Thursday, August 12, 2010

I'm a Poor Writer: Curt Siodmak on Siodmaks


Curt Siodmak (1902-2000) was a novelist and screenwriter, author of the novel Donovan's Brain, which was made into a number of films and the brother of great emigre director Robert Siodmak. His first horror credit was The Invisible Man Returns (1940), and he followed this with two Boris Karloff vehicles, Black Friday (1940) and The Ape (1940). he wrote famous I Walked with a Zombie (1943) for producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur.

Siodmak also directed some less than impressive low budget monster movies, including Bride of the Gorilla (1951), The Magnetic Monster (1953), and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956). His final significant genre credit was for Terence Fisher’s German production Sherlock Holmes and the Necklace of Death (1962).His novel I, Gabriel was published in Germany, and afterward many of his early novels came back into print. Also, he's written an opera, Song of Frankenstein, and a play about Jack the Ripper.

My affections for Curt comes from a very simple point: in many film I've watched and I enjoyed more than I expected, Curt's name was in the credits as the writer. Many Karloff films, many exceptional Universal horrors. Many films that had more to say than what their often ridiculed B-status imposes.

These fragments come from an interview by Dennis Fischer, published in out of print book, Interviews with screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s (ed. by Pat McGilligan).

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My brother and I started in the film business writing German inter-titles for Max Sennett comedies. But I wanted to write novels and short stories, and he wanted to direct. He wanted to be the only Siodmak in films, and asked me to change my name to Curt Barton. The Curt I accepted, the Barton I didn't. You never know what goes on in people's minds. Still, he helped me all my life when I was in a squeeze, which often happens to writers, and I helped him. Looking back, I supplied many of the ideas which made him well known, here and in Europe. But we rarely worked, together. I wouldn't take orders from him and vice versa. He was a very complex character whom only psychoanalysis might be able to explain. Of course, his and my behavior came from our family background. We never had a "real" family which would supply the love children thrive on. My parents' marriage wasn't a happy one, and though we were brought up in our early life with governesses in an affluent surrounding, we were rebels and left the family at a very early age. Robert started as an actor; and I, while studying mathematics, which is perhaps the basis for my writing science fiction, drove a steam engine for the German railway and worked in factories to make a living. When in Hollywood I finally got Robert a job on a film I had written, and the first day he starts working with another writer, Eric Taylor. I understand that, because, between brothers, who is going to have the authority? He was very unhappy taking the job. He had to accept $125 a week. But after two years he was pulling down $1,000 a day! I never made that kind of money as a writer. No writer in Hollywood did at that time. Only directors, producers, and actors.

People on Sunday

When I was 27, I worked on a picture called People on Sunday, and out of that picture came six guys who made it internationally Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugene Shuftan, Fred Zinnemann, and myself. It was a great success. Robert was a film cutter for the Harry Piel detective serial. His job was to compose "new" films from old films of that serial, since the same actors played in both. Robert wanted to be a director. There was Billy Wilder, who was a poor journalist. He picked up a few bucks at the afternoon tea dances at the hotels where rich ladies went without their husbands in the afternoon. He got tips from those ladies. He was a good-looking young man and an excellent dancer. Zinnemann, whose original name was Zimmerman, was the camera focus man, a quite nondescript chap who left, after six days' shooting, for America. And there was Edgar Ulmer, who also went to the United States. He now has become a belated cult figure. He shot a great many B pictures for David Selznick. I understand that Selznick treated him very cruelly. As for me I was already "affluent" since I had sold my first serial novel to the Woche magazine, which paid very well. I gave Robert an idea and 5,000 marks to start People on Sunday, which was half of the production money. He brought the picture in for 9,000 marks, which was $2,500 at that time!

Siodmak brothers: Robert (left) and Curt (right)

People on Sunday has become a major classic and is mentioned in almost every film anthology. That was the beginning of our careers, though actually only Robert and the camerman Eugen Schüfftan were responsible for its completion. Robert and Billy Wilder were engaged by UFA. Robert liked Billy Wilder, and when UFA asked for him, he teamed up with Billy again. They took off like meteors.

