Few names are more highly regarded amongst film buff circles than Tim Lucas, who for nearly thirty years edited and co-published the legendary film magazine Video Watchdog and whose audio commentaries on more than 125 international DVD and Blu-ray releases are among the most highly regarded in the industry. Lucas has a rich pedigree as a writer, including a screenplay based on an incident in the life of film director Roger Corman, The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes.
Lucas recently turned The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes into a novel and Stephen Vagg recently spoke to him about it.
How would you describe The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes to our readers?
The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes tells the story of how Roger Corman came to direct his cult movie The Trip (1967), after the major box office success of its predecessor The Wild Angels in 1966. Though the story was informed by interviews with the principals – Corman, his assistant Frances Doel, his future wife Julie Halloran Corman, screenwriters Jack Nicholson and Charles W. Griffith, and Bruce Dern, either conducted by me or various published sources – the facts are stitched together into an original story that fits the known chronology of events, in what I hope is a funny and thought-provoking way.
What’s the background to your writing it?
The novel is based on an original screenplay that I wrote with my friend Charlie Largent, which was first optioned by Joe Dante back in 2004. Though the film has come close to getting produced a few times since then, the deals have always collapsed. A few years ago, Elijah Wood’s production company SpectreVision came aboard as co-producers, and everyone is still pulling together to get the film made. My writing of the novel was largely motivated by wanting to attract renewed interest to the film project, but in the course of writing it, I think it became a good deal more. The novel is very much its own thing, more novel than novelization.
As you mention, there’s been several attempts to film this script – what can you tell us about those?
Not too much because Joe [Dante] and his wife and producing partner Elizabeth Stanley try to keep that news away from the writers until it’s absolutely certain, so our hopes won’t be needlessly teased and dashed. I know that it once came very close to being produced around 2009, with Colin Firth playing Roger. He was a hot name at that time, especially once he got a nomination as Best Actor for A Single Man. After his nomination, things changed; I heard that his agent advised him that a small cult comedy might not be his ideal next step.
Julie Corman (Roger’s wife and business partner) suggested that Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live was her idea of the right man to play Roger, and he agreed to play the part for a “live table reading” of the script at LA’s Vista Theater back in 2016, where he gave a remarkable and funny performance. (He also got to act with Roger, who appears as himself toward the end of the story, and it blew the audience’s minds.) However, Bill hasn’t been able to commit to the film because he’s involved with Barry, as lead actor, writer, and director. So, he’s busy with that even when it’s not actively in production. It’s such a shame; I think he was born to play this part, and I’m not alone in this. The last thing I heard is that the producers, after focusing on pursuing the right star and were hoping to cast the rest of the picture around him, are now looking for the right star to commit on the basis of the strong supporting cast they’ve assembled and received commitments from. Fingers crossed!
What’s your personal history with the film The Trip, and how has it changed over the years?
I first saw The Trip when I was about 12 years old at my local matinee haunt, The Plaza Theater in Norwood, Ohio. It was playing on a double bill with Terence Fisher’s Island of Terror, of all things. And there, I bumped into a girl from school who I liked, but was much too shy (and poor) to ask out, and she decided to sit next to me and clutched my arm all through Island of Terror. It was like my first “date.” But then, she rejoined her girlfriends for The Trip and, afterwards, she came up to me and asked what I thought. “l liked it,” I said. And she hit me and said, “You liked it because it was a DIRTY movie!” and stomped away! Anyway, I honoured that event by naming one of the incidental characters after her; I’m a loyal person so she has a place in my book, and in my earliest memory of The Trip.
It was many years later, circa 2003, a double feature DVD came out of Psych Out and The Trip, and there was a nice featurette about the making of The Trip included. And while watching it, the idea just came to me that this story could and should be a movie. The whole idea of a very normal, serious, straight character (Corman) who wants to make a movie inquiring into the subject of LSD (which was then still a legal substance in the US), who was surrounded by friends and colleagues on the freaky cutting edge who began applying peer pressure and encouraging him to try acid himself before making a movie about it. And then Roger, with a small group of friends, heads up to Big Sur, the most beautiful spot he can think of, for the big event, followed by a caravan of hippie acquaintances who want to share the experience with him in a very loving way. But I was very busy at that time editing and writing for my magazine Video Watchdog (1990-2017), so my free time between issues was tight. I called Charlie Largent, who I knew was as much a Corman fan as I am, and proposed that we write a screenplay together via email. I would start and write as many pages as I could til my imagination ran out, then he would pick up the ball and run with it til he ran out of energy, and then he sent it back to me. Working this way, and having a lot of hilarious telephone chats along the way, we were able to arrive at our first complete draft in just twelve days! It has changed a lot since then; it was originally much more of a comedy.
