The internet is a vast and mysterious force that brings together creative people with wild ideas. Though I respond to only a handful of the pitches and news releases that make their way into my inbox, it does warm my blackened, leathery heart to see so many artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers making a go of their passion projects.
Occasionally, though, a project is so delightfully mad that I can’t NOT reach out to learn more. Such was the case with the upcoming stage adaptation of “Death Bed: The Bed that Eats,” written by Gwenyfar and scheduled to be staged in North Carolina this October as part of the Halloween Horror Theatre Festival at Big Dawg Productions. What inspired her to work George Barry’s “movie too weird for the Seventies” into a special-effects-laden live play? Below, Gwenyfar explains all to me, and gives us a hint of what we can expect from this most unusual of stage shows.
Kate: I’m stoked to talk about Death Bed with you tonight!
Gwenyfar: Thank you! Me too! It’s is one of my favorite topics.
Kate: I do some “hostess”/MC type stuff in variety shows, and I did a bit on “Death Bed” last Halloween, so I had to talk to you about your experience adapting that movie for the stage.
Gwenyfar: I loved your cut down–it seemed to grasp the movie really well.
Kate: Thank you! It was sort of weird for the audience–I don’t think they were expecting the movie to be AS oddball as it was.
Gwenyfar: Does anyone?
Kate: Like, the whole concept is so bizarre, which is why I was asked to make the clip to that show. Everybody expects serial killers or monsters or whatever, but not killer furniture in their horror movies.
Gwenyfar: Right – Jaws is scary but not Death Bed.
Kate: So tell me a bit about your first time watching Death Bed. Did you have any clue what to expect, or was it a “blind watch?”
Gwenyfar: I am in love with Jock Brandis, the guy who built the eating mechanism for The Bed, so I got running commentary. We watched it at a friend’s loft who has a regular film night with the artsy folks around here. This friend, Fred, had decided to do a series of horror movies in October that had connections to Wilmington, North Carolina. Death Bed was a natural choice because of Jock. Jock, my guy, is also the priest who dies in the movie.
Kate: That’s great! So did Jock encourage the screening, or did it come somewhat as a surprise that it was selected?
Gwenyfar: No it was a lovely surprise – he has great affection for it and for the director, George Barry. Jock went on to work in the film industry for 35 years as a gaffer following his work on Death Bed.
Have you heard Patton Oswalt’s bit about Death Bed?
Kate: I have indeed! I read how you and Jock had listened to it together and were laughing about the part where Patton speaks about the impact on kids and family.
Gwenyfar: Yeah, we all have an appreciation about that. Patton has actually given us permission to use his material in the play.
Kate: I think one of the things that surprised me about Death Bed is that it has these surprisingly lyrical elements to it. There’s this tragic love story and the incorporation of Aubrey Beardsley into the plot. How are you working with this kind of tonal shifting, if at all, in your stage adaptation?
Gwenyfar: I think George had a great short film on his hands. In my opinion, the pacing went askew with the attempt to make it feature length. I think they ran out of money and then tried to “fix it in post.” They were working on an old Moviola machine and really didn’t have a lot of options or experience.
Kate: I can see that–it’s like the material expanded beyond the original intent in a crazy, organic kind of way.
Gwenyfar: So act one of the play is the making of the movie, which is written with a lot of love and tries to look at these kids with stars in their eyes as legitimate artists who just don’t have a map. Act two is the straight film-to-stage adaptation that will be presented with a certain amount of Rocky Horror energy.
Kate: I think a lot of people, when they watch these movies, vastly underestimate the amount of labor that goes into making a movie, and it’s interesting to peek behind the scenes and speculate at the real intent of the creators.
Gwenyfar: I have wondered if George could have raised the money he needed to finish the movie how it would be different. I would also add that many people today don’t realize that this wasn’t a matter of getting a flip camera and using you YouTube for editing and distribution. It was really expensive to rent a camera and to buy film stock, and then the film had to be developed.
Kate: I like that you’ve taken the time to consider the creator’s point of view in this. In your conversations with George, do you get a sense of where he was going with this, if budget hadn’t been a consideration?
Gwenyfar: No, George is more looking to the future when we talk. He has sent me a lot of interviews and information, but I think he is a little baffled by the turn of events. He has said in several interviews that, had he known it would take 40 years to get a distribution deal, he probably wouldn’t have made the film!
Kate: Plus he had no idea how the movie “leaked” to audiences in the first place. It’s sort of a magical thing, you know?
Gwenyfar: I agree – to me it is part of the beauty and the humor of the whole thing. George made another short that was never completed and is now lost; it was called The Night of the Garbage. For me, it parallels the Confederacy of Dunces and the discovered, unfinished lost book, the Neon Bible.
Kate: In terms of George’s looking to the future that you mention, I’m really curious to know what the wild mind who conceived of Death Bed in the first place is concocting now.
