Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thriller Three-Way: David J. Schow, Commentator

InternecineDavid J. Schow is an award-winning author of numerous short stories, screenplays and novels. Publisher's Weekly calls David's new novel, Internecine, "a smart new thriller," Booklist calls it "twisted, high energy fun," while Peter Enfantino just wishes he could use the word internecine in everyday conversation. Internecine is out in hardcover now from Thomas Dunne. You might wonder what he's doing trolling with the likes of us. We certainly do.

PE: I'm not as knowledgeable about this Thriller thing as you, David. Maybe I'm naive, I don't know. A couple dozen episodes in, and still no Michael Jackson. What gives?

David J. Schow: (unintelligible)

David must have been having trouble with his phone because, right after this, the phone went dead and he didn't answer my calls for several days. We finally did get him back and I made sure to ask him super intelligent questions!

PE: How far back do you and Thriller go?

DJS: I could lie outright and claim I had some kind of distant, primordial memory of "The Hungry Glass" that warped me early... but that would be too early. Without sounding like too much of a suck-up, my interest was piqued when I read about the show during the mid-1970s in Fantastic Television, by none other than... Gary Gerani. This caused me to keep an eye out for Thriller coverage because it was so rare... episodes spoken about in hushed whispers. It might have run in syndication around that time, but if so, I'm still drawing a blank. In the fall of '89, Midnight Marquee published Jay Allen Sanford's pivotal article, "Karloff Through the Looking Glass: Horror on Thriller," and I think I had also found an episode index (to compare with Gerani's) by "Keno" Don Rosa in an issue of the Rockets Blast ComiCollector (RBCC).

PE: So all you had, essentially, was the legend?

DJS: Up until then, I had a few audiotapes. Gerani and I mention this on one of the commentaries, but Gary shrugs it off like it was no big deal — SOP for aficionados. Which doesn't address how complicated it was, or how dedicated you had to be to accomplish it. I made my first TV tapes with a 3-inch reel-to-reel recorder by holding a microphone up to the TV. Then you "graduated" to the discovery that you could run leads off the TV speaker and splice them to a jack — voila, direct input, and you no longer had to tell everybody in your house to shut the fuck up while you were recording. A 90-minute movie would fit on a 90-minute cassette.

JS: If I had opened up the back of the TV to get at the speaker leads, I probably wouldn't be here today. But eventually these started to pop up on videotape, right?

DJS: Videotape was a new conceit and in 1977 I only knew two people with Betamax machines. Audiotapes were how a lot of collectors dealt with archiving a physical artifact of a movie, unless you could afford 16mm prints. Somewhere along the line in the late 70s I bought a print of "The Hungry Glass" which I still have. Everything else was audio cassettes of shows I hadn't seen — particularly "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" and "The Grim Reaper."

Then Larry Rapchak came to the first-ever Outer Limits Marathon in 1979, where Jeff Frentzen and I screened a bunch of prints obtained from MGM/UA in Jeff's dismal apartment in Elmwood Park, Illinois. Larry was a Thriller fanatic — still is! — and proved it by sending me VHS tapes of most of the episodes I was interested in, during the late 80s. A lot of them came from syndication showings on Channel 60 in Aurora, Illinois. Those videotapes stayed with me, literally, until last year, when Gary phoned me about participating in the DVD release, and in fact I had to use a lot of the tapes for "homework" to prepare for the commentaries, since the episodes were being remastered and weren't always available for personal review by the time we did the sit-and-talk.

PE: So Gary contacted you to get involved with the DVD project?

DJS: Gary phoned me because he was desperate. He knew I'd done supplements and such before, but more importantly, he and Steve Mitchell were given a scant three-week window to do all the supplements, by Image.

PE: So it was a three man crew.

