Son of cult filmmaker Larry Buchanan, Jeff Buchanan, talks with TV STORE ONLINE about Larry Buchanan's late period films about Marilyn Monroe...
TV STORE ONLINE: Where did the idea come from for Larry to do a remake of his own GOODBYE NORMA JEAN (1976) as GOODNIGHT, SWEET MARILYN (1989)?
JEFF BUCHANAN: Well, he had a bunch of outtakes in his possession from NORMA JEAN. My dad was a big conspiracy theorist. He was always reading about conspiracy theories associated with Marilyn Monroe to Jimi Hendrix to John F. Kennedy. That's how DOWN ON US (1989) came about more or less as well... Someone actually wrote an article about the possibility of Marilyn Monroe being killed via a suppository and how it couldn't be picked up via an autopsy. This was after GOODNIGHT, SWEET MARILYN. I thought that it was just one of my Dad's wild ideas at the time that we were making the film.... My dad had a loose connection with a guy named Mark Felt at one time. Mark Felt was very high up in the F.B.I... My dad came to me once and said, "I have a funny feeling that Mark Felt was Deep Throat...." Yet again, I thought that it was just another one of my dad's funny ideas, but then my dad passed away and not long after that--Mark Felt went public and told everyone that he was in fact "Deep Throat" during the Watergate scandal.
When my dad made DOWN ON US aka BEYOND THE DOORS (1989), he theorized that it was Richard Nixon who had Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin silenced. Nixon called them "The Pied-Pipers Of Rock-N-Roll"... My dad theorized that Nixon had them silenced out of fear that Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin could have influenced the vote because they had just lowered the voting age to eighteen-years-old.
Again, I thought that this was just one of my dad's wild ideas. Then they released the Nixon files to the public and inside his papers were something like eighteen-thousand pages dedicated to Hendrix alone.
My dad had always been fascinated with Marilyn Monroe; her stardom, her celebrity, and her death-- years prior when he was in Texas he had met a guy who he referred to as "Mesquite". I don't know what the gentleman's real name was, but it's my understanding--and it's the way that it happens in dad's film--the death of Marilyn was a mercy killing. Marilyn was afraid of going nuts as her mother had. My dad--in typical Larry Buchanan fashion--thought, "Okay, I have these outtakes..Let's do a wrap-around." Basically he scripted out the contemporary scenes and we shot for a few weeks with Paula Lane, and then he went to work and edited in his outtakes from GOODBYE NORMA JEAN.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you think that Larry considered the "Mesquite" character in GOODBYE NORMA JEAN as a metaphor for death itself? It's interesting...During the final season of the NBC television series Quantum Leap--they did a very similar story line with their take on the Marilyn Monroe/Mesquite relationship....Suggesting a relationship that Marilyn had with her supposed bodyguard/close confident in the final days of her life....
BUCHANAN: Well dad had actually met this "Mesquite" guy in person. My dad was always really great about not revealing his sources. He didn't even tell me who the guy was. But he had gotten enough information from this guy--where he went and started doing a lot of his own research on Monroe's death. He looked at the autopsy results. He read everything that he could get his hands on. My dad was never up front with me regarding whether he actually believed the possibilities of the story for the film. The same thing goes with my dad about his research and ideas into the Kennedy assassination. I'm not sure that he saw the "Mesquite" character as a metaphor--as a sort of grim reaper, but again, he's not here-- but if he was--maybe he'd confer with you.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to the Misty Rowe footage from GOODBYE NORMA JEAN (1976)...There's that line where Misty Rowe as Marilyn says, "Is it possible for a girl to want something so much that she'll die for it?" Do you think that Larry supported that notion? That Marilyn had this sort of unconscious desire for immortality?
BUCHANAN: That's a tough question. I think that my dad felt for Marilyn Monroe. I think he understood her. The ironic thing about Marilyn Monroe is that she struggled for so long with the notion that she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress in Hollywood. Then, THE MISFITS (1960) comes along for her and after that---she was considered a serious actress. It doesn't seem like she knew what to do with that once she had obtained it. My dad was always fascinated with the last few photo shoots that Marilyn Monroe did as well. He used to say that he thought that by looking at those photos of yourself -- she understood that she was getting older. My dad was so obsessed with making films, but at the same time he did it with such a light air. He took a very Don Quixote approach to filmmaking. He took the film medium very seriously, but when things didn't work out he'd just sort of laugh it off. I think that he had an empathy for Marilyn.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you find Paula Lane for the film?
BUCHANAN: Well, we were in Monterey at the time prepping the film, and someone told him about her. He had been looking for look-a-likes. He flew out to Las Vegas to see a show with her at a casino, because she did have a background as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. He came back and said, "We've found her! We've found our Marilyn." We brought her here and we shot with her for two weeks.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've seen the photos that have been published over the years...The macabre photos of her bedroom where her body was found...The bedroom is impressively re-created in the film....
BUCHANAN: The Art Director definitely studied those photos. Her name was C. Cracko. She took it all very seriously. She found all the right curtains and that lamp.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love the opening sequence in the film...Of Paula Lane singing into the camera wearing that white SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1952) Marilyn Monroe dress...The film has a dream like quality...Did Larry ever talk with you about visual approach to cinema?
BUCHANAN: Not really. On the films that I worked with him on I would try to push him to get more from his Director Of Photography or Art Director. My dad knew about every aspect of film production. It never ceased to amaze me. Because my dad worked so fast. He would take a Director Of Photography aside and said,"Look, I'm not trying to step on any toes..But we don't need this, or this, or this. We just need to shoot at this f/stop from this angle." And it always turned out exactly the way he had planned it.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of the more artistic choices in GOODNIGHT, SWEET MARILYN is how the film is set across the 1950's and '60s, yet there is a use of '70s and '80s rock music throughout...
