“If you can scare’em just once in there—you got’em.”—Michael O’Donoghue
As the Bush administration inches closer and closer to resembling a “cheap, sleazy” science fiction movie from the 1950s, I’m reminded of a conversation I had in New York with Saturday Night Live comic Michael O’Donoghue about that very subject. O’Donoghue died in 1994, but he was always ahead of his time so his humor is now totally relevant.
Michael was trying to make a picture called War of the Insect Gods. It was to be an “end of the world” film about the ascendancy of the cockroach over man.
The idea for the film was nurtured at O’Donoghue’s Project X studio in the Brill building on Broadway. However, Insect Gods never got made. Squashed roaches xeroxed onto the script pages possibly deterred the big-time investors.
And so our interview about the film, also never ran as planned in Omni magazine.
Michael and I spoke at his apartment in Chelsea. It was April 1979 and he had a terrible cold. But we first met at a French restaurant in Greenwich Village in 1973, two years before SNL was born.
Michael was on the radio in those days doing the National Lampoon show with his vivacious girlfriend, writer Anne Beatts. Anne was also with Michael at the restaurant when we met, wearing a wonderful black vintage dress with spiderweb lace back.
I’d been studying apparel design, writing occasional pieces for GQ and was about to embark on a runway fashion modeling career with designers Geoffrey Beene, Giorgio Sant’ Angelo, Bill Blass, and others.
We talked. I was melancholy. My boyfriend had gone off to the October 1973 Yom Kippur War and I had no idea when he’d be back.
Not that Halloween, but possibly Halloween 1975, Michael invited me to a party at his apartment in Chelsea, which he shared with Anne Beatts—as well as with a couple of stuffed pink flamingoes, a showcase of cheap perfume and other treasures.
It was a small pumpkin carving fest for friends Jane Curtain, John Belushi and others from the new SNL television show. I can still picture Belushi sitting backwards in a chair for much of the party staring into space. I think about him whenever I pass his old house, which sits at the end of my block in the West Village.
Michael liked to call me Clair. I could be totally wrong, but I’ve always assumed it was because of the Gilbert O’Sullivan 1970s ballad by that name: “Clair, the moment I met you, I swear. I felt as if something, somewhere had happened to me, which I couldn’t see. And then the moment I met you again I knew in my heart that we were friends. It had to be so. It couldn’t be no. . .”
And we did become friends. He asked me to come to the premiere of Woody Allen’s film Manhattan with him. His cameo as Dennis, a genius character chatting at a Museum of Modern Art cocktail party may have been his defining moment as an actor and he slept through it in the theater.
After the film we schmoozed at Woody Allen’s post-premiere party (which Woody Allen skipped) with Jessica Lange and King Kong co-star Charles Grodin, then joined Laraine Newman and Dan Akyroyd for dinner at Nirvana.
I also remember our trip one night to Al Franken’s Riverside Drive apartment for some painkillers for Michael’s migraine headache. Michael said Franken’s wife was a nurse. I recall sitting on a mattress on top of a Persian rug in Franken’s dimly-lit livingroom waiting for the Percocets to materialize.
Franken told me more recently that he has no memory of the visit and that his wife was never a nurse, although he admits she’s always had “nurse-like qualities.”
Then there was the time Michael delighted a Kuwaiti delegation by showing up as my guest at the Qatar ambassador’s UN party. I’d made some wonderful friends in the Arab world after modeling in an American bicentennial fashion tour of the Middle East. . .
Michael could also really dance, which I discovered the night we went to the Mud Club for a Betsey Johnson fashion show I was modeling in.
In fact, Michael had apparently taught Belushi some of his more important moves. Claimed Belushi had previously been “on all fours.”
Then we lost touch for a while. But just after Belushi died, I ran into Dan Aykroyd one night parking his bicycle near my apartment on W. 12th & W. 4th Streets in the Village. Writer Emily Praeger lived in the building next to mine and I assumed he was going to see her.