Corman’s career is full of legendary stories – how he got into the business, the making of The Intruder, The Wild Angels, etc. Why did you pick this particular chapter in his life?
It’s a pivotal chapter in Roger’s life because he was experiencing a growth spurt without quite being conscious of it, and it happened to coincide with the Old Hollywood morphing into the New Hollywood. There would have been no Easy Rider without The Wild Angels and The Trip, which Roger originally saw as his way of moving away from the Edgar Allan Poe projects that made him famous. He saw those films as a way of getting outside the enclosed artificial environments of the studio, into the out-of-doors. It’s my own personal belief, based on various interviews I’ve read with him, that Roger’s real goal was to get away from American International. It wasn’t just for personal reasons; he also had ambitions of proving himself outside the exploitation framework. In fact, at the time he made The Wild Angels and The Trip, Roger was working out of an office on the Columbia Pictures lot, and trying very hard to get new, serious projects off the ground. But, at this point, the major studios had no interest; the only real support he was getting was still coming from Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson at American International, and this was disturbing to Roger because the company had just gone public, and they were starting to meddle with the content and effectiveness of his work. In the book (and I suspect, to a degree, in real life), Roger’s need for change made the subject of LSD more attractive to him at that particular point in time. One of the epigrams I chose for the novel was from Timothy Leary: “You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.”
You mentioned The Intruder. The Intruder has always been Roger’s personal favourite of all his films. He used it to make a personal statement about civil rights and racial segregation in the American South. He put his heart into it, and it was his first picture that failed to make back its initial investment in its first release. Its commercial failure taught him to never put his own money into a project, to always maintain a discreet distance between himself and the content of his work – however, The Trip was definitely another case where the line between the two blurred. Roger decided to try LSD himself before making the picture, and that experience made the film more personal. The Trip is one of the most radical, experimental movies ever released as a mainstream picture, and in a remarkable reversal of misfortune, it was also quite successful commercially.
How involved were the real-life participants in the writing?
For the first several years of the project, almost not at all. Everything Charlie and I knew and used came from what we had read – in Roger’s and Sam Arkoff’s autobiographies, in Mark Thomas McGee’s wonderful books about Roger and AIP, and magazine interviews. Then, in 2011, I got to meet and interview Roger over two nights at the St. Louis Film Festival’s Vincentennial celebration, and I also met with him that weekend’s Sunday morning for about 40 minutes, just to talk about The Trip and what his personal life was like at that time. He’s always been splendidly supportive of the project. In fact, it wasn’t long after Joe Dante became involved that he showed the script to Roger, who read it and surprised me with a personal phone call. He was curious how it all came about, and finally said that, while for obvious reasons it wasn’t the sort of thing he would produce himself, we had his blessing to take the project as far as it could go.
As I began working on the novel, which by necessity was solitary work, I decided to broaden my actual research and began corresponding with Frances Doel, who is a real delight, and also Julie Corman. They both gave me a lot of insight as to the realities of the times I was writing about – Frances gave me insights into Roger’s habits – which included having the same breakfast every morning from a restaurant just a few doors away from their office – and Julie helped me to fill in her own character and to point out those things Charlie and I had imagined that Roger “wouldn’t”. At first, Julie told me that the way I had captured the voices of all the characters was “such a marvel” – except for her own, so we talked on the phone and I got an ear for her voice and mannerisms. She has a strong literary background and, I must say, the feedback I received from her only strengthened the book I was writing. But, in her eyes, I think the book is so true to certain key facts that she doesn’t quite understand what I hoped to gain by inventing other things and writing the story as a novel. She thinks the true story of her life with Roger is better, because that’s the one she’s lived… but it’s a story that really only the two of them know. In writing the story as a novel, I was reaching for a more generally applicable truth about what it means to be an artist and responsible for putting one’s ideas out there and promoting change for everyone.
