GOIN’ TO KOREA! Reuben Leder Remembers the Cult Classic ‘A*P*E’!

Reuben Leder in 2020 poses with a photo of himself in Taiwan in 1974 on the set of The Chinese Caper (1975). Photo © Reuben Leder.

Reuben Leder has enjoyed mainstream success in Hollywood for decades. He has written for, produced, and directed a variety of television series, including The Incredible Hulk, Magnum P.I., and Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as writing the final Rockford Files movie. Aside from numerous other television credits, he has sold original features to DreamWorks, Paramount, Film Colony, and other production companies. With two Primetime Emmy nominations under his belt for Outstanding Drama Series for Magnum P.I. (in 1983 and 1984), it might be difficult to imagine that Mr. Leder began his screenwriting career with a bona fide cult classic.

Along with his father, the late writer-director Paul Leder (1926-1996), Reuben Leder co-wrote the script for and recorded sound on the infamous King Kong spoof A*P*E (1976), which was filmed in South Korea. With his sisters Mimi Leder (director of such films as Deep Impact and Pay It Forward) and Geraldine Leder (a Primetime Emmy Award-winning casting director) also contributing to the production, the making of A*P*E was truly a family affair, as this July 2020 interview with Brett Homenick recounts in detail.  

Brett Homenick: Please tell me about the genesis of A*P*E (1976) and how the project got started.

Reuben Leder: There was a Taiwanese producer named T. K. Yang, who had hired my dad to make a 3-D movie about a giant monkey hell-bent on trashing South Korea. T. K.’s intention was to “compete” with Dino De Laurentiis’ mega-budget and soon-to-be-released remake of King Kong (1976), starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Why South Korea? Because that’s where T. K.’s funding came from.

An ironic and sad aside to this is, T. K. had an arrangement with Korean Air Lines for transportation of the American actors and behind-the-camera personnel. The flight we took, Flight 007, was the very same one that was controversially shot down by the then-Soviet Union in 1983, killing all 269 aboard. Our little connection with that tragedy still resonates.    

To give some context as to how our father came to be involved in directing, producing, co-writing—and acting—in A*P*E, I need to talk a little bit about him first. Before he became an independent movie hyphenate, Dad was a New York City-based actor/singer. He co-starred in a Broadway show with Phil Silvers called Top Banana in the ‘50s. However, that aspect of his career was derailed by about a half-dozen inner ear operations, which left him mostly deaf, and subject to severe bouts of vertigo—which ultimately didn’t deter him at all. He simply moved behind the camera and went on to write, produce, and direct twenty-three movies.

Director Paul Leder (left) and Reuben Leder (right) with an extra in military gear on the set of A*P*E. Photo © Reuben Leder.

Now, if one looks at the titles, his oeuvre might seem somewhat schizophrenic, as the “cult” titles co-exist with a few “serious” films. He would do movies like A*P*E in order to make enough money to fund the ones that were close to his heart. For example, one of those serious movies was called Goin’ to Chicago (1990). It starred Cleavon Little [of Blazing Saddles] and Viveca Lindfors, a Swedish actress who made over a hundred films in the States. Goin’ to Chicago won the “Best of the Fest” award at the inaugural Santa Barbara Film Festival in, I believe, 1990.

He loved the filmmaking process, but was never completely enamored of doing movies like A*P*E or the other B-movies, but they were the price he had to pay for the Goin’ to Chicagos and others. Ultimately, he made his peace with that and put everything he had into every project, no matter what. Bottom line, there was nothing he’d rather be doing than making films.

One of those cult movies is probably equally known as A*P*E and that was a little gem called I Dismember Mama made in 1972, although no actor was ever actually dismembered—at least not on film. I was a grip on that one. The one really awesome thing about all these movies was that they were an incredible “trade school” for not only myself and my sisters Mimi and Geraldine, but also for scores of other young people who wished to learn the movie business from the ground up. Many of them went on to have mainstream careers.