BUCHANAN: He had funny instincts about his work. I remember once there was a funeral scene that he was shooting in one of his earlier films and he put a rock-n-roll song in the background of the scene and a French critic saw it and said it was brilliant. He never waxed philosophical about his films. He went by instinct. He did have very clear ideas on the nature of film editing. He went into the editing of his films with very clear ideas. He'd say, "Look, this isn't a film that we have to worry about box office receipts on..We can do whatever we want here..." The music he used often times came out of his budget on his films. The music that he used might not have been what he had really wanted to use per say, but he used certain music (s) because it was all he could afford on the budget.
My dad always had a list of ideas or films that he wanted to make--films that he could never get off the ground. At the end of his life--his promise to me was that he was going to open up his shooting schedule and take some time to really work with the actors like he hadn't been able to prior. I was asking him to take his time and set up a dolly shot that he had wanted to do but never really attempted before out of time restraints and budget. I mean, almost all of his films were shot in two-three week periods. Most of his films...They would shoot six pages a day on them!
TV STORE ONLINE: The end sequence in GOODNIGHT, SWEET MARILYN....There's that candid conversation and sex scene with Paula Lane as Marilyn and the masseuse....Lane as Marilyn says, "I'm the greatest sex symbol of all time...but no one has seen me on the screen in any of my films this intimately..." Do you think that Larry approached his films with the understanding that there needed to be a mix of melodrama and exploitation?
BUCHANAN: One thing that my dad was a fan of was the old movies from the '40s and the power of the screen kiss...He used to talk at times about some of the sex symbols of the '40s and '50s and how they had such an incredible sex appeal that it wasn't necessary for them to do any nude scenes. I think that he understood that the times that had changed but he approached it all with a certain class.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you think that Larry's first Marilyn film--GOODBYE NORMA JEAN--just came to fruition out of his fascination with her?
BUCHANAN: Yes, I think so. He talked about how he had met her a couple times during his early days in Hollywood. He had met her when she wasn't yet the star that she became. I got mad at my dad while he was shooting that film because I was in high school at the time and I was begging him to allow me to come and visit. I wanted to be a part of it and he wouldn't let me. I don't have any stories about the production because I wasn't there for the shooting, but I remember that when it was finished my dad took the film to the Cannes Film Festival and screened it. It did very well there and Misty Rowe, who played Marilyn in the film, went with him and she walked up and down the Croisette dressed as Marilyn Monroe. My mom went too that year, and she's told me since that the paparazzi was so enamored with Misty as Marilyn that they weren't paying attention to the big Hollywood stars that were there.
When GOODBYE NORMA JEAN came out...Playboy Magazine listed it as one of the worst films of 1976 and someone sent a copy of the issue to my dad. He flipped to the mention and then threw it onto a coffee table. I picked it up, read it and said, "Dad? Doesn't this make you upset?" He said, "Why would it make me upset?" I responded with, "Because they're saying that GOODBYE NORMA JEAN is one of the Ten Worst Films of the Year..." He said, "Jeff, take a look at the other nine films in that list. Each of those films were big Hollywood productions with major stars. If they knew what we spent on our film--they would be embarrassed that they even looked at it..." He always said that he made films for the budgets of the catering on any of those major Hollywood movies. He thought that it was great that they were just talking about his film.
When Elton John released his song 'Goodbye Norma Jean'--it really helped the film. But, interestingly, my dad had never picked the title for the film because of that song. It was an interesting coincidence.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love that "Wammo Ammo" musical montage that we see in variations in both GOODBYE NORMA JEAN and GOODNIGHT, SWEET MARILYN...
BUCHANAN: I know. I believe that was shot by Nick von Sternberg, who was the son of Joseph von Sternberg...He shot a few films for my dad.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of the things that I admire about both of Larry's Marilyn films...And maybe it's my sole observation...But when you watch either of the films--it seems like all of the actors with the exception of Misty Rowe as Marilyn look like one another. It's as if Larry did that so the audience would get a unconscious message that Marilyn was so much of a beauty that she eclipsed all others around her...
BUCHANAN: It's a interesting observation..If my dad was here--he'd tell you if he intended that or not. He was so sly about those types of things... You never knew if he was pulling your leg or not.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was Larry's approach to casting? He seemed to have a stable of actors that he liked to work with...
BUCHANAN: Certainly. He liked to work with Stuart Lancaster and Garth Pillsbury of Russ Meyer infamy...He would go out to see actors in plays hoping to find new talent. With GOODBYE NORMA JEAN--the hunt for Marilyn was long. My dad agonized over it. I think they even held a beauty pageant in a attempt to find someone to play Marilyn. I can't remember exactly how Misty Rowe came to my dad's attention---but I do remember that he was at the same time--talking to another actress as well. My dad used to joke that if you walked through the front door you were pretty much cast in one of his movies... He just had that sensibility about him.
I remember, I helped my dad edit STRAWBERRIES NEED RAIN (1970) together. He came back from shooting the film in Texas and we blacked out all of the windows in the house and we put a Movieola in the living room and we started cutting the film together. We always worked that way.
Growing up, I thought that this was how you made movies. I didn't know as a kid that there were editing facilities. I didn't know that there were places you could go to record Foley effects. My dad and I would just go out into the garage with a list of sounds that we needed to re-produce and record. They didn't always sound the best but they worked. Sometimes they worked better than any of the Foley effects you'd hear in big budget films. Someone once said of my dad's films, "Larry Buchanan's films are so bad that a kind of grandeur seeps into them..." It's kind of true. People would be alarmed if they knew some of the budgets that my dad had to work with.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung