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Interviews
"Stand By For Mars!"
Interviews


Not an Alfred Hitchcock, but fun

Bill Warren is the author of the seminal study of 1950s science fiction movies, Keep Watching the Skies. Originally published by McFarland in two volumes, later reprinted in one humongous paper back version, and has now been re-printed again - as well as updated, with lots of photos added.

Bill was kind enough to give an interview to The Thunder Child, in the guise of Matt Sanborn. Thanks, Bill! And Matt!

Photos of Bill are by Sandy Cohen

Keep Watching the Skies

Matt Sanborn Interviews Bill Warren

Give us a little background of your upbringing and your memories of the fifties. I was the eldest child in a family of four, with a sister six years younger. I was born in 1943, so the 1950s basically included all my childhood years. We lived in Gardiner, a small town on the Oregon coast (pop. 500; it's still about that size) that depended almost entirely on the lumber industry; there was a lumber mill in town and, later, a plywood plant and a paper mill; I worked at all of them in summer jobs, but all are closed now. I was a pretty smart kid and read a great deal, particularly after I had to start wearing glasses, which pretty much cut me out of most strenuous activities if, by nothing else, ensuring I was always the last one chosen when sports teams were selected. My friends were limited to just who was in town about my age; some of the kids were more my enemies than my friends, but I had to play with them anyway--there wasn't anyone else available. One guy, though, became my good friend early on and remains so even today.

My mother was an inveterate moviegoer and took me along; by the time I was six or seven, though, it was her habit to drop me off at the Pacific theater in neighboring Reedsport for Saturday matinees. I soon became fascinated by science fiction and horror comic books; my mother didn't like my reading the horror comics, so I sneaked out to a neighbor kid's house to read them. This pretty much coincided with the advent of science fiction movies as a discernible, identifiable genre; I sucked those up, too, or as many as I could talk my mom into taking me to. That was basically most of those that played in Reedsport (some never played there), though she balked at a trip to The Thing; she knew it was really a horror movie. She thought science fiction movies might have some educational value, but having been scared out of her socks when she saw Frankenstein in 1933, she drew the line at horror.

Eventually, I managed to arrange my mother's trips to North Bend/Coos Bay, 30 miles down Highway 101, with double features of SF movies at the Port or Egyptian theaters. In high school, I met Richard North, a senior when I was a freshman, and he wanted to see all these movies, too.

Because of the way movies were then released, all films in Oregon first opened at theaters in Portland, then gradually spread to outlying areas. We got new Portland newspapers, so I saw lots of ads for movies that hadn't gotten to our area yet. Also, when we vacationed in California in 1954 and again in 1958, I was able to see SF movies when they were brand-new, well before they got down to the likes of Reedsport. The ads, the slowness of arrival, my mother's hesitancy to let me see some of these--all these made these movies semi-forbidden fruit, and that much more desirable.

I was also a fan of movies in general, first mostly Westerns (preferably with Roy Rogers), then movies in general, especially musicals--I was around for the last big gasp of MGM musicals.

When I moved to Eugene for college, I had a bike, and managed to get to every horror movie (SF movies then a little scarce) anywhere near me.

Being inside the 1950s, as it were, I couldn't really observe the 1950s; at times, it seemed as though I was still living in the 1940s. No TV, our favorite games being something like Bombs Away Over Tokyo, no dial phones yet (crank phones; our number was 7R14), serials every Saturday, that sort of thing. At the time, I wasn't yet sophisticated enough to take note of the trends going on around me, except for very obvious, all-encompassing fads like the Davy Crockett craze and later Hula Hoops (my sister could hula a hoop with the best of them; I couldn't do a damned thing with one, other than to roll it--which takes us back to the hoops kids played with at the turn of the 20th century). But I also resisted things like rock 'n' roll, partly because a song like "Hound Dog" just seemed silly to me, partly because the kids who picked on me were into it. I became a major fan of contemporary folk music as embodied by the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters and the Brothers Four. I still am a fan of that stuff.

