It may not have been a huge box office success, but Tim Burton’s Ed Wood did win two Academy Awards and a chorus of rave reviews following its release in 1994. Pretty impressive for a biopic about a man who has largely been labeled “the worst director of all time.” Throw on an angora sweater and let’s take a look.
1. IT’S THE BRAINCHILD OF FORMER COLLEGE ROOMMATES.
In 1981, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—both freshmen at the USC School of Cinema-Television—met each other in a cafeteria line, hit it off immediately, and arranged to become roommates. During their senior year, the duo began joining forces on an assortment of screenwriting projects, kicking off a partnership that continues to this day. Together, they have co-written Problem Child (1990), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Man on the Moon (1999), and Big Eyes (2014). On the small screen, they also developed the hit FX series American Crime Story, which recently completed its first season with The People v. O. J. Simpson.
Before graduating from USC in 1985, Alexander and Karaszewski briefly considered making a documentary on history’s most enigmatic director, Edward D. Wood, Jr. Although this project went unrealized, they eventually returned to the subject. In 1992, author Rudolph Grey published Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy (The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.), a thoroughly researched oral biography of Wood and his work. The book inspired Alexander and Karaszewski to pen a 10-page story treatment for a new biopic about the eccentric, cross-dressing auteur.
2. THE ORIGINAL PLAN WAS TO BRING ON TIM BURTON AS A PRODUCER.
Karaszewski said that, at the onset, he and Alexander “envisioned Ed Wood as more of an indie style picture.” Obviously, it would need a director, so the scribes presented their treatment to their former USC classmate Michael Lehmann, who’s best known for directing the low-budget cult comedy Heathers (1988). Lehmann loved the concept and agreed to sit in the director’s chair. Then the scriptwriters contacted Tim Burton.
“We weren’t even asking Tim to work on Ed Wood, just to put his name to it,” Alexander recalled. “We said, ‘Would you mind coming on as a producer or a presenter, just to help us raise our financing?’ This was so we could say ‘Tim Burton Presents [Ed Wood].’” Having grown up with Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Burton was a lifelong Ed Wood fan. Excited by the treatment, he told Alexander and Karaszewski that he’d like to direct the film.
Not only did the material seem tailor-made for Burton’s unique style but, as Karaszewski pointed out, everyone involved knew that, “The film would have a much better chance of being made if Tim agreed to direct.” Even Lehmann was excited about the possibility and agreed to “step aside” should Burton choose to assume directing duty. (Lehmann later became one of Ed Wood’s producers.)
There was just one problem: Tri-Star had already asked Burton to helm Mary Reilly, an upcoming drama about Dr. Jekyll’s housekeeper. In order to secure his services, Alexander and Karaszewski knew they’d need to give him a full-length script—and fast!
“Tim had six weeks to decide whether he was going to make Mary Reilly or not,” Karaszewski explained, “… so Scott and I locked ourselves in a room and quickly did a first draft, which ended up too long at about 140 pages. We got it to Tim on a Friday and then we got a call [that] Sunday saying Tim had dropped out of the other movie and was going our movie. Tim had no notes at all, and his intention was to simply shoot our first draft, which is exactly what he did. We were very lucky. Not much got changed.”
3. COLUMBIA PICTURES DROPPED THE FILM AFTER BURTON INSISTED ON SHOOTING IT IN BLACK AND WHITE.
One month before production began, Ed Wood hit a snag. Burton was fortunate enough to hire his first choice for the role of Bela Lugosi, actor Martin Landau, and makeup artist Rick Baker made Landau look uncannily similar to the Hungarian movie star. Nevertheless, after watching the first color tests, something felt a bit off. That’s when everyone realized that they’d only ever seen black-and-white photographs of Lugosi. Immediately, Burton decided that Ed Wood couldn’t be filmed in color.