On A*P*E in particular, Mimi worked in the camera department and parlayed those skills into a scholarship at the American Film Institute where she was the first woman graduate in cinematography. This served her to good stead on the way to her career as a director/producer. I as well worked in virtually every department on many of those films; therefore, when I finally got my mainstream break at Universal, my knowledge of production quickly got me promoted to producing and directing—along with the writing, which is the part I love the most.

The preceding gives me a great segue into a shameless plug. I’ve just finished a novel that will be coming out in early 2021. It’s called You Might Feel A Little Prick. It’s my love letter to the medical and health insurance industries—based on personal experience, along with some awesome revenge fantasies. It’s quite gory, twisted, and funny; lots of guys in white coats and suits die in very grotesque ways. But, in the end, I think it will touch anyone, or anyone they know, who’s been tormented by a journey through the American medical system. It’s published by Friesen Press and will be available on Amazon and all the usual places.

Okay, much thanks for that, Brett. Back to A*P*E and how it all began:

Let me circle back to T. K. Yang. He initially hired my dad to do a movie called The Chinese Caper (1975), which we shot in Taiwan in 1974. I co-wrote that with him at the age of twenty-four. It was a fairly run-of-the-mill, stealing-jewels-from-a-museum kind of movie. I remember very little about it, and the rest of the world probably remembers even less. Meredith MacRae from Petticoat Junction and other sitcoms starred, along with an actor named Geoffrey Deuel, who co-starred in a couple of John Wayne movies where he played the young protege/sidekick to the John Wayne character. Unfortunately, Geoffrey died very young. Anyway, the relative success of The Chinese Caper brought T. K. back to Dad the next year with the offer to do A*P*E.

As I mentioned, T. K.’s financing came from South Korea. And, when he asked Dad if he could shoot it in 3-D, the answer was, “Sure, no problem. We can do that.” Then, of course, we went and got a crash course in the various competing 3-D systems, with the main requirement being we had to use the absolute cheapest.

We eventually met with a retired cinematographer named Winton Hoch, who had won three Oscars, two of them working with the great John Ford. Before his illustrious career as one of the top shooters in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mr. Hoch was an inventor and also won a special Oscar for his work in the development of Technicolor in the early 1930s. By the time we ran into him, he had been retired from the movies and had invented a 3-D system. The price was right for T. K., although I would have to say the aesthetics suffered as Mr. Hoch’s system had its limitations.

A brief digression on 3-D: For those six or seven people not familiar, the gimmick is that various objects on screen are flung or thrown at the camera to shock the audience into thinking said objects might fly through the movie screen and wind up in their popcorn. As one might guess, the novelty soon becomes a one-trick pony, as the myriad of papier-mâché boulders, flaming arrows, and gunshots aimed directly to camera in A*P*E attests. In order for this effect to work, the audience has to wear a pair of special 3-D glasses. Without them, everything on screen is completely out of focus.   

Back to Winton Hoch’s 3-D system, which I mentioned was quite restrictive: The camera was an altered Panasonic that would only allow the use of a 32mm lens—which is considered somewhat wide angle. (50mm is what the eye sees.) So a 32mm lens is not so great for close-ups and limits the director to a sameness in scope. But wait, there’s more. The camera also could not move. It had to be on “sticks,” a tripod. There could be no dolly or tracking shots—just pans. Can you imagine Martin Scorsese not being able to move the camera? So, when one watches A*P*E with that in mind, it’s evident that the cinematography is very static. But, as I said, the price was right.

Reuben Leder running sound on A*P*E. Photo © Reuben Leder.

BH: When it came to the cinematographer [Winton Hoch], would you say that he was like a consultant on the film? Was he unofficially involved?

RL: He was minimally involved in giving advice on his system to Dan Symmes, our main cinematographer, who himself had written a book about 3-D, so Dan was not unfamiliar in working with it. I remember they would speak long distance every now and then, but I wasn’t privy to their conversations, so I can’t really answer as to exactly how much Mr. Hoch was involved. My sense was, not too much.

