When Conor Timmis sent me a screener copy of his marvellous monster homage Kreating Karloff, I knew that I needed to find out more about this ambitious and talented young man and his remarkable film. This e-mail interview was done in February 2007.
How long have you been a Karloff fan and what is it about him that particularly fascinates you?
“I have been a Karloff fan since childhood thanks to my father. He rented The Mummy from the local library one night saying it was his favourite scary movie as a kid. Karloff's amazing performance as Ardath Bey inspired me to become an actor. What particularly fascinates me about Boris is his spirit and almost superhuman perseverance. This was a guy who came to Canada at age 21 without a cent in his pocket, doing backbreaking manual labour and bit parts in silent films and theatrical productions until getting his big break at age 44 with Frankenstein. Over 20 years of starving and struggle. Any other actor would have thrown in the towel long before then! Boris really was the ‘American Dream’, the self made man so to speak. Whenever I’m feeling down about the progress of my own acting career, I just remember what Boris went through and think, ‘Shit, I got it easy!’”
Where did the idea for Kreating Karloff come from, and how has the project changed on the route from the initial idea to the finished film?
“As an actor I've always dreamed of playing Karloff in a biopic. Pitching a Karloff biopic was something I thought I’d do if I ever ‘made it’ as an actor. In fact, when I interviewed/tested at Warner Brothers for the role of Superman/Clark Kent in Superman Returns, the main thing on my mind besides the extreme excitement and nervousness was: ‘If I land this role, I’m gonna use the fame and money to jump start a Karloff biopic.’ That would have been a bizarre turn in retrospect, had I got the part, to go from Superman to Karloff. It's quite good for a laugh!
“The actual idea for pitching a Karloff biopic came from watching a documentary about the making of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Director Rob Cohen sold Universal on his idea of doing a Lee bio-film by showing them an elaborate screen test he made. The test looked like a scene from The Chinese Connection or Enter the Dragon: full costumes and a cool set, looked just like a movie. I thought to myself: ‘That's it! Why not do the same thing for Boris, recreating scenes from The Mummy and Frankenstein with full make-up, costumes and classic horror film sets?’ Since Universal is only gonna give a damn about the monsters - particularly two of their biggest franchise characters - I thought that was the best way to go. I had also wanted to do a straight Karloff make-up, making me look like Boris in his mid-thirties for a mock interview scene, but I just didn't have the money. It's my only real regret.
“Originally the plan was to shoot all the Mummy scenes in Yale University's Ancient Egypt exhibit. Yale was excited by the idea and very helpful. Unfortunately they gave me the ‘Jerry Bruckheimer’ treatment with the cost estimate and I had to look elsewhere. The initial plan for Frankenstein was to recreate the famous scene of the monster tossing Maria into the lake. With the unpredictable Connecticut weather and the various problems of shooting outdoors I had to scrub that idea.
“The biggest influence on my own acting style besides Boris is Patrick McGoohan. Another dream of mine was to play opposite McGoohan in a film or theatre production. I thought and still think he would make a tremendous Dr Muller in the Mummy scenes I wanted to recreate. A complete long shot, but what the hell. So anyways, I left him a rambling voice mail begging him to come out of retirement for my little film, not expecting him to ever call back mind you! So two weeks later I’m driving home and an LA area number calls my cell phone. I say hello and McGoohan’s unmistakable voice says in a slight Irish brogue, ‘Is Conor there?’ I almost drove off the road! I was stunned, speechless. I never expected him to return my phone call.
“He said, ‘How can I help you son?’, I then proceeded to babble incoherently about a Boris Karloff screen test, Yale, him playing opposite my Ardath Bey, mummies, monsters etc. - it must have sounded like total bullshit to him! He was then completely silent for about 10 seconds. I thought oh no, he's gonna unleash a Number Six-style tirade on me for wasting his time! Instead he laughed really hard and said, ‘Conor, I don't do that stuff anymore, I've been retired for six years!’ He told me to keep at it, never give up and to ‘Stick with it Baby!’ I thanked him for his time and that was it. It’s a really good memory that will last a lifetime. I actually called him two weeks ago to get coffee since I’m living in LA now, but he is sadly not in good health. He did say when he felt better we'd meet up. It would be awesome to meet him. I do realise I’m a lucky bastard to even speak with him on the phone.
