Writer and director Charles B. Griffith has been responsible for the recognized best of the Roger Corman productions, including Not of this Earth (1957), A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Death Race 2000 (1975). His screenplays are chock full of the savage wit and splendid black comedy that became Griffith’s specialty. The fact he was able to create these structured works in a matter of days, which he attributes to growing up in a family involved with the fast-paced world of radio, is simply amazing.
Usually overshadowed by Corman (who originally thought A Bucket of Blood would be a serious thriller), Griffith’s importance in these low-budget productions must not be downplayed. Actor and friend Mel Welles has said of his role in The Little Shop of Horrors: “Absolutely none of it was ad-libbed … every word in it was written by Griffith, and I did 98 pages of dialogue in two days!”
My interview with Griffith was conducted in August 2004 via telephone. Griffith was affable, engaging and always entertaining. We covered almost all of the Roger Corman pictures in which he was writer, his films as director and other assignments.
Aaron Graham: You began your screenwriting career in the early 1950s.
Charles B. Griffith: That’s right. I originally wanted to write song lyrics when I came out here to Hollywood, but my grandmother, Myrtle Vail, had invented the soap opera, Myrt and Marge. When she wanted to get into television, I helped her write the scripts. That got me into screenwriting.
AG: In Roger Corman’s autobiography, you are quoted saying the first two screenplays you wrote for Corman were “Three Bright Banners” and “Hangtown”. Do you recall what they were about?
CG: “Three Bright Banners” was about the Confederate incursion into Mexico at Brownsville. It was a war picture and much too expensive for Roger to make. “Hang Town”, I believe, was a Western. Both were never filmed.
AG: How did you meet Roger Corman?
CG: [Little Shop of Horrors actor] Jonathan Haze took a stack of my scripts to him. He read them and then called me in to write what came to be “Three Bright Banners”.
It Conquered the World (Corman, 1956)
CG: That was my first script to get made. The original writer, Lou Rusoff, was a cousin or brother-in-law – I forget which – of [American International Pictures co-founder and producer] Sam Arkoff. He had written an incoherent script and left for Canada because his brother had died. I was brought in to fix it up in a couple of days. I got into the habit of writing very quickly without realizing it and, because I was raised in a radio family, I didn’t know that you were supposed to take a long time to write a film script.
AG: You also made your first screen appearance – as a scientist?
CG: That’s right! And because of the camera move, Roger changed all of the dialogue in that scene and gave the other scientists their partners’ dialogue at the last minute. So, as we were ready to shoot, we all had new lines.
AG: Didn’t the creature that was built as the menace in that picture also cause some problems because of how tiny it was?
CG: Yeah, that’s the one [actress] Beverly Garland kicked over and said, “That conquered the world?!” I called it Denny Dimwit and somebody else called it an ice-cream cone. I was around when Paul Blaisdell was building it and he thought the camera would make it look bigger. I have some photographs of it in construction, probably the only ones in existence. I asked for my name not to be on that picture, so I was unbilled. Surprisingly, it got good reviews.
Gunslinger (Corman, 1956) and Not of This Earth (Corman, 1957)
AG: Was the idea to have a female sheriff yours or Roger’s?
CG: Initially it was Roger’s idea. He took me out to see Three Hours to Kill [Alfred L. Werker, 1954] with Dana Andrews and said to me, “I want you to do the same picture but with a woman as the sheriff.”
AG: Would you come to him with storylines or would he originate them?
CG: It would happen in various ways. After we did Gunslinger, I went in and said, “Why don’t we do a science fiction film?”, and he gave me the okay. And that’s when I came up with Not of this Earth.
AG: And this was co-written with Mark Hanna?
CG: Yeah. Mark and I were partners at the time with the idea that I would write ‘em and he would sell them. We did this for a couple of years.
Dick Miller played the vacuum cleaner salesman in Earth, which I originally wrote for myself.
AG: Did you write for specific actors back then?
CG: Sometimes. Very often I wrote for the crowd around Roger’s office. They were there all the time and we were all friends – Dick Miller, Mel Welles and Jonathan Haze in particular. We’d be all in the pictures until Roger finally ended that process. It was becoming too obvious. The same thing happened later on with The Philippines pictures: “Don’t use the following actors!”
Attack of the Crab Monsters (Corman, 1957)
CG: Roger was originally going to call it “Attack of the Giant Crabs”. He told me, “All I want is suspense or action in every scene. Period.” That was the experiment. Okay, so that’s what I did. I put suspense or action in every scene and, when I went to go see it, the audience fell asleep!
AG: Was Corman as fond of taking polls back then as he was in his New World days?
