Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 42: 'I Woke Up Early the Day I Died' (1998)

To be Ed-Wood-ically accurate, it should be "shocking facts," not "shocking truth,' but whatever.

"I used to do things, and I'd say things, and Jesus I was evil. Fake things and break things, and Jesus I was evil."
-Darcy Clay (1972-1998)
"One thing he did take was one of the last scripts he wrote, one he really loved, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. And this one angora sweater that he loved so much."
-Kathy Wood (1922-2006)

Tony Bennett's Steppin' Out LP
A funny thing happened in the 1990s, and it was inarguably a boon to the Ed Wood cult. At the height of the "college rock" revolution, many young Americans grew weary of grunge and flannel shirts and started looking to their parents and grandparents for inspiration as they sought an alternative to the alternative. Gone were the scruffy bangs, ripped jeans, and stained baby-doll dresses. People started combing their hair, wearing suits, and drinking martinis again. Hipsters were still raiding the second-hand stores, but now it was to find vintage fedoras and old Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, and Henry Mancini LPs. 

Every cultural movement needs an anthem, and in this case it was Tony Bennett's 1993 remake of the Fred Astaire song "Steppin' Out with My Baby," a tune Bennett reprised the next year on MTV Unplugged. It was a golden age for CD reissues, too, with a whole rainbow of rediscovered non-rock recordings from roughly the 1940s to the 1970s. Suddenly, your music collection wasn't complete without some "grownup" stuff: lounge, exotica, big band, swing, and even film scores.

Old TV shows and movies benefited from the backwards-looking trend, too. Witness director Spike Jonze's wildly popular videos for Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" (both from 1994). The former used clips from the TV sitcom Happy Days, thereby invoking both the 1950s and the 1970s simultaneously, while the latter fondly parodied such campy 1970s cop shows as Starsky and Hutch and Baretta. It's important to note that our relationship to mid-20th-century culture was neither entirely worshipful nor entirely sarcastic in the 1990s. It was a mélange. We thought the past was campy and quaint, sure, but we couldn't help but daydream ourselves into a version of America that seemed somehow cooler and classier than the one we knew.

A '90s artifact: the Orgy soundtrack.
Ed Wood was right in the pop cultural sweet spot for all this, so it's not surprising that the second big wave of interest in his career -- following his bump in popularity after The Golden Turkey Awards and It Came from Hollywood in the early 1980s -- would occur during the Clinton years. Edward D.Wood, Jr.'s lifestyle was totally out of step with the 1990s, which paradoxically made him perfect for that decade. Eddie was the Anti-Slacker, the Non-Cobain: a terminally-sincere, whiskey-swilling, pencil-mustached, drug-hating, stuck-in-the-'50s dynamo whose B-movies and cheapo paperbacks clearly reflected the morals and aesthetics of a bygone era.

Perhaps the bohemians of the '90s recognized in Ed Wood a kindred spirit. To the extent that his producers and publishers would allow him, he did it his way. And the many technical and logical shortcomings of his films and books gave these works a personal, homemade feel and distinguished them from the anonymous, assembly-line output of his cinematic and literary contemporaries. Ed may not have been "good" by conventional standards, but he was "different" -- which in the 1990s was maybe even better than "good," at least to a certain segment of the population.

Some of these folks, luckily, were tastemakers with industry connections, and we have them to thank for reissuing some of Ed Wood's films, books, and even music, along with the release of new Wood-inspired works. I'm grateful, for instance, that a tiny independent label called Strangelove Records decided to put out an Orgy of the Dead soundtrack CD in 1995. I doubt that such a release, which I happened to find at the late and much-missed Crow's Nest record store in Crest Hill, IL, would have been feasible at any other time in American history. You could do that kind of stuff back then! As I've made my way through the Ed Wood Wednesdays project, I've come to realize how much I owe to the so-called "lounge revival" of the Nineties.

This week, I am turning my attention to another product from that strange and wondrous decade. It's a full-length, all-star film based on a genuine Ed Wood script. It's quite possible you've never seen or even heard of this flick. And thereby hangs a tale...


A catchy title?
Alternate titles: Good golly, does this thing have alternate titles! It began life as a script called The Silent Night or Night of Silence. A later draft of the script was titled I Awoke Early the Day I Died or I Woke Up Early --- The Morning I Died. Additionally, the IMDb lists I Awoke Early the Day I Died as an alternate release title for the finished film*.

