Harrison Ellenshaw Interview "Watcher In The Woods" (Second Ending)
NOTE: There are spoilers here - watch the film before reading this interview.
HE - This is the second film I've done where I kept a journal. The other was CAPTAIN EO.
(for the Disney theme park.) God I have a lot a stuff.
SB - How many different endings were considered when it was decided to change the
Watcher in the Woods?
HE - Well the film was released then it was pulled. The story department and various people
at the studio all came up with endings. I have all those endings in a package. They were
all awful and that was part of the problem. They appeared to come up 3 endings that were submitted to the story department, who in turn came out with their own versions.
SB - ...all for the second version?!
HE - Yes. I had absolutely nothing to do with the first version. I wasn't even at the studio. I was working on EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So the first thing I did was look at the film. Then I went through all these endings, which all wretched.
SB - Did anyone ever go back to the book it was based on?
HE - There must've been a reason that I didn't go back to the book. Or I did and just don't remember. But you're absolutely right. That is something, I think anybody would do. So when I was asked to come aboard I was handed a pile of these endings, roughly a 152.
SB - As it stands, your ending is closer to the book on a basic level. Different, but still closer. After you proposed your ending was it changed?
HE - It got modified but basically what we shot was what I wrote.
SB - So the Watcher, as you proposed, was that pillar of light and not the creature.
HE - It was.
SB- Now that you came up with a "new" Watcher how were you going to pull it off?
HE - I didn't think that the pillar of light was going to be terribly difficult to do. In fact I probably found the other stuff I did more challenging. We did a lot of different tests. Finally, I came up with the idea of dropping this tar substance over a form. I've always
liked the impression gravity gives to falling objects when played in reverse. As something falls it escalates then you play it backwards and it really looks neat.
SB - So that's what we're seeing when the Watcher is forming?
HE - Yes. As you look at the image of it forming. It's the tar substance falling from a skull but played backwards. The image of the face, of the skull, is really subliminal. I wanted to give an impression without being over barring. Like an alien, or
something scary. It a traditional kind of image that's supposed to be scary.
SB - It's really a great effect enhanced with the leaves blowing away from under it as it glides down the chapel isle.
HE - Those leaves were really a pain in the neck. It's really tough to isolate wind and the movement of the leaves the way you want it.
SB - How did you finally do it?
HE - Well it was done with fans and with funnels. Sort of leaf blowers. But 1980 there weren't any leaf blowers so we had to come up with something on our own. It was very difficult to do. We even considered matting in the leaves.
SB - I guess the cost ruled that out.
HE - That was a concern of course.
SB - When the apparition approaches Jan it covers her, changes color and seems to take on a different shape. Did you at any time plan for it to materialize into anything more concrete?
HE - No. It only takes a " form” but nothing ever too substantial. I wanted it to surround her and then take her off. It was like putting her under its arm and off it goes.
SB - In a way - as in the original ending…
HE - In a way, yes. Except in this ending she was meant to switch places with Karen. Except she's saved by Mike. Part of the reason for changing the ending was to make Mike the hero. In the original ending there was no hero.
SB - That's what I liked about the original. They all seemed to be at the whim or mercy of this unknown thing which puts the main characters even with the audience. Each are trying to guess how to beat the obstacle. In a sense, it's truer to life, and less theatrical.
HE - You're absolutely right that's what life is like. But that's why, I think, people like movies. The hero is in control. I agree with you one hundred percent, but in 1980 I wouldn't have agreed with you. Because of that I feel movies, especially the ending, are a direct reflection of the writer, director, and those in control. This ending I worked on is a real reflection of me. I'm not saying that makes it good. It's just a different way of concluding the story. I hope, in a satisfying way.
SB - So you wanted a more science fiction ending than a supernatural one?
HE - I wanted a more ambiguous looking Watcher. I didn't want anything that you could reach out and touch. That was the biggest problem with the first version, I thought. It came across too much as a monster. I thought making it more of a "ghost" film with a Watcher that was less concrete added to this transition of the girls. Even though that's still science fiction. …and you know, probably what's so difficult about the film, is that it's a mixed genre. It breaks those rules that have been traditionally set up. That's not a bad thing but, I think it does make it difficult for the audience. There have been successful films that have done that, but it just lessens their chances of success.
SB - So you think the original edit tried to be too much?
HE - That's one of the reasons we got rid of the original opening.
SB - You mean the titles that were shown over a burning doll?
HE - Yes. As powerful as it was it really made the Watcher into an evil kind of thing. I mean, if he's struggling to get back to wherever he came from then why would he be going around frightening little girls. It brings up feelings towards the Watcher that is difficult to
resolve at the end. In other words, the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME doesn't work here because the character of the Watcher is never developed. I don't know how it is in the book but is was a path the film went down and had difficulty in transposing.
