An interview with Orson Welles’s cinematographer Gary Graver by Harvey Chartrand – Excerpts from PENNY BLOOD magazine #11
By exclusive arrangement with Nick Louras, the editor of PENNY BLOOD magazine, Wellesnet is able to provide these excerpts from Harvey Chartrand's extensive and fascinating interview with Orson Welles late, great cinematographer Gary Graver.
The full text of the article can be read in PENNY BLOOD magazine #11 featuring a cover story on the films of British author Dennis Wheatley. It can be ordered online here: http://www.pennyblood.com/
And by a strange coincidence, Dennis Wheatley's movie adaptation of Hammer Films version of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, features two superb performances from actors Orson Welles knew quite well: Christopher Lee (from the film version of MOBY DICK - REHEARSED), and Charles Gray (from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and ORSON's BAG.)
CINEMATOGRAPHER GARY GRAVER:
THE MAN WHO SHOT EVERYTHING, FROM ART HOUSE TO GRIND HOUSE TO BLOCKBUSTER - AND BEYOND
Interviewed by Harvey Chartrand
In 2004, outré film director Curtis Harrington, whom I had interviewed several times as he attempted to revive his long-dormant career, suggested that I speak to Gary Graver, the veteran cinematographer he had lined up for his next project – what would have been the first film version of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Man of the Crowd. Although Graver accumulated several hundred credits over a 45-year career, he is best known as Orson Welles’ chief cameraman during the Great One’s terrible final years – a dreadful shambles of wine and whisky commercials, walk-ons in bad pictures, movie trailer voiceovers, talk show blather, magic tricks, unsold scripts, unfinished directorial projects, lost footage, escalating obesity and declining health. Stepping out from under Welles’ hulking shadow, Graver enjoyed a varied and prolific career, and – to make ends meet – had a sideline as a director of classy porno movies, using the pseudonym “Robert McCallum” for these triple-X efforts. (The best of the “McCallums” – 3 A.M., made in 1975 – features an infamous lesbian shower scene edited by Welles, supposedly to repay a debt to Graver.)
So I contacted Graver and he agreed to an interview. Although lengthy intervals separated our telephone conversations (delays I attributed to Graver’s non-stop schedule and protean output), he couriered me samples of his short subjects, feature-length films, documentaries and works-in-progress, which I viewed enthusiastically. I later discovered that Graver was also battling throat cancer at this time.
During our freewheeling talks, Graver discussed several low-budgeters he directed in the hopes of breaking into mainstream films (these B pictures included The Boys, Moon in Scorpio, Trick or Treats, Evil Spirits, Crossing the Line and The Attic); rarities that he worked on with Welles; collaborations with Spanish horror king Paul Naschy and the prolific American B-movie director Fred Olen Ray; and such cinematic oddities as Free Grass, Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, Doctor Dracula and The Mighty Gorga.
Screenwriter William Martell reports on his Sex in a Submarine blog that Graver did second unit work on John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Color Purple (1985). Graver shot Grand Theft Auto for Ron Howard in 1977 and was cinematographer on over 200 movies, directing more than 100 himself. He did second unit or additional photog on “zillions of movies,” Martell writes.
In 2000, Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ keyboard man and a graduate of UCLA’s film school, asked Graver to serve as cinematographer on his underrated thriller Love Her Madly, based on a story outline by the band’s debauched lead singer Jim Morrison.
“I had a sense while I was making the picture that I had a winner,” Manzarek said. “I had great actors, a great cameraman – Gary Graver, who worked with Orson Welles. Gary had so many ideas on how to set the mood. I told him, now we’re into the darkness, and he would light the darkness. Gary was just a great lighting technician. He contributed to the beauty of every single shot in the picture. His wife Jillian Kesner was the production supervisor, running around with clipboards and paper. She did a fabulous job too. They’re a great couple.”
Since the Ray Manzarek interview was recorded, Gary Graver died of cancer on November 16, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 68. Eighty-year-old Curtis Harrington died on May 6, 2007, at his home in the Hollywood Hills, of complications related to a stroke he suffered in 2005. And Graver’s wife Jillian Kesner (a former actress and martial artist) died of the combined effects of leukemia and a staph infection on December 5, 2007, at a hospital in Irvine, California. She was 58.
These macabre circumstances may account for the fragmentary nature of this fascinatingly disjointed interview with the late Gary Graver.
HARVEY CHARTRAND: Discuss your collaboration with director Curtis Harrington. You lensed his final horror masterpiece Usher (2002).
GARY GRAVER: I’ve known Curtis since I was a kid. I met him through a friend at a film festival in San Diego. So I’ve known Curtis through the years, but our careers went in different directions. We see each other socially all the time. I run into him at film festivals in Europe. Curtis hadn’t done a movie in about 10 years. He called me up and said he wanted to make Usher, a short film. He wanted to go back to his roots in experimental film. Curtis asked if I would help him and I said “sure.” Next to Orson, Curtis is the most intellectual director I’ve ever worked with. I was happy to help out.
HARVEY CHARTRAND: Will you also be the cinematographer on Curtis Harrington’s upcoming The Man of the Crowd? How is that progressing?