A lot of us have this romantic, idyllic vision of the 1950s. Perhaps some of these movies give that to those of us who weren’t alive then. However, do you think these films were helping people come to terms with some of the less pleasant things going on during that time period? I certainly was not aware of this kind of movie helping people come to terms with nuclear fear etc.; I don't think they did that for anyone, since the movies, after all, tended to be scary (or at least so the makers intended). We all were very aware of the possibility of nuclear destruction--it was everywhere, in movies, on TV, in comic books, in fiction--but in an odd sense, it seemed like we (the kids) were kind of HOPING for World War III, so we could have Our War. However, polio was much more of a threat than nuclear warfare. I admit, though, that I studied reports on possible fallout patterns to see how long those of us in the middle of the Oregon coast were likely to survive (wind patterns suggested we could hold out a long while). I was deeply into UFOs at this time, absolutely sure that some of them were alien spacecraft; now I'm absolutely sure none of them are.

Forrest J. Ackerman passed away in 2008. His influence touched generations of monster kids. Please comment on what he meant to you and how important he was/is in turning people on to sci-fi. I cannot sum up my attitudes about Forry in a limited space; there's just too much to say. By 1957, I was already well aware of him because of his Scientifilm Marquee column in the magazine Imaginative Tales.

I knew of no way to buy back issues, so I haunted the newsstands for the magazine, finally writing letters to the columnist (whose signature I couldn't read). He answered me in print in the same column in which he announced the publication of Famous Monsters of Filmland; as I say in the book, the coincidence has not been lost on me. By 1961, Forry and I exchanged occasional letters; when he said he was going to the World Science Fiction Convention at the SeaTac airport hotel (between Seattle and Vancouver Wash.), I somehow convinced my parents to help me finance a Greyhound bus trip there. Forry was very kind and welcoming to me--he was the first person I met at the convention; I was dazzled.

I slowly realized (well before the convention) that in addition to editing my favorite magazine, he was deeply involved in science fiction fandom, so I got into it, too. I'm still involved. My parents brought my niece down to L.A. for a summer vacation, and at one screening, Forry met my mom and dad. I stood across the screening room, looking first at Forry, then at my parents; it didn't seem possible that they were even on the same planet, much less in the same room.

He continued to be important to me until the day he died--and afterwards, too.

How much of an influence did William Gaines and the E.C. crew have on you? Do you recall any stories from those comics that still stick out in your mind? It's hard to say exactly. Something people of today don't often realize is that there were LOTS of horror comics in the early 1950s, not just the ECs. But even then, I realized that the EC titles were distinctly better than others, because there was more to actually read in them. I was very surprised when Ray Bradbury turned up in a couple of them. But also remember--I could not officially read these comic books, even though I was otherwise a major comic book freak. I really got into ECs after I moved to Los Angeles in 1966. The EC that had the most profound effect on me in the 1950s was Mad.

At first, I was very disturbed by it; I thought it wasn't nice to make fun of movies in that way. And yet I kept being drawn back to the single issue I had (which I read until it was as soft as cotton cloth) because it was so damned funny. This was the issue that featured "The Sound of the Basketballs." As a spoof of Sherlock Holmes, it meant less than nothing to me because I'd never heard of the character, but it sure was funny anyway. And scary, as Sholmes and Whatsit realize that the tail they are standing on belongs to the gentleman they're talking to. When I met Harvey Kurtzman at a San Diego Comic Con many years later, I couldn't begin to tell him what an enormous influence he had on me; to this day, the stuff I regard as funniest resembled either Mad, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello, Karl Barks and/or Walt Kelly. With Chuck Jones in there, too.

What is the closest sensation you can liken to first seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still? Do you still get the same feelings as when you first watched it? The first time I saw it, at a matinee in Coos Bay, I was so excited I shook; my knees quite literally knocked together. I was gripped, seized, engulfed by the movie; I resented every eye blink. It was the most exciting thing I had ever experienced. The next time I saw it, closer to home in Reedsport, I was, if anything, even MORE excited, wanting desperately for it to get quickly to the Good Stuff. Of course I don't have those same feelings now; it's not possible. But I still love it.

When you first released volume one in 1982, did Warren publishing come to you, or did you find them? Either way, how did it all come to be published? Don Glut had done a couple of books for Robbie Franklin when he (Robbie) was still at Scarecrow; when he started his own line, Scarecrow, he asked Don to do a book on the science fiction movies of the 1970s. That wasn't Don's thing. Meanwhile, I'd been talking with Mark McGee and R.J. Robertson about the possibility of the three of us writing a book on the 1950s SF movies. That kind of blew away just about the time Don called me to say he'd recommended me to Robbie Franklin. Who then wrote me himself.