CG: A little bit back then, but he got more into it later on – always sending his girls out to schools to ask questions. The kids would all put him on because they were so used to this and took it as absurd as it was. They gave crazy answers and Roger would take them seriously.
AG: Is it true that you directed the underwater sequences for $100?
CG: Yes. I had just read The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau and found it to be new and exciting. So when that picture came along, I wrote all the underwater stuff and went to Roger and told him I’d direct all the underwater parts for $100. He said, “Okay.” If I had of just asked, he would have said, “No.” I had to put it in a way that he would jump at.
So I directed all that stuff and it was rather funny. I’d be down at the bottom of the tank at Marineland trying to get actors to do something while [director of photography] Floyd Crosby was hammering at the glass window trying to get them to do something else. [Laughs.] It was all pretty silly.
Naked Paradise (Corman, 1957)
CG: Naked Paradise was made at the same time I was working at Columbia, which would have been 1957-58. That was a Bobby Campbell story that I re-wrote. It became a structure for a few films afterwards including Atlas [Corman, 1961], Beast from Haunted Cave [Monte Hellman, 1960] and Creature from the Haunted Sea [Corman, 1961]. They were all basically Naked Paradise – all variations on that same structure, almost scene-by-scene, but with different dialogue and different characters.
Rock All Night (Corman, 1957)
CG: That was the second rock musical that Corman did. I wrote it in one day. What happened was that there was this 30-minute teleplay entitled The Little Guy and it had won an Emmy, so Roger threw me that and said, “We’re shooting Monday.” This was a Friday, you know!
So I had to stretch this out to feature length. I cut it up with a pair of scissors, this original screenplay, and added new characters like Sir Bop, which was to be played by Lord Buckley, but Mel Welles ended up playing it because Buckley was out of town. Mel wrote his own “hiptionary” for sale in the theatre to go with it. Dick Miller was in the Dane Clark part. He was the little guy of the title.
The music was by Buck Ram, The Platters and those people all doing their hit songs. Of course, no songs were written in 24 hours.
AG: Did you know which bands were going to show up?
CG: No, I would just put down “musical number here”. The girl has her dialogue with the guys and then turns around to sing a song. It was up to them what she sang, up to Roger.
AG: Do you have any particular methods for writing dialogue?
CG: Just talk. You have to get into the characters, see where you are and see the scene. Then just play it, ad-lib it.
Teenage Doll (Corman, 1957)
CG: The Woolner brothers came to the Garden of Allah and we had a meeting in the Garden, where all the stars used to sneak away to make out. They wanted a gang picture, as it was the time of the street gangs and juvenile delinquents. I told them I had one called “The Rat Pack” and they said they wanted a girl gang. So I got to work on Teenage Doll, which was Larry Woolner taking the title of [Elia] Kazan’s Baby Doll . But the Johnson Bureau, or the Hays Office – I forget which was in at the time – rejected the story.
AG: So you had to re-write it over the weekend?
CG: Well I had to ruin it over the weekend. [Laughs.]
In the original version, the girls were all stealing weapons or making weapons in order to kill the good girl. Those were the interesting scenes. I wrote all these jokes in English to be said in Spanish. Roger called up the only Spanish agent around for that and it wound up that they were the best actors in the picture. But they were in the background the entire time!
In the foreground, this Mexican girl makes a potato grenade. She sticks a potato peeler in one end for a handle and then a double-edge razor-blade all around the potato so she could just flip the handle and the grenade would hit somebody. And that was her weapon to kill the girl.
Another girl stole her father’s pistol from his holster and, while she’s stealing it from his bed, the phone rings and the father has a conversation on the phone without opening his eyes and hangs up again. But the Hays office made me change these things so that they were stealing these weapons to sell for money to get a lawyer to attack the girls in some legal way. I mean really obnoxious and really stupid. It all had to be redone overnight.
AG: And the always-amusing Bruno VeSota was in that one?
CG: Yeah, Bruno was a sweetie pie. He was a really nice guy that everybody loved. He fancied himself a director. One time, he went out to do a Corman picture and took one shot in one direction, then turned the camera around to shoot the guy answering. When he started to turn the camera around again, the crew quit on the spot! [Laughs.] He said, “What’d I do?” He just didn’t know.
AG: I thought he did a decent job on Female Jungle , though perhaps this was the picture on which the incident happened?
CG: I don’t know. I didn’t see it. I didn’t see the other Corman pictures, only mine. You kinda had to – to see what was cut out. [Laughs.]
The Undead (Corman, 1957)
CG: It was originally called “The Trance of Diana Love”. Roger said to me, “Do me a Bridey Murphy picture.” And I told him that by the time Paramount finishes theirs, ours will fail. At the time, everybody was saying that they were making a bad picture. He just said that we’d get ours ahead of theirs and clean up. So I did “Trance of Diana Love” and it got shot funny, especially at the end, where you see the empty clothes before the revelation.