It was also marketed as Ed Wood's I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. On Brazilian television, it was The Last Day of My Life. Spain had it as I Woke Up Early the Day of My Death. The Hungarian title translates as I Got Up Early the Day I Died. The Venezuelans called it The Last Day of My Life. In Poland, it was known as On the Day of My Death, I Woke Up Early. For German TV, it became Ed Wood's The Day I Died.

The IMDb lists a Japanese title for it, but the best translation I can come up with for it is The Up Early Old Old Man Nuts, which, though hilarious, is probably not accurate. Amazingly, the original promotional web site for the film is still up after 15 years. Move over, Space Jam.
* Not to be confused with David Tahir's I Awoke Early the Day I Died (1997), which is adapted from the same original screenplay by Ed Wood.
Availability: For a variety of reasons which I will explain in the "backstory" section, this film is not legally available for home viewing or theatrical exhibition. It has been widely bootlegged, however, and may be available from third party sellers as a DVD-R.

The backstory: Ed Wood did not hold onto things. It wasn't that he didn't want to; it simply wasn't an option when he was being evicted from houses or apartments by impatient landlords every few years. When he died at the age of 54 in December 1978, Ed and his wife Kathy were living at the house of a generous friend, Peter Coe, in North Hollywood. The only surviving souvenirs of his thirty-year career in show business were the few mementos he could fit into a single suitcase. The rest had been thrown in the trash -- books, film scripts, unpublished manuscripts, the lot. Among the hearty survivors was an idiosyncratic screenplay that Ed had been revising since the early 1960s and finally completed in the mid-1970s.

In its earliest stages, this strange film-to-be was called The Silent Night or Night of Silence, but by 1974 it had morphed into I Awoke Early the Day I Died, the new title reminiscent of that famous opening line from Emily Dickinson's immortal Poem 465. ("I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died.") What made The Day I Died so unusual is that it told its surreal story without the benefit of dialogue. The script focuses on a resourceful madman known only as The Thief who kills a nurse, escapes from a sanitarium by donning her uniform, and then goes on a prolific crime spree, including several brazen acts of robbery and murder, before receiving his grim comeuppance. Much of the storyline centers around the members of a strange Hollywood cult. The Thief mistakenly blames these people for taking a stash of money he had stolen from a loan office. The majority of the running time is devoted to vignettes in which the Thief tracks down the cult members and kills them one by one.

The proposed cast: John Agar, Aldo Ray, and John Carradine.

As with many of his orphaned projects, Ed Wood had a cast in mind for The Day I Died, should he ever secure the funding for it. Veteran actor Aldo Ray, whose voluminous credits include The Green Berets (1969) and We're No Angels (1955), would have played the escaped madman. John Carradine, whom Eddie had also tapped to play the murderous wino Pete in his unrealized short film, To Kill a Saturday Night, was to have played a gravedigger who figures prominently in the plot. Actors David Ward and John Agar, meanwhile, would have played police officers. None of these stalwart performers would have been saddled with memorizing lines, since there were none in the script to memorize. Wood biographer Rudolph Grey suggests that perhaps Eddie was influenced by Robert Rouse's similarly wordless Cold War drama The Thief (1952) with Ray Milland. The fact that the protagonist of The Day I Died is known only as "The Thief" suggests Grey is correct in his supposition.

Keeper of the flame: Bob Blackburn
It is eerily appropriate that a screenplay called I Woke Up Early the Day I Died was filmed 20 years after Ed Wood himself died. An honest-to-god finished film of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died finally appeared in theaters in October 1998 and had a spotty release history throughout the next calendar year. (Interestingly, of Ed Wood's hoped-for cast, only David Ward wound up being in the completed movie.) 

Despite some positive pre-release buzz and a cast full of recognizable stars, the film bombed badly. The critical reaction to The Day I Died can charitably be described as baffled hostility. Eventually, for various financial and legal reasons, the film vanished from the marketplace entirely. To this day, it has yet to reach a wide audience.

Nevertheless, bootleggers have given the film a shady afterlife of sorts, and the neglected project has garnered a cult following among die-hard Wood fans, including Philip R. Frey, who maintains the excellent Ed Wood Online site. "I'll admit I was unsure of this one," Frey writes, "but it totally won me over. From the psychedelic opening credits to the end, I liked what I saw." The webmaster concludes his review with a sentiment that might make the film's creators smile and cringe simultaneously: "It is a real pity that more people can't see this one. Hopefully it will be available on home video eventually. Until then, seek out whatever copy you can find." The fact that The Day I Died exists as a real-life movie at all is largely due to the intercession of two men named Bob, neither of whose names actually appear in the film's credits.