Aykroyd was agitated. He suspected Belushi had been murdered. Something still being discussed in court. Anthony Pellicano, the detective who assisted lawyers in getting a reduced sentence for the woman who administered the fatal speedball to Belushi, is about to go on trial this October, on charges of racketeering and wiretapping.
Shortly after my conversation with Aykroyd, I got a call from him inviting me to Michael’s 40th birthday party, which was being held at a diner one block east of the Hudson River at a time when the New York waterfront still had some Brando flavor.
I took several Saudi friends with me who were thrilled to see long-time fugitive Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman behind the counter with O’Donoghue and Lorne Michaels.
Some years later, to comfort me following my breakup with a boyfriend, Michael insisted I come to his Chelsea apartment to talk. He built a fire. Added a crickets sound track. Then he proceeded to roast figurines inside the fireplace representing my boyfriend’s ancestors.
I was as sad as everyone to hear of Michael’s death at age 54. Despite all the black humor, he was a truly lovely, vulnerable man. Fortunately, he has been appropriately acknowledged as the genius behind the creation of two of the most important comedy showcases of the 20th century: National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live.
Our interview follows:
Michael O’Donoghue: You probably shouldn’t tell people the ending.
Suzan Mazur: You don’t know who’s producing the film. Who’ll be directing?
Michael O’Donoghue: Originally we were going to have Michael Sullivan direct it. But that was when I was producing. . . . I’d love to direct it myself clearly and I’d love Michael Sullivan to work the special effects, but I don’t want him to read this in Omni magazine. . . .
Suzan Mazur: The people who wrote the script, were they all Saturday Night Live people?
Michael O’Donoghue: None of them were.
Suzan Mazur: What about Emily Praeger?
Michael O’Donoghue: Emily Praeger has worked with the National Lampoon and with other comedy projects. She’s a freelance writer.
Suzan Mazur: Dirk Wittenborn?
Michael O’Donoghue: No. Wittenborn is a writer and friend. Wrote a book called Eclipse. And Mitch Glazer [later co-wrote Scrooged with O’Donoghue] was editor of Crawdaddy. Writes for Rolling Stone. He’s a good young writer.
Suzan Mazur: What kind of budget do you think you’ll need for this movie?
Michael O’Donoghue: When I first began this I thought we could do it on $200,000. That’s before I knew anything about the business at all.
Suzan Mazur: That’s when you were going to do it for television? Now you want it as a feature film?
Michael O’Donoghue: To be quite honest, in terms of how much I know about unions and how much it now costs to work officially in New York City, it’ll cost about $2 million.
Suzan Mazur: To do it for television or as a feature film?
Michael O’Donoghue: To do it for a movie. It’s not going to be done for television. It’s too black for television. Television doesn’t want to admit it has those dreadful roach ads on anyway. Do you know what I mean? They won’t let us see an hour and a half of it. . . .
The whole thing is that I want it done in black and white, because it doesn’t make any sense at all to do it in color. It’s kind of like a nightmare. A lot of people are nervous about that.
Suzan Mazur: How important do you think it is to do this film in black and white?
Michael O’Donoghue: Very important. So important that I turned down someone who wanted to do it in color. That important.
Because, it’s not a real thing. It’s a nightmare. And also it is an homage to Roger Corman and the AIP—the American International Picture films of the 1950s. And it couldn’t be in color just to do that. Just to evoke that feeling, it couldn’t be in color.
I don’t know why people are so nervous about that. Woody Allen’s new movie Manhattan is in black and white.
Suzan Mazur: When is that going to be around?
Michael O’Donoghue: About a month, I think.
Suzan Mazur: Great, look forward to seeing it.
Michael O’Donoghue: Yeah me too.
Suzan Mazur: What part of the movie are you in?
Michael O’Donoghue: I don’t know. I never saw the rest of the script. I only saw sides. Working with Woody Allen is like filming Howard Hughes’s will. It’s a very mysterious and strange event. You never get a peek at the whole will. But anyway, right now a lot of pictures are coming out are in black and white and it’s strange people don’t realize that is part of the event, it’s part of the statement that you’re making.
Suzan Mazur: How would you describe the plot of this story?
