With the recent release by Studiocanal of a host of Amicus Production 70s sci-fi onto DVD we were lucky enough to bend the ear of film Director Kevin Connor, the director behind many of these fondly rememebered films including At The Earth’s Core, Warlords of Atlantis and cult classic The Land that Time Forgot.
Flickfeast: The first, inevitable question is how do you feel about the time spent with Amicus and that period in the British film business, in general? When the likes of Amicus, Tigon and Hammer were proving themselves fairly capable of using a wonderful stable of actors and resources to get, quite often, very impressive results. How did that system and the familiarity between the different directors and stars benefit the film-making process?
Kevin Connor: The time I spent at Amicus, on reflection, was the end of an era – the late 70’s when there were social changes and political upheavals going on in the UK. In those days Amicus, Tigon and Hammer could make their films for reasonable budgets. Actors and technicians all needed the work and you could get the best people to work for scale. Because of that situation my relationship with those first class actors was one of being at ease and having them delivering wonderful performances. Imagine – Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, Angela Pleasance, David Warner, Diana Dors, Ian Bannen and Maggie Leighton for goodness sake – all in front of your camera!!! Not to forget Leslie Anne Down in her first feature film role. I certainly benefited from having them on board along with the great DP Alan Hume and Maurice Carter as Production Designer.
FF: With your feature directorial debut, From Beyond The Grave, you worked with a number of great stars, many of whom you would go on to work with again over the years. Donald Pleasence, Ian Ogilvy and, a personal hero of mine, Peter Cushing. Having worked with so many wonderful names, not forgetting Mr Doug McClure (of course) and people such as the lovely Caroline Munro and Susan Penhaligon, do you have one enduring memory from working with such stars or is it just a great blend of far too many fantastic little moments?
KC: Yes, a blend of far too many fantastic little moments as you put it. We had great fun and I don’t think there was one of those actors that were at all difficult, not that I mind that. My fondest memory of Peter Cushing was his wearing white cotton cutting room gloves when smoking off camera – to stop his fingers being stained by the nicotine. Such a pro. Later I had Peter and Christopher Lee together in ‘Arabian Adventure’ – though that wasn’t an Amicus film. Doug and Susan were both a delight to work with – never a dull moment with those guys.
I do remember Doug punching a hole in a wall in the producers office one day!
FF: Turning specifically to the adventure movies based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, I found that the most surprising aspect of rewatching them today was seeing just how influential they seemed to be (on everything from Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom – which seems, to me, to take a few aspects from The People That Time Forgot – to the very recent John Carter film, also based on work by Burroughs). Do you find yourself looking at movies that you can tell were, in some way, influenced by those Amicus films. Modern blockbusters or independent productions aiming for a certain easygoing charm that remains the same beneath any advances in CGI and practical effects?
KC: Basically my movies for Amicus were ‘Saturday morning’ movies – except of course for ‘Beyond The Grave’! They had no pretensions and I always liked to think that the audiences enjoyed watching them as much as I enjoyed making them. At the premiere in London for ‘Land’ we had invited kids only much to the chagrin of the critics – but the reception was fantastic – took me back to my mornings at the Ritz Cinema in Potters Bar.
I’d like to think that the big special FX movies that followed were even minutely influenced by me – but I suspect not. Our FX were so crude by comparison to the standards set by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. They had bigger budgets and the technology had leapt forward. I wish we had followed that path but Amicus folded in the late 70’s – sadly. It was a great place for first time directors to start.
FF: And speaking of practical effects, do you see the advancements in this field as something to be treated with great care or do you just wish that you had such a box of toys when trying to realise such fantastical environments and creatures? I’m sure that you must have at least one memorable anecdote about the practical effects causing some on-set problems.
KC: I certainly wish I had the box of toys that are available today. Orson Welles was reputed to have said ‘… it’s like having the biggest toy train in the world…’ And it certainly was, even with Amicus’s small budgets. We had the most calamities – fun ones – on ‘At The Earth’s Core’ with the flying creatures and small stunt guys in the animal contraptions. The flying Maygars (I think they were called) would crash into the plaster walls of the set, spin and tumble down, wings flapping in a very ungainly way. The poor stunt guys on all fours in the cramped positions of the nasty monsters could only be in them for a few minutes at a time – then they would roll over, hairy legs in the air, gasping for air and water. But they persevered and did a great job under difficult conditions. No CGI then.