The first of these is Hollywood resident Bob Blackburn, who put in sixteen busy years as a music and promotions director for the Westwood One and Dial Global radio networks and is currently self-employed as the head of his own sound design firm. Blackburn, the son of a legendary Seattle SuperSonics announcer, became a friend of the late Kathy Wood in the autumn years of her life; he has worked diligently ever since to get Ed's movies and books back in front of the public eye. It is Bob, for instance, who acts as the administrator of the excellent Edward D. Wood, Jr. Facebook page, which is the closest thing Eddie has to an official presence on the social network. Lately, Bob's been working to make Rick Tell's Ed Wood: The Musical! a reality. 

And it was also Bob, still the most passionate Ed Wood advocate on the planet, who put me in touch with a couple of key behind-the-scenes players in the gnarly saga of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. Eventually, through a few spirited rounds of phone-tag and e-mail-tag, I was able to contact these individuals and find out what they know about the production.

BOB WEINBERG (attorney)
interviewed 6/20/2014

NOTE: It had been my intention to bring you a recent phone interview I conducted with Bob Weinberg, an entertainment attorney who represented Kathy Wood in the 1990s. The original version of this article included at this juncture a description of my friendly, informative one-hour chat with Bob. After exchanging a few more e-mails with Bob once the article was posted, however, I have decided to remove this conversation from the piece entirely due to legal considerations. In its place, here is a statement from Mr. Weinberg regarding his involvement with Kathy Wood:
Ed Wood's widow, Kathy.
I met Bob Blackburn and Kathy Wood in 1993. Bob had been searching for an entertainment lawyer to help Kathy in connection with a Tim Burton film that was rumored to be in development then about her late husband Ed Wood, and Bob found me through a mutual friend who was a film editor. On the first day I met Kathy, I found her to be petite, friendly, warm and appreciative, and it was obvious that she had a great desire to make Ed’s unfulfilled dreams come true. On that first day, she mentioned an unproduced Ed Wood film script called I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, and how much she would like to see it made. In the following years, Kathy, Bob and I shared some wonderful memories, like seeing Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic come to the screen. We struggled without much luck, however, with our plan to get I Woke Up Early the Day I Died produced, until we had the good fortune to meet Aris Iliopulos and Chris Hanley, who were both enthusiastic about the project from the start. 
A short time later I arranged for Kathy Wood to option the script to Aris, and he and Chris began to line up the astounding cast who ended in the film. Many months later, I remember getting a phone message from Aris about how excited Christina Ricci was to appear in the film, and Kathy and I began to get excited, thinking that the film might really get made. Some months after that, the film was set for production and Aris was gracious enough to give Kathy a minor role in the film, something which meant a lot to Kathy. She was especially excited to share a scene with Billy Zane, the film’s leading character, though she was also nervous about performing. I visited the set and was thrilled to see the terrific group of actors who were working on the film and seemingly having a very fun time of it. I remember meeting John Ritter on the set and I let him know how much it meant to Kathy that he was working on this project. 
Not too much time went by before Bob Blackburn, Kathy and I found ourselves watching a screening of the film at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It was a dream come true for Kathy and her friends, and while this hard-charging action film with a loud rock and roll soundtrack felt different in tone from the story we had read on paper in script form, Kathy liked the energy of the film, loved how true it was to the storyline of the script, and was amazed that it had actually been made and included such a large and stellar cast. Kathy died about eight years after I Woke Up Early the Day I Died was shot, but getting this film produced, being in the film, and seeing it in a famous Hollywood Boulevard movie theater remained as some of Kathy Wood’s favorite experiences in the 13 years I was honored to know and work for her.
Thank you for that warm reminiscence, Bob. While I was deeply saddened to lose the interview, I'm glad that  Mr. Weinberg took the time to provide the preceding statement. I'm also grateful that the attorney put me in touch with the director of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, Aris Iliopulos. My conversation with him follows.

ARIS ILIOPULOS (artist/director)
interviewed 6/23/2014

Director Aris with Maila "Vampira" Nurmi and Karen Black at the film's premiere. (Photo courtesy Aris Iliopulos)

Talking at length to Aris Iliopulos, a fiercely independent Greek-born artist and occasional filmmaker, is the conversational equivalent of watching a pot of water come to a boil on the stove. Though his English syntax is slightly labored and artificial, rather like that of Bela Lugosi, the man's brain is positively bubbling with a dozen different ideas at once, all of which he sincerely wants to convey to his listener. "I'm talking too much," he half-apologetically says at more than one juncture during our 90-minute summit. I neither agree nor disagree, since I'm just desperately trying to keep up as I take notes with a stubby pencil on a yellow legal pad.