BH: [Regarding] the screenwriting process, were there any ideas that were pitched or considered that were ultimately dropped?

RL: As in The Chinese Caper, my dad again enlisted me into co-writing the script.  This was the third time we had collaborated on a project. We ultimately worked well together; although it is kind of weird working with your dad because, of course, he usually has the last word—even if he’s completely wrong. Wherever you are, Dad, that was a joke!

Anyway, our template was to essentially follow the general parameters of the original King Kong story, with a couple of exceptions. We had to naturally justify moving the remote Skull Island to South Korea. The way we accomplished that was, instead of the protagonists being a bunch of wildlife documentarians, we went for the movie-within-a-movie trope. This better justified the Marilyn character’s presence—played by Joanna Kerns—than Fay Wray’s rather unmotivated—but fantastic— presence in the original. How did the Ape get to South Korea? He was in captivity and was being transported via boat to be exploited—and when he made his escape from the ship, the nearest land mass was conveniently South Korea.   

The budget, as I mentioned, and as is evident on the screen—hello, battery operated miniature cow!—was minimal, so I thought the only way we could make it work, since we couldn’t compete with the zillions of dollars De Laurentiis had, was to make A*P*E funny, more of a satire. Own the fact we were making the film for peanuts. We initially did argue about going that route. Maybe “argue” is too strong a word; call it a vigorous exchange of ideas, but ultimately a satire or spoof is what it became.

BH: So do I understand from your answer that your father was against turning it into more of a satire?

RL: No, he wasn’t dead set against it at all. It was more that T. K. Yang wanted a more conventional monster pic. His English, although fluent, was sometimes immune to nuance, so I think the some of the subtleties of satire probably eluded him. Yet, despite the humorous elements, we still had to deliver a film that, within the constraints of the minuscule budget, still resembled the classic King Kong story. Only our version was rather funny and thankfully T. K. was fine with the humor. It was, though, in the writing, a bit of a tightrope walk. For instance, I don’t remember any version of any King Kong movie where the Ape gives the finger to his tormentors! We went back and forth over that one, but at the first screening, it got a huge laugh.

BH: Was that [cow a] store-bought toy, or was that something that maybe a prop person made? Do you remember?

RL: I’m positive that was store-bought.

BH: Do you remember how many drafts were written?

RL: Not many at all. There was an enormous time constraint. It was sort of like T. K. came into town, met with my dad, and said, “So can you shoot next month?” That kind of thing. (laughs) So I think we likely only wrote two drafts. In fact, a good deal of the writing continued while we were shooting. In a micro-budget shoot such as this one was, we had to be opportunistic and take advantage of situations, locations, actors, etc., that we were not aware of back in L.A. during the writing process.    

BH: Ultimately, how long did it take you and your father to write the total screenplay, from start to finish?

RL: I would put it in weeks, not months. Or maybe days, not weeks. (laughs)

BH: Is there anything else to say about the screenwriting process?

RL: Other than that the overriding consideration was writing to the budget—a discipline that served me very well when I began to work in the more mainstream world of TV and film. We were always cognizant of keeping to the basic King Kong template—which is, a wild giant ape escapes from exploitative captivity, falls in love with a blond American actress, and when society objects to that, he strikes back and pays the ultimate price. We always kept it in mind that our Ape was a well-intentioned and sympathetic primate. Just don’t make him mad.

Mimi Leder (as clapper loader) on set with actors Joanna DeVarona and Rod Arrants (whose face is obscured). Photo © Reuben Leder.

BH: What about casting? Were you involved in casting at all, or do you know anything about that?

RL: I wasn’t involved in the casting. Remember, I was only the co-writer—and the sound man. I can tell a couple of stories about that part later.