DJS: Before my betters can protest, permit me to jump in and say I was not a fundamental spoke in the Thriller creative team for Image — recheck Steve Mitchell’s interview for a fast name-check on Image’s real Thriller champions, which included Nathaniel Thompson. Steve, Gary and Nat did the creative skullduggery while I stood in the background and occasionally raised my hand. I believe it was Gary who beat the bushes to flush out most of the other commentators, between him and Steve, they had a lot of candidates in place before I toddled along. Some contributors, like Alan Brennert or Marc Zicree, were hoped to target multiple shows in tandem with Gary, but Alan and Marc wound up doing only one each. If schedule or availability limits your deployment, how do you plug in your guests to maximum effect if they can only do a single episode, or change their minds? Steve and Gary wrestled these choices on a moment-to-moment basis. All the while, there was this feeling the rug was going to be yanked out from under them at any moment. So what they have achieved should be considered in that light — better to fete them for what they managed to produce, than nitpick all the “if-onlys.”

In the beginning, it was triage from the top down, so Gary hustled in there and did "The Cheaters" and "Pigeons from Hell." At first, we were going to try to do as much as we could grab inside that limited window... but then Image relented and gave us another month or so, without which time there would be no still gallery, no sizzle reel, nothing. We were able to expand reach and grasp. Gary and Steve had these blue-sky visions of maybe getting Steve King to do a parallel track for "Pigeons", or Shatner to do one of his episodes. That's how high they aimed when they won the extra time.

PE: Those extras never materialized. (Don't worry - I expect Bill and Steve will be posting their comments directly to the blog -JS)

DJS: Not only was it not to be, but I don't think the tracks would have been as, uh, thrilling as the concept of those tracks. As a result, a couple of the most famous episodes are, I think, under-served on the DVD set. In the end they considered "Pigeons" and "Cheaters" to be "covered," while we got busy grabbing as much extra as we could on other shows — we never circled back around to a couple of the most famous episodes. Nobody's fault.

PE: The track for "The Weird Tailor" is a bit odd.

DJS: During that extra time, we were able to add Tom Weaver's contributions. Tom's Doug Benton interview was perfect for a booklet. Then we got the news: No booklet. So Gary, or Tom, came up with the idea of "recreating" the interview as an audio track, with Doug's son Dan playing his father (you'll find the result on "The Weird Tailor"). I think Tom hooked Steve and Gary up with Lucy Chase Williams. He also accessed John Antosiewicz who provided most of the stills Gary didn't already have. I dragged in my colleague Stefan Dziemianowicz, who reactivated the lost art of the fax machine by sending me pulp pages from every story I covered. I dragged in Larry Blamire and Tim Lucas, and Tim dragged in Ernest Dickerson.

PE: For those of us who’ve never been asked to contribute to a project like this, what’s it like to record an audio commentary?

JS: Yet, we've never been asked YET.

PE: That's what I meant.

DJS: We usually recorded the tracks for two episodes per session — with onsite prep, a short break, and tail-end fixes, two hours becomes three. That was exhausting enough. Ordinarily, you get the world's biggest fan of some episode, and if they're not used to the rigors of commentary, they'll always fizzle out 20 minutes into a 50-minute track, and you have to know how to prompt them. Dead air is death. Guest celebrities almost never do their homework. As with Incubus, you'll find yourself sitting in a room with somebody who (a) has never seen the film, (b) hasn't seen it for 30 or more years, or (c) will waste time with: "Is this the scene where—? Oh, no, that's later." In this respect, Steve's commentary with Patricia Barry on "A Wig for Miss DeVore" is a minor miracle of deft editing.

We also did spot fixes, courtesy of our board guy, Brett. Repaired muffed lines and made the exits a little smoother. Unfortunately, we recorded a fix on "Premature Burial" that didn't make it in because we didn't splice it on the spot: Tim Lucas correcting his misspeak about CBS versus NBC.

JS: I know I'll never forgive him for it.

DJS: So each session was at least three hours, and that time had to be rigorously scheduled. We usually did them in the early morning, not the best time to be talking about Thriller. Thriller should be viewed — and discussed — in the dead of night.

