THE IMAGINATION OF IB MELCHIOR! A Conversation with the Danish Monster Movie Maker!

Ib Melchior at his home in July 2012. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Ib Melchior is a film director and screenwriter with many impressive science fiction film credits to his name. He was born and raised in Denmark and came to the U.S. in December 1938. He worked with a theatrical company and put on a show on Broadway, then became stage manager at Radio City Music Hall. After which, he enlisted in U.S. military intelligence services and served for four years as a counterintelligence agent, including two years in Europe, back and forth over the lines, during World War II. He wrote several books about this experience. He has a total of 16 books published. In 1951, he became a TV director in New York and directed The Perry Como Show for three and a half years. Then he came out to Los Angeles and began his career in motion pictures, writing and directing. In 1971, Mr. Melchior wrote his first book, which became a best-seller. 

To monster movie fans, Mr. Melchior is best known as the writer/director of The Angry Red Planet and the writer of Reptilicus. (He was also involved with the ill-fated Americanization of Godzilla Raids Again in 1957.) In 2008, Mr. Melchior spoke with Brett Homenick about these film projects.

Brett Homenick: The first question is, what can you tell me about your involvement with The Volcano Monsters?

Ib Melchior: All right. Sometime in early 1957, three men, three producers, Harry Rybnick, Edward Barison, and Paul Schreibman contacted me and asked me to perform a rather interesting task. I had worked with Harry Rybnick on a film called Live Fast, Die Young where he was producer, and I had written the script for it. These three people had acquired a Godzilla film called Godzilla Raids Again from Toho. And Schreibman retitled it to Godzilla the Fire Monster. But they didn’t like the story. And they wanted to make a new film out of the existing one. They wanted me to write a new script, using all the special effects from the Japanese film, but with a new story, and with all the Japanese actors replaced with American actors. It was quite a challenging job, so I took it on.

At the time, I was working with another writer whose name was Ed Watson, and together we constructed a new film around the existing special effects that showed the monster and the destruction that it wreaked, and all this sort of thing, but all with new actors. Our final script was dated 5/7/1957 and was accepted by Rybnick, Barison, and Schreibman. These three producers had a production/distribution deal with a company called AB-PT when, in July of 1957, that company closed down. Now, for whatever reasons that I have no idea why, they did not replace the production/distribution company, and The Volcano Monsters bit the dust. I don’t know if a copy of the script still exists somewhere. It’s possible that I have it somewhere, but (laughs) I have no idea where. If so, it’s 50 years after the fact, so I don‘t know whether I have anything. This is the information that I dredged up from my records. I hope that that is of help to you.

BH: Absolutely. Would you happen to remember anything about the story that you were working on?

IM: Absolutely not. (laughs) I have no idea what it was. It was the usual story of a monster that gets loose and destroys a city, very much like Reptilicus. It had to depend on whom we put in, and what we had of usable Japanese footage, but I don’t remember. It’s 50 years ago, for heaven’s sakes, and it never came to anything.

BH: The next movie that I wanted ask you about was The Angry Red Planet, and how did you get involved with that film?

IM: The Angry Red Planet. Well, I was a television director in New York. I directed The Perry Como Show, The March of Medicine, and some other films, and I belonged to something called the RTDG, which is the Radio Television Directors Guild. But my goal was to make feature films in Hollywood, had actually been ever since I saw my first movie in 1927 called The Man Who Laughs. And I wanted to become a movie director when I saw that.

Anyway, I came out here (to Los Angeles) in 1957, fully expecting to direct a movie. And they told me, “Well, sorry, but you belong to the wrong union. You have to belong to the Directors Guild of America.” And I said, “Okay, how do I become a member?” And he said, “Well, you have to direct a film.” “Well, how do I direct a film?” “Well, you have to be a member of the Directors Guild.” “Huh?”

BH: (laughs)

IM: Okay, in other words, it’s a Catch-22, no way of doing it normally. But there was one way and one way only. If a producer would go to the Guild and say, “Only Ib Melchior can direct my film,” then they have to make me a director. Where would I find somebody like that, never having directed a film in my life.