Michael O’Donoghue: It’s an end of the world I guess. I guess you’d currently call it disaster movie. But really they weren’t disaster movies. They were more end of the world movies. This is more an end of the world movie.
Suzan Mazur: What do you mean they were more end of the world movies?
Michael O’Donoghue: The movies of the 50s that dealt with this sort of thing were more end of the world movies. Where Poseidon Adventure was definitely a disaster movie. End of the world was an earlier genre.
[A hang-up phone call]
Suzan Mazur: Do you feel similarly to Gore Vidal about this? I’m thinking about his book Kalki.
Michael O’Donoghue: Didn’t read it.
Suzan Mazur: The Hindu god Kalki, harbinger of the end of the world, is reincarnated as an ex-soldier. And his end of the world scenario includes only a few people.
Michael O’Donoghue: That whittles the cast right down to a musical number.
Suzan Mazur: But they’re not able to really provide life sustaining things for one another and so they begin dying too.
Vidal says we’re witnessing a collapse of Western civilization. I was wondering if this is the statement you’re making with the film—where the roaches become the new civilization and the humans dwindle to a few? And at the end of the movie you don’t really know about the fate of those few.
Michael O’Donoghue: Hopefully—and it’s hard for man to make that jump – hopefully at the end you don’t care about the fate of the few. You don’t care about the fate of man. You see that civilization has advanced in another way. That it’s the roaches that have inherited the Earth. That have become the gods.
Suzan Mazur: Look what’s happening in New York for instance. There’s graffiti everywhere, phones don’t work—a new casualness perhaps, but a collapse of civilized life nonetheless from the 50s and 60s.
Michael O’Donoghue: The film being set in New York City, you get that sense of destruction. You know in The Birds. . .
[Phone call from Franne—SNL set and costume designer Franne Lee. Tells her —coughing—“Yeah, I’m bad.” And to pick whoever she wants. Some mention of Eugene, the other set designer for the show.]
In Hitchcock’s The Birds, the attack of the birds seems to be the result of some sticky sexual situation that you can never quite put your finger on what’s wrong there. It’s a spooky movie. And Psycho does the same thing. There is a subplot. And this has that quality. Certainly in the middle of decay. It’s a real study in decay—decay of a civilization. . . .
Suzan Mazur: So there is a serious premise to the movie.
Michael O’Donoghue: Things that work out well have a certain roundness about them. And it’s hard to justify the intelligence. They just have a feel about them. And you feel your way through them and you come out with something that’s very powerful and mythic. And you don’t quite know how you got there. I think this story has a lot of those elements.
It began as this desire to do this science fiction movie about perhaps one of the last insects left that nobody’s done anything on, which is the cockroach—and truly one of the most frightening insects. Because the more you know about those cockroaches. The true facts about those cockroaches.
We dealt with an entomologist named Betty Faber—they are frightening. Terrifying. They can go 50 yards a minute, the American cockroach. They do amazing things. They’re very fast. They’re very smart. They’re very adaptable. They procreate amazingly.
The more you know about those facts. . . I really now really fear my kitchen—where I just used to see a few bugs—now I’m terrified of the creatures.
Anyway, the title The War of the Insect Gods came before we had that ending, before we knew they had become gods. That we knew the evolutionary cycle they went through. Before we even knew anything about that. We had an ending.
The transformation scene, where man is becoming insect and insect has become at least man and beyond that—a flying, godlike, shimmering, diaphanous, beautiful creature.
We didn’t have any of that. We were just kind of fascinated with this certain period of American science fiction films and the look and feel of it. It all kind of fell together very well.
Suzan Mazur: It’s funny, Michael Sullivan keeps this roach colony in his loft. He says he doesn’t have any hostility left toward them. That he’s grown to like roaches in fact. Also, that they’re really independent. They’re not like ants or bees who are very social. Which is another frightening thing, I think. A human quality.
Michael O’Donoghue: I could never relate to them.
Suzan Mazur: Michael Sullivan’s got a suspended terrarium. He’s put a space ship in there and a human. Watches the roaches crawl around the human. He’s rimmed the planter with vaseline to prevent escape.