It was in iambic pentameter and I had to rewrite it after it was ready to shoot because somebody told Roger that they didn’t understand it. Roger would give it to anybody to read or anybody out on the street. He’d send girls out with scripts.
AG: So he would accept suggestions from anybody?
CG: Yeah! And then get panicky and change everything. So this gradually became a sore point with me.
Columbia Pictures: Ghost of the China Sea (Fred F. Sears, 1958) and Forbidden Island (Charles B. Griffith, 1959)
CG: Well, they told me to make a list of 100 titles to see if I could do it. Once I did that, they picked out two that would send me on a distant location in Hawaii because they knew I couldn’t make a picture out of the promised budgets: $85,000/black and white and $90,000/color. I really don’t want to get into the Columbia pictures because they thought I was putting them on. Roger thought I told them that I taught him everything he knew, whereas it was actually the other way around.
On Forbidden Island, I had an early chance to direct but was too dumb to know that I had to work with the editor. They told me I had an Oscar-winning editor; I told them we needed an Oscar-winning firestarter. You’re the only guy I ever told this to. It was my first directorial experience, apart from 2nd unit stuff on Crab Monsters and Teenage Doll.
Beast from Haunted Cave (Monte Hellman, 1959) and Ski Troop Attack (Corman, 1960)
CG: Both filmed in North Dakota.
AG: Did you research such scripts? Ski Troop Attack was a World War II picture.
CG: Well, I knew something about the Battle of the Herken Forest, so I used that. Roger wanted the train thing. I forget which picture it was copying, but it was done in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms [Charles Vidor, 1957]. They blew up a train and bridge in that one, and it was done all the time in Westerns.
It was a pretty bad script. I remember nothing about that film but Roger skiing with the local ski club in Deadwood, North Dakota. All these teenagers who were playing Nazis, you know? [Laughs.]
A Bucket of Blood (Corman, 1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (Corman, 1960)
CG: That was a better experience. After Columbia, I went back with Roger and we did those North Dakota pictures. Then came A Bucket of Blood, which we recognized as having a usable structure. That’s the most precious thing you can find is a new structure.
After Bucket, we went out on the town and started throwing our ideas around. Incidentally, Larry [Lawrence] Tierney knocked me out, but later became a great friend when I was living in Rome.
So Roger and I talked over a bunch of ideas, including gluttony. The hero would be a salad chef in a restaurant who would wind up cooking customers and stuff like that, you know? We couldn’t do that though because of the code at the time. So I said, “How about a man-eating plant?”, and Roger said, “Okay.” By that time, we were both drunk.
I was deeply involved with Little Shop. The first day of work I went in with two camera crews, which included Arch Dalzell, who was a neighbour of Myrt’s from the ’40s. He had two cameras, two BNCs on crab dollies, ready to shoot the entire picture from beginning to end, except for exteriors. It was done with standing sets at Chaplin Studios. We didn’t shoot on the weekends, but it was going down on Friday, that type of thing.
So I ran around all the positions with the crew as they made rapid notes and got ready to shoot it. That was Monday morning and Monday afternoon was spent rehearsing with the actors and getting them ready. The next day, Roger shot 50 pages of interiors and the next day he shot 50 pages of interiors. If people blew their lines, sometimes they stayed in. For example, Mel Welles gave a terrible line reading of “I’m making a lot of money!” and I wanted to stop it and re-shoot it as a close-up, but Roger wouldn’t do that. So it stayed in the picture and it actually got mentioned in reviews.
AG: Was it your idea to include the Dragnet-like narration?
CG: Sure, because this was a throwaway that would play downtown for 48 hours and that was it. There was just nothing else to do with these pictures. It would play drive-ins down South.
Several years later, when I was living in Europe, I was with Mel and heard a telephone call and this guy was talking to Canada saying, “Okay, okay, I gotta go. It’s on”, and hung up. We later found out he was rushing to go watch Little Shop!
I have no idea to this day why or where they found it, but film schools played it. Then it would turn up on television at 3am! It made more money every year than the previous year for 25 years, up until the remake, which killed everything. That cost 33 million and never made its money back.
AG: And you had a role as the robber who comes in near the end?
CG: Yeah, yeah, the stick-up man, Cloy Haddock. And I directed the exteriors and street scenes.
AG: Do you recall how you came up with the name Walter Paisley? It became quite a legacy for Dick Miller, carrying it into other pictures.
CG: I just wrote it down as it happened. Yeah, he used it in the Joe Dante pictures. Dick put his picture on the back of Variety – a full-page ad – during Rock All Night, but it didn’t do him any good.