Well, I met a man at a party. His name was Sid Pink. And I was interested in science fiction as a reader. I had never written anything (about science fiction) — a couple of short stories, but nothing important. And he told me that he had a story that he wanted to make into a film. He called it “Invasion of Mars,” but he just had a rudimentary story, and he had tried to get a science fiction writer — in fact, several of them — to write a script for him that he liked. And nobody had been coming up with it, even some of the top names, and I was astounded. But I said to myself, “Here’s my chance.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you give me a chance to write it. If you don‘t like it, you don‘t have to buy it. But I’ll write it for you. And if you like it, and want to do it, then I also get to direct it.” Well, he saw nothing wrong with that, so he said okay. I wrote it, he liked it, and I became a director.

BH: Wow!

IM: That was The Angry Red Planet.

BH: Excellent! That’s a great story. Well, what were some of your initial ideas when you were hired to write the script?

IM: Well, Mr. Pink had developed something that he called Cinemagic, which was a printing process which made things look very odd, very strange. And I thought, in order to use it — I mean, you can’t just do it without a reason, and he wanted to do it just as a novelty. But that doesn’t work; it had to have a reason. So what I came up with was that a woman, the only one who comes back from the expedition to Mars, is telling what happened to her, but she is totally deranged, and she sees everything in absolutely weird ways. And that became Cinemagic. It worked like gangbusters.

So he wanted as many monsters in it as possible so the viewers could have something to see. So we created the Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab, which has become kind of a cult figure, and the man-eating plant and things like that that were spectacular to show. It was not really the kind of thing that I particularly wanted to show, but it worked in that particular film.

BH: It certainly did, and as you mentioned, it certainly has attained a cult following that still endures to this day. And that actually segues into my next question because I wanted to ask you where the idea for the Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab and the other monsters (came) from because they are certainly outlandish.

IM: Well, the credit must go primarily to Norman Maurer. Norman Maurer was an illustrator, and we were sitting around and talking about things, and he came up with this Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab, and he designed it. He was a co-producer of the film, and he was really the creative (person). Mr. Pink was the promoter, and Maurer was the creator of the things.

And the man-eating plant, there are flesh-eating plants on Earth, you know that.

BH: Yes.

IM: There are plants that eat meat. And I looked at some of the pictures of those and came up with something that looked pretty much like them, and Norman Maurer again strikes and made it into (laughs) a monster plant. Maurer was the one that was the main creator of the visual effects.

BH: Were you involved with the casting of the film at all?

IM: Oh, yeah, I was involved with the casting. Of course I was involved with the casting. (laughs) I had an associate director, and this was my first film in Hollywood. So he was very, very helpful, and he gave me two advices. He said, “When you are casting a woman, always keep the door to your office open.” And the second one was, “Whenever you want to say cut after you had done a scene, count to five before you say cut.” And both of those things saved my ass.

BH: (laughs)

IM: Because that five seconds that you have, if you need something to cut away to, your people are in character, and you can use it. And that’s very, very important.

And the other one, well, we needed a nurse who was well-built. And so we advertised for a young (actress) who had a good figure. And I was, at that time, I was casting, and a woman came in. She had a jumpsuit on, you know those jumpsuits that were in fashion back in those days?

BH: Oh, yes.

IM: Her name was Tura Satana.

BH: Oh, yes! I know that name.

IM: Aha! (laughs) And she says, “You want a well-built lady to play (the nurse)?” “Yes.” And she unzips her thing. It fell to her feet, and she stood there stark naked. Now if somebody had come into a closed office with me standing there with a stark naked girl, everything would’ve been embarrassing, but I had a door open, so it was fun. (laughs)

BH: (laughs) Well, another actor who worked on the film was Les Tremayne…

IM: Les Tremayne was a wonderful … he was a guest in our home several times afterwards. We liked him a lot. He was a gentleman, and he was really a good actor, and we got along famously with Les. In fact, I got along with Naura Hayden. She’s still my friend. We still correspond. She’s an author now and lives in New York.

