The Man Who Keeps Those SF Films Coming
At last, a studio executive who believes in science fiction
Interview by Kerry O’Quinn
Written by David Everitt
The field of science fiction has been examined in these pages from nearly every angle—from the point of view of the writer, the director, the producer, the star, the makeup artist, the special effects man, the set designer, the stunt person. But one facet that remains to be explored is the role of the studio executive, the person who gives the go-ahead to the project and keeps tabs on the production from start to finish; in other words, the individual who is ultimately responsible for making sure the picture gets done.
The studio executive who, perhaps more than any other, has been responsible for the recent SF-movie cycle is Alan Ladd, Jr. He gave the okay to George Lucas to make Star Wars in 1977, backed both Alien and Outland, and is currently producing Ridley Scott’s upcoming Blade Runner. Son and namesake of one of the great stars of the 40s and 50s, Ladd grew up in the Hollywood scene and has become not only an important figure in science fiction, but one of the great success stories in the film industry. In addition to the all-time blockbuster Star Wars, he was the man behind such diverse hits as The Omen, Silent Movie, Julia, Silver Streak and Turning Point. In 1977, three of the films nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award were Alan Ladd productions and, in all, Ladd pictures garnered 34 nominations.
This interview, conducted last August, delves into Ladd’s influences as a child, his entrance into the movie field, his spectacular career at Twentieth Century-Fox and the recent formation of his own company, Ladd Co. We feel this talk provides an intriguing glimpse into the evolution of one of the most successful men in Hollywood today.
KERRY O’QUINN: What would you cite in the way of movies, books, comics or entertainment of any kind that, in some way, had an important influence on where you are today? Things that meant the most to you when you were a kid.
ALAN LADD, JR.: Well, when I was a kid I used to go to the movies, say, five, six, seven pictures a week. I don’t think I missed many movies that came out. I went to all different types. Like most kids, I leaned more to the adventure pictures: the swashbucklers, the Westerns, things like that. And when pictures like Destination Moon came out, then I started seeing science-fiction. In those days serials were a very big thing. We used to see those on Saturday afternoons. I also used to read a lot of comic books, of course.
KOQ: What Kind?
AL: Oh, Superman, Batman, Archie.. .all different kinds. In terms of books, outside of what was required reading in school, I would read most of the adventure books, the Western novels, the Hardy Boys series, science-fiction books—sort of the whole spectrum of adventure put in interesting settings.
KOQ: Science fiction then wasn’t one of your main interests?
AL: No, not really. Adventure in general I would say was really my main interest.
KOQ: Looking back on it now, why do you think that was so? I’m sure at the time it was just fun and exciting, but do you have a more analytic view of it at this point?
AL: Well, it’s just pure escapism, I think. And the adventure film was the best avenue to escape into… I mean, it was more fun to see Sea Hawk and Captain Blood than a Bette Davis movie. Although I’d see those kinds of movies too. There was just a preference I had for the adventure film.
KOQ: Since you grew up in a show biz family, did you know at that time that you were going to go into the film business? As you watched movies, did you have some kind of professional tickling in the back of your mind about that field?
AL: I think I probably did. Exactly what I was going to do in the movies I had no idea, but I’m sure that when you develop an obsession more than just the average kid does about the movies, then it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that somehow you’re going to be involved in the film business. Exactly what you’d like to do, you don’t think about that particularly when you’re a kid.
KOQ: Did you say to.yourself, “Captain Blood is thrilling and I’d like to make a movie like that some day,” or did you even say, “I’d like to be in it, or like to direct it ? ” Was there a division between what side of the camera you would want to be on?
AL: I always knew one thing: I never, ever thought of being an actor. That part of it never interested me at all.
KOQ: Why is that? That was your dad’s field and your brother was an actor at an early age.
AL: I think it’s because I’ve always been very introverted and shy. I could never visualize myself going out in front of a bunch of people and trying to perform in any way.
KOQ: Is it truly one of the characteristics of all of the good and talented people of the world that they start out shy? I think George Lucas said that.
AL: No. Most of the people I know were never shy. George is kind of an exception. No, I think you’ll find more extroverts in this business than any other business, so in terms of my own personality, it’s the exception rather than the rule.
KOQ: What did you do in school in terms of hobbies, extra-curricular activities?
AL: I was always involved in sports. In the spare time when I wasn’t going to the movies, I was always playing whatever sport was going on that season.
KOQ: Were there any family influences, either negauve or positive, toward your movie career?
AL: I don’t think so, but I think that, like so many people, I tried to have a reference to my parents (and my parents were divorced when I was very young). In order to develop some kind of reference point, I think you have a tendency maybe to examine the field that your parent is involved with. I don’t know that if my father had been in another business—had been a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer— I don’t know if I would have been obsessed with the movie business. Maybe I would have anyway. Maybe as a child from a broken home it was nice to escape to the movies. But I think having a father in the business gives you more of a reference point with the film world. When you’ve seen all the movies, you can talk about them and know what other people are talking about when you go visit your father on weekends.