Michael O’Donoghue: Ooouu that’s what keeps them in. I know that. But they have a terrible smell.
Anyway, this entomologist had a lot of different kind of roaches at the Museum of Natural History. One of them was a Madagascar hissing roach, which has got to be seen to be believed. I almost passed out. She reached in and picked up this huge three-inch cockroach.
Suzan Mazur: I saw her on television. The roach was chasing Jerry Lewis.
Michael O’Donoghue: Oh that would be fun. A Madagascar hissing roach chasing Jerry Lewis. That would be a really neat treat.
This whole thing of a one and a half-inch roach going more than 50 yards in three seconds, nervous system so efficient. . . This entire thing we wrote this. And boy did we read a lot on roaches. I used to give out roach quizzes. We took true facts—there’s not a lie in here – and made the most terrifying statement out of it.
It can live for two months on water alone and if starving will shed and eat its own skin. If you cut a cockroach’s leg, it will grow another. If you decapitate one, they’ll live as long as three days. Boy they are tough mothers those cockroaches.
That happens to be my secret fear. Insects are my secret fear. That’s what terrifies me more than anything—insects.
Suzan Mazur: Cats and dogs have flow, flesh, are soft. Insects so brittle. . .
Michael O’Donoghue: Spiders don’t frighten me as much, but they’re not insects are they.
Suzan Mazur: No Arachnids.
In this one scene where you have all the roaches mating to a background of violin music. In light of the difficulties Robert Klein experienced presenting mating paramecia—is that going to be hard to do—to get around the censors?
Michael O’Donoghue: Very easy.
Suzan Mazur: Because Klein was doing it for television.
Michael O’Donoghue: Basically that scene is insects crawling over each other. Really that would say that if you did the violin music and saw them. It’s very easy to make insects move. Because they do move mechanically without the rippling of flesh as you mentioned. They move more like real tinker toys and you can make models of them quite easily. Very convincingly. Because they’re rigid.
Suzan Mazur: So you think you might use models. . .
[Joanne, housekeeper walks through and startles Michael. Discussion of laundry ensues.]
Michael O’Donoghue: We’ll build models of that scene. So we’ll probably have to use those models again in the end. Have you seen that big model? Well you just sit right there.
If you make 40 or 50 models and if you make a giant sewer then shoot that thing, you’d never know the difference.
[Michael re-enters room whistling Sesame Street, carrying a giant roach.]
Suzan Mazur: Oh no!
Michael O’Donoghue: That’s got some tail. Now this is one size we considered doing for that scene. It’s semi-translucent. You can shine light through it. Got that translucent quality.
Suzan Mazur: Who made that?
Michael O’Donoghue: Bill Dill.
[Michael coughing] Oh god. I’m going to kill myself.
Suzan Mazur: Who’s going to star in this movie? Have you decided that?
Michael O’Donoghue: Well, if I had my way. I spoke to people who at that time were interested in doing it if it was a movie. Time has passed and a lot of things have changed.
Suzan Mazur: You mentioned Dan Aykroyd.
Michael O’Donoghue: Dan was just going to do a silly little thing. A surprise cameo.
Suzan Mazur: I could see him doing Deadly Ed. He did that Crazy Frank routine on Saturday Night Live so brilliantly.
Michael O’Donoghue: Billy is who I want to play Deadly Ed. Cause he’s both a romantic lead and he’s a little sleazy. He looks like that exterminator kind of guy [this is pre-Ghost Busters]. And yet he’s a guy who can take on heroic proportions and look like an attractive American hero, which is what that range is. In fact, he is ideal for me Billy for what I want in that.
And one time Joan Hackett was interested and still is very interested in playing that Mrs. Dealing, the rich woman, who falls. A lot of archetypes in this you know.
Suzan Mazur: And what about Emily?
Michael O’Donoghue: Emily Praeger?
Suzan Mazur: No Emily in the story Emily.
Michael O’Donoghue: Emily in the story Emily is one of the writers. Emily Praeger was going to play that. I think she’d be great at it. A druggie. She has good eyes. She has the eyes of a druggie.