The movie was being developed by Columbia Pictures, whose higher-ups disagreed with Burton’s decision to shoot in black and white. “They were saying, ‘Look, we can’t get our cable money, we can’t get our foreign video money, we won’t be able to exploit the movie in a lot of markets if it’s in black-and-white,” Alexander recalled. Still, Burton held firm. Realizing he wouldn’t budge, Columbia abandoned the picture. Fortunately, Disney was there to pick it up—and allowed Burton to follow his creative instincts.
4. MARTIN LANDAU PREPARED FOR HIS ROLE BY STUDYING HUNGARIAN LANGUAGE TAPES.
In order to imitate Lugosi's voice and mannerisms, Landau watched some 35 Lugosi movies and purchased Hungarian language tapes. With the latter, he would “literally practice the language and see where the tongue would go.” Doing his homework really paid off, as the performance earned Landau an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1995. When Hungarian-born director Peter Medak saw Ed Wood, he called Landau to praise him; Medak said that Landau’s accent sounded spot-on because, “You are not an actor trying to do a Hungarian accent, you’re a character trying not to do [one].”
5. BURTON HAS LIKENED THE ON-SCREEN BOND BETWEEN WOOD AND LUGOSI TO HIS OWN RELATIONSHIP WITH VINCENT PRICE.
Following the release of his 1953 mega-hit House of Wax, Vincent Price became one of Hollywood's biggest stars. And Tim Burton, who grew up watching and rewatching the actor’s acclaimed Edgar Allan Poe films, was one of Price's biggest fans.
“There was an energy he had; it was evident in everything.” Burton said. “I liked believing Vincent Price, I believed him.” In 1982, Burton gave Price’s career a boost by casting him as the narrator of Vincent, a short film. The two became friends and worked together again on Edward Scissorhands (1990), as well as a Price-centered documentary called Conversations With Vincent.
When Burton read Alexander and Karaszewski’s script for Ed Wood, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. “There was an aspect of Wood’s relationship with Bela Lugosi that I liked,” Burton said. “He befriended him at the end of his life, and … I connected with it on the level that I did with Vincent Price, in terms of how I felt about him. Meeting Vincent had an incredible impact on me, the same impact Ed must have felt meeting and working with his idol.”
6. JOHNNY DEPP’S ED WOOD VOICE WAS A COMBINATION OF RONALD REAGAN, CASEY KASEM, AND THE TIN MAN FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ.
In interviews, Johnny Depp has said that to capture the voice of Wood, he tried to merge Ronald Reagan’s “blind optimism” with the “vocal attack” of Casey Kasem, the long-serving disc jockey who voiced Shaggy on the original Scooby-Doo cartoon series. Further inspiration was drawn from Jack Haley’s performance as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
7. BUNNY’S ROLE WAS EXPANDED AFTER BILL MURRAY SIGNED ON.
Actor and drag queen John Campbell “Bunny” Breckinridge was a major player in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Despite this, the original Ed Wood script gave the character very little dialogue. But when Bill Murray signed on to play the part, Alexander and Karaszewski decided to beef up the role. “When Bill got cast, it didn’t make sense to just have him standing in the background!” Karaszewski said.
8. THE REAL ED WOOD PROBABLY DIDN’T KIDNAP AN OCTOPUS.
The movie shows Wood stealing a motorized giant octopus from Paramount so that he can shoot the climactic scene for Bride of the Monster (1955). However, the jury’s still out on whether this actually happened or not. Many years after the fact, Wood himself boasted that he illegally lifted the prop and Dolores Fuller later said as much in a conversation with film historian Tom Weaver. Yet Alex Gordon, the movie’s screenwriter, claimed it was rented.
9. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE’S LEADING MAN IS IN IT.
Although he appeared in more than 30 movies and worked with visionaries like Steven Spielberg and John Ford, Gregory Walcott is chiefly remembered for playing the main character in Plan 9 From Outer Space. “It’s enough to drive a puritan to drink!” Walcott vented in 1998. Regardless, when Tim Burton’s Ed Wood came around, he made a quick cameo as a prospective investor in one scene. The film marked Walcott’s final film appearance; the actor passed away in 2015.