KOQ: Did you grow up around producers and directors and actors, or did you just think of them as people around the house?
AL: Well, not too much, because officially I didn’t live with my father until I was about sixteen, so I used to just spend summers with him and the usual every other weekend. I did come into contact with different people in the movie field when I was a kid. At that time they used to work a six-day week in Hollywood. When I’d go visit on weekends I’d go with my father to work on Saturdays and I’d wander all over the lot and go various places and kind of poke my head in cutting rooms and prop rooms and whatever else was going on there.
KOQ: All right, now for the next phase. Where did you go to college?
AL: At USC. I was very heavily involved in movies and when I wasn’t doing movies then I was playing sports.
KOQ: What did you study at USC?
AL: Business Administration. For whatever reason—I don’t know why—I just never had an interest in going to the cinema school there. And USC is possibly, I think, the finest cinema school in the country. Why I didn’t want to go into it I don’t know. Maybe because I always felt, in the back of my mind, that I would be in the business side of this field rather than behind the camera or something like that. For instance, I also never really had any aspirations to become a director; I never thought in terms of that.
KOQ: When you got out of school, how did you enter the movie business? Did you go knocking on doors? Or did you have a connection?
AL: When I was getting out of school, I thought of trying to become an assistant director or getting into the editing field or camera field. I found that I just couldn’t get into any of the unions at all. The only activities I’d had in the film business was a bunch of stunt work I did on a number of films when I was in college. But I didn’t feel like being a stuntman the rest of my life. Somebody once mentioned to me, “Well, why don’t you try to get into the agency field? You know, at least you’re reading scripts, you’re dealing with talent, you’re putting things together.” So I went into the agency business… I liked the agency business very much. I found it very creative.
KOQ: And what followed on the heels of that? What was the next transition?
AL: Well, I left one agency and I wasn’t sure which agency I wanted to be affiliated with next… I was unsure whether to go back to ICM or whether to go to William Morris or start my own agency or what to do. Then I got into producing and I was lucky. I produced about nine pictures in the next four years.
KOQ: Independent production?
AL: Yes. They were all made in England, actually. It just happened that way. Some of them were Fear is the Key, Nightcomers, Severed Head, Villain and Walking Stick.
KOQ: How did Twentieth Century come about? How did you get connected with them?
AL: Well, I was coming over to California. The day before I was going to go I got a call from Twentieth Century-Fox and they asked would I consider coming over and discussing being an executive there? And I thought, well, if nothing else it’s free transportation, so I said, “Sure.” Then I got here and I just felt very comfortable with the situation and went to Fox.
KOQ: What was that position at that point?
AL: I started out as Vice President of Creative Affairs, and I stayed there for about six months and then I was Vice President of Production, then Senior Vice President of Worldwide Production and then (oh boy) President.
KOQ: Now, obviously, for our readers, one of the stories that I want you to go into in some detail is how you met George Lucas, and how the whole Star Wars project happened.
AL: Well, the way I met George is that I had heard about this new picture called American Graffiti. I had heard that there was some unhappiness with it, on the part of Universal. So I asked if I could see it and I saw it one morning about eight o’clock. They snuck me a print from Universal and I just thought it was a wonderful picture and I felt that George had great talent (I had seen THX 1138 before that). I asked to meet George right away. We met within the next couple of days and he told me about the idea of Star Wars and that was the start of it all.
KOQ: There are various rumors and stories that have circulated in the field about the struggle to get that property financed adequately by the studio. Would you like to lay those rumors to rest with the facts?
AL: George’s original intention was to do it for around three or four million dollars. And it just happened from there. I was never that central to the project and 1 get all kinds of credit for being very brave. It wasn’t, I don’t think, one of the bravest decisions I’ve made. It was a decision based upon my feelings towards Lucas and his ability to do what he said he was going to accomplish. And, like all things, the budget grew and the company was not that excited about it. All of a sudden you start talking to the board of directors about Star Wars and things called Wookies and they look at you like you’re absolutely mad.
KOQ: And an increasing budget doesn’t help.
AL: Ultimately the internal struggles were not that strong because despite the pressures I received from a lot of people who were saying you’re crazy to do it, I didn’t feel I was crazy to do it and therefore I was able to fight from a position of strength and very strong conviction. I was called in a couple of times about the budget, but, at that time, in hindsight, it was a very low budget movie.
KOQ: What did it finally cost?
AL: I think it was only around nine million for the whole picture. Nobody else could have ever accomplished what George did and gotten all that on the screen for that amount. It was impossible.
