Aris Iliopulos is a writer, director, photographer, painter, and sculptor. His early influences from punk rock, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Edward D. Wood Jr. are always present in his work. An accomplished traveler, Iliopulos is fascinated by and follows the Masai tribes in Kenya and photographs their vanishing world. He spends his time between homes in New York City and Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert.
In 1998, he produced and directed the Ed Wood-scripted silent film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. The film features many, many top-notch actors such as Billy Zane, Christina Ricci, and Tippi Hedren. Unfortunately, the film has been hung up with legal problems and has not had a DVD release in the United States. (It is available in Europe.)
Iliopulos hopes to one day direct Wood’s screenplay for The Ghoul Goes West, and promises that his next film will be very much in the spirit of Wood, as well.
I had the opportunity to speak with him and discuss Ed Wood and the story behind I Woke Up Early the Day I Died.
This interview was conducted in 2014 and is an excerpt from the book, The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (Bear Manor Media, 2015), written by Charles E. Pratt, Jr. and myself.
ANDREW RAUSCH: How did you first encounter the work of Ed Wood, and what were your initial thoughts?
ARIS ILIOPULOS: Ed Wood was one of the first artists I encountered when I first came to the United States. I saw Ed Wood on channel 13, which is a PBS channel. I thought he was so avant-garde, and I had to follow up with his work. However, it was pretty difficult to find it back then. In New York you can find a lot of the stuff, but not everything. I basically saw the four classic films of his, and then I became a really big fan of his work.
RAUSCH: Do you feel there’s a misconception about Ed Wood’s work?
ILIOPULOS: I think everybody has their own point of view, but it seems really easy to say that he was naïve or that he was really not careful in his work. But I believe he’s quite the artist there. I mean, yes, he’s a cult director, but at the same time I see his work as more of an artistic effort. I find his work to be very innocent and artistic rather than that of someone who was just trying to make a cult movie like a lot of people do.
Kathy Wood always said she hated it when people called him stupid, or when they said his movies were bad. She really hated that.
I must say, there is some work there that I’ve never seen, like Orgy of the Dead (1965) and that kind of work. Have you seen any of that kind of work?
RAUSCH: Yes, I’ve seen all of them that are available. We’re covering all of the sex films in the book, as well.
ILIOPULOS: And what did you think of that work?
RAUSCH: Those films are different from the films he’s best known for. A lot of the same themes are present, though, and the classic Ed Wood dialogue is definitely there. The dialogue in some of those—especially Orgy of the Dead—is unmistakably Wood’s.
ILIOPULOS: Right. [Laughs.]
RAUSCH: One thing that’s interesting about Ed Wood is that he made a film titled The Sinister Urge, which decried pornography. In that film, he made no bones about the fact that he looked down on the makers of those films. It’s sad that Wood himself was making pornography only about five years after that.
Well, he was really poor, and I think there were money reasons there. And I think he was drinking a bit too much there at the end of his life, which made it difficult for him to focus on his work.
Also, I think the whole system has changed. There in the 60s, I think Ed was kind of into free love and those kinds of movies were completely new. Kathy told me that Ed had a few movies that screened around Hollywood that no longer exist. In fact, the Woods’ lawyer confirmed it for me that there are certain movies that just no longer exist. And they were a little bit on the sexy side, we’ll put it that way.
We all make mistakes in life, or we make masterpieces and mistakes. [Laughs.] You could certainly say that about Orson Welles! He did some horrible things in the 60s. But, you know, Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)—that stuff is incredible! And I’m still puzzled how he pulled those films together.
Which film is your favorite?
I’d say Plan 9 from Outer Space is my favorite of the films he made while he was alive. However, your film, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, is my favorite of the entire canon.
RAUSCH: It’s our assertion that I Woke Up Early is his masterpiece. It’s the film that Wood always wanted to make, but just didn’t know how.
ILIOPULOS: I’m glad to hear that. I tried to follow his style. And to tell you the truth, he gave me tremendous freedom. Trying to follow a certain style gives you a kind of freedom, that without that, you would never experience the certain liberty I took in filmmaking. There will always be obstacles; you never know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. Some stuff happened on two or three takes. For instance, at one point we lost our location. But a lot of the other stuff, it was very comfortable to shoot. I had three weeks to shoot, and you know, that’s more than Ed Wood ever got in his entire life. It was always something like ten days for him.