I talked him out of a book on the 1970s SF and into one on that kind of movie of the 1950s. When I realized that doing the book I wanted was going to take a long time, I sent in half the manuscript (it was year-by-year, then alphabetically in each year) to Robbie--who at first blew his stack. What I'd sent him was how long he expected the entire book to be. At first, I suggested that, since no payment had been made, we could just shake hands and walk away, allowing me to take it to a different publisher. But Robbie bit the bullet and we proceeded.

Your book is amazingly comprehensive. If there is a criticism, one might say it is too comprehensive. Although a movie like Manchurian Candidate has some outré themes and forward thinking science, is it really science fiction? I explain in that entry exactly why I regard that film as science fiction; I'm quite surprised that you ask about it, of all titles! The brainwashing techniques demonstrated in the film were flat-out impossible at that time, way, way beyond the scope of any such techniques of the day. I've never hesitated for a moment to define it as science fiction. It's other stuff too, of course, but science fiction is what it also is.

To me, science fiction is a matter of content and content alone, not of style, or approach, or period (which is why I also include The Crimson Pirate, which is as much science fiction as is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Not everyone agrees with me; that's fine. Science fiction is overall notoriously hard to define. However, I can add that when I interviewed John Frankenheimer years later, I asked him if he regarded Manchurian Candidate as science fiction. He said of course he did (and yes, he really did say "of course"), and that Seconds is science fiction, too

While reviewing these films for your research, which were better and worse, than you had originally remembered? That's not as easy a question to answer as you might think. Years before I ever considered writing a book like this, I found a diary I had kept back in the 1950s. One entry said I had just seen It Came from Beneath the Sea and Creature with the Atom Brain, "the two best movies ever made." I wrote that when I was 12, and for 12-year-old me, they probably WERE the two best movies I'd seen, but I wasn't 12 when I wrote the book. What it came down to was that when I wrote it, I still liked the movies I'd liked when I first saw them, still disliked the same ones, too. But everything was on a different scale when I was an adult.

Rough estimate, how much time did this whole project take you? Which? The first two books? The rewrite? I would imagine, all told, that it was roughly 15 years.

In the book you make it perfectly clear that you cannot stand Mystery Science Theatre 3000. What is redeeming about, say, Killers from Space? I don't think any SF movie of the 1950s is "irredeemable crap." Even the very worst--of those intended for general audiences, anyway--has a few things about it that I find interesting. Sure, some are clearly very bad--Mesa of Lost Women is about the worst I can think of right now; Killers from Space is a long way from being THAT bad. At least in Killers, there's that truly macabre scene in which Peter Graves wakes up to find his own heart hanging in front of his face, still beating.

When one of the films from this time period is remade, The Thing or War of the Worlds, how do you feel about it? Do you think it is sort of a desecration of a master work? Are there any of the remakes you have enjoyed? I am mostly indifferent to remakes; after all, they're made for the same reason the original was made--to make money. I don't resent remakes the way it seems most genre buffs do, and I'm a little surprised that several of the most prominent movies have yet to be remade (such as Them! and Forbidden Planet, although remakes of both have occasionally been announced). Actually, remakes of 1950s movies seem to have a pretty good batting average: those of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Fly, are classics themselves; I also think Spielberg's War of the Worlds is extremely good. I'm not anywhere nearly as fond of Carpenter's The Thing as many are, and I dislike his Village of the Damned even more than most.
How do you feel about CGI effects and the current state of sci-fi films and writing? CGI is just another tool intended to make created images look as real as those photographed with a movie camera. It's neither good nor bad in and of itself. I love stop motion because of its hand-made aspect, but I also have seen lots of movies with simply great CGI effects.

If you can pick one film for the time capsule to sum up the 1950s; maybe not the best, but the one that sums up that feeling, which would you pick and why? Probably Them!. First, it's a very good movie; secondly, it involves the most 1950s of tropes, giant insects, and they were brought about by the other big news of the 50s, atomic radiation.

What are you planning to write next? I'm 67. Do I HAVE to have another project? I'd like to do a book on movies filmed in Hawaii, but I have no idea if I could sell that idea.

When you’re not watching the skies, what else do you like to do I like to take trips to Hawaii; I like to go to all manner of movies; I enjoy science fiction conventions; I love reading biographies of movie people I'm interested in; I've recently developed a taste for biographies of Abraham Lincoln, of all unlikely subjects; Beverly and I both are very fond of TV murder mysteries, from Perry Mason on through Hercule Poirot, with stopovers at Law & Order, Midsomer Murders, Foyle's War and many others.

Books by Bill Warren


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