Gwenyfar: Actually George is retired; his health is not great. He has been traveling for Death Bed screenings and is planning to come to the show in October. He’ll be bringing his adult children. He has been most generous with his time.
Kate: It’s terrific that he’s embracing this oddball cult fame–that’s not always the case! And excellent that he’s working with you on your adaptation of his movie.
What led you to say “I need to adapt DB for the stage?” It’s such a fantastic concept, and it seemed weirdly natural when I read your email about it.
Gwenyfar: Actually I had been thinking for a while about a long-form, creative non-fiction piece about Death Bed. I am a theatre reviewer and theatre journalist in a town with over 36 theatre companies. Last year I was at a Big Dawg show to review when the artistic director, Steve Vernon, announced the Halloween Horror Festival for the next year (2014) in the curtain speech. I made a mental note to get in touch with Steve to interview the playwrights.
When I walked out of that meeting I realized that somehow I had committed to writing Death Bed for the Horror Festival, and immediately thought “OH GODS! I AM GOING TO LOSE MY JOB!!”
You see, reviewers have lines they can’t cross. I called my editors to tell them about this and then realized I needed to call George and ask for the rights. From there, it just snowballed.
Next thing you know we were breaking into a historic theatre at midnight to watch Death Bed on the big screen for a production meeting!
Kate: I love it! The whole story just suits the material perfectly!
Gwenyfar: Really it does!
Kate: It’s so natural to adapt these one- or limited-camera movies to the stage, because of the way they’re filmed.
Gwenyfar: You still have the proscenium effect even in close-ups.
Kate: What kind of experience are you looking to give audiences who come to see Death Bed on stage?
Gwenyfar: Partly the joy of creation; partly the joy of being on the inside of the joke; partly the incredible “oh my god we (they!) did it!” feeling.
There are some quiet, reflective moments in the script and there are also some Easter Eggs for those in the know. We included some moments of homage for the cast and crew.
The Bed is named Bob, for a couple of reasons. One only a handful of people will instantly know, but to those people it will be important. To the others it will be funny – which is also great.
Kate: Is that something you can reveal, or do you want to leave audiences guessing about that?
Gwenyfar: There are two images for the demon in human form: one is George’s face and the other is a shot of a man in burgundy pants. That man is Bobby Gallant and the girl the demon is in love with was Laura Bond. They were a couple in real life living upstairs from Jock in Toronto. Bobby was Jock’s Best Boy for almost a decade until he died in a vehicle crash, so naming The Bed Bob is a small nod to him. The people who knew him will understand.
The Bed also has a much more active role in the play. At one point, George has a nightmare and The Bed comes to life as a cannibal porn star and starts eating the crew.
Kate: One of the most appealing things about the material you sent to me initially is that you and the crew balance humor and genuine love for this crazy movie. How do you feel about “so bad it’s good” movie culture?
Gwenyfar: Personally I love it, though I do worry about hurting George’s feelings. He has said in print that he accepts that not everyone likes the movie and he has said on the phone that he is ok with it being perceived as “not good.”
To me, “so bad it’s good” is the film extension of the farce in the theatre. You have to play farce really, really straight or it just doesn’t work. One of the other things is that art – and film is art- is a process of learning. Sometimes the seed of an idea is great but the execution is just not there. Isn’t that how everything starts?
When you see Ed Wood’s early movies, it reminds me of the stuff we used to do with video cameras as kids, when we couldn’t go back and edit what we got and the first take is all we had.
The B cult film world is its own genre that now comes with specific expectations. One of them is the ability to laugh at yourself and still respect yourself enough to grow from your attempts. That is incredible.
Kate: I have a friend whose attitude is “how can a movie be bad if it entertained you?”
Kate: His opinion is that if it entertained you, it’s de facto “good” in some way! That’s become my mantra on this stuff.
Gwenyfar: It’s a good mantra. I think I might also like to add that it’s easy to find fault, but it’s hard to do the work and put it out there. George’s journey of trying to get his movie seen by people is evidence of that.
Kate: Absolutely–it’s easy to armchair quarterback this kind of stuff, which is why I try to refrain from bashing other people’s work at this point in my writing career. I know I couldn’t string a movie together if I tried. It’s why I do comics and illustration–small scale, manageability. It suits my way of storytelling (and my thirst for absolute control!) a lot better.
Gwenyfar: Amen. It is hard to work with a team and to learn how to lead a team when the vision is yours.
Kate: I give you a lot of credit as well for wrangling a stage production together, and one with ambitious effects to boot. I am really excited for you and the rest of the Death Bed family for the upcoming show.
Gwenyfar: Well, this is an amazing area for theatre. The show opens on October 23rd and runs the last two weekends of October (unless we sell out and add extra dates!).