By Jonathan Marlow
Arianné Ulmer Cipes has worked ceaselessly to preserve the legacy of her father, the great "King of the B's," Edgar G. Ulmer. In April, the San Francisco International Film Festival screened a documentary she produced, Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen. Directed by Michael Palm, the film has an Ulmer-like running time of 77 minutes and Ulmer-like production values, using fog and rear projection, deceptively creating something out of practically nothing. Soon after that screening, Jonathan Marlow spoke with her about its making and her father's continent-hopping, genre-busting, era-bridging career.
How did you first connect with Michael Palm, the director of Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen?
Two years ago, I did a retrospective in Vienna together with the Museum there. The screenings were jammed, which amazed me. Why would they be jammed? Why would people in Vienna be watching these pictures? One day, I'm coming out of one of the screenings and I see three very tall guys. Now when I say "tall," I mean "basketball tall," 7'5" or something like that. Michael was the smallest of them. What they wanted to know was whether I was willing to do an interview in Los Angeles when they came here to shoot the documentary, Calling Hedy Lamarr, which they were working on at the time. I said, "Sure, you can interview me. I'm a cheap date. Buy me dinner!"
Hedy had appeared in one of your father's films, The Strange Woman...
Later, he said, "Listen, a thought is dawning on me. Can we have breakfast tomorrow morning?" So we had breakfast, all three of us, together, and he said, "Have you ever thought about doing a documentary on your father?" I said, "Yes, I've thought about it and I've tried to do it for ten years, but I can't get the money together. I've got the money that I originally have from the BBC but it's not enough." I needed the two legs to stand up the three-legged stool. Every time I'd get two up, the third one fell out. I'd done a lot of research, I had a lot of material, a lot of masters. I'd mastered a lot of material of my father, and I knew that it wouldn't cost that much to get the clips because a lot of them are in public domain.
Lugosi and Karloff
face off in The Black Cat
I went first for The Black Cat, since I knew it was essential. There's no way you're going to make anything about Ulmer without The Black Cat. The first thing I had to do was see if Universal would give me the rights to the clips. If that was going to cost me a fortune, I'd be out of business. It could be financially an impossibility, aside from the fact that I wanted to incorporate ten to twelve other films in the documentary. This could cost you millions, millions, millions, if they want $300,000 or $30,000 a minute of a clip. Well, I ran into luck at Universal. There were people at Universal that knew me and they gave me a "favored nations" status, meaning that they would only charge me what it would cost them to make the clips as long as nobody else was paid. That is how it was done.
The Black Cat is perhaps one of the most revolutionary studio films ever made; not only that [Boris] Karloff and [Bela] Lugosi shared the screen, which is usually why people seek it out, but then they are surprised by how fascinatingly well-photographed and how beautifully directed it is. You would think, with a film that fantastic, the other studios would have sought Ulmer out. Obviously, later on he'd work again for the studios. One has to wonder why Universal, which has released a number of their classic horror titles, has resisted putting The Black Cat out on disc...
I have no idea. Since we've sold the documentary to Kino, they're looking to release other Ulmer films. We're doing a 25-picture retrospective in July, along with the documentary, in New York in order to get the review in the New York Times. Then, they're trying to grab hold of the DVD rights of the better films that have been held back.
Kino has previously released Carnegie Hall, for instance...
If they can package it with strong Ulmer films, it will come out as something much more. Of course, this is all in the formative stage. I haven't finished the other story. I went to the breakfast with this guy, I told him all this stuff and the next thing I know, he says, "Oh, I know how to finance this! There is no difficulty whatsoever. I've done it with Hedy. We do the same formula that we did with Calling Hedy Lamarr to produce this film." This is an Austrian that went to Hollywood, so we get the Austrian money. We have to do the post-production in Vienna and give work to the Viennese so we get the money from Vienna. He put that all together and I went with Turner Classic Movies, who'd been sitting there waiting for a long time to do something with me. Always had said, if I could get some financing, a matching sum, they would come up with their money and they would put the money up-front. All of it. It's an amazing story. Doesn't happen, these kinds of things.
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