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Lee, Landis and the Lost World


John Landis once paid me the greatest compliment that a famous person can pay to a farty little journalist. He said: 'That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before.' (He said this while perched on a tiny plastic chair in the children’s section of McDonald’s - but that’s another story.) Someone like Landis has been interviewed a million times: the same old questions over and over again because most journalists just want to write about the same thing. Often it’s not even a question, it’s just a prompt about someone or something: 'What was John Belushi like?' 'Tell me about making An American Werewolf in London.' And the interviewee, after a bit, builds up a collection of stock answers.

      I’ve interviewed a few famous folk in my time, and to some extent there is a requirement to ask the basics when you’re doing a general ‘career interview’ (as opposed to just plugging the person’s latest book/movie). I read a lot of interviews in a lot of magazines (and latterly, on a lot of websites) so I know what those stories are likely to be. I also know where the lacunae are (love that word!); the gaps that never seem to have been covered. Many years ago I had a 90-minute sit-down with Christopher Lee, who had been wheeled out to promote a documentary video about his films. This was long before Saruman or Count Dooku or any of that malarkey. He was making stuff like Police Academy 7 and The Stupids (for Landis). Of course I had to ask him about Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula and The Wicker Man and suchlike ('People don’t think of me as Dracula,' he assured me. 'They say "I enjoy your films", not "I enjoyed your Dracula films".' Everybody else I have ever interviewed who worked with Lee has said, 'Oh man, it was so cool to act alongside Count Dracula!' Anyway...)

      Part of the skill in interviewing someone like Lee, who tends to go on a bit once he’s started, is knowing what to avoid. So for example, that whole thing about meeting Conrad Veidt on a golf course is a great anecdote, but it’s old hat and who needs to hear it again (if you don’t know the story, I’m sure a quick Google will see you right). It might be new to the readers of some mainstream publication but horror/SF fans will yawn the same way that they yawned every time Forry Ackerman started off on how Famous Monsters came to be or every time Douglas Adams was asked where the idea for Hitchhiker’s Guide came from. So I took the opportunity to ask Christopher Lee about a great cult film which he hardly ever mentions, The Return of Captain Invincible (I had a hunch he’d be happy to talk about that because it’s a musical and he loves his singing; someone has to.) I also asked about a thing called Catharsis which was included in various published filmographies but was one of those films that was never anything more than a title in a list.

      Because you see, I like to find out new stuff, not just trot out the same old stuff because what’s the point? So when I interview someone famous I like to find those questions that they’ve not been asked before. But I also like to interview people who aren’t well-known but have done interesting work. I like to tell stories untold. For example, in my epic project to transfer eleven years’ worth of reviews and interviews onto my new website, I recently completed the D section which included a little indie vampire film called The Dreaded. I picked this up from a pound shop some years ago as a twofer disc which included an unrelated indie vampire film called Project Vampire (I haven’t moved that review across yet - I’m still only on F.)

      I do like to have a link on my reviews if I possibly can. A lot of the time it will be a link to my interviews with Roger Corman or Charlie Band because, just by the law of averages, every umpteenth film was made by one or other of those prolific gentlemen (and many of the rest have a cameo by Lloyd ‘It’s that man again’ Kaufman). So when I see a review sans links, like The Dreaded, I think: I wonder if I could track down someone who worked on this. As it happens, a little diligent searching turned up writer-producer James Willis, still working in the industry, who graciously agreed to a short email interview about The Dreaded. So now that’s on my site and by publishing background information about the film I have added, in my own minuscule way, to the sum of human knowledge. Obviously I won’t earn a PhD this way and it’s certainly not quite the same as identifying a cancer gene or something but hey, we all do what we can.

      One of the interviews which I found in the B section of my old site was with a director named Timothy Bond. Now, it’s unlikely that you will recognise the name as he’s not well-known, but he has a tremendous body of work, mostly on TV. Tim Bond directed well-remembered episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sliders, Goosebumps, the 1990s iteration of The Outer Limits, Friday the 13th: The Series and Hard Time on Planet Earth (okay, not so well-remembered, except by an unlucky few). Plus some interesting DTV titles including Twister knock-off Night of the Twisters and Men in Black knock-off The Shadow Men - which was the specific reason why I interviewed him back in 1998 for a feature in SFX.

