Milton Moses Ginsberg
The director of the satirical Watergate-era chiller The Werewolf of Washington considers the nexus of horror and politics, and recalls his attempt to exorcise personal and national demons with his camera.
Full moons and elections. Both occur in cycles, and both unleash monsters on a defenseless populace. The connection was not lost on Milton Moses Ginsberg, a Bronx-bred filmmaker whose revulsion at the Nixon administration unlocked his repressed terror at seeing the 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man as an unaccompanied grade-schooler, a harrowing experience he’s still probing nearly eight decades later.
After polarizing critics with his feature debut, the shattering faux-vérité psychological drama Coming Apart (1969), he veered in a seemingly more commercial direction (though with equal resolve to unload emotional freight). The Werewolf of Washington (1973), which Ginsberg also wrote and edited, posits a White House press secretary (a fully committed Dean Stockwell) whose transformations into the title beast provide new opportunities to drain the Beltway swamp. Audacious and darkly funny, Ginsberg’s sophomore effort failed to secure a proper release, and the fallout thwarted any subsequent features. Now a well-respected editor with three Oscar-winning documentaries to his credit, Ginsberg has returned to his passion project with fealty to no one but his muse, and shorn some of the matted fur to produce a Director’s Cut that will stand as definitive. What better accompaniment to this lycanthropic election season?
Whether we’re talking about werewolves or Washington, a good place to start is with trauma. So I want to talk about the written prologue to the Director’s Cut of The Werewolf of Washington, where you say essentially that you made it to purge the trauma that was visited on you by Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man and Richard Nixon’s presidency.
That’s right. When I saw The Wolf Man, I must have been about 7 or 8 years old, and my parents were beginning to let me go to the movies alone on Saturday afternoons. Lots of kids obviously did that in the Bronx and I told them I was going with friends, but I was really a loner. I went by myself, and the film just scared the shit out of me. I got so scared, I never saw another horror film again. I deprived myself of Frankenstein and Dracula. But I guess [The Wolf Man] stayed with me. Nixon didn’t traumatize me until many years later.
But [first] I did Coming Apart. It made no money. It was a very controversial film. Sarris hated it. Schickel loved it. Screw magazine said, “If you want to have no regrets about ever having lived, see this movie.” Now, I think, that’s the best review anybody’s gotten anywhere ever.
I think Gene Siskel was a fan as well.
Yes, I later learned Siskel was a fan, and I read his review where he starts off and says, “If you never considered suicide, this film will elude you.” That kind of shook me up. But obviously that’s the response I was aiming for when I made it, and I still think in its way it was a perfect film.
It opened in three theaters in New York. This was ’69. People are coming out of the theater. The reviews haven’t come out yet, so I go over to this guy and say, “How was the movie?” And he says, “Piece of shit. Don’t waste your money.” First response. Then this young couple come out of the theater and I say to the guy, “How was the movie?” He says, “Masterpiece. This is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.”
“I wrote the script in 10 days and I get a phone call: ‘You are out of your fucking mind. You’re attacking the President of the United States. We’re not going to touch this thing.’”
And his girlfriend says, “We just sat through it twice.” I said, “Okay, that’s my focus group. I’m quitting while I’m ahead!” And then I couldn’t get a film off the ground. I was a prolific writer. I wrote a follow-up to Coming Apart. I was so irate with the critics, I wrote a film called Stuck, about 10 critics stuck in an elevator after a screening. Critics were very prominent people in that era, late ’60s/early ’70s, and so I wrote this comedy about these 10 people stuck in the elevator with a can carrier, a guy who picks up films and takes them from one theater to the other. Anyway, nobody was buying anything, and I thought, you better do something commercial. And I said, “What is about the dumbest thing you could ever do?” I said, “Make a werewolf movie.”
I told a couple of friends and they said, “You are out of your mind.” But I wrote it in 10 days. Oh, I went to the producers who had put up the money for Coming Apart. That was about a $40,000 or $50,000 budget, and Rip [Torn] and I got paid. I think, Rip might have gotten $8,000 and I might have gotten $6,000. Something like that. I went back to them and this guy Dan says, “What do you got for us? Man in angst again?” I said, “No. I have a werewolf movie. It’s called The Werewolf of Washington.” And the guy says, “All right. I’ll give you a grand. Go write it and we’ll have an option on it.”
So I went to Fire Island. With that money I bought a share in a house. Nobody was out there in May, and I wrote the script in 10 days and I came back and brought it to these guys Dan and Danny, and leave them with the script. I get a phone call by the time I reach home: “You are out of your fucking mind. You’re attacking the President of the United States. We’re not going to touch this thing. Keep the money. Don’t tell anybody where you got it and never show up here again.”
I mean, Nixon was kind of a scary guy. Anyway, why did I do it on Nixon? I was really preoccupied with the way things were flowing. I didn’t know what to write about. I had a great title, and suddenly the elements of the plot began to come together. Everything revolved around the Nixon White House, a werewolf in the Nixon White House. So it starts off, now that I’ve recut it, in the black and white of [George] Waggner’s Wolf Man, and I switch to color when we get to Washington. Anyway, that’s pretty much the derivation of the film.