“I found Dr Muller in Ed Wilhelms. Ed is a very accomplished staged actor and played my father in a community theatre production of Come Blow Your Horn. I said to him, ‘Hey, McGoohan said no - so I think you’re the next best choice.’ He laughed hard and agreed to take on the role despite having to say cheesy lines from The Mummy. Our first rehearsal was a hoot, it’s kinda hard keeping a straight face exchanging dialogue from The Mummy without make-up and costumes.”
Why did you select those particular scenes from Frankenstein and The Mummy?
“I wanted scenes that would be simple to set up and would be inexpensive to recreate on my tiny budget. To firmly establish in this screen test that I could speak and sound like Karloff, I chose scenes from The Mummy that were dialogue heavy with very little motion: the confrontation between Ardath Bey and Dr Muller, Ardath and Helen's conversation by the Mummy's psychic pool etc. The Mummy's lair was able to double for Sir Joseph Whemple's living room with a few props. I could only afford to have two sets built, one set for The Mummy and one dungeon set for Frankenstein.”
How did you go about assembling your cast and crew?
“Well, to begin with... I only had $4,000. By taking on crushing, unsecured personal loans I was able to bring the budget up to $20,000. It was a miracle really, to get a Hollywood cast/crew, studio rental and the best equipment money can buy on a very humble budget. I was working at Starbucks at the time, mind you. The project started and became a reality thanks to make-up effects master Norman Bryn. I knew starting off that in order to make the film I would need the best make-up artist in the world. Amazingly he lived only an hour away in Cos Cob, Connecticut. Norman Bryn is not only a Hollywood and Saturday Night Live make-up ace, he is also the world's foremost expert on the likeness of Boris Karloff. He is also an expert on Jack Pierce and one of Sara Karloff's most trusted friends. In a word... perfect.
“I just called him up and said I have a dream to make an elaborate Karloff screen test and hopefully pitch a biopic someday and you are the only man for the job. I completely expected him to hang up and say ‘sorry kid’. Instead he expressed great interest and boom, we were in pre-production. Had he said no, my film would have never have gotten beyond a daydream. Having Norm involved brought enormous credibility to my project and made getting other professionals on board a lot easier. Norm brought onboard his childhood friend and acclaimed cinematographer Scott Sniffen, who shot the B&W scenes on his Sony Cinealta F-900 camera. Sniffen was also kind enough to bring along union gaffers and grips to assist him at a very small cost to me.
“The next big score was involving actress Liesl Ehardt. I was surfing the web one night; I think I typed ‘mummy 1932’ into Google or something like that. One of the first sites that popped up was a Zita Johann tribute page. Scrolling down the page, I saw a cool picture morph of a beautiful, young, blonde woman ‘morphing’ seamlessly into Zita Johann. Reading on, I learned this young woman was the webmaster, an actress, and a cousin of Zita Johann! I said to myself, I must get her for Kreating Karloff. How cool would it be for the fans to see a cousin and dead-ringer of Zita Johann playing opposite my Ardath Bey? I e-mailed her and she was thrilled to have the opportunity to portray a legendary family member she idolised as an actress. She did an amazing job! I really think she's gonna be a star.