She’s an actress. She used to be on Love of Life for a couple of years. She used to play Laurie, I think.
At one time Carrie Fisher was going to play the nurse that gets eaten. Remember the nurse that gets eaten. Just reaches in and her hand gets caught. One of the terrible fears of reaching into a garbage disposal and all at once AYYYEEE!—something grabs you from inside. That’s a terrible fear.
Suzan Mazur: What are the chances Mayor Koch will be cast as Mayor Koch?
Michael O’Donoghue: Oh boy. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? There are not even any chances of the movie being made so who knows what happens with Mayor Koch?
The detective would have to be a very good character. I’d like to make it as real as possible. Shoot it in New York City. It would have to be shot in New York City.
Suzan Mazur: Definitely a roach movie should be shot in New York City. What other special effects do you have in mind?
Michael O’Donoghue: Well, in order for the end to come off with the giant scene of insects on Park Avenue—that would be a large complex special effect. It’s funny even at a cost of a couple million dollars, this script is almost written with the camera facing the other way when the disaster happens. Cause we were so poor at writing the script. It’s such a poor script—that wherever the world is blowing up—the camera is watching someone look at the world blowup. We never quite see. And we just tantalize them and tease for a variety of reasons. Not just suspense—some of them are financial. But even with that – it’s still hard to make this movie today.
It’s funny, looking at these real cheap kind of movies from the 1950s, cheap, sleazy movies which we’re using as a take off for it—those movies would cost about $5m, $10m to make those movies today. At least $5m to make those really sleazy movies. Cause everything has gotten so much more expensive in terms of moviemaking.
Suzan Mazur: Why did you choose the location of the Pan Am Building—that areaof Park Avenue for the ending? Oh you don’t want to talk about the ending.
Michael O’Donoghue: Oh I’ll talk about the ending. I needed a large expanse. For no other reason than I needed a recognizable New York City vista that I could stick millions of crawling insects on. I needed basically walls that went up and that’s the only New York City place that people might know. It’s boxed. What it is called is a blocked sight line. A cathedral sort of atmosphere.
Suzan Mazur: Yeah. It has that imperial kind of feeling. With the gilt effect.
Michael O’Donoghue: If only they’d clean it. . . .There are some good surprises in it. We’re using the science fiction clichés of the 1950s to set the mind off in a certain direction, then sabotage it with a surprise.
Suzan Mazur: Really—the part where the food is discovered in the supermarket and it turns out to be poisonous.
Michael O’Donoghue: Oh, that’s a real mean scene. That kills off all the major characters. All the people you thought were going to survive. And they were getting on with one another. The black woman and the black guy and the guardsman and the rich woman always hated each other—getting on, being real nice.
Suzan Mazur: And the part where the Japanese guy wants to buy his way into the community and they’re not accepting money and he offers his wife. So true to life.
Michael O’Donoghue: That’s a mean scene too. Gets very cruel in there.
Well, what happens is this situation breaks up and everybody gets real freaky. The survivors get stranger and stranger. . . Taking a character type and if it had nothing to stop it, what it would end up like in two years. So you get these real freaks living all off by themselves. Like Emily—just doing drugs. Just living to do drugs.
Suzan Mazur: Or designing costumes.
Michael O’Donoghue: That’s right.
Suzan Mazur: There’s never an end to fashion. I love when everyone took off with their favorite thing to the shelter. The teenage girl with the aquarium. The woman with the fur coat and all her jewels.
Michael O’Donoghue: Oh that’s a nice scene as people begin dropping their things in the street. Clearly, it would cost a lot to fill up Times Square with extras for that scene. But we figured that if we could just get a sound truck, a real sound truck. And some time on Times Square play really weird stuff through the sound truck—we could get everybody just to stop like that. And the thing we were going to play was the amplified track of an auto wreck—of a mass auto wreck.
It’s very hard for people to appreciate this kind of science fiction because the area that science fiction has gone into—the Star Wars and special effects rocket science. That’s only one type of science fiction that American film was developing and that’s the Silent Earth kind of science fiction movie.