What I knew about Aris in advance, apart from what Bob Weinberg had told me, came from an interview the director had done at the time of the film's original release with entertainment journalist Daniel A. Dickholtz. Bob Blackburn had helpfully forwarded this piece to me, though he couldn't recall its exact source. The gaudy typeface and blood-soaked layout, along with the "F #186" watermark in the corner, leads me to believe it appeared in Fangoria under the name "What a Drag" in September 1999. The closest listing I can find, however, is one at the Texas A&M website, which says that the title was "Silent Stalker" and that it appeared in Fangoria's sci-fi themed sister publication, Starlog, in issue #268 from November 1999. Believe what you must.

Dickholtz's approaches the movie rather warily, and I feel he slightly misrepresents the Wood cult as a blinkered and delusional apologists who can see no wrong in their hero. Nevertheless, the article successfully conveys the almost childlike enthusiasm Iliopulos brought to I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. Here, for your browsing pleasure, is that article in its entirety:

Click on the images above to see the pages full-sized.

As you might expect, Dickholtz focused much of his attention on the film's extremely eclectic and high-profile cast. Besides the always-dapper Billy Zane, who was then coming off his memorable role as a heel in James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic (1998), the cast of The Day I Died included a dizzying variety of film stars (Tippi Hedren, Bud Cort, Christina Ricci); television stars (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, John Ritter, Rick Schroder, Steven Weber); comedians and performance artists (Dana Gould, Sandra Bernhard, Taylor Negron, Ann Magnuson); Ed Wood associates (Vampira, Conrad Brooks, David Ward, Kathy Wood); and a whole host of unclassifiable showbiz legends of every description (ranging from Eartha Kitt and Karen Black to Tara Reid and Nicollette Sheridan).

According to the story, Billy was more than just the film's top-billed star; he also offered visual and music suggestions and even claimed a producer credit. He and Iliopulos were creatively simpatico, even though the director's original choice for the leading role was rock singer Iggy Pop! Also given some attention in the piece were the film's relatively paltry budget -- tactfully not specified but described by the director as "one of the smallest budgets ever" -- and very tight shooting schedule, which supposedly only lasted 20 days, all during August 1998. 

The magazine article is peppered with references to Aris Iliopulos' heroes in the world of art, theater, and cinema, including Federico Fellini, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Bertolt Brecht. Aris thought of Ed Wood as an avant garde filmmaker and classified him alongside these other iconoclasts and innovators. While Iliopulos told Dickholtz he did not consciously imitate Ed Wood's visual style, he reasoned that he and Ed faced some of the same problems because of limited time and money.

Although it begins in an almost adversarial manner, Dickholtz's article eventually conveys a tone of extremely cautious quasi-optimism about all of this befuddling data. But the theatrical life of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died turned out to be a brief and troubled one, marked by grouchy reviews and nonexistent box office receipts. Had these sad circumstances, along with the sixteen intervening years, cooled Aris Iliopulos' ardor for the project? Not at all, as I was soon to find out.