GARY GRAVER: Curtis is finishing the script on his second 40-minute film. This one will be more expensive than Usher and Curtis will need to get a cable company or somebody to step in and give him some money. Curtis wants Barbara Steele to host The Man of the Crowd.
HARVEY CHARTRAND: I’d like to find out more about your participation on some of Orson Welles’ lesser-known projects, such as the 10-minute F for Fake trailer, The Orson Welles Show, Filming ‘Othello’, Filming ‘The Trial’, The Golden Honeymoon, The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh, Orson Welles’ Magic Show and Moby Dick.
GARY GRAVER: Filming ‘The Trial’ (1981) is a 90-minute Q&A at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Orson intended to do it like Filming ‘Othello’ (with scenes from The Trial and other interviews added later) but we never got around to it. The Munich Film Museum took all my reels and stitched them together to make a 90-minute movie – and it works! A lot of people were there in the audience that day who are successful filmmakers now. It was pretty basic camerawork. I filmed Orson quite a bit and then I’d swing around to the audience whenever they gave a big response.
Filming ‘Othello’ (1978) was a lengthy conversation, all shot in a hotel room in Paris. I filmed additional scenes of Orson in a gondola in Venice, but these didn’t make it into the film. (Some of these Venetian scenes appear in Graver’s documentary Working with Orson Welles. – Ed.) The negative of the picture disappeared in Spain. We also lost some footage of scenes of actors Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, which were shot in Dublin. We can’t screen Filming ‘Othello’ anywhere because Orson’s daughter Beatrice owns the rights to Othello (1952) and won’t let us use any clips from it.
The Golden Honeymoon, The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh and Moby Dick were straight readings. We did them in 1971 under the omnibus title An Evening with Orson Welles – readings of six stories told on film by Orson and then transferred to the new up-and-coming medium of videotape. Sears department stores engaged Orson to promote their new videotape player. We shipped the filmed readings off to Sears and they gave them away to encourage people to buy TV consoles with a built-in videotape player. This was way before Betamax and VHS. It was something altogether different and quite experimental.
We worked on Moby Dick some more later on. Orson always had seven or eight projects going. Orson would shoot whenever he wanted to. He would call me up and say “come on over” and we’d shoot something. He wouldn’t even tell me what we were doing it for, if it was part of a grander concept or something. Orson just liked to work.
In 1979, we did The Orson Welles Show with guests Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickinson and the Muppets. Orson didn’t have much luck selling that to the networks. Nobody bought it anywhere in the world! It’s very entertaining, with magic tricks and everything in it. I can’t understand why no one wanted it. Orson Welles’ Magic Show (1985) is nowhere near as completed, but all the tricks were stitched together by the Munich Film Museum people. Almost everything Orson did like that, in bits and pieces, has been assembled and is screened every two years. All the Welles scholars – the “Welles gang” – gather for these events. The last one was in Locarno, Switzerland, and the next one will be at the American Cinematheque here in Los Angeles.
On the morning of Orson’s death in October 1985, we were planning to start shooting Julius Caesar with Orson playing all the parts himself. Two days earlier, we’d pre-lit the stage at UCLA’s Theatre Arts Department.
HARVEY CHARTRAND: Why did Orson Welles make an 10-minute trailer for F for Fake (1974), a film that had a limited commercial potential?
GARY GRAVER: It was something Orson just wanted to do and it was fun to make. The distributor couldn’t afford to make a custom negative so we made our own. And then it wasn’t shown anywhere until quite recently. (The restored color trailer is an Easter Egg on the UK Masters of Cinema edition of F For Fake.)
HARVEY CHARTRAND: Could you also enlighten us on how Welles assisted you on Trick or Treats (1982)?
GARY GRAVER: I told Orson about the tricks I was going to do in the film and he gave me advice on how to set up a few gags. I gave Orson a credit because I took his ideas. I think Trick or Treats is too long at 90 minutes. I’ve taken 10 minutes out of it in my Director’s Cut. Now I own the film. I have the negative.
I made Trick or Treats as a comedy. It’s not really scary, though it was marketed as a horror film. When I made Trick or Treats, I called in every favor from every actor you can think of – David Carradine, Carrie Snodgress, Steve Railsback, Peter Jason, Paul Bartel, Jillian [Kesner]. Jillian has done some pictures for Corman – Firecracker (1981), The Student Body (1976)... I also directed Jillian in Roots of Evil (1992). She looks like a cross between Linda Evans and Ursula Andress. I made Trick or Treats for $55,000 total in 35 mm. It took about three weeks to make the picture, because I only shot at night – from six o’clock to midnight. But during the day, I’d go to the lab, buy the lunches and snacks and get the costumes ready. All day long I worked on the movie. The whole thing was shot at Carrie Snodgress’ place, while she went to live at my house on the beach in Venice, California. I cast my son Chris in one of the lead roles. He was eight years old at the time.
I made Trick or Treats to make money. The distributor, who was my partner, never gave me a dime. I said to him: “How can you not make money on a $55,000 horror movie?” He told me he had all these expenses. Then I couldn’t get the guy on the phone for over a year. I’ve dealt with three distributors who have cheated me. In the middle of the night, they have all literally backed up a truck, emptied their offices and driven off – gone out of business. Three times this has happened to me!