Speaking of Dante, he came out with a group from New Jersey to work for Corman editing trailers. Allan Arkush was another one. Roger would have Dante pull explosions and things from other pictures and put them into the trailers.
I wrote Bucket as a satire, and then Little Shop as a farce. Different characters, different names and gags, but it was absolutely scene by scene the same structure. Both were around 64 pages, which was 64 minutes.
Creature from the Haunted Sea (Corman, 1961)
CG: I was asleep one night in Hollywood and woke up one morning with my notepad full of scribble and I read it. It was a call from Roger in Puerto Rico where he was shooting Last Woman on Earth , written by Bob Towne, who was there with him. Roger said who was there – Beach Dickerson, and so on – and told me to do another Naked Paradise, but this time from Cuba. He also said to make it a comedy and that I had three days. Then he hung up.
So I did it in three days and my grandma Myrt took the pages out to the post office and mailed them out. I was nowhere near the set for that one, but I got even with Roger in the character of Happy Jack Monahan, which I wrote for him. I wrote him as a grinning sadist. He had to jump off something as he hung himself from a tree, and he had to cry! [Laughs.] The first thing he did was to send for an actor from New York.
Atlas (Corman, 1961)
CG: That was Naked Paradise again. It was really terrible. I wrote it in a hotel room in Athens with Frank Wolff over my shoulder ridiculing me as I was doing it. He was saying, “This is so puerile!” [Laughs.] But there was no time to think at all. You had to type. I said, “I can only do one thing! I can’t think and type at the same time, so shut up.” It was really hilarious, the whole picture.
It was made for $30,000 and Roger had to sell his Jaguar. I think I got $100 bucks for that. He picked up a girl in Berlin and she was the script girl, wardrobe and props – all kinds of things. I became associate producer because I was there. He really made this with his own money. I found out we couldn’t shoot in the locations we picked, so we had to bribe guards at the gates to let us into all these antiquities. It was hilarious. But it did make its money back.
The proposed Gold Bug picture (early 1960s)
CG: We were going to use the Little Shop/Bucket of Blood structure again. Corman wanted to make another [Edgar Allan] Poe picture for AIP, but the only title left was The Gold Bug. Roger said, “Can you make a horror picture out of The Gold Bug?” I told him “Why not?”, and used the Little Shop plot. And he was getting Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in the picture. I just thought, “Oh, shit!”
We were going to use all the leftover stuff from the burned mansion, which was now a hockshop. And there was this admiral in the Transylvanian navy and he carried around a musical box, a pillbox, and there was a little gold bug inside that would jump out and do the “Gold Bug Rag” on the keys of the harpsichord that was for sale. This was still the Poe story. Then the gold bug would bite people and they would turn into gold. Recognize the Bucket of Blood plot here? But back then they wouldn’t have recognized it as nobody had commented on the similarities between Little Shop and Bucket of Blood.
Peter Lorre died while I was in the middle of the script. It was murder to keep going, as I had to do it in the same character. I had all those classic lines in it too, like “Can I trouble you for a match?”, but with different reasons. Mammy [actress Hattie McDaniel] from Gone with the Wind [Victor Fleming, 1939] was in it and she had these shoes that would squeak. Vincent Price tells her to take off the shoes, but her feet still squeak! Then one time she goes quiet, and Price asks why he didn’t hear her that time. She just says, “Sometimes I squeak, and sometimes I doesn’t!” [Laughs.]
Peter Lorre’s character drinking his mint julep through a cigar, the gold bug playing the harpsichord and inviting people in classic postures or the famous statue like the one-armed bandit that they had to be in when the bug bit them and turned them into gold – all so much fun.
I was on the stage in London where Roger was shooting The Masque of the Red Death , and Vincent asks me, “What are you doing and how are you doing it?”, as he knew I was writing for him. So I told him about this scene where he’s walking down the corridor and there’s all these paintings in there. At this point, Price says, “Oh no, not again!” I just say, “Wait for it, wait for it.” So Price, as Colonel Peachtree, is with Basil Rathbone as the carpetbagger trying to buy up everything from Vincent, and he’s showing him these pictures of his family, like “Here’s the third earl of Peachtree” and “Here’s Peachtree something else.” Finally, as he gets to the last one, and by this time Price is looking at me funny, he says, “This is my Mother. Don’t you think she has an enigmatic smile?” And before I got to the word enigmatic, Vincent started to laugh. He got it! They’re all famous! And Vincent says, “You’ve just got to have the Laughing Cavalier!” It would have been such a funny scene. And Basil would have been doing takes to the camera, thinking, “How can this ass fool me with the Blue Boy, Mrs Simmons and the Girl with the Pearl Earring?” But that would have broke Roger’s rule of nobody looks at the camera.
