Ray Harryhausen interview
THIS IS A LITERAL TRANSCRIPTION OF AN ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN MAY 2012 IN THE DECEASED BLOG "PODER FRIKI".
Life is so short, folks. If you really want something, you must try to go and get it. And there were very few things that would be more important for me that meet in person Raymond Frederick Harryhaysen, the driving force behind my all-time favorite movies. A natural storyteller and a true master of animation.
So, I talked some months ago with Mr. Tony Dalton, the writer of the impressive "Ray Harryhausen: an animated life", "The art of Ray Harryhausen" and the recent "Ray Harryhausen: fantasy scrapbook". He is not only a great admired of Ray's work, but almost part of his family right now. I explained to him that I wanted to see Ray and have a little chat with him. A chat about irrelevant stuff. I wanted to talk about good memories, about good movies, about bad movies, about beasts, about warriors, about fairy tales, about might and magic...
There were undeniable difficulties. The man is a noble elder. He is going to be 93 this year. He don't want to move from his house and he get tired very soon. And he don't allow cameras or photographs anymore. That's how I decide to buy a voice recorder and go to London in a "fast vacation" in order to have this interview.
So... I find myself knocking on the door of Ray Harryhausen. Unbelievable. One of the most influential visual artists of the history of cinema!
When he finally open the door I found myself in front of a very vivid and cheerful person. He is always laughing. I did not care about his age: he is still that bright child that fell in love with fantasy.
Thanky you very much for this opportuniy. I'm a huge fan of your work.
You know? I used to have a house in Spain. A lovely spot in "Los Monteros". I hate the airports. It is pure hell. So I couldn't take care of the house anymore.
You spent a lot of time in Spain...
Yes, I photographed in Spain some locations that was never photographed before. It was 1958, in "7th Voyage of Sinbad".
But you never learn the language!
I know! I took two years of spanish in High School, because we were close to Mexico. And then, I didn't speak spanish for twenty years! When I went to Spain I lost all my vocabulary. Instead of "lapiz" I said "pencilo". During shooting a scene I said "muchos mocos, muchos mocos"! I wanted more smoke on the set but I was talking about snots! I couldn't remember the word "humo"!
Well, my first question is, what makes, in your opinion, a good fantasy-adventure story?
Something unusual, of course! That's the first requirement. You must always dream about something new.
That's quite difficult now!
Well, Christopher Booker said that there are only seven basic stories. So it was difficult back then too.
You had any favorite fantasy books, as a kid?
My mother introduce me to the "wonder books" when I was very young. I remember all that marvelous stories about people going to mars and some very unusual pictures. And then I saw King kong, that finally put me on this!
Any other favorite movies?
I used to love Betty Davis, she was my heroine. And all the others films of Fay Wray. And I love musicals too! "My fair lady" is one of my favorite musicals. There is some wonderful songs in there.
You used to read comic books?
In America, in the thirties, we had the "funny paper" every sunday. George McManus puts a lot of hilarity in "Maggie and Jigs"! Later I started to read Flash Gordon adventures and Prince Valiant. In my opinion, comics are not what they used to be anymore. You are familiar with Prince Valiant?
Yes, I love it. They made a film about it but I did not like it much.
It looks quite dated now
It didn't look new at the time, either. We tried always to put new locations on the screen. In the fifties they kept using the grand canyon for lost cities. It looked too familiar. We really want to search new and exciting locations for each film.
So, in your opinion, locations are very important while making fantasy movies...
Essential. When we photographed Petra in "Sinbad and the eye of the tiger"it looked new and magical. It was fantastic. Spain have some marvelous locations too.
Cuenca. That's the "real" name of the Valley of Gwangi.
But there is no dinosaurs there.
In spanish the place is called "the enchanted city". So, probably, people thought there were dinosaurs there long before your movie!
I did not know that! Well, we use it because the unusual rock formation there. It looked special.
I love the special effects in Gwangi. I think is one of the highlights of your career.
You like Gwangi the most?
No, I like Jason the most. Of course!
Everyone have Jason at his favorite!
Yes. But Gwangi is a movie that don't receive much attention. And I think the dinosaurs looked fantastic.
We put a lot of effort on the dinosaur fights, yes.