For me, though, by the second recording session, we caught fire, and spilled over with ideas about what to do next. My first session was "Return of Andrew Bentley" and "Markesan". And that, presumably, was it. Then we got more time. By the second session, Steve was saying, "What other ones do you think would be good to do?"

PE: Were you assigned episodes for commentary, or did you get to choose the ones you wanted to do?

DJS: First in: Gary called and suggested "Markesan" and "Andrew Bentley", which we ripped on 15 October 2009.

The very next day, Tim Lucas arrived in LA — for three days only — and I knew Tim had reviewed the six episodes released on laserdisc for Video Watchdog about half a million years ago, so I bullied him into expanding his comments on "Premature Burial" and "The Grim Reaper". Then I further bullied him into spending the night at my house on October 18th, so we could stay up until 3:30 in the morning watching the episodes. Then we had, like, an 8:30 AM call to record the next day. We had to rendezvous with Steve (who had to get up earlier than anybody) at the Universal Red Line station for the long haul into Chatsworth, where Image was. That's an hour or more transpo each way, and it was all on Steve's back, because I don't drive, Tim doesn't, Larry Blamire doesn't, and neither does Gary Gerani. It was like a curse we inflicted on Steve.

By then we had a list of episodes up for grabs, and during the sessions at Image, we decided what we'd tackle next.

PE: Were there any episodes you'd have liked to add commentary to that were already taken?

DJS: Pretty early, I saw I could become Bob Bloch's avatar on the DVD set if I wanted to, and pushed that agenda just a teeny bit.

PE: You being the pre-eminent expert on all things Robert Bloch, that would make sense.

DJS: My original goal was to do 13 shows, which would have included most of the more significant Blochs. I wound up doing eleven — of those, three Bloch-o-centric episodes. I had full notes prepared for "Waxworks", for example. But studio time had been booked, and Gary and Steve had promised episodes to a few other players, and we ran out of our allotted time. I simply shuffled my Bloch notes and ported them into the episodes I did do.

PE: How did you talk big time Hollywood director and star Larry Blamire into contributing?

DJS: I'm so glad I thought to call Larry. My excuse was "Weird Westerns." Larry is a huge TV western fan and two Thrillers actually classified: "Til Death Do Us Part" and "The Hollow Watcher". Those used the standing western sets used by every other TV show during the TV western's heyday. In the midst of this, Larry mentioned that some of the often-overlooked crime shows were actually pretty damned good.

PE: So there is actually someone out there who thinks that?

JS: Perhaps he was referring to other crime shows, not Thriller... but seriously, we've even enjoyed a few of them.

DJS: I thought Steve's head would explode — "Thank Christ, somebody to talk about the crime shows!" Then we looked at "Til Death Do Us Part"... and there was just nothing there to talk about. The source story was three pages long. The show was all padding. It was painful, so we abandoned it after doing some hopeless prelim work. Larry is the guy who suggested us doing "The Storm", "Late Date", and "Man of Mystery". I was all over "Man of Mystery" because it was a chance to hit the Bloch button again. If we'd had more time it would have been fun to do "The Fatal Impulse" as well.

The process was evolutionary, and a lot like a treasure hunt — you never knew what might suddenly become important to do, like right now.

I had no overwhelming desire to do "Papa Benjamin", but I had a copy of Eugene Paul's book The Hungry Eye, about CBS in the 1960s, and it featured an entire chapter that was essentially "a day on the set of Thriller" — during the shooting of "Papa Benjamin". Not many people knew about it. I wrote up complete notes on the chapter and gave them to Steve, since Steve was due to get Ted Post.

JS: Well, folks know about it now, so Thriller fans had better grab one before those secondary market prices soar.

DJS: Steve and Gary had planned to do "Prisoner in the Mirror" but that never came to pass. Douglas Heyes, Jr. opted out of doing "The Hungry Glass". For my final session I had to pick between "Trio for Terror" and "Dark Legacy", and I picked "Trio". The Dan Benton interview was originally going to track onto "What Beckoning Ghost" (it wound up on "The Weird Tailor").