Although I don’t know how we got Joanna, I do remember I was really impressed that she was Olympic swimming gold medalist Donna DeVarona’s sister. Joanna eventually lived down A*P*E and became known as Joanna Kerns. She starred in Growing Pains, which ran for most of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s—167 episodes! Also, coincidentally, she was a guest star in two episodes of Magnum P.I. and, for the last couple of decades, has been a constantly working director of note. My sisters and I have remained friends with her ever since. Our friendship with Joanna was one of the great things that came out of A*P*E.

BH: Has Joanna Kerns ever talked to you or have you ever heard anything about her thoughts about the film in the years since then?

RL: We’ve occasionally reminisced, and she laughs about the experience and looks back on it fondly. I’m guessing she probably wasn’t laughing so much immediately after the movie came out, as she had a serious acting career to worry about. Fortunately, prior to Growing Pains and her other successes, it was still the pre-computer age, and the average person couldn’t easily look up an actor’s credits, so she survived A*P*E. Lots of actors at the time would leave credits they didn’t particularly care for off their resumes. Now, of course, they can’t. I have no idea if Joanna did or not, but clearly A*P*E did not destroy her career, nor anyone else’s that I’m aware of.

A funny story concerning Joanna, or her character. You can see it in the film. The Ape’s paw—the one that scoops her up and goes off with her—was built on a system of ropes and pulleys with huge stones for weight and ballast. Clearly, this was not high tech. A whole lot of crew had to pull and yank on ropes to manipulate the paw, which was not easy. And it was really hard for them to make it appear that the paw was actually grabbing her before taking off with his true love. So, when the Ape scooped her up, watch how Joanna almost has to literally jump into the paw. (laughs) It’s pretty funny. But Joanna sold it well by screaming. She was an incredible screamer. And, believe me, she had to scream a lot.

Staying with casting: I had mentioned earlier that our dad also began in the business as an actor. In A*P*E, he played the character of Dino—I wonder where that name came from—who was the director of the movie-within-the-movie that was shooting in South Korea. Because of all his ear issues, Dad had to wear hearing aids. At any rate, he used his real impairment in the movie, constantly improvising, with lots of “What? What did you say?” and the like. In fact, maybe those weren’t improvisations; he really couldn’t hear well. At any rate, he used his real-life disability as a running gag for the Dino character. At least it amused him—and of course us. Because whenever he didn’t want to answer a question, he’d always say, “What? What?” as he fiddled with the hearing aids. So usually we were laughing so hard we forgot the question we were asking.  

One of the Korean actors, Nak-hun Lee, was not only a really good guy, and a good actor, but he was featured in one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in the film. He played a police captain who stood outside his jeep reporting to his superiors via portable phone as to the progress of the marauding monkey, doing pages and pages of overwritten exposition as supposedly the entire population of Seoul, running for their lives, fled past him.

Well, the budget was only able to afford about fifty to seventy-five extras, so we resorted to the old “Roman legion” trick—where the extras would run past Nak-hun Lee at the jeep, then do a U-turn behind camera, and run past the camera again. And again—and again. In those old Italian movies, that gag worked fine because the Roman legion soldiers all looked the same. They all wore the same tunics and carried spears. What made our scene stand out is, while Nak-hun Lee killed pages of dialogue, and the extras ran past him over and over again, you’d begin to recognize some of them.

In particular, a guy in a bright red sweater carrying a small laughing child. This dude went by about five times. Others would sneak looks to camera. Some stayed in character and looked terrified, while others grinned and had a good time. Of course, we didn’t have the time for a re-take, so there it is, on screen. Enjoy, folks, the next time you see the movie.

BH: On some of the posters at least, the word A*P*E is rendered like M*A*S*H, with asterisks in between the letters. I was wondering if that was something that was done by you and your father, or was that just the marketing department?

RL: Actually, the asterisks mean nothing. The reason, as I recall, was that T. K. thought this spelling of the title would inure him from any lawsuits from Dino De Laurentiis—although I’m guessing Dino probably wasn’t even aware of our project, as his monkey was way bigger than ours.