There is another impressive fight in "One million years B.C."
I only did the special effects on that one. You liked it?
Because the dinosaurs or because Rachel Welch?
The dinosaurs. I always choose dinosaurs over boobs. Apart from your creations, in that movie there is an oversize lizard too.
Yes, the producers wanted to reduce costs.
You have seen the dinosaurs from the Crystal Palace Park?
Yes, of course. They are scientifically inaccurate but lovely. It is curious to see somebody's conception of a dinosaur. We always designed our dinosaurs, like Wills O'Brien did, after the drawings of Charles Knight. He was one of the first people to put flesh and bones into the skeletons of a museum. He always worked with the scientists. A great painter... I was shocked when I read somewhere that he only had one eye! I tried to talk with him when I was in New York, many years ago. We never met. You have seen the silent version of "The Lost World"?
Yes. I love it.
Now it can look a little crude. But for it's time it looked great. Nobody had ever seen something like that before. How can you photograph a dinosaur? You just can't go out and take a picture. You must create it.
I have another question about storytelling. For you, there is any kind of difference between a fairy tale and a high fantasy tale?
I don't know. Any fantasy story is a fairy tale, really. So one genre binds into the other. Fairy tales are not only for children. They used to think that fantasy was only for children. It had that reputation for many decades but, actually, I think is more for adults. It streches your imagination.What I loved most about fantasy is that it is an imaginary world and it should never look too real. But different people have different ideas about how other worlds should look like, I suppose. Hollywood always made love stories, disaster pictures, war pictures... no one wanted to do fantasy back then. But now it is not much better! In television, they show people's personal lives and that's entertainment. People talking about his depressing problems and other people laughing at them. I really don't know how can anyone like that. Entertaiment used to be something ouside real life, not the worst part of it. Now, they show the problems of every day life of other people. I am ninety two, I have my own problems! Entertaiment should entertain, not making one depressed. Fantasy always give you an escape. An entire world of possibilities.
Your movies were quite popular back then.
There are much more popular now.
Yes, but I discover recently a lot of movies from the sixties that tries to imitate the "Harryhausen style".
For example, "The magic sword" or "Jack the giant killer".
Jack the giant killer! Oh my god!
You remember it?
Of course I remember it. It was a piece of crap.
I do agree!
Don't let me talk about that movie.
Why not? Have passed more than forty years!
You know? When I wanted to sell one of my pictures, I made a lot of drawings. When I was making "7th voyage of Sinbad" I had a carpet full of my drawings. I went to the office of Edward Small and he didn't even want to see me! I couldn't get pass the secretary! I left the drawings there and leave. Then, I made the Sinbad movie and it becomes very popular... and, two years later, he decide to make "Jack the giant killer". And he hired everybody in the cast and crew except me!
They had even the same director!
They didn't realise how much I have to do creating this pictures. How involve I was in the whole creative process.
You never liked the italian sword & sandal either.
That was just about the muscleman. That was not really greek mythology. They had always that silly scenes with belly dancers... but Hollywood was not much better at the time! I remember "Son of Sinbad". It was awful. It had no magic at all. It was only about the girls.
What did you find more interesting about the greek myths?
It was a new avenue for fantasy! I always loved the gods, the creatures and the heroes. Because, you know, the greek-themed movies they made in the past were that horrible sword & sandals. It really did not have the feeling of the greek legends. Our stories borrow from different parts of the mythology in order to get an screenplay suitable for the big screen. But we always tried to keep the basic plot and all the characters. We did not like to apart ourselves too much from the source material. I enjoyed a lot working on Clash of the titans.
That was the only one of your movies in which you had other people helping you, I am correct?
Yes, because we had problems with the schedule. We cannot finish the film in time, so we hired more techinicias. I usually made the entire film alone.
How involve you were in the screenplays?
I always worked with the writer. The producer, Charles H. Scheneer, the writer and myself, we three of us create the entire script. My favorite screenwriter was always Jan Read. We made "Jason and the argonauts" and "First men on the moon" together. Usually, I started with the story. And if the writer did not like the story, we simply hire another one.
But you never were credited for the writing work!
I only cared for having the picture made. Because, actually, it is very difficult rising enough money to have a picture made. Even more today than back then.