The Wild Angels (Corman, 1966)
CG: Everybody who worked on it threw things in of their own choosing, including Peter Bogdanovich and Peter Fonda, who had thrown in a lot of the psychedelic stuff that was later cut back. Fonda also changed his name to Heavenly Blues. It was a mess.
I had written a silent movie on the freighter coming back from Europe. It only had 75 lines of dialogue in it, and they were all in one scene. So I showed it to Roger and he says, “Great, write me this for a motorcycle gang.” I told him I wouldn’t do that, but I’d write him another picture with what he wanted from this one, which was the visual. Or at least he thought he wanted the visual. So I wrote a picture like that.
A jam-up on the coast highway and two motorcycles pull out of the mob, streaking down the white line toward each other. One’s a cop and one’s a biker. They stop wheel to wheel to look at one another. I felt that that told the story of the entire picture: they both wanted that kind of freedom.
I made the mistake in the treatment of calling them Jack White and Jack Black, and Roger told me we couldn’t call them that. He also had taken out all of the humour from that one, too. There were a lot of animals in there to observe things. A few stayed in, but they didn’t look like they were doing anything for a reason.
The Dick Miller scene at the oil well, for instance – which was supposed to be played by Fonda, when George Chakiris was in the lead – Roger moved everybody up one role when he wouldn’t ride the motorcycle. Dick was given dialogue. In my version, the guys come up the tower and Miller’s character [Rigger] sees their uniforms and says, “You guys Hells’ Angels?”, and Loser [Bruce Dern] pulls up his shirtsleeves to a close-up on a tattoo. And that was the end of the scene. But no, Dick had to go into this speech about Anzio. I don’t know if Dick wrote that; maybe it was Barboura Morris or Bogdanovich. Anyway, it was a whole long bullshit scene. I told Roger to “Take my name off of it before you make the titles”, but he told me he already had! And he was enraged with me for wanting to.
I think Fonda already had Easy Rider  in mind and he was doing that whole philosophical posturing bit. I was not around when they did this, though. I did do some second unit, but that was it.
AG: Did you spend any time with the real Hells’ Angels?
CG: Oh, yes, Roger and me went to the gunk shop before the picture was made as I wanted to get their sounds. Roger wanted to get facts and history. They were scaring Roger deliberately, seeing him sweat.
Some of it came out better than expected, but to me the dialogue had ruined it. It had symbols all over the place – the bars that were going around the picket fence at the beginning. I had a rebellious kid on a tricycle taking off and his mother taking him by the collar and driving him home. But no, of course, Barboura Morris had to turn that into a social comment about how good he was and how he was a poor little thing. This stuff kept happening all through the picture.
Luckily, they didn’t do it at the end. I was just waiting for a speech at the end. They left the rape scene intact and the funeral sequence intact, where he has no place to go. He stays to fill the grave, as the others take off.
The Devil’s Angels (Daniel Haller, 1967)
CG: They hired John Cassavetes, of all people. I was called into his hotel and he says, “What the fuck is this shit?!”, and I just say, “Well, we wrote it last weekend in La Hoya and I didn’t know you were going to be in it. If I’d known you were going to be in it, I would have shot myself!” [Laughs.] So he says, “Fix this, fix this, fix this” and so I fix those and that was it. The changes did suit him and his acting ability. We never had anybody who could do what he could do. Then Roger blamed me, saying I made a better motorcycle picture for Danny Haller than him. I told him no, that was Cassavetes giving orders!
It was his own dialogue he was worried about. He didn’t care what happened to the rest of it. He didn’t want to look bad, and I can’t blame him for that. I don’t remember any scenes, but the character was rougher, meaner, a real son-of-a-bitch, you know? Pulling the wall out of the gaol. Cassavetes definitely improved it all.
AG: Did you share the view that the motorcycle gangs were like the Western outlaws?
CG: Yeah, that was my theory. The Butch Cassidy aspect of looking for the hole in the wall was mine.
Griffith’s draft of The Trip (Corman, 1967)
CG: Ten months of writing this script. At first, Roger wanted a dramatic picture with all the social issues of the 1960s in it. So, of course, I wrote a telephone book! I didn’t like it and Roger didn’t like it, so he just asked me to do what I would have liked to do. I told him to make it a musical, because the music coming out in 1967 was fantastic. That old rock and roll shit that we hated had now become brilliant, and we could have made a great musical out of it.
AG: Were any particular bands or musicians discussed?