Highlights from my 90-minute confab with Aris Iliopulos:
Excerpt from a 1998 film
festival catalog from AFI.
  • These days, although he's frequently out of the country, Aris makes his home in New York City and is amused by the ridiculous obscurity of his one-and-only mainstream movie. "It's so Ed Wood, the whole thing!" He can't help but giggle as he remembers that the film's distributors went bankrupt just one day after the movie's NYC premiere. He has no residual bitterness about any of his experiences surrounding I Woke Up Early the Day I Died and is incredibly complimentary about everyone involved in the project. It's easy to see why Bob Weinberg described him as such a charmer.
  • He takes some satisfaction in the fact that the film has played successfully in foreign countries, even though its shelf life in America was fleeting. "It's really big in Germany," he insists. Later in our talk, he says that "the Germans have a copy [of the film] in some refrigerator. They love Ed Wood there." He also mentions that the film has played well in both Japan and the Netherlands.
  • Aris had been a fan of Ed Wood for many years before directing this film. He'd seen three of Eddie's movies (probably Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9) on PBS and been blown away by them. As he does in the Dickholtz article, the director makes frequent references to all his art-film heroes throughout our conversation. It's easy to see that Federico Fellini is to Aris Iliopulos what Orson Welles was to Ed Wood. 
  • How did he, a first-time director, get to helm this project? Iliopulos attributes this to being at the right place at the right time. He went to lunch, he says, with "the Ed Wood people" one day in Los Angeles when Kathy Wood and the two Bobs were searching for a director. He read the script and was so taken with it that he made an "illegal" Xeroxed copy of it. "It was really me!" he enthuses.
  • He and Kathy Wood got along well right from the start. "She's a jewel," he remembers. He refers to her both as his "muse" and "like a mother." She even gave him one of Eddie's rings to wear while making the movie. Kathy's uppermost concern was that the director not "bastardize" the script by adding dialogue. He didn't do this, even though he was tempted, because he promised to protect the integrity of Ed Wood's vision. "I saw it as an art piece," he explains. "I gave Kathy a big promise not to put in dialogue." Aris' own background is in the theater and in art films, and his movie idols are underground directors like Kenneth Anger.
  • Christina Ricci, who had worked for producer Chris Hanley on Buffalo '66, was among the very first stars who signed on for the project. Aris was very impressed by Ricci, whom he repeatedly referred to as "amazing." Her performance in The Day I Died, he says, goes beyond mere acting and becomes more like "channeling." He's quick to point out, however, that he doesn't believe in ghosts.
  • Iliopulos went to the Sundance film festival to generate interest in the project. He remembers the experience as being "hard" because the festival attendees were very skeptical about the prospect of a dialogue-free movie. In order to sweet talk celebrities into appearing in the film, the director literally wined and dined them by taking them to dinner.
  • The pivotal moment in the film's pre-production stage came unexpectedly one day when Aris was visiting a friend's house. "The phone rang," the director remembers, "and it was Billy [Zane]." The actor originally asked Iliopulos to come down to Mexico to discuss the project. Since this wasn't possible, Zane instead came to Los Angeles to meet with Aris. There, the two discussed ways of doing the project and eventually settled on an approach that was heavily influenced by the commedia dell'arte, a form of theater which dates back to 16th century Rome. Of Zane's performance in the movie, Aris states: "There's a duality between being a human and being this crazy person."
  • The director doesn't see The Day I Died as a silent movie but rather as a movie without dialogue. Aris was very taken with Ed Wood's typewritten, vodka-stained script, which explains his decision to include excerpts from the original document in the film as onscreen captions. "Let's put a typewriter there!" he says.
  • Once Billy Zane got involved, word about the project spread fast in Hollywood. That's when other actors, including Karen Black, signed on. "Karen was a force of nature," Aris gushes. For her one big closeup, the director says, Karen Black was remembering an incident when she looked at a young man who was going to Vietnam and, in all probability, wasn't coming back home alive. Still today, Aris looks back with fondness at a series of "wonderful lunches" he had with Black.
  • Aris was also very impressed with Maila "Vampira" Nurmi, who "didn't need any direction." As for the striking appearance of her scene, which was expanded somewhat from the original screenplay, the director says that this sequence shows the imprint of another prominent filmmaker. "That's my Fellini influence!" During filming, Vampira spoke of her affair with James Dean and presented Aris with a copy of Ed Wood's unfilmed script from the 1950s, The Ghoul Goes West, which he still very much wants to make into a movie even though "that screenplay needs work." A big part of his attraction to the project: "I really love Westerns!" As for casting ideas, he thinks Lady Gaga would be good in the film because "there's a lot of performances onstage."
Tippi Hedren with Aris. (Photo courtesy Aris Iliopulos)
  • Regarding Tippi Hedren, Aris was able to confirm an amusing anecdote from the Dickholtz interview. On the day she was filming her death scene in San Pedro, CA, a whole flock of birds suddenly appeared behind her. While the director was amazed, the actress was nonplussed. "That happens all the time when I'm on the set," said the one-time star of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Viewers may notice that Tippi's big scene feels like a Hitchcock homage or parody. That was totally intentional, says Aris, who asserts that Eddie would have done the same thing. 
  • Iliopulos is diplomatic when I bring up the topic of the film's icy critical reception. He says that the film inspires either love or hate from viewers, which is true to my experience. He seems to feel that the press unfairly categorized him as a pretentious intellectual. "People think I'm some kind of pompous artist," he muses. "I really don't take that very seriously." For the record, he rejects the idea that the film is too cerebral. "It's made more from the stomach than the brain," he insists.
  • After the film was completed, the director traveled around with it from country to country on a promotional tour. But he did so at his own expense and had to stop when he arrived in Cuba and realized his bank account was down to $200. Had he had the money to do so, he would have liked to screen a version of The Day I Died in which the film itself is truly silent and the music is all provided by live musicians. Barring that, he'd like to stage a showing of the film at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, where Kathy Wood is "resting."