“To help me produce and organise this behemoth I needed someone I could trust who had a great love for classic monsters. I was introduced to a teacher at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor, Connecticut who teaches a ‘Universal monsters’ unit to his 7th graders every year. He shows them all the classics: Mummy, Frank, Drac etc. The kids then write essays and enthusiastic letters to Sara Karloff, Bela Lugosi Jr and Ron Chaney. Rick Broderick is a good friend of Sara's and has her visit the school almost every year to talk to younger generations about her father. It's really a big hit, the kids love Sara. At the time I needed someone to play Sir Joseph Whemple so I offered him the role and he gladly accepted the chance to recreate scenes from The Mummy. He became my point man throughout the production, driving actors and crew around, keeping Sara constantly updated, providing his posters and sideshow toys for props in the film, and most importantly, being a trusted friend I could rely on.
“The hardest job of all fell on my best friend, filmmaker Vatche Arabian: to try and make my eccentric Karloff project into an entertaining and coherent documentary. I met Vatche back in 2004 when he directed me as the infamous John Wilkes Booth in a short student film called Booth which was a depiction of the final hours of the pursuit and capture of JWB. Considering he was 19 years old, working with only $5,000, he did a damn good job. After Booth his editing/directing skills exploded. A jump in talent I've never seen before. He started an IPTV website called itsmyremote.com featuring his weekly Truman Show-style podcast Hello Simon. Developing quite a following, he started adding short films and podcasts from young filmmakers all over New England. I wanted the person who directed Kreating Karloff to have ambition, fire and a drive to make a film that young people would dig and long time fans would enjoy. It was a neat thing to have two film crews on set: hungry young filmmakers shooting the interviews and behind the scenes, with Sniffen's crack union crew shooting the B&W monster scenes. They had enormous respect and admiration for each other.
“I had the immense honour and good fortune of having the writing talents of Steve Vertlieb and Scott Allen Nollen on this film. Whether it was drafting mini Karloff bios, writing press releases or providing commentary, they really added tremendous credibility and passion to the project.”
To what extent is this a call to arms for Hollywood to make a Karloff biopic and to what extent is this a calling card for your own talents and skills?
“The main goal is to someday pitch a Karloff biopic in which I would play Boris. I do have a treatment written by Karloff's premier biographer, Scott Allen Nollen. Vatche Arabian is also writing one. All of this is a huge long shot, but it’s great fun.
“But yeah, it’s obviously a great reel/calling card for me as an actor moving to LA. I’m really excited to start mailing it to casting directors and agents. Let’s face it, the average actor has some pretty boy, soap opera shit on his reel. To have an acting reel with recreated scenes from The Mummy and Frankenstein is cool.”
What’s next for you?
“In October 2006 I did a spoof of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton in 9:04 am, an indie comedy shot in West Palm Beach, Florida directed by Heath McKnight. This week I played James Bond/Danger Man in a music video called ‘Dragon Fly’ produced by Scott Essman. [Essman recreated Frankenstein and the Mummy himself in his 2002 documentary/stage production Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters - MJS] It will be on-line in a month or two. You will be able to watch it on YouTube and other websites. This summer I will play one of the Jack Pierce-style, silver-skinned, black-eyed robots in Humanoids, Scott Essman’s big remake of the intelligent sci-fi classic Creation of the Humanoids. If Mr Essman gets the ‘greenlight’ from Universal, I will reprise my role as the Karloff Ardath Bey - and possibly Imhotep - for the Mummy 75th bonus disc DVD. The studio has put Mummy 75th on hold right now, so we shall see. To quickly highlight some of the bonus content planned:
“1. A proper Boris Karloff documentary.
“I’ve contacted Mark Redfield and will hopefully have the honour of acting with him in his next two films, The Madness of Frankenstein and The Crimes of Sherlock Holmes. I will have a role in the film 3 Geeks, a popular graphic novel/comic book shooting in South Florida in spring 2008, directed by Heath McKnight. Kreating Karloff is online for free download on itsmyremote.com and has been nominated for a 2007 Rondo Award. I did a brief interview for SFX magazine which will appear in the March 2007 issue.
“Otherwise, I’m still paying my dues working at a coffee shop, and looking for the next acting gig.”