Paul Apel, on Ed Wood's I Watched Football the Day I Died
1.) Why did Ed Wood, an infamously low-quality director, inspire you to become a leading authority on his life and work?
It all started with the Tim Burton movie, Ed Wood. As a teenager I was interested in old horror movies, both the classics and the duds. When I saw that one of my favorite directors was making a modern black-and-white movie with Bela Lugosi as a major character, I was instantly enthralled. I loved the portrayal of Ed Wood, an eternally optimistic dreamer who made movies no matter what stood in his way, with a slap-dash approach and “good enough” attitude. He reminded me of myself. Then I read Rudolph Grey’s biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, and it revealed there was a whole lot more to Wood than the movie suggested.
2.) The script at the core of this book was considered "lost". Explain the steps you took to locate and retrieve this missing piece.
It wasn’t lost so much as no one bothered to go get it. I didn’t know about the script until I saw a blog post by Greg Javer, who wrote the introduction to this book. The blog post casually mentioned this screenplay was sitting in the archives at Loyola Marymount University. It blew my mind that no one had ever asked to read it, or if they had, never posted their findings anywhere. No documentary or book I had seen on Wood had ever gone into it at all. Because of CODIV-19 lockdowns I couldn’t travel to LMU to visit the archives in person, so I reached out via e-mail and was able to research it online.
3.) What will long-time Ed Wood fans find surprising in this book?
I think the most surprising thing is that Ed Wood wrote this screenplay at all. The only mentions of football in popular books or documentaries on Wood are either that he hated it, or that he happened to be watching it when he died. The assumption is this screenplay was simply a work for hire – the man who wrote the book it was based on wanted a screen adaptation, so Wood dashed it off in a couple days for a couple hundred bucks. However, the second most surprising thing I found while reading the screenplay is that Wood must have gotten elements of it from research or knowledge outside of the book he was adapting. This means he didn’t just do a bare minimum adaptation, and that he may have had more knowledge of the sport than previously assumed. He put some work and thought into this.
4.) Now that you've fully analyzed this missing script, has it changed or expanded your thoughts on Ed Wood and his body of work?
Yes and no. On one hand it is tempting to think of Wood’s work, especially his later work, as alcohol-fueled stream of consciousness stuff that he pounded out and moved on without thinking twice. On the other hand, it’s well-known that Wood took pride in his work. It’s also comforting to see proof of that in the text, that Wood did have a side of himself that honestly wanted to try. That’s part of what makes him so endearing.
5.) As an Ed Wood expert, what is one thing you wish the general public understood about the notorious director?
Here is a man with no resources, no connections and mediocre talent who not only put together productions on 35mm film at a time when the studio system had a stranglehold on Hollywood, but also finished them and released them in movie theaters. Yes, you can laugh at their ineptitude, but that doesn’t change the fact that Wood willed these films into existence against almost insurmountable odds. Moreover, while his cross-dressing is often viewed as part of the punch line of his existence, viewed in the proper context, we now have essentially a counterculture, minority voice, producing independent films at a time when this was very rare.
6.) Is there anything Frank Leahy fans or football fans in general could learn from this work?
There’s an interesting push-and-pull here between the legend of Leahy and the fact of Leahy. The book and screenplay want us to revere Leahy as a legendary winner, but also celebrate some of his under-handed tactics, like how Frank exploits loopholes in rules and systems to win at all costs. Ultimately it comes down to values – if winning is indeed the only thing that matters, Leahy’s your guy. If sportsmanship is important to you, maybe not. Though, it should be noted, I’m not a huge sports fan, so I might be viewing it from a skewed perspective.
7.) Which Ed Wood film would you recommend to someone who has never seen his movies? And is there anything you would tell them to help them appreciate the movie better?
The easy answer is Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood’s most famous film. However, I would recommend Glen or Glenda. This film is more personal to Wood’s experience, with its semi-autobiographical look into what it was like to be a man who wanted to dress in women’s clothing back in the 50s. Sure, the movie is dated, and can ironically and cynically be viewed as a joke, but at its heart it is an unironic and earnest plea for tolerance, which is remarkable for the time in which it was made, and in some ways it is more relevant than ever, as anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric and persecution grows across the U.S.
8.) How has streaming affected the Ed Wood catalogue?
Wood’s films are more widely available than ever thanks to the services that feature user-generated content, like YouTube and various pornography streaming websites, where most (maybe all?) of the known Ed Wood films can be streamed, legally or not. Since Wood’s films were independent and distributed by very small, now-defunct companies, questions abound about who owns what. This means the films are not under the umbrella of any reputable streaming service, and even if they were proven to be in the public domain, most of the big services would have no vested interest or incentive to stream them. As for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, it is an (unjustly?) R-rated film from a subsidiary of Disney, so will likely never be featured on a family-friendly subscription service like Disney+, though you can pay to rent it or buy it via various sites.
9.) This is your first non-fiction book. What was the most surprising thing you learned while working on it?
The internet has made research very easy. You no longer have to pore over books, take notes, and organize things before you start writing. Now if you don’t know a detail, you can immediately look it up and find something interesting to include in your work – rather than relying on second-hand descriptions and potentially repeating half-truths, misconceptions or legends as fact. The downside of this is you may not retain a lot of this stuff in your head. If you do laborious research and take notes, you internalize it. If you look up quick facts as you’re writing, you might forget them as soon as you put them down on paper.
10.) What can aspiring filmmakers learn from Ed Wood's body of work?
The most important lesson to learn from Ed Wood is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Don’t accept “no” for an answer and don’t listen to any of the excuses in your head. These days you can make a movie with your phone, so if Ed Wood could do it in the 50s, there is absolutely no reason you can’t do it now. You might argue even if it’s so easy, no one will ever see it, or want to see it, or it’ll never be a success or popular. But as Ed Wood proves, even the least likely stuff can gain a following and endure in unexpected ways.