Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Edgar Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen

The French consider him a genius

I was watching the documentary, Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, about the B movie director. Some in the French New Wave--Luc Moullet for one--considered him an auteur.

The story was that Ulmer directed an excellent B list movie for Universal studios, a movie called The Black Cat. It should have been his ticket to keep working for the major studios, but he was sleeping with the wife of the nephew of the president of the studio and he was blackballed.

Ulmer went to work for PRC, Producers Releasing Corporation, the most impoverished of the Poverty Row studios. Ulmer claimed that they shot all their movies there in 6 days and that he was given just enough filmstock to shoot on a 2:1 ratio. He was best known for directing the noir film Detour.

The documentary seemed to see Ulmer as a sad case because he didn't get to direct big budget movies and was stuck on Poverty Row. But it's patronizing to feel sorry for someone in his position. Directing 60 low budget movies wasn't good enough? The world isn't full of would-be filmmakers who wouldn't love to live his life?

They interviewed Ulmer's daughter, Arianne, plus Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Wim Wenders, and Joe Dante.

Dante shared some advice Roger Corman gave him. When making your shooting schedule, figure out how much time you need to make the movie really great. Then figure out how long to make it okay. Then how long just to get it on film. And go with the third one.

Here's my advice: Imagine your movie the way it would look if you had unlimited time and money. Then imagine an extended skit on The Carol Burnett Show or Saturday Night Live, or Mad TV, based on your movie. Then make a movie that looks like the skit.

One of Ulmer's movies, The Island of Forgotten Sins

There was also one of Ulmer's B movies on the DVD, something called The Island of Forgotten Sins.

It wasn't very good.

Throughout the documentary, they told us that directors today could learn a thing or two from Ulmer----they should look at his work before complaining about low budgets and tight schedules. But The Island of Forgotten Sins wasn't much of an inspiration.

It's understandable that the French New Wave looked to American B movies for inspiration. They had a morbid fascination with Hollywood. They wanted to direct movies themselves, and they knew if they were ever going to do so, it would be on very small budgets. But does it make sense for independent filmmakers today to look to these terrible movies from the '30s and '40s?

Instead of B movies, look to American TV shows. Not the new ones---they cost too much. Look at old episodes of Bonanza, The Rifleman, Quincy, McMillan and Wife. T.J. Hooker. Charley's Angels.

Many of these shows were made using B movie techniques, and shows in the '50s and '60s were often directed by former B directors. Joseph Lewis directed episodes The Rifleman. William Beaudine directed episodes of Lassie and Spin & Marty on the old Mickey Mouse Club. Ida Lupino directed episodes of Gilligan's Island.

They worked on extremely tight schedules and low budgets. And they were pretty good shows. Think of what you could do using the same form but different content.

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