  • One of Aris' greatest triumphs is that his movie played at the world-famous Mann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. "Eddie would walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard," Aris explains, "and he always wanted to have a screening at Mann's Chinese." After the movie played there, he says, Kathy Wood was in tears -- something which meant more to him than any review.
  • Sandra Bernhard's attitude, the director says, was "I don't give a damn." She was very comfortable with her scene in which she dances in only pasties and a g-string; she would gladly have appeared nude had the director requested it. The only problem he encountered with Sandra was that she was unhappy with the "burlesque music" the director provided on the set and profanely demanded some "goddamned real music" in its place. Aris honored her request. "She was dancing to heavy metal," he remembers. Her scene, by the way, was filmed at the Ambassador Hotel, the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. "It was a little bit too much," he muses.
  • Recently, Aris has been writing a prequel to the film, speculating what may have been happening to Billy Zane's character and to the cultists before the events shown in The Day I Died. He says he only has "forty pages" as of now, but this doesn't worry him because Fellini used to start making a movie with only 35 pages ready to go. The director has been doing quite a bit of writing lately and has even sold some screenplays. "Eddie taught me how to write," he says with pride. The director enjoys this new role, even though he's "a very visual person." Aris declares his love for "good dialogue" and said that he sometimes gets "bored with life" because real people don't always have great lines like movie characters do.
  • The film's general lack of close-ups is a deliberate artistic decision by the director. In general, he explains, his favorite films are "movies I can see more than once because I don't know what happens next." He tried to make The Day I Died a film like that. Among the films he likes best are Lawrence of Arabia (which he watches "twice a year"), plus the works of Quentin Tarantino and Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar-winning Italian film La grande bellezza (2013).
  • Mostly, Aris does not dwell on the past a great deal. "You move on with your life," he says. It's more important for him to concentrate on "what makes you happy as an artist." For him, that means more traveling and painting these days. "I'm happiest when I travel."
  • Still to this day, Iliopulos is wary of Hollywood and the mainstream media, presumably because of his experience in the movie biz. "For a long time," he says, "I would not give interviews." As for his impressions of Tinsel Town, he says, "The backstabbing is a bit too much." 
  • How did Eartha Kitt wind up in this movie? Well, Aris says, he approached her at a party and struck up a conversation. She said she had already been in an Ed Wood movie without really being in an Ed Wood movie! And how is this possible? In Plan 9 from Outer Space, Aris reports, you can see Eartha's name on a marquee! Poignantly, The Day I Died proved to be Eartha's farewell film.
  • Iliopulos also spoke a bit about the film's original distributor, Cinequanon Pictures International. "Their bite was a little bit bigger than what they could chew," he insists, even though they were "very passionate" about the movie. 
  • As you might guess for a star-studded film of this nature, "the set was like a nice party," even though the crew occasionally had to work all day and all night. While he was rushed and didn't have time to do everything he might have liked, Aris estimates he accomplished 90% of what he wanted.
  • These days, Aris is mostly a photographer, artist, and world traveler. One of his art projects involved creating an "alter ego" that he would follow around. Another involved photographing African tribesmen. 
Billy Zane and his "mood suit."
  • When I bring up the suit Billy Zane wears in the film, Aris takes the opportunity to effusively praise costume designer Mari An-Ceo for her tireless creativity, even though she went over budget. Aris and Mari worked together to make sure that the film's setting was deliberately vague, since Ed Wood's 1950s movies have a timeless quality to them. Aris asserts that the events in The Day I Died could be happening in the 1960s, the 1970s, or the 1990s. "It's all confusing!" he exclaims. Aris also informs me that Zane's character, The Thief, has three different suits and four shirts that he wears at different times in the movie. Why? "When he's really angry," the director explains, "I put him in a tight suit." And the shirts? Well, those change color, depending on the Thief's mood. Aris asks me if I noticed this, and I admit that I didn't... though it's possible this is because I was watching the film as a tiny YouTube video. "It's slight," responds the director, who says that this is another reason why the movie needs to be seen on the big screen.
  • Being a fan of Bud Cort's work in Harold & Maude, Nashville, The Life Aquatic, Brewster McCloud, and many other films, I simply had to ask Aris what it was like to work with this beloved character actor, who for some arcane reason is billed as "Lord Heinrich 'Binky' Alcoa III" in the opening titles. "Bud was very professional," Aris remembers with characteristic fondness. Like many of the performers in this film, Cort apparently had a lot of ideas for his scenes. The actor also insisted on playing dual roles. Besides his main scene as the Franklin Pangborn-esque owner of a thrift store from which Billy Zane steals a pair of shoes, Bud also appears in drag as a Spanish senorita during the film's big carnival scene. The thrift shop, by the way, was a real establishment located directly across from Aris' hotel room and on the same block as the film's production office. The director describes it as "so fake it looks like a set."
  • In case you were wondering: Yes, there is a director's cut of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. "I saved my first edit," says Aris. "Thank God." What was different about his original assemblage? "It was a more depressing movie," he says. Given that nearly every single character in The Day I Died is killed off, it's difficult to imagine a bleaker version of this film. Nevertheless, it's there in the director's personal collection, waiting to be unleashed.
  • Perhaps the weirdest and most gratifying experience Aris Iliopulos had because of this movie was meeting Dolores Fuller, Ed's one-time girlfriend and the female lead in Glen or Glenda? and Jail Bait. On one memorable occasion, Dolores brought over the famous pink angora sweater she'd once worn in Glenda, and together, she and Aris re-enacted the film's notorious climax. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall that day.