So, in answer to your question, I principally talked to and corresponded with Roger, Julie and Frances over a period of years. They told me things that literally changed the material’s content, including changes which have yet to be made to the actual film script. I also interviewed Sam Arkoff a couple of times when he was still alive, so I had his voice and perspective down pat. All the other voices (Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, etc) came to me from their screen personas or published interviews. To be absolutely honest, while I am absolutely happy with his place and role in the novel, I’m not altogether sure of how accurate it is in terms of representing Chuck Griffith (who was Roger’s first and most loyal screenwriter, beginning with such early films as The Little Shop of Horrors). From the first draft, Chuck had all the script’s best lines. He was the funny, offbeat character. I remember Joe telling me that, after Quentin Tarantino had read the script, he said he wanted to play Chuck. Charlie and I assembled him using the personality of his work as reference, which was kind of beatnik, kind of trippy; he was the script’s comic foil to all the other characters. Everyone seems to love our fictionalized Chuck, so to that end I hope we treated him well and with respect.
Peter Bogdanovich is another character in the book, because he was an assistant and uncredited screenwriter on The Wild Angels, and also because he allowed us to show how diverse Roger’s creative energies were at any given time. It was during this same period that he also conceived the idea that allowed Bogdanovich to make his first real feature, Targets, in 1968 – and that serendipitous story gets told along the way. I never knew or spoke with Bogdanovich, and I must say we took some comic liberties with his character, but he attended the Vista’s “live table reading” and I’m told that he joined the rest of the audience in giving the performance a standing ovation.
What surprised you most about the research/writing?
There were things that Charlie and I invented for the script that, it later was discovered, had actually happened in real life. For example, in the script, we introduced Jack Nicholson by showing him working on his broken-down car with Bruce Dern. Jack’s late manager Harry Gittes could only correct our script on one point, which was that Jack would never be the guy under the hood; he’d be the guy with the key in the ignition. So, we changed that… but while working on the novel, I read Patrick McGilligan’s biography Jack’s Life and it described just such a moment – except that it wasn’t Bruce Dern helping him, it was another Corman alumnus actor by the name of John Hackett, who plays one of the policemen investigating the disappearance of Peter Lorre’s wife in Tales of Terror.
We also portrayed Jack Nicholson, then a down-on-his-luck actor, hitchhiking to get around Hollywood, which seems quite far-fetched to us now, but this was also confirmed to us later. There were times when Jack Nicholson was standing on curbs with his thumb out.
The film script, according to articles I read, is credited to “Michael Almereyda, Charlie Largent, Tim Lucas and James Robison” – how did that work?
When Joe and Elizabeth were unable to get any traction going with our original script, after about a year to a year and a half, they exercised their right to bring other writers aboard to work some additional magic. I’m not sure how they came to Michael and James, but Michael had previous experience of working with both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as a film director, so he could write about them as real people with the quirks that were uniquely their own, and not just as caricatures. I also know that Joe and Elizabeth were keen to bring more of the politics of this era into the background of the story, which Charlie and I had done to some extent in our own rewrite, but they wanted more. And Michael and James came back with a script that respected our story and its quirky structure while also introducing more complex issues. Charlie and I had our backs up a little, but when we read their work, we were both impressed. However, what they did was a bit too much of a departure for Joe, who immediately asked us if we could take their script and “make it funny again”. So, they were only involved in writing a single draft, while Charlie and I have written numerous drafts both before and after their input. But elements of their draft became a permanent part of the mix, so it’s right to have their names on the material. I can only hope they’re still happy to have their names there.
Charlie’s contributions to the novel are more conspicuous, especially in the dialogue. Writing a novel is a solitary task but everyone who worked on the script is credited on the title page. Charlie is also a professional artist and I asked that he share in the book by creating the book’s cover art. He did a spectacular job.
What is the status of the film project now?
The producers are still trying to get it made, and we’re all hoping that the novel will stir up some new interest, that it will reach some catalyst who’s not been aware of the script before now.
What are the main differences between the novel and the script?