I don’t know at what point I knew I was going to make it about the presidency. But all the president’s men are in there. All the dialogue, like in the bowling alley when the president is ranting, all of that is directly from Nixon’s speeches and talks. Nixon put a bowling alley in the White House. So I had my bowling alley scene, and it came together very quickly once I realized it was about the Nixon administration.
Yeah, I picked up on a lot of those quotes and asides: “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.” And, “You won’t have Jack Whittier [Stockwell’s character] to kick around anymore.”
But what I found refreshing was that even though it incorporates those key phrases and locations from the Watergate Era, it’s not just a one-to-one parody. For example, the president who’s played by Biff McGuire is not a Nixon clone.
The guy is an amalgam of any number of ineffectual politicians.
Right. But with a corrupt core.
So anyway, the budget was limited. We did all of those [werewolf] transformations backward and forward in one afternoon. As the makeup man would put stuff on, I’d change the background behind Dean. So we wouldn’t have to go through everything three or four times. For the scene where he goes from wolf to man at the end, we just reversed the sequence.
How did you end up raising the money?
So they didn’t pay for the film. I had the script. I had a girlfriend who was an editor and she had some money to play around with. I was broke. I mean, rock-bottom broke. And she wanted to produce. I said, “Give me an option and I’ll let you produce this.” She found some people with $80,000. I had a friend who was coming into money and he put up the final $20,000. Then we launched. I had an exceptional, very crazy, and quite lovable production manager who, I think, was really the reason I was able to finish the film on that budget.
What was his name?
Oh, his name was David Appleton, and he was a crazy man. He wore hot pants! He had this d’Artagnan beard and long flowing hair, and he would never shut up. And I’d get into these screaming arguments with him. I’d say, “Look, we’re going into people’s homes. You can’t wear hot pants.” And he’d say to me, “Okay, I won’t.” And he’d show up the next day looking the same way. Eventually, he wore me down. I’m very hard to wear down. Most people can’t do it, but David did. But in the end I owe him big. He died recently and I miss the guy.
It’s interesting to see New York locations standing in for D.C. Like the Borough Hall steps “playing” those of the Capitol.
That’s right. And we used all those locations in Glen Cove, a lot of exteriors. I think the Nixon bowling alley was in a church somewhere on Long Island. I don’t remember. David found all this stuff. We used a lot of it basically for free or by making a $200 donation to a church or something like that. It was a tight schedule. If you didn’t get a scene in the can [by the end of the day] it was not going to be in the film, and we pretty much got everything.
How long was the shoot?
I think, it must have been about four or five weeks.
And at what point did Dean Stockwell come on board?
That’s an interesting story also. I sat down with the producer. We made a list of actors who we thought we could get, and I think there were about a half-dozen including George Hamilton and Gene Wilder. The actors always have headshots, so we’d get an 8x10 [of each actor] and make 10 copies of it. My friend was an art director at a magazine, and he would slowly, over the course of the 10 copies, turn the actor into a wolf. You understand what I’m saying? So it would be Dean Stockwell on the first page but a wolf on the tenth, and we’d slip them in the script and the actors flipped over it. Later, George Hamilton went on to do a Dracula film [Love at First Bite], and Gene Wilder did Young Frankenstein.
I have no doubt they were inspired by me. Only thing I’m jealous about is they made salaries. The $2,000 from those producers who threw me out was the only money I made on this film. The other problem was I agreed to deliver a 90-minute film for my percentage, which in the end came to nothing because it was never released. I mean, this is magical that Metrograph is releasing it now: 50 years later, a film that had never been released because Watergate had broken during the editing period and my [cinematic] reality was so much less than the horrific reality that enveloped us.
Our people were still afraid to attack Nixon. But oddly, a German television station bought a copy, bought a print of the film. These stations were not rich. A German television station in the 1970s was not NBC or CBS. So if they bought a film, they would show it every third week for five years. So everybody in Germany of a certain age has seen my film, but no Americans have.
It’s for the best that you got Dean Stockwell, because I don’t think the other actors you considered would have given the kind of twitchy, neurotic performance that was needed.
No. No, they would have delivered cliché performances. Dean was just absolutely amazing.
What do you think attracted him to the project?
The politics of it. I really think that’s what it was. And it was a great script. For all the film’s faults, it still, for me, has five of the funniest scenes ever filmed. I mean, it takes a lot of bravado to say that, but they were great scenes. That scene in the bowling alley is my favorite scene in the movie.
The president is literally in the gutter.
That’s right. That’s right.
So I want to return to something you said before in passing: after you saw The Wolf Man, you never saw another horror film?
No. I mean, not for the next 10 years, till I was of college age. Then the great era of horror films was over. It lasted 10, 15 years at most. I think The Bride of Frankenstein is genius. The vampire films never got to me. I finally saw Dracula. That didn’t appeal to me.
What do you think it is about The Wolf Man that’s so existentially terrifying to you?