      Those were the days when (a) there were relatively few big genre movies being made, (b) there were even fewer big genre TV series, and (c) we didn’t have the clout to get major interviews on them anyway. If you take a look at the early issues of SFX, there’s some great offbeat stuff: multi-page features on people like Tim Bond who are interesting but you’ve never heard of. In more recent years, with bigger films and TV series and the mag now having the connections, this sort of stuff is relegated to a couple of column inches if it’s there at all, to make way for yet another article on Doctor Who or Peter Jackson’s latest garden gnome trilogy. Which is what the punters want, so good luck to them. But I like to open a magazine and think 'Who’s that?' Ironically, one mag that used to achieve this was the otherwise awful Gorezone. Where SFX was slick, professional, well-written and well-designed, Gorezone was written by five-year-olds and designed by someone who was having an epileptic fit at the time. But the films and people covered were interesting in and of themselves, if you could get past the jaw-droppingly amateurish editorial quality.

      So where am I going with all this? Basically, Tim Bond was pretty much my ideal interviewee. He was erudite, knowledgeable, personable and had lots of interesting stories to tell which - crucially - hadn’t been told before. I had a list of his work and we went through the whole lot, including the notorious TekWar TV movie which was set in London but filmed in Canada. Tim told me he came over to London for a couple of days, took lots of reference photos, then sent precise instructions to a UK-based friend to stand on certain streets pointing in specific directions at particular times of day and shoot background plates, onto which he could matte the actors and Vancouver’s only double decker bus. At the end of the interview, Tim asked me: have we forgotten anything and, such was the extent of his CV, I thought we had when in fact we had missed out something crucial.

      And that’s why what I really want to write about this month is The Lost World. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel has been filmed several times of course. Not as often as The Hound of the Baskervilles or other Holmes tales, but it’s still a familiar story and, among genre fans at least, Professor Challenger is as much part of the cultural zeitgeist as Dr Watson and his coke-snorting pal. Actually, as an aside, I recently read a great thick volume of about 50 or so non-Holmes, non-Challenger stories by Doyle, and they were great! A couple of titles I recognised from horror anthologies - ‘The Horror of the Heights’ and ‘Lot 249’ - but for the most part these stories of terror, adventure and thrills, of pirates, Romans and boxers, remain unknown. Find a second-hand copy if you can.

      But yes, The Lost World. First filmed silent in 1925 with fantastic stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien, the man who would bring us King Kong eight years later. The best part of nine decades on, that version still holds up. I recall seeing it at the NFT once with accompaniment by ace pianist Neil Brand, and I think the surviving footage from Creation was shown too. Awesome stuff. Irwin Allen made the second version of The Lost World in 1960, a notoriously creaky slice of cheese in which the ‘dinosaurs’ were lizards with cardboard attachments stomping about a miniature set. My mother always told me: if you can say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. So, moving on...

      Many people would assume that the first modern version was the 1998 Lost World directed by top effects geezer Bob Keen, with Patrick Bergin as Challenger (executive produced by my old pal Omar Kaczmarczyk and, whaddayaknow, John Landis). Or perhaps the 1999 pilot for a rather obscure Australian TV series loosely based on the story. Or perhaps the fairly decent BBC two-parter from 2001 with Bob Hoskins as Challenger (plus James Fox, Elaine Cassidy and even Peter Falk). But before any of these modern versions, there was Tim Bond’sThe Lost World in 1992, a DTV movie which, while not exactly great, is better than some.

      John Rhys-Davies is Challenger in this one, suitably bombastic and basically playing the same role he always does (Tim had worked with him previously on Sliders). Professor Summerlee is played by David Warner, who has 207 credits on the IMDb compared with Rhys-Davies’ 220, and this is one of five times that they have worked together. Or at least, shared the same credit list. To save you the trouble of looking it up, I’ll tell you that the others are Waxwork, The Unnameable II, an episode of the cartoon series Gargoyles and this film’s sequel (also directed by Tim Bond). As always, a female character has been added to the mix (actually two) and there’s a young boy too. With no effects budget to speak of, the dinosaurs are puppets kept well-hidden behind foliage and the ‘ape-men’ have simply become a tribe of dark-skinned humans. (This film, shot in Zimbabwe, transposes the action to Africa and does at least get some stunning landscapes out of the move.)

      The 1992 Lost World was produced by the legendary Harry Allan Towers and, having omitted to ask Tim Bond, I took the opportunity to raise the subject when I did an absolutely awesome two-hour interview with Harry a few years later. Which completely failed to record. Harry graciously agreed to a repeat but that was only half an hour; he really didn’t sound well over the phone and I don’t think I brought up The Lost World. To this day, the production remains undocumented except for the usual IMDb listing, Wikipedia page etc; the actual stories haven’t been told. And there is one other well-known name in the credits who certainly has never spoken publicly about this film, though he is no stranger to the press and media. This international co-production was executive produced by... no, not John Landis. Would you believe: randy Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi? And no, I’ve never interviewed him...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.