Besides the novel’s ability to focus on the interior lives of the characters, there are a few instances where I made changes. For one thing, the script had to be tailored to a low budget, whereas in the novel I could let my imagination fly. There were also instances where some things that worked just fine onscreen (at least conceptually) resisted adaptation into prose. For example, the script opens with a scene from the Almereyda/Robison draft that’s set in a drive-in; it’s a very visual scene but I couldn’t make it work in prose. So, I finally went back to my own original opening, which shows Peter Fonda at home, in bed, reading the last pages of Nicholson’s screenplay and being tremendously moved by it – a real life scene that he described in his later Playboy interview. Also, a few years ago, Joe asked Charlie and I to write an additional scene for the script that would have Peter Fonda interacting with his father Henry, because someone notable had expressed interest in playing Henry Fonda, should there be a scene featuring him. The scene works nicely in the script – we even brought in Jane! – but Neil Snowdon, my editor at Electric Dreamhouse, strongly felt that the story’s momentum came to a halt with that chapter. It’s ultimately not Peter Fonda’s story, it’s Roger’s … so we took it out.
How “true to life” is the novel?
Because this project started out as a screenplay, some variations from the truth were dictated by what would make a setting more visually interesting. According to Roger and Frances, most of Roger’s actual trip took place among the redwoods at Big Sur. In the script and novel, that’s where The Trip ends up, but it begins on the beach and spends a fair amount of time on the beach. And this was partly decided, I remember, because so much of Roger’s filmic universe resides by the seaside. The essential facts are true, and so is a certain amount of detail, whether intentionally or as the result of kismet.
At the same time, the tapestry holding all the facts together is largely imaginary, but even then, it’s informed by a lifetime of interest in, and research into, these people and this era. The book follows a prominent timeline that was as true as I could make it. However, no one involved could remember with any certainty the exact (or even the approximate) date on which ‘the trip’ itself took place… so I picked a date that would be dramatically advantageous.
You’re best known for your film-related writings (and audio commentaries) on films but you’re also a novelist – this is not your first novel. Can you tell us about your relationship with the novel as an art form… were there any key early books you read? And are there any novels particularly influential on this one?
I started reviewing films for magazines when I was still in my teens, and it was always my intention to become a novelist “when I grew up”. As it happened, writing film criticism and publishing Video Watchdog magazine with my wife Donna became my primary career, with any novel writing needing to be done in what I laughingly call my spare time. Doris Lessing once wrote, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now; the conditions are always impossible” – and she knew what she was talking about. My published novels are Throat Sprockets (1994), The Book of Renfield: A Gospel of Dracula (2005), and a novella with a CD of original songs, The Secret Life of Love Songs, came out late last year (2021). Two other novels – The Only Criminal and The Art World, both originally written in the 1980s and ‘90s, and more recently revised – are with another publisher at the moment, and I hope to have news of them soon.
Because The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes is based on events that really took place, and also on a previously existing screenplay, there were no novels that specifically influenced this one. The film director Allan Arkush read it and compared it to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which I didn’t read until he made the connection. I can see why he made that connection, but the two books are written very differently. The key writers in my own experience are a motley bunch that would include Anthony Burgess, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Pauline Reàge, Andre Gide, J.G. Ballard, Peter O’Donnell, Sax Rohmer, Marguerite Duras, Michael Moorcock, and William S. Burroughs. Some film directors have also influenced me as writers, especially Éric Rohmer and David Cronenberg. I‘m obsessed with serial characters like Modesty Blaise, Fantômas, Arsène Lupin, Jerry Cornelius and Joseph Rouletabille, and also the comic strips of creators like George Herriman, Steve Ditko and Guido Crepax.
It’s strange, but I always resisted becoming too interested in horror fiction; it never worked for me in that way that horror films, especially European horror films, did and still do. And yet my first two published novels were horror novels – indeed, specifically, vampire novels of a sort – but I’ve moved toward fantasy and magic realism in more recent years.
Something I’d like very much to do is prepare a revised edition of Throat Sprockets and also write a new book of stories addressing how that novel’s central idea affected the lives of individuals other than my protagonist. It’s an ambitious project, so I ought to take Doris Lessing at her word and get cracking.