BH: One other major actor to talk about is Alex Nicol. Do you have any memories of him?

RL: Actually, I do. Going back to me as a kid, Alex and his wife were close friends with my parents. Alex and his family lived in London for a couple of years, and he did lots of English and European films, in addition to his New York and Hollywood work.

[Regarding] his participation in A*P*E, all Alex’s material was shot in a sound stage outside of Seoul. His were the first scenes we did upon arrival in South Korea. They consisted of Alex, playing a U.S. Army officer, barking orders to either the Nak-hun Lee character, or reporting to his Army superiors on the phone. All Alex’s stuff was literally shot with him sitting at a desk in a three-wall set, yelling into a phone. I can’t remember for sure, but I don’t think there’s a scene in the movie where he’s not at that location, playing to a telephone, which isn’t easy—at all.

As you pointed out, I also recorded the production sound on the movie—on an old Nagra IV recorder. Those things were mono, reel-to-reel, and the workhorse of the film industry then, from documentaries to huge features. It would sync to camera at twenty-four frames per second. Everyone used a Nagra IV.

I remember our first day at the studio. We had just arrived in Seoul, still jet-lagged. It was the middle of winter, about five degrees Fahrenheit, and this really old studio literally had a hard-packed dirt floor. It was like working on tundra. The place was heated by these noisy, old-fashioned heaters. So, running sound, I of course said, “These things gotta be turned off.” Otherwise, Alex’s dialogue would be compromised by the clanging and banging of the heaters.

Production sound in South Korea, as in most countries aside from the U.S. at the time, wasn’t that important. Fellini, for instance, shot all those classic films with a guide track and then dubbed the clean dialogue later in post-production, with the actors working off the guide track. But that wasn’t how it was done in the States; you always shot with natural sound. You only dubbed to fix a mistake, or to change someone’s voice or performance. So I remember that first day, the Korean crew didn’t really like me because the heaters had to be turned off. (laughs) It was a bumpy start, but we became good friends through the course of the shoot. Basically, though, the default is everyone hates the sound man to begin with. They always yell, “Airplane!” in the middle of a take, and it has to be re-done.

The Korean camera operator behind the scenes on A*P*E. Photo © Reuben Leder.

BH: It seems interesting to bring an actor from the U.S. to South Korea; you could have essentially shot those scenes in Los Angeles.

RL: Definitely. But I assume because the film was financed by South Korean investors, it all had to be shot there. That’s just my educated guess; I wasn’t privy to those discussions. Above my pay grade.

BH: From when to when was the movie shot?

RL: Just from my experience of freezing on that first day, I think we shot in January; it must have been right after the holidays, and we finished sometime in March.

BH: Of course, this would have been January ‘76 or December ‘75 — something like that.

RL: That sounds right.

BH: In the opening scene, there’s the two actors [on the ship]. Do you remember those actors? Do you have anything to say about how that scene was shot?

RL: I remember the scene, but not the actors so much. I believe one of them was a U.S. military guy who wanted to act.

The most memorable thing about that sequence was after the Ape escapes from the ship: He encounters a deadly shark—the one on the poster—and has to wrestle it into submission. Well, they promised us some kind of animatronic shark. However, the night before we were supposed to shoot that, the Korean line producer said they didn’t have the animatronic shark, but he had another idea almost as good.

Which was going to the fish market at 4:00 a.m. the next morning and buying a dead shark! It was hilarious in a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention kind of way.

The actor in the Ape suit really had to sell that he was wrestling a live, dangerous shark. I know we get all kinds of grief on the Internet for that scene, among others, and it might have worked better if we could have shot it in lots of quick-cut close-ups—but remember, we were stuck with the restrictive 32mm lens which didn’t allow for those kind of close-ups that would have better sold the fight. Anyway, we did the best with what we had, which was a lifeless, dead shark. Not to mention the fact that he was obviously the biggest lifeless, dead shark in history because, remember, the Ape was supposedly thirty-six feet tall!