I was on tap to do a 2-fer on "Waxworks" and "The Weird Tailor "— Bloch, again — but by that time I was in danger of repeating material, unaware that some of it had already been repeated, or reiterated, by other people on other commentaries. No way to police that, when you're moving so fast. It would be instructive, though, to listen to the commentaries in the order they were recorded (maybe Steve remembers who-came-in-when-and-in-what-order). Because overall, you're getting a nice little nonphysical "book" on the entire shape of Thriller, much like Alan Warren's book, which nobody except me had a copy of. Lacking an actual documentary on DVD, the commentaries have to fill that gap.

PE: Which leads to my next question. I’ve read some moaning on the net about the lack of a “History of Thriller” doc.

DJS: So many of the Thriller people are no longer with us that a documentary per se would have been redundant — all you really have to fall back on is motion-control shots of stills, and talking heads. At which point fans start bitching about the redundancy.

PE: I've known you for a long time. One question keeps pounding through my brain. How could David J. Schow miss the opportunity of recording a commentary for "The Watcher"?

DJS: Believe it or don't, but I fought to do a commentary for "The Watcher". Strong opening — the drowning in the boat. From there, the first time we see Martin Gabel's face, the show is over. They gave him a Germanic name — "Frietag" (Friday), thereby invoking the ghosts of World War II oppression, but neglected to give him a first name — a dead giveaway in a show like this. He's supposed to be an "ordinary joe" — hence, "Joe Friday," kind of the serial killer antithesis of Jack Webb. Note how complacent and clueless the cops are. They haven't had an unsolved murder in years. They need more unsolved murders, hence, they need Frietag, see? Oh, who am I kidding? Getting from Act One to Act Four is like staring into the abyss and having the abyss not stare back. You should call your review of this "Worse Than Worse Than Murder."

PE: Before we let you go, it's only fair that we subject you to our questionnaire.

What's your favorite Thriller?

DJS: I think I said "Well of Doom" was my favorite on the commentary (I take you to mean personal favorite, while not really representative of the best the show has to offer).

My “other favorite Thriller” has the unique distinction of not being a Thriller: “The Guests,” from The Outer Limits, written by Thriller main man Donald Sanford — very much like a Thriller with an Outer Limits gargoyle attached, and the closest thing to a “lost” Thriller we’ll ever get... in case 67 episodes ain't enough for you.

PE: What aspect of Thriller turns you on?

DJS: Anything Old Dark House-y. Cobwebs, staircases, fog.

PE: What aspect of Thriller turns you off?

DJS: The looming shadow of Hitchcock, the Phantom Destroyer of Thriller.

PE: What word best describes Thriller for you?

DJS: If not "gothic," then "Weird Tales TV," which isn't a word, but you get my meaning.

PE: If Hell exists, what episode of Thriller would you expect to see shown on a continuous loop to people who arrive at the fiery gates?

DJS: I admit I still haven't seen them all. I expect it would be a lesser show from the end of the second season. In the beginning, as dire as those episodes were, they were trying things, spending money, and seeking an identity. By the end, when the plugs had been pulled, it's always a lot more depressing. If I pick one now, I'll find another that's a lot worse. So for now I’ll pick “The Guilty Men”... because it’s not only terrible, but worse, utterly inappropriate to either the crime or horror covenants of Thriller.

JS: Don't forget to check out David's commentary tracks on"Well of Doom," "Trio for Terror," "Late Date," "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," "The Grim Reaper," "The Premature Burial," "The Return of Andrew Bentley," "The Storm," "The Hollow Watcher," "Incredible Doctor Markesan," and "Man of Mystery."

Remember, this is our second post of the day. You won't want to miss our review of "The Hungry Glass," and if you didn't see it yesterday, we released our exclusive audio commentary track for "The Fatal Impulse!"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tip on the book THE HUNGRY EYE by Eugene Paul. I just ordered a copy and plenty more are available on www.abebooks.com for less than $10.