CG: Frank Zappa almost made the deal. We interviewed people. David Raksin, the guy who wrote the music for Laura [Otto Preminger, 1944], was interviewed. Roger wanted to reveal the mental properties or aspects of drugs on the brain, not in a clinical way but in a musical comedy way – a lot of comedy.
A lost guy looking for his girlfriend [was] the entire picture. He gets himself high, turned onto all these different drugs and different relationships with people. For instance, his father bails him out when he’s caught drunk driving, but not when he’s high on pot. The social element was there, but mostly it was a musical comedy.
Finally, Roger told me “I can’t do this. This will sell dope to 50 million people!” I just left the project. Jack Nicholson came in and did his draft that became the picture. Roger had forgotten everything on our acid trip up in Big Sur.
AG: So there was nothing held over from your initial concept?
CG: No, it was all phonus balonus. The guru was upset because his subject was jealous or afraid. Nothing to do with my original idea. I saw it once in French with no subtitles, but I just hated that picture.
Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975)
CG: The most interesting point there was during a scene between [Sylvester] Stallone [who plays Machine Gun Joe] and Louisa Moritz [Myra] in the Viterbo car. In the original version, they drive up to the edge and stop, and there’s an outhouse on the left-hand side of that drop off. Stan Ross, the stuntman, was in the outhouse and he has this dialogue with Stallone. Stallone gets mad at him when he says, “You got to go back 75 miles to the road!”, and so Stallone knocks the outhouse off the end of the dock. But it fell into the river and nobody was in it! Paul Bartel, the director, had shot his own action stunts and he was a bit swish. He tried to do it but sometimes it didn’t come off. This guy in the outhouse was missing.
So I had to go back and do all these second-unit scenes for the picture. So now there’s no outhouse and Ross is sitting on the edge of the dock with the fishing pole and line. Now this is what you see in the final version: Stallone pulls up and they have a different dialogue scene but from Stallone’s point-of-view it’s all the same lines, while from Stan’s part it’s different. Stallone gets mad and heads his car towards him, so he jumps into the river and the car runs alongside the river, pulls him into the water, and catches him to run him down. You see the tyres spinning. But Roger cuts before you realize that there was a blood bag down there and, as it spun, it broke the bag and blood spurted up into the air. It was a great shot but he didn’t look at it that long! He just said, “Okay, take ten feet”, and didn’t bother to finish looking at the footage!
He tried to make it serious. He was enraged with me for trying to make it funny, but he took me to see the cars and they were all goofy looking with decal eyes and rubber teeth. I said, “You can’t be serious”, and he tells me, “Chuck, this is a hard-hitting serious picture!” Obviously, Bartel didn’t think so either.
The girls in the office, including Beverly Gray and Frances Doel, sat around and made up the funniest thing I ever heard. I don’t remember a word of it now, but when we took it to Roger he hit the sealing. Again with the “This is a hard-hitting picture!” So that was it. When Paul went to shoot it, I didn’t envy him; all the gags were cut. But he did make some gags up on the spot, a hand grenade, you know – all that stuff.
So when I went out to do the second unit to fix all those things, I first had everybody getting it into the ass but Roger vetoed that. [Laughs.] So then I had other ways of killing them all and we put it together as the picture. I told him to take my name off of it, but he wouldn’t do that. He had already made the titles again!
Eat My Dust! (Griffith, 1976)
CG: This was a situation where Roger, Mark Damon and I went out for some Moroccan food when Mark started nudging Roger to give me a picture to direct. Originally, he was going to give me the picture Francis Coppola did over in Ireland, Dementia 13 , but I had gotten into a big automobile accident so Francis did it – and I’m glad. But Francis kept getting better and better, until he became the best of the best. He was also on The Young Racers  as a sound mixer. Anyway, I went north after the accident and was laid up in the same room that was used as a set in Jules et Jim [François Truffaut, 1961], which struck me as being great at the time.
Eat My Dust! was shot in four weeks and I filmed the stunt scenes, with very little second unit. So I was out shooting the country in the dust. When I came back to the office, at the time the picture was called “The Car”, so I just said, “They oughta call it “Eat My Dust!”, and the heads in the sales department turned around and looked at me. I just said I was kidding, but too late; it became Eat My Dust!.
A funny thing about the next one in that series. A friend called Max Mendes, who was a schoolteacher in New York but had originally helped us in Europe as a helper/schlep, said to me one time that one of his kids took him to the window of the classroom and pointed to a big car in the parking lot, telling him, “That’s GTA, man. Grand Theft Auto!” So I put that into the picture and, of course, Ronny Howard used it as the title of the next one. Ron made a deal to do two pictures. Act in both and direct one, but they had to be the same kind of picture. And I believe they had more money for Grand Theft Auto as they wrecked a Rolls Royce in it.