Robert was a starmaker. He could work with difficult actors as no other director could. He made the unknown Burt Lancaster a star in The Killers, gave Ava Gardner her first lead, found Ernest Borgnine, and other future stars. I heard Tony Curtis tell this story on television: Robert was shooting a picture called Criss Cross (1949) when he picked Tony out of a group of extras to dance with Yvonne De Carlo. He took close-ups of Tony. Universal put Tony under contract, and the rest is history. But as soon as Robert's discoveries became stars, he wasn't interested in them anymore.

Robert was a top director in Germany. When he the could not work on account of the Nazi persecution in Berlin, he went to France, where he also made highly successful films. He sailed with the last boat from France to America the day World broke out. You know about his career over here. Then he went back to Germany after the war, because he was too independent to take orders from studios. There again he got many Bambis, which are the German Oscars.
[After Nazi's taking power in Germany] I received a letter from the National Socialist Chamber of German Writers informing me that I was not going to be permitted to write for any German publisher or motion picture company. So from Germany, I went to France and tried to make a living, which I couldn't. Then I went to England and was quite successful over there making good money writing for British International films and Gaumont British. I received two hundred pounds for the screenplay of Transatlantic Tunnel, 1935. It was the first British film that used American actors: Richard Dix, Madge Evans, Fay Wray the girl from King Kong (1933) and Walter Huston. I got a year's contract, and fifteen pounds a week, which at that time was good money. I paid two pounds a week rent for a house. Henrietta and I bought gold pieces and counted them at night, putting them in stockings under our pillow. They became the basis for my trip to America. It was Henrietta who wanted me to go to America. I guess she felt the war coming.

I gave a speech once at an American high school and a boy shouted, "How old are you?" I said, "I'm forty-eight and my wife is forty-six, and my son is fifty-three. Because forty-eight years ago I came to America. . . . I had to learn a new language, which isn't easy for a man who makes his livelihood writing. I had to start from scratch. This day of coming to America was the day of my second birth. To emigrate is like starting your life all over again."

I got a job the first week I arrived in Hollywood. An agent took me to Paramount studios.He signed me up for a big picture for Dorothy Lamour (Her Jungle Love, 1938). When I started out in Hollywood, my agent was MCA, which now owns Universal. I had a finished screenplay. A messenger boy picked it up from my apartment. He wore a suit and tie. I handed him the script. Six weeks later it was rejected by MCA (they didn't want to handle it) rejected by the same boy who had come to pick it up because in the meantime he had become a reader for that company. It's sad how writers are treated with contempt in this business.

Germans in Hollywood worked with American actors and American writers, and that group dissolved. The successful ones separated from those who couldn't make it. Many refugees couldn't adjust themselves to the American mentality. They never learned to write in English, or perhaps they didn't want to give up their German language. Thomas Mann wrote in German, Brecht and Remarque wrote in German. When you live in a new country, you have to be reborn, learn what the natives know, integrate yourself; otherwise you will never be a part of that country.

I lost my Paramount job and didn't get a job for eleven months, though I sold a story called Pacific Blackout (1941) to Paramount, which helped me stay alive. Then Joe May, who was a friend of mine, directed a picture at Universal (The Invisible Man Returns, 1940). He pushed me through to write the screenplay. It was the first picture for Vincent Price, as a young man. Although I had only written comedies and musicals for Paramount, this was a success, and I fell into a groove. At the studios, if you have a success in a special kind of picture, you are condemned to getting similar jobs, and soon I had to write only horror pictures. Your mind changes, too. You are brainwashed.

I wrote many horror films. The fantastic and macabre is a German trait. Look at their fairy tales, which are pretty gruesome. We refugees suffer from the past, the Hitler persecution, which we will never be able to absorb completely. We were often so close to death that we are branded for life. No success could wipe out the past which we went through. The play I have just finished, Three Days, shows the background of those terrors in my life which might have found an outlet in writing horror stories. But certainly not the modern kind, which in my opinion is vulgar in its spilling of blood. I don't think I ever wrote a truly violent scene. I left the horror to the imagination of the audience.