FF: How difficult was it, in movies such as The Land That Time Forgot and At The Earth’s Core, etc, to help the actors look beyond the potential absurdity of their surroundings and keep things “real” in the acting sense?
KC: Not very difficult really – once you established the style – ‘play everything straight from the heart and believe you’re in Caprona’ – and keep a straight face. I think being on such strange sets at times helped get into the situation. All the actors were such pro’s that they knew what the genre and just got on with it and had great fun along the way.
FF: The movies from the 60s and 70s have proven to be defining moments in the lives of many film lovers (myself included) because of the rise and rise of TV. You also have a lot of TV work in your filmography (numerous movies and memorable and much-loved outings such as episodes of Hart To Hart and North & South: Book Two) so I’d really like to hear your views on how the filming process has changed in the arena of TV production. There are many hit shows and TV movies nowadays that rival/better cinema releases, something which wasn’t the case a few decades ago.
KC: I agree with you. TV writing and production today rivals most feature films (except for the big SPFX movies of course). The productions that HBO, AMC and other cable companies turn out are phenomenal and more and more of them are producing top quality work while the Networks wallow in reality type shows.
I got side-tracked (no regrets), into the mini-series world which enabled me to make movies all over the world in exotic locations. There are several differences between TV and features, in that TV is producer driven whereas in features you have a little more control over the final outcome. However, I was lucky that I had a wonderful producer in Robert Halmi Snr., who really left me alone to get on with the epic mini’s. Once the lead cast was set by the network, then I had full reign with technicians and the other actors and the editing.
Otherwise the mechanics are really the same – except you have to shoot 5 pages a day or more!
FF: And when it comes to great TV, what are your thoughts on the affectionate use of Troy McClure on The Simpsons (a comedic blend of Troy Donahue and Doug McClure) and have you ever seen any of their spoofs that made you laugh all the louder because you knew the premises were all too close to a real studio effort?
KC: I love The Simpson’s – just brilliant – those guys – I don’t know how they keep up the standard of writing and output week after week. I can’t say I remember a specific spoof – they come so fast and furious – hard to remember them.
FF: When you started off with the Amicus movies were your influences more literary (had you been an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, for instance?) or already cinematic? And what has impressed you recently?
KC: Honestly, when I was asked to direct ‘Land’ I had not read any ERB. From then on, of course, I read them all. I was really impressed with the recent ‘John Carter’ movie – just phenomenal and didn’t deserve the reception it got or the failure at the box office. Something went wrong somewhere but I don’t know what. Maybe they shouldn’t have crammed in so many of the stories.
Amicus was going to do John Carter after ‘At the Earth’s Core’, but the rights were so expensive that we had to abandon the idea.
FF: Not a week goes by nowadays without a major remake being released. I know that at least one of your movies has already undergone this treatment – The Land That Time Forgot – but do you have any particular favourite tale you directed for the big screen that you’d LIKE to see remade with all of the magic of modern techniques?
KC: Of my own movies, I thought ‘Land’ might be a possibility but then on reflection it would probably be a different story and the studio/whoever – would demand more special effects and fights and so on, and I could never retain the integrity of the original picture.
I wouldn’t mind re-doing ‘People’ because there was so many more good visual scenes and situations in the book that we couldn’t afford to do in the 70’s.
I’d love to see Alfred Bester’s – ‘The Stars My Destination’ and John Christopher’s – ‘The World in Winter’, made into movies. I had a go at adapting screenplays of the books – but got nowhere.
FF: Finally, with the recent Hammer resurgence actually getting some good results would you be happy to revisit the Amicus system if the studio was also able to make a well-received return to audiences and fans?
KC: Yes, that would be worth the wait. I see no reason why they wouldn’t get a good return on the movies. Probably cost more today and the audience expectations would be greater.
Hammer and Amicus were great places to get a break, not only for directors but for technicians and actors – and thanks to Milton Subotsky giving me the break, (quote ‘….because editors make good directors…’) I’ve had just the best time making all sorts of pictures, all over the world for 50 years.