Gerald Mohr, I believe, died, but I’m not sure. I lost touch with Jack Kruschen. Gerry became a good friend. I like Gerry Mohr, and Paul Hahn was a good friend. I also worked with an actor named J. Edward McKinley. Now you probably do not know his name, but you would recognize him if you saw him on the screen because he was a character actor who was in practically everything. He worked with Bob Hope a lot. And I had a scene with two actors, two doctors, who discuss the case of this woman who’s deranged, and one of them, Dr. A, had some very complicated medical terms, and Dr. B, well, he was also there. Dr. B was played by J. Edward McKinley, and Dr. A kept fluffing and fluffing and fluffing. He couldn’t get it out. And I had a very tight budget, and I’m looking, and I’m looking at this, and my budget is going down the drain because this guy can’t do it. So I called a halt for a while, and Mr. McKinley came up to me and says, “Mr. Melchior, I have an idea.” I says, “What do you mean?” “Well,” he says, “why don’t we switch. We haven’t shot anything yet that has been printed. Why don’t I do A and let the other one do B.” I said, “Well, that would be terrific, but how long will it take you to get up in the part?” And he said, “Oh, you could do that right now.” Take one was the print. So he saved my butt, J. Edward McKinley.

BH: (laughs)

IM: He became a good friend, and he was in everything I did from then on.

BH: Excellent, very nice. Well, you’ve talked about some stories already, but another general question that I had for you was, do you have any interesting stories from the set, anything that stands out in your mind that happened?

IM: Well, we had a lake, and since it was a totally alien landscape, the lake was built on the stage. And everybody told Mr. Pink to make the lake three feet deep. And then they had a rubber dinghy with the four people getting into it, but Mr. Pink decided to save money and made the lake only two feet deep. So here they come, get into the rubber dinghy, and start paddling away and paddling and paddling and paddling and (going) absolutely nowhere because it was hitting the bottom.

BH: (laughs)

IM: So we had to do the whole thing over again with a three-foot lake.

BH: (laughs) Any other stories? Anything that comes to mind at all?

IM: Well, I remember one thing which was kind of funny but was very minor. When they got to this lake, it was kind of an oily-looking lake, obviously glutinous. And of course they had their spacesuits on and with the helmets and everything, right?

BH: Right.

IM: So Jack Kruschen goes down to the edge, and he’s looking at this water, and he dips his finger down in the water, and he brings it up and smells it through his helmet! Obviously I had to cut that.

BH: (laughs) Well, what was a typical day of shooting like on the set of The Angry Red Planet?

IM: Busy. (laughs) I shot at a very, very low ratio. I had to. My ratio was well below 4, so it was a busy thing. And we went from set to set and just shot whatever we could. The one thing that I was very, very unhappy about was that Sid Pink had gotten into supervising the special effects, and since I was so busy with the principal photography that I couldn’t do everything, you know. I had a very, very short — I think it was an 11-day shooting schedule that we got. When we came out with the amoeba — now I had written that the amoeba was a big, huge gelatinous mass, and inside it, way inside, you saw the nuclei of this thing. What Pink did was, he created a monster which looked like a hump-backed turtle and had one big, huge eye on the outside the shell, rotating. It looked so ridiculous, but there was nothing I could do about it because there was no money, and we had to use it. But I was mortified.

The other thing was kind of more a production problem. In one instance, the big Rat-Bat-Spider-Crab, on a rear-projection screen, comes rumbling into the scene, and he lifts up his claw, and then you see the claw come into the scene and reach for two rocks between which Gettell, Les Tremayne, had sought refuge. The monster’s claw takes those two rocks and crushes them with Gettell (Les Tremayne’s character) in between. Now this was a special effect that had been scheduled and many thousands of dollars budgeted to do this huge claw that had to be dropped in and do the crushing thing. By the time we got around to shooting it, there was no more money. And Mr. Pink said, “Well, let’s just cut it out.” Well, that was impossible because people had been talking about it; Gettell was dying from it. (laughs) You can’t just cut it out. Well, I had to figure out what the hell can I do. And this is what I did. I took a cart, just a two-wheel cart, and I took two 2x4s and mounted them on the cart in a scissor position. And on the front on the 2x4s, I put the two claws which I cut off from this thing that they had built, put them on there, wheeled the damn thing in, and closed the 2x4s and crushed the rocks. (laughs) It looked great, and it cost $3.50 instead of $13,000.50.

BH: (laughs) Wow! Well, how were the scenes on Mars filmed? I mean, can you talk a little bit about what went into filming the scenes on Mars? Can you talk about the set construction and just how those scenes were filmed?

IM: On the sets, they built the jungles that we had there, which of course you have to remember that when Angry Red Planet was made, we had not been to Mars. We didn’t know anything about Mars. So anything was fair play. We could do whatever we wanted. Nobody knew anything about it at all, except that it was cold, but they didn’t know whether there was any vegetation or water or whatever, so we could do whatever we wanted. And we did those monster scenes in the sets. Even the rocket that landed was on the set; it was built on the set. There’s nothing special about it; the sets were just built and used.