That’s a good question, and nobody’s ever asked it. I think it’s almost a metaphor for puberty. Of course, I was younger [when I saw the movie], but you reach a certain age, your body begins to sprout hair, and your sexual hormones begin to run through you. But I think it’s more than that. I think it’s just a metaphor for transformation. It’s like your id coming to the fore, annihilating your superego. I mean, the body or the unconscious doesn’t think of it in those Freudian terms, but it feels them in those terms.
It’s very interesting that the Director’s Cut of The Werewolf of Washington is 20 minutes shorter than the release cut. You mentioned that you had to deliver a 90-minute film contractually.
Yeah, which I did, and I’ve never been satisfied with it. I always wanted it to start off in the black and white of George Waggner who was the director of The Wolf Man. I also felt some of the scenes didn’t work in The Werewolf of Washington, and it was a pleasure to get them out. You could [always find a way to] see it. I mean, its copyright expired. There were like 500 copies in dreadful condition. But what happened was there was never [quality] material to do the cut I wanted to do. It was all so shitty.
Then one day I found out that there’s a German DVD of it, and my wife’s parents were Berliners. She has a cousin in Germany, and I asked him to find it, and he sent it to me. The quality was superb compared to the crap that’s floating around here. So I used that as the basis for the recut, and the quality was good enough.
Well, I had fun speculating on what was in those missing 20 minutes. It’s almost like the Nixon tapes.
They’re all over the place. It’s not like 20 minutes pulled out. It’s all over the place.
I wondered if there had been more of Dr. Kiss, played by Michael Dunn.
I’m surprised. It’s a potent cameo, but for an Oscar-nominated actor, he wasn’t used very much. But it’s a great concept: Kissinger as a dwarf mad scientist.
Yeah, yeah. I might have written more if I knew we were going to get Michael. Michael loved working on the film. He loved Dean. He loved me. He loved working on the film. I really tried to create a very warm atmosphere. Somebody asked Kurosawa, “How do you direct?” And Kurosawa said, “The actors pick up a tone from me.” Which is extraordinary. It’s an extraordinary perception because they do.
Rip picked up a tone from me in Coming Apart. I mean, here we all are locked in this one studio apartment for a month, and Rip is not a guy who does a method breakdown of his script. He’s totally visceral. He needs a Jewish intellectual, and there I am. So he absorbs the parts that he can use, the tones that he could use. But generally speaking, it’s true. The actors pick up a tone from a director. Whatever else the director gives them, great.
I think Rip Torn said that Coming Apart was released to theaters where people were expecting a different kind of film, something more salacious.
Yes indeed. He was right.
And then with The Werewolf of Washington, I know you said that distributors were afraid of condemning the Nixon administration, but could the problem also be that it was just too difficult for satire to outpace reality?
I think that’s the reason why so much of the satire around the current administration feels so toothless. How do you satirize this? I mean, would it even be viable to make a horror film about contemporary politics, or would it just be superfluous?
Well, look, I’m very pessimistic. There’s a film on my website called The End. It’s a bunch of science-fiction clips that predict the end of the world in various ways, and they’re commented upon by contemporary scientists, not as to their entertainment value, but their validity in science. I made it because I truly believe we have—God, I don’t want to say this to people. But I don’t think we have more than 50 years in our current form as a species, and in our current form as a planet. We have so fucked things up. There is absolutely no turning back.
It’s scary. No polar ice caps, no Brazilian rainforests, I mean, this pandemic, whether it came out of Trump’s China fantasy or not, is a result of the whole change in climate. I mean, we’ve already annihilated half the insect species. We don’t even know their names, but they’re responsible for keeping the global biological structure in place. So Trump is absolutely bad news, and I do believe we’re going to dump him and it’s not going to be a fascist takeover, but we’ve got big problems.
That reminds me of a moment in The Werewolf of Washington that may have played as hyperbolic in 1973, but no longer does. It’s when Stockwell’s character, a press secretary, describes the president as “a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ.” It anticipates the messianic zeal people are commanded to feel for politicians now, with no rational or evidentiary basis.
That is so fucking bizarre. You’re right. I can’t comprehend these people, the Trump supporters. They’re totally beyond comprehension.
There’s a lot of stuff like that in your screenplay. Like the way certain words are misconstrued—“pentagram” for “Pentagon,” “communist” for “columnist”—suggesting that communication is just a game of “Telephone” where meaning is distorted.
Yeah, everybody approaches it with an agenda. An unconscious agenda, a powerful unconscious agenda. But there’s always been, I hate to say it, a Nazi element to the American population. I mean, during the Roosevelt administration and the beginning of the Second World War, it had already happened. England was already being attacked. Poland was taken over. There used to be rallies in Madison Square Garden with Nazi flags and people wearing swastikas.
There’s a core of resentment in this country. It has to do with racism. It has to do with anti-Semitism. It has to do with people jealous of the people on the West Coast or the East Coast. It’s anti-gay. I mean, it’s grotesque and it’s always been there. Thankfully, though, I think it’s always been 35 percent. Let’s hope it stays 35 percent through January 1st. •
Steven Mears is the copy editor and a frequent writer for Film Comment. His concentrations include cinematic treatments of old age and legacy interviews with industry icons.