KOQ: Did you have Alien underway before the results were in on Star Wars?
AL: Yeah, I remember we bought Alien prior to Star Wars being released.
KOQ: Why did you like Alien!
AL: It was a very simple, uncomplicated story. To me it was basically The Thing in outer space; a horror movie rather than a hardware science-fiction movie. The setting just happened to be space. I didn’t ever really look upon Star Wars as a science-fiction movie—and neither did George for that matter. We talked about it in terms of—“Well, this is like Captain Blood. And it’s like the sort of good war films that one had seen like The Dam Busters. And this scene is like something from this Western.” So in the conversations that he and I had, they were not based upon the idea that this is a science-fiction- type movie. That’s why I felt so comfortable with the movie and with George. Because we had both seen just about every movie ever made and we were able to touch reference points when he said, “This is how I want to shoot it,” and be able to pick another movie that I could visualize.
KOQ: Our readership is knowledgeable enough to understand generally what a producer does, as opposed to a director, but now, in nuts-and-bolts terms, could you explain what your position was in relation to movies like Star Wars, Alien, Silver Streak and Young Frankenstein? What did you have to do other than giving the initial go-ahead?
AL: Well, first there’s picking the project, and then agreeing on the elements that go into the project, the director and so forth.
KOQ: Can we loosely call your position executive producer? Or is that inaccurate?
AL: It’s kind of inaccurate in a way, in that there’s many things that we have going on. I mean, I don’t go on the floor every day. But I see the rushes every day.
KOQ: Why do you see them?
AL: To see if the person is capturing what I had seen in my own mind. If there was something I didn’t like or disagreed with, I certainly would go talk to the director about it right away and either he’d convince me or I’d convince him or somehow a compromise would be worked out. There’s also a lot of script meetings that go on about a project.
KOQ: All the way through the production?
AL: No, hopefully not, because you would always like to think that you have a locked-in script when you start out to make a movie. You prefer not to do rewrites as you’re going along. But occasionally it does happen. Certainly a picture that we just did which I think will be terrific is Blade Runner, and a lot of rewriting was going on while we were actually in production on that.
KOQ: Is the majority of your activity in pre- production stages or do you watch over the film as it is being cut?
AL: Yes, I see many cuts of a film. On the average I’ll see a film probably ten, fifteen times; sometimes more, sometimes less. You see the director’s cut first, then a fine cut, and then you take it out and preview it and make some changes, and preview it again, have certain individual screenings, get indications on how it’s going, if there’s certain things that bother people or certain things that they particularly like. So it’s seeing the project from start to finish. Then, of course, I’m also deeply involved in the marketing of the film, what the campaigns are going to look like, what theaters we’re going to play in, how many theaters to start with, how many theaters we will eventually be in by the end of the run. I’m involved in all of those aspects.
KOQ: Why did you leave 20th Century-Fox?
AL: Well, mainly it was a dispute with Dennis Stanfill, the chairman of the board, in that my feeling is that you can’t run the film business the same way you run every other business. To me the film business is not run by charts and graphs. You know you have to give creative people certain freedom that you wouldn’t give somebody who’s working on an assembly line. That’s really why I left.
KOQ: When you went out on your own to form Ladd Co., your first project was Outland. The pressure must have been awfully strong to pick something that would be perfect and dynamite at the box office. Why did you pick this picture?
AL: It just happened that I read Outland, and I felt that what one was basically dealing with there was a Western in outer space and I felt that Peter Hyams could technically do it very well. I thought it had a lot of potential.
KOQ: How has it worked out?
AL: It’s done very well. We’ll all get our money out. From that standpoint it was not a disaster. But, one had hoped that it would have done much better than it did. I had hoped that it would have been in the Alien category in terms of money-making pictures, but it fell short of that. I never once dreamed that it could, or would ever be a Star Wars, but I had hoped that it might have been an Alien. But it wasn’t.
KOQ: Why do you think that was?
AL: Well, I think that possibly (Jutland had several failings which caused it not to be a smash. I think maybe the audience, in the end, wanted Connery to kill Peter Boyle. I think maybe that was one problem. I think that there was also confusion about the title. We’ve done research on that. The public didn’t know whether it was space or whether it was a Western or what it all meant. And it may have just come out at a time when the public was actually not going back to the theaters again. We opened in a very fallow period. The previous six months had been a very dead period for the film business, one of the worst in history, and people didn’t start going back to the movies until Raiders and Superman II came out soon after. I think that maybe if we had opened later, maybe if we’d opened with more prints, maybe if we’d had a different ad campaign, a different title, we might have done a great deal better. But that’s all hindsight now.
KOQ: Did you do some preliminary research in terms of out-of-town previews?