Up from the Depths (Griffith, 1979)
CG: Oh God, I’m afraid another terrible experience. We had it written by one of the typists or secretaries in the office who didn’t have any thoughts of becoming a writer. I think Roger did it to punish me, to send me out to The Philippines where I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was making an action picture, but The Philippines people were all so depressed, and they had made this goofy-looking fish with bug eyes. I told them that we’ll make it a comedy, and their eyes lit up! So I sent back a comedy on one plane, and I arrived on the next one. By the time I arrived, Roger had already cut 75 minutes out. As an editor would say, “That’s a set-up, that’s a payoff!”
Smokey Bites the Dust (Griffith, 1981)
CG: Not my title, believe me. It was to cash in on both Smokey and the Bandit [Hal Needham, 1977] and Eat My Dust!. I asked Jim Nicholson one time why they did things like that. That people would think they were sequels or something. He said, “That’s the idea! People will come to see a well-known picture.”
Acting in Hollywood Boulevard (Joe Dante, 1976) and Eating Raoul (Paul Bartel, 1982)
CG: Yeah, I was Mark Dentine in Hollywood Boulevard kidding Mark Hanna’s big white teeth.
I was the drunk in the first scene of Bartel’s Eating Raoul, which was again just using the Little Shop of Horrors structure of killing one person accidentally, killing one person conveniently on purpose, then becoming a flat-out murderer.
Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (Griffith, 1980)
CG: That could have been the best of the best. Menahem Golan hired me. I wrote 5 joke titles to show Francis Coppola at his Christmas party in 1979. I showed him the list and he chuckled a bit, but asked me what would I really like to do? I told him that I’d love to have an Ealing Studios situation where I could make little comedies. Francis just said, “Why little?”, and walked away to something else.
So I had these joke titles in my pocket and Menahem hired me, after I showed him Little Shop, to write The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood . I didn’t want to do that, so I put my agent on him and I said, “I get $25,000 for writing and another $25,000 for directing”, thinking that he’d turn it down. It took a long time but Menahem gave me that deal and said that he had to hand off Happy Hooker to somebody else [Alan Roberts], so we’d have to do another picture. He asked what I had in mind, and I told him that I sort of specialize in black comedies. And I remembered this list when I put on my shirt that day and so I handed it to him and he chuckled at the last one. “You want to do a funny Jeckyll and Hyde?” I said, “Sure”, and he said, “Okay, but the ugly guy is the good guy.” And that was it.
Oliver Reed used to get me drunk but I liked him. I didn’t want him originally. I had wanted Dick Van Dyke, but he was out on the road doing a play. Menahem hired Oliver because he was there. I had to redo the entire picture in my head when he was cast, because it was a zany slapstick comedy and I got Oliver Reed – with that face and that voice! So I made it more lyrical.
Sonny Johnson, the lead actress, was cast in the middle of the night before shooting started the next day, but she turned in a stellar performance. A few weeks later, she died of a brain haemorrhage. She was beautiful and a great actress. She would have went on to greater stuff.
The picture was too long, with the script being about 200 pages. There was no time to cut it, except for Menahem’s auto-cutting by tearing out pages, and that became a mess. I did it in four weeks again and, when I told him I was going to go over, I thought he’d kill me! I told him that I couldn’t get all this elaborate stuff that I’d written that he didn’t tell me to cut. It was just so much.
Mel Welles played Dr. Hinkle, a fat doctor with all these fat ladies as patients. He invented a new diet paste, “One drop you shed 56 pounds, two drops you kill a horse!”, and so Dr. Hype [Reed] takes this diet paste and that’s what causes the changing. He turns into Heckyll with green make-up, brillo hair, a carrot nose, one red eye and one blue eye, claws and the whole works.
I asked Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze, from the old gang, to be the garbage men, but Jonathan refused. I just gave all the lines to Dick, who did both sets.
Unproduced screenplays, writing for Groucho and Barbarella (Vadim, 1968)
CG: After 1988, I quit the picture business and started to write books. I also wrote “Roger the Rager”, which had all my genres in it, and concerned this guy who had road rage. It’s still available. I wrote that in Australia. I wrote another one in Australia, another comedy, called “Two on the Isle”.
My scripts were just getting larger and larger – 300, 350 pages – tight as a drum and couldn’t be cut. That gave me sort of a bad reputation, deservedly.
We turned one of Menahem Golan’s plays into a script called “Who Stole Irving?”, which was supposed to have starred Groucho Marx. So I became completely obsessed writing for Groucho, and Menahem reads the script and screams. My girlfriend starts reading the screenplay and screams, I’m writing the damn thing and screaming with laughter. It was the funniest script I ever wrote.