The Invisible Woman (1949) was a spoof about the Invisible Man series. John Barrymore was in it. He was so gone with alcoholism that we had to hang him up with wires so that, in close-up, he wouldn't sway out of focus. He had his dialogue written up and down a staircase on cue cards, so that coming down he could read his lines. I think it was his last picture before he died.

The Wolf Man

One day many years ago, I got a letter from a Professor Evans from Augusta College in Georgia about the parallel between The Wolf Man (1941) and Aristotle's Poetics, which is a critique of Greek plays. I thought the guy was nuts. Not true. In the Greek plays, the gods reveal to man his fate; he cannot escape it. The influence of the gods over man is final, and that's like the domineering father the character has in The Wolf Man. He knows that when the moon is full, he becomes a murderer. That is his preordained fate. The film was constructed like a Greek tragedy, without my intent at the time, but it fell into place and that's why it has run for forty-eight years. I made $3,000 on the job. They have made, so far, $30 million on the picture.
In all of my writings there is tremendous research involved. Wolf madness, lycanthropy, goes back to the Stone Age. People wanted to become as strong as the strongest animal they knew of, which was the wolf in Europe, the tiger in India, the snake in the Pacific. Man tried to identify himself with the strongest animal he knew.
I remember how that film was initiated. Universal director-producer George Waggner said to me, "We have a title called The Wolf Man. It comes from Boris Karloff, but Boris has no time to do it, he is working on another picture. So, we have Lon Chaney and we have Madame Ouspenskaya, Warren Williams, Ralph Bellamy, and Claude Rains. The budget is $180,000 and we start in ten weeks. Good-bye." After seven weeks I gave George the screenplay. I don't think he made any changes, except to telescope a few scenes to save sets.


Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman

The idea of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman started with a joke. I was sitting at the Universal commissary during the war with a friend of mine who was drafted and wanted to sell his automobile. You couldn't get an automobile in those days since those companies only turned out war material. I wanted to buy that car, but I didn't have the money. George Waggner was sitting with us, and I made a joke: Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man, I mean, Meets the WolfMan. He didn't laugh. He came back to my office a couple of days later and asked, "Did you buy the automobile?" I said, "For that I need another job." He said, "You have a job. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. You have two hours to accept." That taught me never to joke with a producer. But then you needed a gimmick for the story. And the gimmick was that the Wolf Man meets the Monster and both want to find Dr. Frankenstein, because Victor Frankenstein knows the secret of life and death. The Wolf Man wants to die, whereas the Monster wants to live forever.


I Walked with a Zombie (1942) was an interesting film. They made changes in the script. My idea was a little different. I started with a beautiful wife married to a plantation owner on one of the voodoo islands. The husband knew that she wanted to run away from him. He would not let her go. So he turned her into a zombie. He could continue to have an affair with her beautiful body. But it was like sleeping with a lifeless doll. The producer Val Lewton was a marvelous man to work for. He was erudite. I mean, really knowledgeable. He understood what the writer was saying.

The Climax

Boris Karloff returned to the screen and made his first color picture with The Climax (1944), which seems designed to reuse the sets from Phantom of the Opera (1943). The idea was that Boris Karloff had a big love affair with an opera singer and killed her in a fit of jealousy. He kept the body somewhere. When he visits a conservatory, he hears the same voice again in a young girl. I wrote it for Susanna Foster, I remember that. And around that idea, I wrote the screenplay.



I wrote The Beast with Five Fingers (1947), not for Peter Lorre, but for Paul Henreid. Paul said, "You want me to play against a god-damned hand? I'm not crazy." I would love to have shot it with him, because I thought a man looking so debonair was a much more interesting murderer than that freakish Lorre. Luis Buñuel says he was involved in the story. I never met Buñuel, nor did I see any other script on that subject.

[Oliver Stone lifted the same idea for The Hand (1981)]. All my stuff has been stolen many, many times. I can trace them when I see them. Steve Martin made a picture called The Man with Two Brains (1983). In the picture they showed cuts of the film Donovan's Brain on a television screen, but they never asked my permission. If I ever meet this director, Carl Reiner, I would say to him, "I'm a poor writer. You take the story, you take the idea, you show the idea on the screen, and you never gave the writer credit."