AL: Yes, and they played very well.
KOQ: What do you learn from something like that?
AL: If the audience is with the picture… how they’re reacting to it.. .are they feeling the length of the picture—you can just tell from a reaction—if people are squirming in their seats, obviously something is not holding them. And then they fill out cards and we look at the cards to see if there’s anything specific that keeps coming at you, that seems to be a problem. If there’s something that’s repeatedly a problem you will, if you can, and have the time, attempt to make an adjustment on that.
KOQ: Did you make any cuts or adjustments on Outland between the previews and the release date?
KOQ: What, specifically? And why?
AL: Well, the third assassin in Outland—originally, you knew he was there before Connery had done away with the second person. So when the second man was blown out into space, the audience didn’t cheer in the previews the way we felt they should. We then made a cutting change so that the audience figured there was only two people there because that’s all they had seen. When we previewed it again, they did have the proper reaction: they applauded when the second man gets it and then there was a very noticeable gasp when you find out that there’s really a third person up there. That was one major change that we made.
KOQ: Blade Runner is now coming up. That, I think, is going to be very interesting to our readership. What can you tell us about it?
AL: Well, what director Ridley Scott has captured on film in terms of design and sets and atmosphere is unique. And I think we have a very good story to tell and I think that’s the bottom line with all the pictures that really work. I mean, you go back to Star Wars, I think it’s the human element that made it work to the degree that it did. You cared about those people so much and the R2D2s and the Wookies, you cared so much about them that’ you were concerned about their plight. Had you not liked them, George could have thrown as much hardware at you as you could take and there just wouldn’t be the interest there. I think in Blade Runner we have a very exciting story that goes with it all. Harrison Ford is excellent.
KOQ: Have you seen the finished cut of it at this point?
AL: No. I’ve seen the dailies and I won’t see the finished cut because there’s an enormous amount of special effects work that’s going into the picture, probably as much as I’ve dealt with on any picture we’ve ever done. Douglas Trumbull is doing those now so the actual finished, finished print I probably won’t see until sometime in March or April. I’m sure we’ll be racing the clock to get it out in time. Probably in June.
KOQ: Are there any other projects in the science-fiction category that you’re working on?
AL: Not really.
KOQ: Do you feel that the field is a fad for a few years and then people will not be interested in science fiction?
AL: Well, it depends on what your definition of science fiction is. I think probably one of the largest grossing pictures that there ever will be will be Revenge of the Jedi. But is that science fiction in people’s minds now? I don’t know whether they will perceive the third Star Wars movie as science fiction. It’s sort of its own form.
AL: I think just straight hardware movies have probably had it. Television shows like Buck Rogers and Galactica and low-budget science-fiction pictures like Battle Beyond the Stars—that type of particular genre I think has had it… I certainly have high hopes for Blade Runner, but that’s not space. There’s Spinners [ground/air vehicles] and there’s a lot of hardware in it, but it takes place on Earth. So it’s futuristic I guess. Science future I guess is,closer to it.
KOQ: Is adventure the primary category that you’re interested in, in terms of producing?
AL: No. I’ve never really been particularly interested in specializing in one area. There has been science fiction, such as Star Wars, Empire, and then I guess Alien and Outland would be in that category. But it’s not been deliberate on my part. By the same token I’ve made a lot of comedies: I made the last four Mel Brooks comedies and then there’s Silver Streak and Nine to Five and other comedies like that.
KOQ: Is there anything coming up that you think might be interesting to the Starlog readership?
AL: Well, I just hope that your readers go out and see all the things that we’re doing. I must say it’s a wide variety of stuff, everything from pictures like The Right Stuff which is by Tom Wolfe and is about the astronauts— which again is space but it’s different, it’s modem space—to pictures like Looker which has a lot of gadgetry in it, to Chariots of Fire which I think is a wonderful, wonderful film. Everybody should see it.
KOQ: It’s got very good reviews.
AL: Yes, and that’s just one of many, Ithink. It’s quite an extraordinary film, I think, about human relationships. And Blade Runner, of course, I hope you’ll see.
KOQ: Is there any unfulfilled desire for you down the line, anything that’s beyond what you’re doing now?
AL: No. One thing about films is that when you make them they’re lasting, they’re around forever. I just hope I can make a lot of films I’m very proud of and that thirty years from now somebody’ll come to me and say, “Gee, I just saw Star Wars and I think it’s the greatest movie ever made,” or something like that. That’s the kind of satisfaction you get from this business: you’re involved in the creation of something. If it works well it lasts for many, many years. It’s always with you. It’s like somebody who’s written a wonderful novel, or a beautiful composition. It remains and you hope that you just do enough good work so that people will look at the body of movies you’ve done with admiration.
Starlog, February 1982, Number 55; pp. 40-43