More Than Meets The Mogwai

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Charles B. Griffith (1930 - 2007)

Charles B. Griffith in 1968.
Watching the supplementary features on the new “Supercharged Edition” of the Roger Corman-produced EAT MY DUST last week, I was somewhat surprised that writer/director Charles B. Griffith hadn’t been interviewed. After all, he made an appearance on Buena Vista Home Video’s DEATH RACE 2000 special edition DVD a couple of years back, and he had a lesser hand in the way that film eventually turned out (in that his best ideas in the script department never made it before cameras). Had he been rewritten out of his place in obscurant film history so badly that the producers handling such featurettes didn’t bother to contact the man calling the shots on this New World Pictures production on the day-to-day basis? Well, today, I’m hoping that it wasn’t due to a long-term illness, as I’ve found out on my daily visit to Tim Lucas’ Video Watchblog that Charles B. Griffith -- the caustic voice behind the greatest of Roger Corman films, both as director AND producer -– has passed away.

I was nineteen when my path crossed with Mr. Griffith. On a whim (perhaps after seeing and marveling at ROCK ALL NIGHT for the umpteenth time), I sent an e-mail to the webmaster of Griffith’s barebones website, expressing my enthusiasm for the screenwriter’s work and my interest in interviewing him some day; the webmaster wrote back to inform me that he passed along the message, and… I thought that would be it. Fortunately, I was pleasantly mistaken as Griffith sent an easygoing reply the next day thanking me for the kind comments and agreeing to as long an interview as I wish -– enclosing his telephone number at the end of the message.

Now somewhat faint, as I never had the opportunity to interview anybody before but was confident enough in my abilities and in my knowledge of film history to pursue the field, I researched what would best record a conversation through the telephone and constructed a number of questions on three, single-spaced pages. To be perfectly honest, I took inspiration from two sources: Tom Weaver’s countless invaluable and informative books interviewing the B-Movie stars and creative talent of yesteryear, as well as David Sheff’s 1980 “Playboy” interview with John Lennon, in which the author brought up every single Beatles song and asked the genesis and development of each. I figured I would do the same, with produced and unproduced screenplays alike, stray second unit directing work, films in which Griffith served as sole director, and even random, strange unclassifiable ideas that never materialized into full-blown scripts or novels (the form Griffith gravitated towards as his screenplays increasingly became too long and convoluted to develop as film properties). At the back of my head though (since I’d already written a number of scripts) was the fact that here was a chance to have the equivalency of a Master’s Class on the nature of screenwriting by a writer that I greatly admired.

The results of the interview (be kind, it was my first!) are here:

I wanted to concentrate on the films that have been given the short shrift in the few previously published interviews with Griffith in the past, but to not leave out these established classics (such THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS or A BUCKET OF BLOOD). I tried to touch upon such drive-in highlights as ROCK ALL NIGHT and TEENAGE DOLL, but even the Cannon-produced DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE, which remained a film Griffith was extremely proud of and never tired of talking about. His passion and commitment to that project was palpable even twenty-some years after it had been made, and even though my individual evaluations may hold it in lesser regards to his other work, I still find it a wonderfully inventive, gag-fueled film miscast with Oliver Reed (Griffith wanted Dick Van Dyke) in the central role.
Given the fact that it hasn’t really received a proper home video release, Griffith was puzzled at how I’d seen the film in the first place considering I wasn’t even alive when the film was shown in theaters. I told him I had a less-than-legal grey market copy, and after hearing the excitement in his voice about his desire to see it again, I agreed to send him a copy (he told me that he diligently checked the TV guides in the hopes of it turning up, but that it had not since the ‘80s).

The bitterness in Griffith that Lucas hints at in his vibrantly written remembrance could be detected, but strangely, and not surprisingly, was often quickly followed up by remorse; after letting a few nasty things slip about Corman (and others), and his suspicions that certain unproduced works had been ripped off whole sale, Griffith asked if I could please not use these allegations in the published form as he didn’t particularly mean any of it (and I didn’t use any of this).