Today, they only made two kinds of movies. The ones that cost 20 dollar and the ones that cost 200 million.
I know, I know! We worked always in a very tight budget, so we always tried to get the best from everyone. Now, I am grateful for that, because it obligates you to think. Things should always be done in the less expensive way.
I assume that you did not like much the "Clash of titans" remake...
I never saw it. I don't have any curiosity. They are making a sequel right now and I really don't want to see that either. They invite me over and over again to take a look. But I dislike every decision they made. They have Bubo and they only used him in one scene!
How you come up with the idea of Bubo?
Well, you can see him in the coins of the ancient greece! But he was mainly an idea of the writer, Beverley Cross.
By the way, the people making the remake love your work...
Of course! It is a matter of interpretation. Like Peter Jackson, he interpreted Kong in a completely different way than Merian C. Cooper. It is a different movie. I prefer the first one, personally. From Jackson, I liked the Lord of the rings movies. Especially the first one. But the original King Kong is a movie I saw one hundred and fifty times! Everyone have his own way to looking at things. Writers, particulary, can do completely different things with the same story.
That's very true.
I rememeber someone in MGM calling the original "Clash of the titans" slag. You know what slag means?
Yes, it is a bad word...
For him, it was just a bad low budget movie. Maybe it was low budget in comparison with other pictures made at the time. But is was not "slag". That was not our approach to it. But the person who said that though in a very different way than ours! You can't expect everyone think alike.
And, how important is for you the music in a fantasy film?
Oh! Very, very important. Because you try to keep a minimun of dialogue. You need the music to set the mood. I learn that from King Kong that had a great score. Max Steiner was one of the great composers of his time. I love the great orchesta music for this kind of movies.
You had Bernard Herrmann.
Yes, Herrmann was marvelous, much more melodic than Steiner. He understands fantasy. He made a great score for Sinbad and for Jason.
What I find more interesting about your creatures is that they came from the legend but they never looked ethereal or magical. They looked very natural. They eat, they rest, and, when there are killed, they suffer!
We always tried to make them look realistic for a fantasy setting. Fantasy is never realistic. It is imaginary, like a dream. But all the creatures are part of that world. And the world must have internal coherence. I always envisioned them as animals, not monsters. They are not evil, they are just out of his place. Like in "20 million miles to Earth" the poor Ymir is put into an alien country. And he was not vicious until the farmer stab him with the pitchfork!
He was not like Godzilla...
Oh! Godzilla! They made a lot money out of it. In "The beast of 20000 fathoms" I used my own equipment and I made no money out of it.
Not a single dollar?
You must remember the time that movies were made. In the fifties you should be a good bussinessman in order to get things down, you know? And they though that I had too much power. They don't wanted to put much power in one's man hand.
You always prefer fantasy over science fiction?
Yes. For me, the past is always more interesting than the future.
How you came up with the idea of the skeleton warriors? They are, probably, the most influential fantasy creatures ever put on screen...
They are part of the Jason myth! But in the original, they were rotten corpses. At the time, we would get an "X" rating if we put an army of rotten corpses in the movie. So we made them clean-cut skeletons instead. But we used already one skeleton in "7th voyage". And it was a very tough fight for Sinbad! That was very difficult to do at the time. Because you must achieve certain amount of realism in the battle if you want the audience involved. It cannot look like a cheap trick!
And you were not ashamed of showing true magic spells...
Actually, we had a great problem with the magicians. It is easy to look at the magicians as
all-powerful beings. That's why we give Koura in the "Golden voyage" a limited power. Every time he used his powers, he get older. Because if not, he would simply zap the hero out in the first reel.
What makes, in your opinion, a great hero?
Well, I always thought that he must look good. And he must look human. He can fail, you know.
What is your favorite Sinbad film?
They all have their points, I think. "Golden voyage of Sinbad" is the most popular. We only made three Sinbad films. But the three were very successful at the time. I debt a lot to the character. They wrote a song "Sinbad has been bad but he has been good to me"!
And why you choose Sinbad over other medieval heroes like Beowulf or Sir Lancelot?