I sent it to Groucho, and Groucho hated it. Later on I found out, while reading a biography, that he hated all scripts. Jack Benny had to bribe him and give him scripts at the last minute for radio shows. He had to be in charge of the writing, I guess.
I had one bit where he’s trailing a hubcap thief and he’s on one side while they’re on the other. And he’s sneaking uphill while this fence stays on the level, so, as he keeps listening, he has to walk shorter and shorter until he can’t go any farther – that kind of humour.
AG: Do you still keep in contact with any of the old gang?
CG: I still see Mel Welles, but not Roger. I see Jonathan Haze once in a while and Jackie Joseph. Most of the rest are gone. Dick is okay; he’s not working now, though.
When I went to Australia, I met a film student who bypassed me to ask about Monte Hellman, who edited The Wild Angels and others. I really figured I hadn’t done a good picture, although the ending I wrote for Barbarella would have been fantastic.
AG: What was that like?
CG: Well, Vadim had already made it and had scored it with Beatles music as a temp track. Halfway through, I told him that I didn’t notice the camera move once and he says, “Ah, you’re not supposed to notice that!” And I told him I thought he was shooting a rehearsal.
He asked why it wasn’t getting any laughs and then asked me whether I’d like to stay in a hotel or come out to their country home with him and Jane. So I said I’d come out to the country with them, that way they could read the pages every night if they wanted to. I went out there and it was really great. Great parties with Jane as the host, and I stayed there for two months while I did new scenes for them. I was the last of the 15 writers who didn’t get any credit. I think only Terry Southern got credit in the end, and he took it directly from the comic book.
AG: Do you recall what was yours in the final picture?
CG: I can’t remember much. The suicide room was my dialogue, but the main piece I did was this ending. He had already had a scene where Barbarella [Jane Fonda] and the Great Tyrant [Anita Pallenberg] were trapped under the lava in the bubble. So the scene plays with Jane asking what should they do? And Anita answers that they might as well make love. Jane says, “Okay”, and they proceed with the most awkward attempt at a lesbian love scene ever filmed. So it wasn’t working and I asked them to give me a chance – I wish I could remember my dialogue.
Anyway, they’re in the bubble and they get into a discussion about whose fault it was, and Jane says that she’s at fault and that she should die first. Anita says the same thing. Nobody realized that in the final picture that it was really Jane’s fault that everything happened to Anita’s character. So Anita finally talks Jane into thinking she’s the bad one, and Jane asks, “What’s next?” Anita says that she’ll need to kill her and Jane asks, “How?” Anita says, “Close your eyes. Put one knee here, and one knee here and your little hands around my throat and squeeze!” So Jane is going through this, thinking it’s a mercy killing and, the more she squeezes, the more Anita grooved and writhed with her tongue hanging out! Jane’s very grim, but finally she opens her eyes and sees Anita digging it and says, “You Bitch!”, as the thing popped out of the lava onto the shore.
Vadim thought it was wonderful but [photographer] James Bailey, who was out at the house shooting Jane for some magazine, said, “They’ll never allow it.” So we get to Rome to shoot it and both girls rehearsed it upstairs with me in Anita’s dressing room. Vadim shot it and they were dynamite. Cut. I thought, “My career is made with this one scene!” Next thing I know, it’s not in the picture. They go under, they go up. Nothing happens under the magma. Dino De Laurentiis cut it. It’s probably in his studios now.
I don’t know how the ratings would work on something like that today. The acting was so strong that you got the impression that they really wanted to do it, but were too embarrassed to under those circumstances. They had a license to do it because they were pretending to, and evidently it worked. But it really pissed me off that it wasn’t in the final cut. That picture gets a lot of credit, but I still think it’s a rotten picture.
AG: How was Vadim as a director?
CG: He was very phlegmatic. He would set up, talk to the cameraman and figured that they were all professionals who should know how to do it themselves. Kind of like Roger in that respect – they both assumed that actors were acting and could do it. In some cases that’s true, but you don’t really get great performances unless you fuck them up a few times. [Laughs.]
AG: Do you go to the movies often today?
CG: Not very often. I went to see Girl with the Pearl Earring [Peter Webber, 2003], which is probably the best picture I’ve seen in three years or more. I saw Monster [Patty Jenkins, 2003] and Master and Commander [:The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir, 2003]. I saw Kill Bill [2003/4]. I love Tarantino; he’s the only one who ever wrote something nice about me. He was asked who his influences were, and said, “Nobody really, well except for Charles Griffith”, and then named a few other, more famous writers.
AG: I can certainly see the influence you’ve had on his work!
CG: Yes, I’ve never met him though.
AG: Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
CG: Yes, take your hat and your cat, and get the hell out!