John Ritter and Karen Black
The viewing experience: Simultaneously bewitching, bothersome, and bewildering, Aris Iliopulos' I Woke Up Early the Day I Died is a film unlike any I have previously witnessed. The film shows the unmistakable earmarks of the Edward D. Wood, Jr. canon, yet it is tonally dissimilar to the kinds of movies Eddie made in the 1950s. It announces its rebellious otherness during the opening credits with a blast of angry, in-your face punk rock called "Jesus I Was Evil" by the late Darcy Clay. The Day I Died is actually dedicated to Clay, a New Zealander who tragically committed suicide mere months before the film debuted. In truth, according to those who knew him well, Eddie hated rock music; his idea of a good tune was "Amazing Grace."

Interestingly, both "Jesus I Was Evil" and "Amazing Grace" are about contrite sinners who have seen the errors of their ways. But "Grace" is manifestly humble and sincere, while "Jesus" seems defiant and sardonic. Clay spits and snarls the lyrics like he's itching for a fight. Because of factors like this, I'm not sure what Eddie would have thought of Aris Iliopulos' film, which sometimes feels like a cross between a very long music video and an extremely chic high-fashion photo shoot.

Ultimately, this is not Eddie's movie. It's Aris' movie. Aris says he would have loved to have seen Eddie's version of The Day I Died, and so would I. But this isn't possible. Eddie's long gone, and we have to learn to appreciate the movie that does exist rather than the one that should exist. Frankly, this was easier than I was expecting. Though it took me a while to adjust to the hip, artsy, punky feel of the 1998 film, by about the 20-minute mark, I was eager to see what would happen next. As a serious Ed Wood-ologist, meanwhile, I couldn't help but notice each of the classic Woodian motifs on display here. An alphabetical inventory might include: alcohol, bums, cemeteries, circuses, cowboys, crime, cults, funerals, gravediggers, hospitals, insanity, murder, nighttime, strippers, theft, and transvestism. They're all here, and photographed so strikingly!

Tellingly, though The Thief is only in drag for a few minutes in the film itself, the image of Zane in the blonde wig and nurse's uniform was used prominently in the marketing materials simply because Ed Wood is so closely associated with cross-dressing. The Thief's daring escape from the sanitarium, by the way, is very similar to a scene in Ed Wood's 1967 novel Devil Girls. And John Ritter's character, a villainous Western star performing at a carnival sideshow, is clearly inspired by Ed's good friend Kenne Duncan. It's just odd to think of Ritter, with his round, friendly face and kind eyes, playing a part inspired by the gaunt and severe-looking Duncan. Perhaps my favorite sequence, visually speaking, is the one with seven-foot-tall Carel Struycken, best known as Lurch in the '90s Addams Family movies, as a sinister undertaker who chases after Billy Zane after the latter breaks into a mortuary. It is here that Iliopulos' background in art and photography really pays off, as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

Carel "Lurch" Struycken as an undertaker in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died.