Donovan's Brain

Donovan's Brain has been done three times. First, there is The Lady and the Monster (1944). I sold Republic the rights, back then, for $1,900. Old man Herbert Yates, the owner of Republic studios, called me and said, "Siodmak, you're crazy!" I said, "Why am I crazy?" He said, "A scientist of that size . . . he should live in a castle. I have a title for the picture The Lady and the Monster. Vera is going to play that part; she'll play the Lady.'' Vera Hruba Ralston, a former ice skater, was his girlfriend and later his wife. So I quit. Then I started with producer Allan Dowling, who bought the rights from Republic and made it with Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, and Nancy (Davis) Reagan, and with Felix Feist as the director. I had lunch with Nancy Reagan when she was twenty, before she married Ronald Reagan. In Feist's version, God destroys Donovan's brain with a thunderbolt. So I didn't see 1953 Donovan's Brain. [For the third time] it was directed by Freddie Francis as an English-German co-production in 1962 as The Brain, with Peter Van Eyck, Anne Heywood, Cecil Parker, Bernard Lee, Frank Forsyth, Miles Malleson, and Jack MacGowran.

Silly. The smartest guy in the whole business was John Huston. We started together, though actually he made it bigger than I did. He got The Maltese Falcon (1941) and he went to screenwriter Allen Rivkin and he said, "How do you write a screenplay?" Allen Rivkin took the book and telescoped it, just by marking the scenes. Huston shot it exactly as Dashiell Hammett wrote the book; didn't change the dialogue at all; everything was there, and he had a smash picture. If something is a success, why change it? John Huston was a very interesting man. He could recite Shakespeare, the whole of Shakespeare, when he had a few drinks. I knew all of his wives. If I could live it all over again, I would like to live his life. I wouldn't smoke as much as he did. I asked him once, "What kept you alive?" and he said, "Operations."

Bride of the Gorilla

[I started to direct my first film, Bride of the Gorilla in 1951 because of] Jealousy. Because my brother was a good director; I wanted to show that I could do it too. When I got that first picture to direct, he came shooting down to my house from the hill where he lived and he said, "Don't do it, you'll never be able to." His wife came too and tried to talk me out of it. [So] that was the first time I directed. Seven days of shooting for a full-length picture! The idea wasn't bad. There is a man who commits a murder, but he cannot cope with his guilt. Since an animal can commit murder without being punished, the man thinks of himself as an animal. However, they decided that whenever he looks into a mirror, he should see a gorilla. I thought he should see himself in animal form, but certainly not as a gorilla. They forced me to cut in the gorilla. My title was The Face in the Water. I never wanted to call it Bride of the Gorilla. He lives in the jungle with animals, since he considers himself an animal and not a human being. I had Lon Chaney and Raymond Burr. They obviously didn't like each other. They looked at each other and sparks flew out of their eyes. Since Lon played the policeman and Ray the murderer, it was just perfect. I didn't have much to direct.

Lon Chaney was an alcoholic at that time and that he suffered from a difficult and tragic childhood. Yeah, very tragic. His father, Lon Chaney, Sr., must have been a beast. He beat Lon up for nothing. Sent him to the shed to get the leather strap to be beaten. Sometimes even when Lon hadn't done anything. Lon told me his story. A terrible shock from which he never recovered. When I shot television with him in Sweden, he drank on the set in front of the crew. I stopped him. What he was looking for was a father figure, who would tell him what to do. That is why he was so good in Of Mice and Men (1939).

The Magnetic Monster (1953) [among the films that I did direct] is one of my favorites. I shot the computer scene at UCLA, in a hall filled with gadgets which made up the immense computer. That was before transistors were invented. Now you can buy the same computer, even better, for seven dollars. The story was that Andrew Marton, the best second-unit director in America, who also directed King Solomon's Mines (1950) and shot the chariot scenes in Ben Hur (1959), returned from Berlin with ten minutes of special effects from a German Nazi film called Gold (1934, directed by Karl Hartl), which must have cost millions. He and Tors came to me to write a screenplay around those shots, which were of a gigantic atom smasher which at the end exploded. That's how it started. We formed a corporation. Producer Tors got the money from United Artists. We shot the film for $105,000! We made very little money on that film. My ideas, as usual, were premature. The Andromeda Strain (1971) had the same idea twenty years later. It made millions. Also, our title was silly. United Artists, which released that film, put that one on. But it got a half-page write-up in Time magazine, and it became the prototype of many future science-fiction films.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

I wrote Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) for producers Sam Katzman and Charles H. Schneer. Funny enough, they still talk about that picture. It was a milestone, too. Charles E. Schneer did a number of pictures in the same vein. He destroyed nearly every big city in America on the screen.