BH: What did you think of the final film once you saw it?

IM: Well, let’s put it this way.  It’s not (a) great, artistic effort. But it is visually interesting and fun and entertaining. And, to me, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what it’s all about: entertaining, entertain people. And I think that Angry Red Planet was entertaining, and I think that the fact that it has become a cult film, and after all these years is still showed around and talked about and so forth, proves that we’re entertaining and interesting. It may not have been Shakespeare, but it serves its purpose.

BH: Yes, absolutely. I agree with that. It’s a very entertaining film. Okay, well, the next film that I wanted to ask about was Reptilicus, and the first question about that would be, how did you get involved with Reptilicus?

IM: After The Angry Red Planet, which was a box-office success, Mr. Pink made a deal with American International (Pictures) to do two more films for them. And American International stipulated that I write them, and then they would give him the money to do the films. He wanted to do two films, and he wanted to do them abroad. Since I’m Danish, I had a lot of connections in Denmark, and I gave them to him, and he set up a production deal with Denmark for two films. I was writing them, and I was supposed to be directing them. But, in the last minute, Mr. Pink decided he was going to direct it himself. So he cut me out. He took my scripts, and what he didn’t feel he could direct, he cut out. (laughs) Well, in a way, the heart was cut out of it, and then he proceeded to direct it himself. And, of course, he knew nothing about directing whatsoever, and if you talk to the Danish actors who were in this, you’ll get an earful of what they thought of his directing.

Anyway, he did the two films, and Reptilicus was the first one. It was so bad when it came over here that American International refused to release it. Then Sam Arkoff, who by this time was a good friend of mine, actually, and believed in me, said, “Is there anything you can do to save the film, anything, re-cut it possibly, do some extra shooting, or something?” And since I love challenges, I said, “Sure.” (laughs) So I doctored up Reptilicus. There were no close-ups, so we had to do some close-ups of objects, so we could have something to cut away from it. And I did some re-editing, and I put in a couple of extra scenes that we could do without the actors, and the end result was that AIP accepted the film and distributed it.

BH: Were you the one who came up with the green slime idea?

IM: No, no. The green slime, and the fact that the damn thing flew, was not in the original script. I’ll tell you something. First of all, a monster doesn’t just grow on trees. I mean, there’s gotta be a reason how the monster comes about. If you’re going to have a monster in today’s world, it doesn’t just show up in somebody’s garage. So the first thing I had to do is to make it plausible why this huge monster suddenly showed up in Copenhagen. And what I did was I created the scenes where they drill for oil, and the drill comes up bloody, which is a rather unusual thing. Then they dig down, and they find the stump of a tail that is frozen stiff from a prehistoric monster. Now they take it down, frozen of course, to the aquarium in Copenhagen. Now you may know the starfish, which lives in our oceans here, if one of the tentacles of the starfish is cut off, it creates a whole new starfish. So I said the same thing can happen with his tail, but you have to know why, you know. By accident it thaws out, and they realize it’s still alive because the wound created by the drill starts healing. And then they put it in a big tank, and little by little it grows and grows until it becomes a baby monster kind of a thing. And then there’s a big storm, and lightning strikes the housing where that tank is, and the monster gets loose and slips down into the canals and harbors of Copenhagen where it nurtures itself until it becomes a big one, and all of a sudden it comes up. Now that makes sense because it could happen, because it does happen in starfish. So this is what I did with the whole thing. Reptilicus then proceeds to do these things, and that was it.

BH: Well, you’ve touched on it a little bit, but when you wrote the script for Reptilicus, I do know that Sid Pink also got billing as a co-screenwriter. Did you do any writing with him, or was everything he contributed done separately after the fact?

IM: There was no co-writer of Reptilicus other than the changes made by Sid Pink.

BH: Okay, so it was just you who wrote the screenplay?

IM: I wrote the original screenplay, and Pink took the screenplay and altered it so that he could handle it.

BH: (laughs) Okay. I just wanted to clarify that (because) I do know that both you and he got screen credit for writing it.

IM: Oh, well, he took screen credit for everything.