RAUSCH: How did you become involved with I Woke Up Early the Day I Died?
ILIOPULOS: I was at the right place at the right time. I was out with my production office one day for lunch, and Bob Weinberg, who is the lawyer that represents the estate, was there. When I heard the name Ed Wood I was like, “Oh, my God.” And I was really wanting to make a picture at that time. I wanted to make a picture, but I wanted it to be something that was according to my own personal tastes. I’m not a gun for hire.
So Bob Weinberg made everybody sign a confidentiality agreement; if someone was going to read the script, he had to know about it. So I went right to the office, grabbed the script, and I read it. And I thought, great, this is my picture! Then I found the courage to call them up and say that I really wanted to do this picture. “Let’s get into business here,” you know? I said, “I know you have all these contracts, but why don’t you give me a shot?” I then set up a meeting with Kathy Wood.
We went to Kathy Wood’s house there in Hollywood, and we just had a great time. I brought her flowers and started joking with her. She said, “Aris, you’re the right guy for this picture. You do it. I did not trust anybody to do this picture because everybody wants to put dialogue in it.” She said, “You have to promise me you won’t put dialogue in it.” I said, “I promise you.” But you know, that’s what I really liked about the script in the first place—that there was no dialogue.
Kathy really guided me through the process a little bit and shared a lot of stories about Eddie. She gave me inspiration, and I felt Eddie had a sort of spiritual involvement with the project. She told me this was Ed’s favorite script, and that it took him ten years to write it. Of course he died without making it because nobody wanted a picture without dialogue. For Ed, that was his masterpiece. She said, “He never put it down. He said, ‘This is my masterpiece.’” Kathy told me one day there was a fire at the apartment, and he jumped out of the window. She said he was naked, clutching that screenplay. It meant that much to him. It was the only thing he grabbed out of that room.
He may have been doing these other kinds of movies, but that was his passion. Kathy said he would revisit the material every year, and he would just rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it. I find his writing to be quite fascinating. One of the decisions I made on the film—I made it with Billy Zane—was to put excerpts from the script on the screen at times throughout the film. I just find his writing to be super-entertaining.
RAUSCH: What were some of the goals you wanted to achieve with this film?
ILIOPULOS: Well, I had actually found a script that I wanted to do. At that point it was sort of like there was no stopping. When I believe in something, just in general, it will happen. When it’s the right moment and the right time, it will happen. In fact, just six months after I signed the contract I was shooting the picture.
I got some of my friends to sign on; like Christina Ricci, who was shooting Buffalo ’66 (1998) at the time. A few other people signed on, as well. I think Billy Zane was working on Titanic (1997) at the time. He read the screenplay and he called me. He was shooting in Mexico, and I could not go to Mexico at the time. So he came down here, and we spent a whole week talking about this and just getting an idea of the situation. And that’s how the whole thing started. Once Billy came onboard, the process went very quickly.
RAUSCH: You had a ridiculously talented cast.
ILIOPULOS: Things just happened so fast. There was a moment when people were fighting over parts. “Give me a part. I want to be in that picture. I don’t care what the part is.” I feel that Eddie had a lot to do with the casting. [Chuckles.] I was at a party in New York and I ran into Eartha Kitt. I went over to her and I said, “I’m making this picture, and you’ve got to be in it.” She said, “Send me the script.” I sent her the script, but I said, “Your part is not written. It’s there, but it’s not written.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “It’s an Ed Wood picture.” She said, “You know, I’ve been in an Ed Wood film without being in an Ed Wood film.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “If you watch Glen or Glenda?, when he comes to the movie theater, it says ‘Eartha Kitt performs tonight at 9:30,’” or something or other. So she was aware of Ed Wood. And she was just great. She even wrote the song she performs in the movie for me, which I thought was nice. Also, it was her last performance.
For the Tippi Hedren part, I had three people in mind—Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kim Novak, or Tippi Hedren. Tippi called me right away and said she loved the idea of being in an Ed Wood picture. So a lot of the actors just loved the idea of being in an Ed Wood picture. Then there were some people who didn’t like the idea of there being no dialogue. And of course I have to thank my casting director on the project. She helped a lot. She had a tremendous amount to do with the casting.
But I think it was the right moment and the right time. A lot of people liked the idea of a movie with no dialogue, and I think a lot of people really like Ed Wood, believe it or not. But the fact that there was no dialogue confused a lot of people.