10. DEPP DEVELOPED A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH ANGORA SWEATERS.
“I learned too much about women’s clothing,” Depp said of Ed Wood, while promoting the movie in an MTV interview. “The first thing I learned is that angora feels amazing on someone else, [but] not on you.” Alas, the fuzzy material does have an annoying habit of shedding profusely; Depp joked that in certain scenes, he may have “inhaled more angora than oxygen.”
11. IT WAS THE FIRST BURTON-DIRECTED MOVIE THAT DANNY ELFMAN DIDN’T SCORE.
Burton and Danny Elfman first collaborated on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), which marked Burton’s feature directorial debut and Elfman’s first major movie score. It was a match made in heaven. Following Pee-wee, Elfman provided the music for Burton’s next four pictures: Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Batman Returns (1992). But due to a temporary falling out between the two artists, Elfman did not lend his talents to Ed Wood, which was scored by Howard Shore instead. The dynamic duo would later bury the hatchet after filming began on Mars Attacks! (1996).
12. BELA LUGOSI JR. ISN’T A FAN.
Although Ed Wood was showered with positive reviews after its release, the picture didn’t win everybody over. Bela Lugosi Jr., for one, was outraged by the film’s “distorted” portrayal of his late father’s drug rehabilitation process. “The truth, in this case, is actually more dramatic than fiction, but it doesn’t star Ed Wood,” the younger Lugosi told the Los Angeles Times. “My dad, who had a medically induced addiction to morphine, turned himself in—with no Mr. Wood accompanying him, contrary to what the film shows—to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk.”
Furthermore, Lugosi Jr. says that his father never would have made “certain references to Vampira’s anatomy or … scatological remarks regarding Boris Karloff.” (In fact, Lugosi Sr. greatly respected Karloff, and vice versa.)
13. DOLORES FULLER DIDN’T LIKE SARAH JESSICA PARKER’S PORTRAYAL OF HER.
Overall, Wood’s longtime girlfriend enjoyed the movie. Before her death in 2011, Fuller called Landau’s performance “magnificent” and said that Depp did a “beautiful” job in the lead role. “Eddy wasn’t always that up, he had his heartbreaks too,” Fuller allowed, “… but oh what a great actor [Depp] is and I just loved the portrayal.” But she didn’t feel that the film treated her fairly.
“That was the only thing I didn’t like about the movie,” Fuller said. “Sarah Jessica Parker smoked all the time and I would never smoke. And she didn’t contact me. Here she’s playing my life and she didn’t bother to do any research.” Also, she pointed out that her relationship with Wood was a lot warmer than the movie might have you believe. “They portrayed me as an actress out to get all I can get, but I contributed.” Indeed, she did: Among many other things, Fuller (willingly) provided Wood with a number of costumes that were used in his films. She’d also help her then-boyfriend entertain Bela Lugosi during the Dracula star’s regular visits to their home.
14. PEOPLE WERE MISTAKING GEORGE STEELE FOR TOR JOHNSON LONG BEFORE ED WOOD CAME OUT.
A professional wrestler himself, George Steele looks like Tor Johnson—who appeared in several of Wood’s movies—reincarnated. Noting their physical similarities, Burton asked Steele to submit an audition tape and cast him as Johnson shortly thereafter. In Steele’s autobiography, he reveals that he “knew nothing about” Wood before Burton contacted him. “While I had never seen Plan 9 From Outer Space,” Steele wrote, “people had told me that they’d seen me in this monster movie. I had no clue at the time what they were talking about. Later on, I learned it was an Ed Wood movie featuring Tor Johnson. Apparently, Tim Burton was not the only one who saw some resemblance between me and ol’ Tor.”