BH: Let’s talk about how long filming lasted each day. Was this run sort of like in the Hollywood style? How was filming done, the scheduling?

RL: I don’t recall it being any different than a typical film shoot. Some days, like on any film, we went long. Often, in particular, it was because of the nature of shooting in 3-D. The special effects department integrating with camera had to be perfect. And I guess the reader might be tired of this explanation, but our resources—to say they were limited does not do justice to how little we had to work with. Also, my dad was never one to abuse a crew.

Speaking of crew abuse—not by us—there’s a sequence where the Ape is destroying a neighborhood in Seoul. He’s punching out the miniature papier-mâché apartment buildings, starting fires, etc. All was going quite well—except evidently the art department ran out of money, as not all the buildings were made out of papier-mâché. If you watch the scene carefully, the guy in the Ape suit, a young kid on the crew, a really nice guy, recoils in pain when he punches out one of the buildings—which happened to be made out of concrete, and broke his hand on screen. But the kid was a trouper. If you watch carefully, he begins punching out the remaining buildings with his other hand. It’s funny now, but we had to take him to the hospital.

Joanna DeVarona during the shooting of A*P*E. Photo © Reuben Leder.

BH: Do you remember anything specifically about him?

RL: I could be confusing him with another guy on the crew, but if I recall correctly, he was a student. It’s been almost fifty years, and I think his name is Cho Sung Gu. I could be mistaken about that, as a few different guys wore the Ape suit. Military service was compulsory [in South Korea at the time], and I remember he got drafted right after the movie wrapped. He was quite bummed, as we were for him.

In 1976, South Korea was still under a dictatorship, and one of the more onerous laws was that there was a curfew everyday from 11:00 p.m. to 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. The penalty, if you were caught out, was seven days in jail—no questions asked. Even if you were a foreigner, it didn’t matter; it was still seven days. So I remember two things about the curfew. One: I’d look out the hotel room, and literally see fist fights breaking out, as people fought each other for taxi cabs as 11:00 p.m. drew close.

And two: I was in my twenties and remember hanging out with the crew and going to restaurants and clubs at night—and occasionally missing that 11:00 p.m. deadline myself. Consequently, I was stuck overnight in all sorts of esoteric places. No follow-up questions, please. (laughs)

BH: Did you keep in touch with him after shooting? It sounds like you knew him pretty well.

RL: Unfortunately, no, because we went back to the States, and he was two years in the army. So we lost touch. Again, this was pre-Internet, so it wasn’t very easy to stay in touch with people you worked with back then.  

BH: Do you have any other memories of you or your father, the experiences that you had in Korea at the time, even away from the film set?

RL: Well, this wasn’t an experience so much as an eye-opener into the at-the-time huge gap between the rich and poor. I remember we shot at a working mine. I don’t really recall the specific scene, nor what element was being mined. But I do remember that all the miners were women. They’d go in these deep tunnels, pushing hand carts on rails, and collect these heavy rocks containing whatever minerals they were mining, and then push the heavy carts out and unload them. Probably the way it’s been done for centuries. These women worked long hours, seven days a week, and had one Sunday off per month. Their salary was the then equivalent of thirty-five cents a day. That’s twelve days off a year. Obviously, South Korea has come a long way since then, and a vibrant middle-class has developed. It’s a beautiful country, with really wonderful people.

Mimi Leder (left) and Joanna DeVarona flank the Ape suit actor. Photo © Reuben Leder.

We also had the cooperation of the U.S. military, who allowed us to shoot their war games, and we were able to integrate that footage into the movie. The U.S. Army mobilizing against the monster-ape! We were able to spend some time at a U.S. Army base outside of Seoul. It almost made me want to enlist because everything at the PX was so cheap. An expensive brand of scotch was thirty-five cents a glass—coincidentally, the same amount of money that those women miners made in a month. I just remember how gracious the liaison officer and other soldiers who were assigned to us were—really a good bunch of guys.