In all my Sci-fi books there is a tremendous amount of research involved. I pick up the telephone and call the most important scientist I can think of in that field in America. So far they have all worked with me because they all are frustrated writers anyhow. If someone is writing (a book) for them, then they can correct it, which makes them feel they wrote it. I siphon off years of knowledge and research from those people for a small fee, or for a percentage of the book, whatever the case. But at the end, I have a story that is scientifically right. You would be surprised at the names of those people. They go up to the Nobel Prize winners! Some of my books, basically, are based on science. There aren't many science fiction writers in America like me anyhow. There's a difference between science fiction and science fantasy. Science fiction is a projection of the future as it would happen today; science fantasy is trying out different kinds of social problems and social systems on other stars. Star Wars (1977) and all this is sci-fantasy.

Since my youth I have written much science fiction about future discoveries which we have now in this day and age and which have become commonplace. I wrote about the laser beam in 1932. I had a book with radar in it in 1931. I have a book called The Third Ear (1971) which actually tries to create ESP in people biochemically. Which certainly is possible. But I'm through with science fiction. The subject has become too esoteric and too far away from my knowledge. You have to study all your life in a certain direction in order to understand part of what they're doing today. I have a compact disc with a laser beam, but who can tell me how it works? I wouldn't know. And so these things have gotten out of my mental reach.


[That's the way I work:] I come in and meet a producer I've never seen in my life. I have twenty minutes with him where he tells me the idea for the film he would like to make. I have to convince him that this is the best idea that a man could ever have; it will make a zillion dollars. You have to be convincing, because he is watching you. The slightest doubt he will see in your eyesjust as if you're talking to a girl you want to make. If she sees any doubt in your eyes, you're out of the game. Then the producer says to himself. "Siodmak is so convinced, my idea must be good." We shake hands. I have a job. I go to work right away, get my weekly check. This is how you got your job. You had to know how to sell yourself. And then I had an invisible altar in my office at the studio. When I couldn't take it any longer, all that crap, I went to it, in my mind, and said, "My weekly check! My weekly check!" Then I continued working. It wasn't more than a job. One year I wrote seven different screenplays, because you have to live, and I was in demand.

We writers don't think, actually. We do things out of emotions and constructions in our mind as to how a character or a story should develop. There's a story told about Balzac. A friend found him in tears and asked him the reason. Balzac said, "Hélène died." Hélène was one of the characters in the story he was writing; she had died and he was breaking out in tears.

How can you teach aspiring writers? You can teach technique, like screenplay technique, but you cannot teach emotions or how to find ideas. God has to kiss your forehead, and that's why I am bald, to leave as much room as possible. I was at Universal, writing other ''Invisible" stories for the same producer. I was in the groove. He would say, "Give it to Siodmak; we'll get the script and we can shoot it in a few weeks." That was my reputation. It has nothing to do with the value of things. It was that they knew they wouldn't lose money.

Irving Thalberg once said: "The most important man in the motion picture business is the writer. Don't ever give him any power!" Even today the writers are oppressed. Even today a writer gets little appreciation. That's why good writers become writer-directors, or writer-producers, to get more standing, and of course to make more money. I haven't met a writer yet who owns a yacht like producers or directors. But don't let them kid you. Where would they be without writers?

I didn't make big pictures in America, not the blockbuster. I made mostly B pictures, accompanying pictures for the big show. Strangely, some small pictures that we wrote survived the expensive ones. It is the idea of the story and the precision of the screenplay which make a film survive the decades, not the money which is spent on it. And I have written a few pictures which have been shown for the last forty years. So we never know what we do, eh?

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1 comment:

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