BH: (laughs) Yes, unfortunately, he did, so I wanted to ask you about that to clarify things. Another question that I had was, did you have any ideas that you were thinking about using in the script that you ultimately had to drop?

IM: No, I don’t remember. I don’t remember. In the process of writing a script, there’s a lot of things that you do, you don’t do, and you change, but remembering what is always impossible, you know.

BH: Okay. No problem. When you were writing the screenplay, did you do any research on dinosaurs or any other subjects to make the screenplay more plausible?

IM: Well, I did research on regeneration. A lizard can regenerate his tail, etc., and so forth. And the way that the monster looked, I had very little to say about it. They had their own idea what it was going to look like. I did not have anything to do with the production or any of the settings for the production. I described him pretty much as he is, you know, like a big thing. But I did not describe him as flying. Sid put that in. I like logic. I like things to be explained, and I want it to make sense. Now Reptilicus is confined to Copenhagen. He can’t go anywhere else than Copenhagen. If he’s there, he has to do what he does in Copenhagen because he’s really trapped there. But if he could fly, he could fly anywhere he wanted! If they started shooting at him in Copenhagen, then he could fly down to Africa or whatever he wanted to do. So it didn’t make sense to have him fly. These are things that I very much object to where people put in things that do not make sense in my scripts, and it happens, unfortunately. You do not have the last say.

BH: What decisions did you make for the characters in the film, such as Petersen, who is more of a goofy, offbeat character?

IM: Petersen was a character that they put into the Danish version, and then they kept it. Petersen was written specifically for a Danish comedian named Dirch Passer. Dirch Passer was so popular in Denmark that anything that he was in was an immediate success. So they wrote him into this picture. And actually, at one time, they were going to call the picture “Dirch and the Dragon.” But that fell by the wayside. But in all the advertising and everything, Dirch Passer is the main thing. His picture is over everything because of the enormous popularity for him. So he was just put in as an afterthought.

BH: Was it Sid Pink or somebody else who put him in there?

IM: I think it was the Danes. I think it was a Danish producer named Poul Bang who did the Danish version, and I think he put him in, and then Pink, you know, did the same thing.

BH: Could you say a little bit more about some of the changes that you made specifically? Do you know who was involved in including the acid slime and some of the other postproduction changes that were made to the film that you weren’t involved in?

IM: I have no idea who put in the slime. It’s another thing that (doesn’t) make sense. I don’t know anything about that. I only know what I did over here, and some of it was not very successful. But we had to do something.

Do you remember, at one time, Reptilicus eats a farmer?

BH: Yes.

IM: We did that here, and that was my son, my 11-year-old son, Dirk. We put (him) on a ladder against a blue background. And then I had one shot of Reptilicus where he kind of dips down his head, and he comes back up again. That was the only thing I had to work with. I didn’t have the puppet of Reptilicus because it was too expensive to get him here and so forth. So I used that one shot and matted in my son to look as if Reptilicus ate him. It didn’t look quite right, but they kept it in anyway.

You know, Pink never followed through with anything. Regularly, I had him do something like that, but that was too difficult for him to handle, so he just cut it out.

BH: I’m sure I know the answer to this question, but what did you think of the film once you saw it?

IM: Well, before (postproduction changes were made), as I said, American International wouldn’t even release it. They wouldn’t even handle it. Afterwards, I think it was acceptable. We stressed what it did have, the army and navy involvement and that sort of thing. It became a creditable film, I thought. It had a lot of production values, and I don’t think it was so bad a film.

BH: All right, well, those are all the questions I have about your films. Would you like to make any mention of the book that you’re writing, just to give people a little bit of a preview of what to expect?

IM: It’s called Six Cult Films of the ‘60s, and the six cult films are: Angry Red Planet, The Time Travelers, Reptilicus, Journey to the Seventh Planet, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and  Planet of the Vampires. And what I do is, I show a lot of pictorial material, things that have not been seen before like location searches and all that sort of thing, and I tell all those little stories that I told you, but I have stories like that for every one of them. The good, bad, and indifferent, I tell it all. It’s like a confession! And I hope that people will find it of interest. I think that the very fact that the films have become cult films means that people enjoyed them and are still interested in them. And I think they will be interested in finding out what really went on. The film is made up of many things, and there are always a slew of hassles that become part of it, and those are the things that I think people will be interested in knowing.

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