Having been cloistered in the world of Edward D. Wood, Jr. for months on end and thus lacking any objectivity whatsoever, I wanted to get a fresh perspective on this particular motion picture. So I turned to one of the Internet's brightest lights, Ms. Emily Intravia of The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense and The Feminine Critique, for a review of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. I specifically instructed her to watch the movie "cold" with no advance research or preparation. I will now turn the article over to her. 

reviewed by Emily Intravia
Eartha Kitt in The Day I Died.
An Eartha Kitt musical performance. Men wearing mesh t-shirts with stylishly solid short sleeves. Mark Boone Junior revealing what his face looks like sans facial hair. And, ladies, Billy Zane. 
Billy Zane, Billy Zane, and a whole lot of Billy Zane. 
I Woke Up Early the Day I Died has a lot going for it -- ample connections to improve your Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-ing, for one. But whereas your fearless leader Joe will undoubtedly wax wonders on how the film opens a window into the mind of Ed Wood, I’d like to use this space to point out just what an interesting physical actor a certain end-of-the-alphabet B-lister really is. 
Essentially a silent film, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died makes fine use of Zane, something I so rarely get to say in my fandom. As an escaped mental patient-turned-bank robber and murderer credited as "The Thief," he carries the experimental story with a truly unique and more importantly, committed charisma. Based on the indie nature of the film, I imagine most of the cameo-ing cast took part as a quick favor or to satisfy some curiosity in between what must have been better-paying projects. Random powerhouses like Karen Black, Tippi Hedren, Ron Perlman, and for complete trivia fun, Jonathan Taylor Thomas must have had some fun, but as Zane occupies virtually every scene, that dude had to work
I did not enter I Woke Up Early the Day I Died with much information, although I was able to piece together the experiment fairly quickly: director Aris Iliopulos has adapted an unfilmed screenplay by the late Ed Wood. Using an eclectic assortment of Hollywood and underground actors, a (what I’m guessing to be) small amount of money, and extremely hard-working sound design, Iliopulos has produced one strange little journey. 
I say that with true affection: I enjoyed this movie. While the novelty did wear off at a certain point, the ambition of the project remained admirable and throughout the (sometimes literal) running time, Billy Zane remained inherently watchable. The film had a certain Bad Boy Bubby-ness to it with a little more screwball comedy tossed in for good measure. In the end, I don’t necessarily know what it says about cinema -- a second watch with better note taking would be necessary for such a grand thesis -- but I certainly endorse its existence in the name of risk-taking filmmaking and Billy Zane celebration.
Thank you, Emily, for that independent and objective critical assessment. 


Before I dismiss this class, I'd like to take you all back to those halcyon days of the late 1990s and show you the original theatrical trailer for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. Listen closely and you will discern that much (perhaps all) of the music is cribbed from Howard Shore's indelible score for the Tim Burton film Ed Wood from 1994:

The soundtrack album.
It's important to point out here that movie trailers frequently borrow music from other films simply because they are assembled before the real movie has been completed. It's not laziness or thievery, just practicality. The completed version of I Woke Up Early the Day I Died has plenty of music of its own. Besides the aforementioned "Jesus I Was Evil" by Darcy Clay, the soundtrack also incorporates some golden oldies by jazz greats like Nat "King" Cole ("Nature Boy") and Jack Teagarden ("Puttin' and Takin'"). These are artists with whom Ed Wood would have been much more familiar, so their music fits in very well in his world.

Beyond that, though, the film boasts an excellent and evocative original score by Larry Groupe. Producer/star Billy Zane describes Groupe's music for the film as "ambient hymns [which] create a melodic melting pot both scary and funny, sad and ironic, connecting you directly to the splintered psychology of 'The Thief.'" For those parties who are interested in such things, Mr. Groupe sells the soundtrack for a mere ten bucks directly from his personal website. I think I'll have to purchase this little item myself, if only to provide the perfect musical accompaniment for those crazy nights when I put on my fanciest duds and go prowling the lonely streets with vengeance on my mind.

In two weeks: Did you know that we are rapidly approaching the one-year anniversary of Ed Wood Wednesdays? As originally planned, this series was supposed to have ended after three months. THREE MONTHS! What the hell have I gotten myself into? 
In the spirit of settling old scores and righting old wrongs, I have decided that the next film on the docket shall be a well-known feature documentary about Ed Wood which I have not yet reviewed as part of this series, even though it was pictured prominently in the very first entry way back in July 2013. Go back to that article, and you'll see it nestled comfortably between Orgy of the Dead and Glen or Glenda? among the DVDs I had lined up for review. How naive I was back then! How little I knew of the world! 
Anyway, you make sure and get yourself right back here in two weeks when I finally, finally cover The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1995).