My sister Mimi handled second unit camera. She got some incredible war game footage, of which we used about every frame.

BH: The only other scene I can remember that maybe you have something to say about [is]: There’s a hang glider, and I think there’s another toy used in that scene where the Ape catches a guy in the hang glider.

RL: Like the snake, that was a second unit shot, so I wasn’t there.

BH: Then there’s a scene where they’re filming a [martial arts] movie — it’s another movie within a movie. They start fighting the gorilla.

RL: Again, that was second unit. The only thing I can say about it was it was another  example of us being both opportunistic and nimble enough to take advantage of a situation and incorporate into the film. Just as we did with the U.S. Army war games. I’m certain that kind of military cooperation and help could never happen today. One would have to go through so many levels of approval to get government or military assistance now. They’d have to vet the script—vet us. But, back then, they just said, “Sure, why not? Sounds like fun.” (laughs) Wow.   

BH: Just to be clear, when you say that you worked a lot of stuff into the film that you really weren’t planning on, would that include the [martial arts] movie or the hang glider?

RL: Yes, definitely. I don’t remember the particulars as to how they came about. I think the line producer knew the producer of the martial arts movie, and we “rented” them for a day. Anyway, above my pay grade.

But I do remember another scene not in the script but was illustrative of our constant need to adapt to circumstances on the ground, and that was the amusement park scene. One day, the Korean line producer told me and Dad he had access to a shut-down, non-working amusement park, and could we work it into the film? Of course we could! We needed all the footage of the Ape moving on Seoul we could get to intercut with the phone call scenes with Alex Nicol’s Army officer, as well as the police captain.

As I recall, this was an early scene in the movie and it helped us bring out the Ape’s “humanity,” so to speak. Of course, we were limited in extras, so my dad and I one night wrote a scene where a lone teacher takes her class to the amusement park to play on the rides. The Ape shows up, observes the kids having a good time, and we see that big guy is kind of touched by the innocence of the children—until the teacher and kids spot him. Then they run like hell screaming their heads off. Was kind of sad scene in a weird way. Poor Ape: No one understood him.

I remember scouting that amusement park, and I walked up the slats of the roller coaster looking for a good camera position. There were no handrails to on either side of me, just track—and before I realized it, I was about forty feet in the air with nothing to support me and thinking nothing of it. I was a rather dumb kid. Now, you couldn’t even get me to ride on a roller coaster! And, of course, the track was too narrow to get that Panasonic all the way up there. Honestly, I’m not sure how I survived my youth.

The crew goes A*P*E! Reuben Leder stands second from the left, and Mimi Leder is kneeling in the front. The Ape suit actor (in sunglasses) is kneeling on the right. Photo © Reuben Leder.

BH: In the [martial arts] movie, they fire arrows at the Ape. So, for the 3-D effect, they fire the arrows right at the camera. Do you know how that was rigged?

RL: I don’t remember how it was rigged. But I remember we always had to go out of our way to motivate either getting into situations, or lucking into situations, where we could find reasons to motivate the Ape’s enemies into throwing stuff at camera. Some of it worked nicely, like the fire arrows—and then others, not so much, like the toy cow with a battery-operated twitching tail and the poor, and much abused, dead shark.

BH: Talking about post-production, does anything stick out about putting the film together? Were there any difficulties?

RL: Although later in life I did plenty of post-production, I wasn’t involved in this one. However, Bruce MacRae, brother of actress Meredith MacRae, and the composer of the A*P*E‘s score, did a wonderful piece of music that was reminiscent of “The March Of The Siamese Children” from the musical The King and I. It was a highly successful bit of scoring. But, regarding post, Dad cut the film himself—with the help of Geraldine on the splicer. If she hadn’t have gone into casting, she would have made a very good film editor. My dad taught her. That’s sort of the ethos that guided how he made all those films. If you didn’t know something, you learned it. Also, using family was also a great way of not paying people. (laughs)

Anyway, I wasn’t around for post. I just went on with my life.