Suzan Mazur: I think the Japanese helped create that kind of Star Wars effect by making those phony looking giant monsters.
Michael O’Donoghue: But they also did the kind of movie that I’m interested in, which is the very paranoid—the black paranoia movie. Where creatures were. . . The Day of the Triffids is an example where these creatures from outer space, kind of tree-like creatures, hundreds of them come toward you and make a certain cracking sound. There’s no justification for them really. They just come and you can’t stop them. You become hunted.
The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price – which has a considerable influence on this script incidentally.
Oh it’s awful! Everybody on Earth is a vampire except Vincent Price. Every night they try to come and kill him. And he kills them during the daytime. And his wife and children—everybody he knows are all vampires cause they don’t die. And they come to the door and say, ” LET ME IN.” It was made in Italy in the 50s and it was just terrifying. And again it was in black and white.
If it’s ever on, I’ll call you.
It’s like a terrible malevolent dream that’s beyond the movie that you can’t shake. It gets in your head. You just can’t shake it. Good movies are always like that. It’s like those dreams you have. It’s one in the afternoon. You still can’t get whatever that shiver is out of you.
Suzan Mazur: I saw a hysterical one. Italian film. People camping—on safari. There was a voodoo area nearby and one of the women from camp wanted to venture there to take pictures. At a certain time of night the voodoo people arise from the ground. Stones fall away and these voodoo figures come up with ashen faces wearing straw hats. They discover the woman’s there taking pictures and begin moving toward here. Then the queen of the voodoo people appears dressed in leopard skins with vampire fangs and blonde teased hair—the makeup was definitely Italian. . .
Michael O’Donoghue: Then you got to be dressed in leopard skins and vampire fangs too. . . .
Suzan Mazur: They did it in slow motion so you could really see the fangs flashing in the campfire light. So they made this woman into a voodoo vampire princess with leopard skins and vampire fangs. And one by one they got all the women in the camp.
Really silly. It’s hard not to laugh at those movies now. At the time, though, they were scary.
Michael O’Donoghue: I used to laugh at them. Even a movie like Night of the Living Dead, which I think is a very good one of this kind of genre. You laugh all the way through that film except suddenly a hand comes through a window and grabs somebody and everybody in the theater jumps including yourself.
Laughter’s always about a release of tension. But it only releases so much tension. No matter how ludicrous it is. In order to scare people you have to take some BIG CHANCES.
You have to get ludicrous.
There’s always some pea soup in the vomit.
You always go a touch too far. You always get into some ludicrous ground.
If you can scare’em just once in there—you got’em, you know. It’s fun to try to trick people.
Suzan Mazur: There was a real nightmare on the news last night. There was a discussion of the human waste problem from New Jersey. Apparently, something’s happened to the sludge control center and they have to take by boat all the human waste out to the ocean somewhere. And they’re thinking they may not be able to take it that far—they may just dispose of everything in the bay somewhere. Makings of a scifi movie . . .
Michael O’Donoghue: Don’t you feel that the end of the Earth is going to come one of these days?
Suzan Mazur: Yes, there are just too many people.
Michael O’Donoghue: That’s the way I feel. We grew up in a nuclear shadow. So whenever I hear a live explosion, I think well that’s it. And it doesn’t scare me that much. Not anymore.
Suzan Mazur: The end of the world?
Michael O’Donoghue: You almost kind of accept it cause it’s so much a part of our. . .
Suzan Mazur: There was a David Susskind Show a couple of weeks ago with some of the futurists, the editor of Omni magazine, Isaac Asimov, etc. And Asimov said he felt we were at a pivotal point, equating it with the time of the discovery of fire. He predicted that if humans didn’t start living in space—that by the end of the 20th century the planet would really start destructing because of the thermal factor.
Michael O’Donoghue: I never thought I’d live out my natural life span. I’ve always thought that something is going to happen. One of those strange diseases will start down along the Nile somewhere and mysteriously kill 23 in a Peruvian village. . .