Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 114: "I Awoke Early the Day I Died" (1974)

This particular screenplay was not produced until nearly two decades after Ed Wood's death.

Some academics think that the best, purest way to appreciate William Shakespeare is to read his plays as though they were novels. And, for several generations now, that's how millions of American schoolchildren have experienced Shakespeare; they're given mass market paperbacks of Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet in high school and instructed to read them in stages over a period of days or weeks. On the one hand, this approach allows students to savor and scrutinize Shakespeare's language at their own pace. On the other hand, we sometimes forget that these works are scripts, i.e. blueprints for live performances. The author fully meant for them to be acted out in front of an audience. Would Shakespeare even want us reading his plays this way, divorced from a theatrical setting?

It may be folly to equate William Shakespeare with Edward D. Wood, Jr., but I have similarly conflicted thoughts whenever it's time to review one of Eddie's screenplays. In many ways, these documents are fascinating and offer us tremendous insight into Ed's creative process. On the page, these movies can be every bit as good as Ed Wood wanted them to be, without clumsy performances, shabby sets, or other technical or budgetary limitations getting in the way. But the only real test of a screenplay is whether or not it can be made into an entertaining, involving film. Scripts generally aren't meant to stand on their own as works of art.
A vintage Ed Wood screenplay.

Recently, in a Facebook forum devoted to Ed Wood, Bob Blackburn shared his copy of one of Wood's most famous screenplays: I Awoke Early the Day I Died from 1974. Though Eddie labored over this script for over a decade, it never went into production during his lifetime. The Day I Died first came to the attention of Wood's fans in 1992, thanks to Rudolph Grey's seminal biography Nightmare of Ecstasy. In that book, Wood's widow Kathy recalled that the script was one of the few items Eddie managed to save after being evicted from his so-called "Yucca Flats" apartment in 1978. Then, in the "Unrealized Projects" segment of the filmography, Grey offered a relatively lengthy and lavish description of the script, calling it "quintessential Ed Wood with its thematic obsession with death, graveyards, burlesque and the grotesque." Grey also said: "Of all Wood's projects in his last years, this was his personal favorite."

Just six years after Nightmare of Ecstasy (and four years after Tim Burton's Ed Wood), the long-gestating screenplay was finally produced under the title I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. It was directed by newcomer Aris Iliopulos and starred Billy Zane (of Titanic fame) and an eclectic all-star cast. I reviewed that film extensively back in 2014, calling it "a cross between a very long music video and an extremely chic high-fashion photo shoot." Above all, however, it is important to remember that it is not really an Ed Wood movie in the purest sense; it is an Aris Iliopulos movie. This new director interpreted Wood's script in his own unique style, making aesthetic choices that did not strike me as particularly Woodian. While I Woke Up Early the Day I Died is an enjoyable, worthwhile experience, I'm not sure if Eddie would have been flattered by it or just confused. Maybe both.

Reading Ed Wood's screenplay allowed me to imagine the movie that Ed himself would have made, if he'd been able to scrounge up the money. Right away, the document presents us with an intriguing mystery. A blue, printed cover page calls the script I Awoke Early the Day I Died, but this is followed by a typed title page that calls it I Woke Up Early --- The Morning I Died. Similar sentiments, but different phrasing. Again, this was a script that Eddie worked on for years, and it seems to have undergone numerous title changes during that time. Perhaps the final title came from Kathy Wood herself, since she refers to the project as I Woke Up Early the Day I Died in her interview with Rudolph Grey.

The plot should be familiar to anyone who saw the 1998 movie. A crazed young man, known only as The Thief, escapes from a mental hospital disguised as a nurse and proceeds to go on a wild crime spree lasting several days. He robs a loan office, killing the manager in the process, and unwisely stashes the loot in an open grave. I say "unwisely" because it turns out that this run-down cemetery belongs to a mysterious cult and the bodies buried in it are being transferred somewhere else. In his obsessive quest to retrieve his money, The Thief ruthlessly stalks and kills anyone he thinks has wronged him until he meets his own inevitable fate.

The chief gimmick of this script is that it is a feature-length story told entirely without dialogue. There are references to music and sound effects throughout, but not one articulate word is uttered in 70 pages. Perhaps Ed Wood was giving himself a writing challenge with this project, just to see if he could really do it. Or maybe he simply wanted to shoot a movie without the hassle of synchronized sound as a potential cost-cutting move. Either way, this gimmick does set The Day I Died apart from Eddie's other feature scripts. Unfortunately, those who usually enjoy Eddie's extremely quotable dialogue and narration are out of luck here.

I Awoke Early the Day I Died is virtually all action, and it's marked by a lot of quick cuts. Eddie seems intent on keeping the pace of the movie frantic, with scarcely a moment for The Thief or the audience to relax. One thing I couldn't help but notice is that the script is very specific in its listing of camera angles, edits, and camera moves. People think of Eddie as being totally unschooled in the technical side of filmmaking, but this document suggests otherwise. He had a very strong idea of how he wanted this material to be shot. By 1974, he'd probably played these scenes in his head dozens of times. Again, I can only wonder what he'd think of the 1998 film.

Thematically, just as Rudolph Grey described, I Awoke Early the Day I Died is rich in Woodian themes and motifs. The story takes place in back alleys, flop houses, dive bars, cemeteries, carnivals -- all of the places Eddie loved to visit in his fiction. You get the sense that he was exploring the sleazy underside of Los Angeles that he knew all too well. Perhaps even The Thief is a manifestation of Eddie's own worst tendencies, especially when he was driven to violent anger by alcohol. All of Ed Wood's classic muses are here: death, booze, sex, and women's clothing. Yes, he even goes out of his way to mention negligees and marabou in his stage directions, even though these items have little impact on the plot. They're important to him.

Purely as a reading experience, this is rather choppy and disjointed, with the technical jargon getting in the way of the narrative somewhat. But as I've been saying, this script wasn't meant to be experienced as a piece of literature. Ed had his short stories and novels for that. This was meant to be a film, and Eddie definitely wrote this for himself to direct. The most fun passages of I Awoke Early the Day I Died arrive when Ed Wood takes the time to set the scene, as in this description of a depressing bar and its equally depressing inhabitants:

An excerpt from I Awoke Early the Day I Died.

That's some classic Wood prose, worthy of one of his short stories. Passages like that ultimately make reading the script a rewarding experience. As for the movie Eddie would've made of this, all we can do is dream.