparently was, could whisper something in an actor’s ear and get what he wanted. Menzies was too visually oriented to work well with actors. 

ST: Your book throws in pretty stark relief how important the production designer was to cinema once upon a time, and how little it seems to matter to image-makers now. 

JC: What production design is today seems to be super charged art direction with a little computer generated effects thrown in. The book ends with an interesting development with George Lucas endowing three chairs at the film school at USC and one of them is named for William Cameron Menzies. The chair in production design. I was there that night and he said specifically that whatever technical advances we make don’t matter, we’re still working with the image. That’s the impact you have on the viewer. The subliminal qualities of design and how it impacts the emotional temperature for a scene, none of that changes with technology and these are the people who are here to remind you of that. George Méliès, Sergei Eisenstein, and Menziesl Three pretty big names in the history of cinema. They were there to underscore that no matter what you were doing, what tools and technology came along, the point was still the same. 

ST: Other than Invaders from Mars is there a piece of Menzies design that looms largest in his body of work to you? 

JS: I think, for instance, my mentor when I started doing this sort of work in the mid-70s was David Lewis and David produced one of Menzies best feats of production design, King’s Row. I saw King’s Row at a revival theatre and I tried to talk him into going but I couldn’t but I talked to him about it afterwards. Some of the greatest things in King’s Row were directly attributable to Menzies. I try to talk about this in the book but the remarkable thing about translating King’s Row is how censorable the story was. It was THE dirty book of the year in terms of its best seller status. You could say it was the rat’s underbelly of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. If you took Our Town and flipped it over like a rock you’d see King’s Row underneath. What had to happen was that a lot of the stuff in the book had to be explained to an adult audience without saying it so much, because then the Breen Office is upset and you endanger your chances at a release. It fell to Menzies to suggest things that would have upset the censors, for instance euthanasia. When Parris’ grandmother, Maria Ouspenskaya, is dying of cancer, how do you get the idea across without upsetting the production code? In this case the composition, he’s considering his grandmother’s condition, she’s in bed and you see the door frame and in the foreground in perfect focus is this syringe, and so the syringe dominates the scene, the whole idea of giving her the injection to put her out of her misery becomes paramount but it’s not something you see put across so blatantly that the censors would have a problem with it but you can’t mistake it compositionally. The other scene is the crippling of Drake, the character played by Ronald Reagan, who gets his legs injured by a passing train but you couldn’t put anything so gory in a film back then. So how did Menzies suggest that? The coffee pot. At the end of the scene when the accident takes place, the final image is the crushed coffee pot, a visual metaphor for his legs. He was able to get a lot of that across visually. Another example is the opening of the picture, where he gives you a flavor of the story and the kids involved while the credits were going. He knew he had to put something in the film that would give the audience something to focus on rather than simply panning the camera, and that’s where the hay wagon comes in. You start with the Warner Bros shield and then the cart starts coming towards the camera as the music swells and the credits roll and the cart gets bigger and bigger. Another example, and again this is all in the book, the cross over from one fence to another and the kids go back and forth. There’s a point where they need to have a transition in time where Parris goes from a boy to a man. He takes a step and the camera focuses on his feet, then there’s a dissolve and the season has changed and a man’s foot, a man’s shoe can be seen in camera and it’s Bob Cummings now but it’s obviously the same character. That’s all Menzies. He just had a great way with these things. Getting things across, communicating a lot of information without being on the nose as a lot of things back then tended to be. 

ST: Do you see anybody as having carried on in the Menzies tradition, an heir to Menzies?

JC: Well two of the most influential production designers of the next generation both apprenticed with Menzies. One of them was Ken Adam who went on to design the James Bond films and Doctor Strangelove. The other was Dick Sylbert who worked with him on television who went on to design Chinatown and a great many things that moved the art form forward. He worked with the next generation of directors who, like Kazan, were more actor-oriented. Those two guys had a lot to do with how films in the 60s, 70s, and 80s looked to us and you can draw a straight line to their work with William Cameron Menzies. 

ST: No one more recent comes to mind as carrying on that tradition? 

JC: That’s tough for me to say because there are a lot of great directors whose careers I follow but I don’t know to what extent that’s production design vs the individual vision of the directors. It’s tough for me to say today, it’s easier to break that down in the older films. I don’t know a lot of production designers who are working today. I do pay attention to the directors. For instance someone like Spielberg for instance, who is very focused on the image, I think he’s a collaborative guy but he’s got a fingerprint all his own. It’s tough for me to say whether it’s the various production designers he’s worked with or if it’s just Spielberg himself. Alan Rudolph is a guy I admire very much because he works with low budgets and is able to wring every ounce of value of scant resources. Polanski, too, or someone like Terry Gilliam. I don’t think he’s very good with actors which is a problem but he’s certainly done some distinctive stuff. I can take those people, for instance, just kind of pull them out of the air and say “Wow!” But I don’t come up to the present day in my writing. Really no one does today what Menzies did back then. As Dick Sylbert points out, no director today would give Menzies the freedom that someone like Sam Wood gave him. It’s a whole different situation. If anything does travel from his work to what we do today it’s the storyboard, what the germans call the “paper film,” where you have everything laid out. He was all about preparation. There’s no way you can spend that much money without having it all laid out in advance.