After our close to three-hour interview (the second part mostly involving the craft of screenwriting, which is something I’ve held off on trying to get published for some reason), I hesitantly uttered that I hoped we could stay in touch, and Griffith delightfully agreed. I sent him a tape of DR. HECKYL AND MR. HYPE and he wrote back some scattered and random thoughts about his viewing. He also mentioned that I should be reimbursed for this effort –- even offering to send me an original prop from one of the many films he’s written or worked on (“though”, he said, “most of the good ones are already gone”). As much as the film enthusiast in me would have loved such a gift (or even to know WHICH film the item would have been from), I just couldn’t accept it – he was a hero of mine and this was a film he no doubt made with a lot of sweat and hard work, and the least I could do was to run off a copy for him.

Around this time, Griffith was planning to visit some friends in Australia, and to take in a viewing of a brief run of the musical stage version of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. I guess I e-mailed him a question (concerning what, I can’t remember) when he had literally just missed his flight due to a misplaced passport. After briefly answering my query, Griffith followed up with a two-page diatribe about his aggravations in “tearing up the house looking for this passport”. I wish I could post it all here, but it contains some personal information that I would feel iffy about broadcasting in such a public manner, so I’ll have to keep it hidden -– still, I’m not exaggerating (well, not by much) when I say it had it had the originality, insightfulness and ferocious wit of some of his stories at its center. Still, through it all, Griffith remained bemused and amused by it all.

At the close of this message (one of our last exchanges), Griffith related that:

“and now you have cleared my brains and given me a new mood to write the two comedy jobs I have working!
Thanks again,

That –- for one brief moment -- I helped him get something off of his chest in order to start work on two new CHARLES B. GRIFFITH creations will remain my favourite memory of my brief time quasi-knowing him at this distance.

To invoke and reinterpret Quentin Tarantino’s dedication at the front page of the screenplay to DEATH PROOF:
Your work has always –- and forever will -– “Rock All Night”, daddy-o.



Blogger Joe D said...

Great Interview! I linked to it from my blog, If you ever publish any more of it let me know, I'd love to check it out. Charles griffith was a super talent, he will be missed.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello...and thank-you for the lovely remembrance. My name is Jessica, and I am Chucks daughter. It was me that he was trying to visit in Australia when he lost that passport and when he finally arrived weeks later, it was the last time I saw him.I would desperately love a copy of Heckyl and Hype- in which I play a little girl. Please contact me if you can...
Jessica Griffith

2:59 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Aaron - sorry to hear about Griffith's passing, and glad that you're throwing him some attention. I actually don't agree with Mr. Lucas that Griffith wasn't cut out for directing: I didn't know who he was when I saw Eat My Dust!, but I liked what he did with the project and wanted to check out the rest of his movies. (A side-by-side comparison with Grand Theft Auto really works to Griffith's advantage.) I think I managed to see something less successful, maybe Up from the Depths - I know I never caught Dr. Heckle, which I wanted to see for years and then forgot about, until now....

7:44 AM  
Blogger Eddie Hardy said...

Thanks for posting this interview. It was simply delightful.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for posting your interview with Charles Griffith. My deepest sympathy to his family.

My Mother told me two weeks ago of Chuck's passing (they were cousins)...and it made me so very sad. I had been collecting Myrt and Marge items for some time, and had wanted very much to contact Chuck...but I delayed too long. His grandmother Myrtle Vail, was my grandmother, Hazel Vail Menefee's sister. I have soooooo many fond memories of Aunt Myrt and I would have loved to have been able to share them with Chuck. Also my Grandfather and my Mother were there, when Chuck's mother passed away at childbirth.

One of the things that I wanted him to know is that one of my daughter's has had a bit of a different look than my other children. Matter of fact her brother used to refer to her as Igor, as she had such big eyes. I think it may have been about a year ago, when we were going through the many pictures that I have of Myrt and Marge, that we finally discovered where my daughter's "classic beauty" features came from. It is uncanny....she looks so much like Chuck's Mother, Donna. The eyes, the shape of the face and even the mouth....Donna. I will not ever have the chance now, to correspond or get to know Charles Griffith...but I would very much like to be in contact with his daughter, Jessica, especially if she would like to know more about the Vail side of the family. I would really appreciate it if you could somehow pass on to her, my email address. Our family has also wondered about Chuck's two brothers.

Thank you again for posting your interview with Charles Griffith...I truly enjoyed it.

12:18 AM  

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