When the movie was finished, we had a big screening for all cast, crew, and friends in L.A.—about five hundred people in the theater. And what happened was about as funny as the movie itself. Film was in reels back then, and generally it took five reels to make a feature length movie. I remember at that screening, the projectionist put in reel one, then two, but accidentally skipped reel three and went directly to four. So it was one, two, four, three, five. Dad was horrified and upset. But the stunning thing was no one noticed. Continuity be damned! (laughs) A*P*E was that kind of movie.

BH: What was the most fun about making A*P*E?

RL: Not so much “fun,” but the best thing about making A*P*E was, even though we all knew we weren’t making Citizen Kane, the feeling of camaraderie that developed as the cast and crew put their hearts and talents into doing the best job we could under generally very tough conditions: bad weather, lack of resources, inferior equipment, losing locations—the list goes on. But we always found a way to make something work. Perhaps not in the way today’s audiences who are used to the magic of CGI would like—nevertheless, collectively overcoming adversity and at the end of it having a completed movie is a pretty damn good feeling.

Also, through the process of overcoming these various adversities, friendships were made: We were invited into homes or to restaurants. We learned of another culture— and, most important of all, I discovered Korean barbecue decades before it became a thing here in the States.

The process of shooting a film in another country brings people of different cultures together. A bond is made, and even if you don’t stay in touch for the rest of your lives, the moments and memories are special. In some ways, that is just as important as the movie itself.

BH: After the film was totally finished, what kind of release did it have, if any? What do you know about that?

RL: After the screening, I moved on, got married, had a kid, and wasn’t involved in the distribution of the movie. I know it played all over the world—we have quite a  collection of foreign language movie posters—and then the movie had a long and popular afterlife on video. This was as VHS became popular in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. And then its afterlife continued on the now almost obsolete DVD format. And, sooner or later, maybe even now, whoever presently owns the rights to A*P*E is probably streaming it somewhere. Not bad for a movie made about forty-five years ago for maybe two or three-hundred thousand bucks.

Reuben Leder running sound on A*P*E. Photo © Reuben Leder.

BH: In closing, do you have any final comments that you’d like to make about the film?

RL: Well, just this. The reputation of A*P*E in certain parts of the Internet where people write that it’s a lame, amateur rip-off of the 1976 King Kong is probably somewhat deserved. Technically, how could it not? Also, it was written and produced on demand. But still, we made a movie that is fun and entertaining—and yes, definitely not perfect—for probably a hundredth of the catering budget of the big studio King Kong.

And we had a damn good time doing it.

So I would invite anyone who conflates the two as if they were equal in scope and resources to fill up 120 blank pages with a script, come out from behind their keyboards, scrape some bucks together if they can, and go out and make their own movie—about anything they wish. It’s not all that easy, but easier than we had it. Like, whoever dreamed you could shoot a movie on a cell phone, or for that matter, even a cell phone?

Still, they might find the process and result fulfilling and fun. No matter what anyone anonymously says about it on the Web.  


One thought on “GOIN’ TO KOREA! Reuben Leder Remembers the Cult Classic ‘A*P*E’!

  1. I finally got to see this movie complete.
    I always wanted to because when I was nine years old in June of 1976, my father got stationed to Yongsan, Korea.
    The school I went to (Seoul American Elementary School) used to take us out on field trips about every month or so, to take in Korean culture.
    One of the trips that we took each of the two years I was there, was to Familyland, the amusement park shown in the movie. On the way there, we passed through a hilly area with huge foot prints walking in the direction of the park, and I found out that they were from a movie, but no one could tell me the name of the movie, so I forgot about it for decades until I ran across a story about it a few weeks ago that fit what I remembered. I tracked it down and finally got to watch it last night.
    It was very cool to see Seoul again the way I remember it, and I enjoyed getting some of the background of the movie.
    Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s