Very few people know of Beowulf. They made a picture not long ago, but it was not a great success. I wanted to do it at one time. Sinbad was famous. And, they usually used him for a girlie show. An excuse to show a bunch of half naked women. You never saw the mythology behind the original "arabian nights" stories. Like the Roc! I loved the Roc. But we put him two heads so, probably he couldn't fly with that much weight...
You tried to make the Pegasus like a horse that could really fly!
Yes! I remember that italian remake of "The thief of Bagdad" with Steeve Reeves. And the flying horse had very little wings, as long as my hands, so you cannot believe it could really fly!
That italian films as not good as yours, but they are entertaining.
They had a very different point of view. They made a lot of money. Steve Reeves made a lot of money. But they picture all the heroes like muscleman.
Even your Hercules did look very different.
Yes. Hercules shouldn't be just a nude muscleman. He is inteligent, and manly.
You made oriental fantasy and greek mythology but you never used the european setting. You did not like the european legends?
It is not a question of that. It simply did not fit into the situations I envisioned. It would look out of place. The kings, the knights, are interesting. But we simply never had anything that would fit that.
That's fine for me. You have any favorite moments from Jason, besides the skeleton fight?
Only the people who see the final picture think on those terms. We never think on those terms. When I see the picture I see it entirely different than you.
Well, I saw that movie a million times...
Now you know how it was done! You know how much it cost?
Six hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Are you serious?
Make that movie today would be absolutely impossible!
It is all about think, think, think! How can you spend one hundred million? How? Today, only the titles of the people involved in special effects are larger that our complete cast. We made things in very strict budget. Even for it's time standards. For example, "War of the worlds" spent ten times what we spent in "Earth vs the flying saucers".
Can you talk about your 90s birthday?
It was very special, a very nice surprise, with all that wonderful filmmakers surrounded me. I really did not have any idea were I was going to. I thought I was going to take the honorary prize and come back home! It was everything an idea of Tony. He cheated me.
It was a beutiful homage.
Yes, it was, indeed.
Which was the first step to sell one of your movies?
It could be many ways. An idea for a story, a good character or some of my drawings.
I suppose Charles H. Scheneer was very important during the process...
He was very important getting the money to made the film! We worked together for decades on very different pictures. He believed in me. We always formulate the picture before the director came. Sometimes, we start shooting before we have any director at all! There were not "director pictures" in the european sense of the word. His main job was to get the best out from the actors.
I always though that you should have directed some of that movies.
I didn't want to. I don't have patiente with people. My little characters do exactly what I wanted them to do. But you see things different from the people who made the movies. You see the finish product and only afterwards you discover what is in between. Making a movie is very hard. It goes through a lot of changes. In "Mysterious Island", for example. We made a lot of changes on that. A lot of different minds are going into it.
You would have changed anything from your films?
There are always things. For example that beautiful girl, Caroline Munro. She is lovely. But the producers want to sell sex so they give her that absurd low cut top. And today, when the poor girl appears on screen, people start laughing. It is so obvious! It is just for sex...
Well, John Phillip Law was a great Sinbad. The best of them all, in my opinion.
He was a very good actor and a very nice man. He passed away very young. He had a lot of trouble with his back, he used to sleep on a board on the floor on location.
You think you open new ways for fantasy in cinema?
I never analyse it to that point and I really don't like to think about those things. That wasn't the purpouse. The purpouse was to make a picture and put it on the screen!
Well, I run out of questions! Thank you very much!
I had two gifts for Mr. Harryhausen. The first one was an edition of the "Hyperborea" tales by Clark Ashton Smith. Some pulp fiction is always good for the soul. The second gift was much better. A bookend with the face of the cyclops made by my artist friend Alba Lucío.
After the interview, Tony Dalton came, and we three talked a little more about everything. I was shocked to hear that the producers wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger for Perseus in the original "Clash of the titans"! I was very surprised too to hear that Ray did not like the classic Hammer horror movies and he never had read the original "Conan" stories by Robert E. Howard. Then, they give me tickets for the majestic Ray Harryhausen exposition in the London film museum. I visited it the next day, of course.
I had only one hour and I exceeded it long ago! So Dalton kicked me out of the place. But not before I give a hug and a kiss to the best movie maker of all time.