SB - Well in the book the Watcher is handled differently because it's a completely different thing. The same is true with the first version of the film. The Watcher is completely different, not only in its physical appearance but in its character.
HE - With a book there's a whole different set of rules. A lot of books just don't translate into film. When they do, it's great! You're right, this aimed to be a film that bit off more than it could. Perhaps it just needed that one scene that could put the right message across.
SB - It's strange you said that because I remember talking to Tom (Tom Leetch, Co-Producer) about a scene in the book where the Watcher communicates to Jan and her father through the T.V. It shows them where it came from and the images come out of the set and into room as a three dimensional representation of it journey to its home. Images, like in the movie SPHERE fly through the room. Whole planets fly by the characters.
HE - Oh that sounds great.
SB - I don't know why they didn't use that?
HE - You know why? Because they couldn't do it. At the time it was a small studio, somewhat behind the times, and of course cost was a factor. But you know, that scene would have helped pay off the ending. Especially mine. Too often in films that deal in big
endings the audience is not given a taste of it earlier on. So it seems to come out of left field and in spite of itself does not succeed. People then say, "Now wait a minute this is outside the rules you've set up though out the movie." People are very willing to suspend their disbelief providing that rules are set down and followed.
SB - Is that one of the reasons you decided on the Watcher to be a being made of energy? Simplifying its look, its origins and elevating questions?
HE - Well I'm a great believer that simpler is better. After I went through all the endings I just sat down and felt we have to get as basic as possible. Otherwise I'd be like everyone else, trying to come up with a "clever" ending, with a little twist. I did fall into that trap a little bit when I came up with an epilogue. Fortunately I saw the error of my ways and didn't use it.
SB - A closing statement of documentation would now be considered an "X File's" way of closing the story. Like the book CARRIE, it was written, through news reports and periodicals.
HE - Well the success of the X-Files is that we the audience never know everything. It the mystery.
SB - But you know where it all springs from? Bram Stoker. The novel DRACULA is written in journal format. Jonathan Harker writes, "We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us!"
HE - Oh that's interesting. You know, generally notation or narration doesn't work in film. There are great exceptions. I think most people just feel, "I just spent my money, now I have to read, to work! Come on, thrill me, show me.", That's what influenced me in
making the changes I did. That's why I made Ellie a sort of narrator, for the Watcher to speak through. True, but it also brought her back into the story when in the original she was kinda left out. It's also a natural for you to make that discussion because the Watcher uses her earlier in the film, more than once. Oh absolutely. It also gave her a reason for being a kinda of wacky little kid from the beginning.
SB - Only now the mother is thrown out where she was originally in the ending. Then again, the father never really played a part of any importance.
HE - Well I think at the time the actor (David McCaCallum) wasn't available for the re-shoot. But you're right he didn’t really play an important part.
SB- I think that's because in the book it centered on the women and the different generations. It's kinda of a coming of age story for Jan really. She sees how the disappearance of Karen has affected different people. She thinks about Mrs. Alwood and how she’s grown old waiting for her daughter to return. It makes her consider her own mother and the realization her becoming like Mrs. Alwood and in turn seeing herself becoming like her mother. None of that is touched in the film. It concentrated on being only a thriller.
HE - But you see that's typical of a lot of Hollywood people and what they think a story is really about.
SB - You also worked on the alterations made on the rest of the film. I believe you wanted some previous effects changed too?
HE - Yes. Nothing big. There's a scene where there's a flash of light from the Watcher that blinds a truck driver. It was too blue so I had it toned down. AlI so there was the bleeding hand from the cracked glass. we lessened the blood. It was too red.
SB - Would you have expected any less from a director of Hammer films? (BOTH LAUGH)
HE - But you know, everything shot for the second version was by a different director.
SB - Really!
HE - Yeah. It was Vince. I had spoken to John Hough (pronounced Huff) the original director who was working on another film at the time in Canada, BRASS TARGET, I think. We tried to give John a chance to direct it but he couldn't so we consulted him. I wanted to direct it myself but they wouldn't let me. Vince McEveety did it, uncredited because you have to have done a certain percentage of the film in order to get credit. It’s all union regulations. None were broken. Vince was chosen because he had done previous work for the studio. He did a lot of Disney television. I think he also did a HERBIE, film. And he went to great lengths to be true to the style of the director. The film is stylish. With those close-ups of the car wheels, the swirling camera looking up at the house...
SB - The fish-eye lens.
HE - Yes. That's John Hough. That's why, whenever possible, Vince tried to choose shots as John would. One thing about Vince, he's very good at placing a camera to state geography. You know, where people are in relation to each other. I think back to how I would have done it and I see that Vince brought with him experience that made it work - different and better than I would have done it..
SB – Any other changes?
HE - I know we had some discussions about when the family first visits the house. Then there were little things. Like when Jan first senses the Watcher. I think it was an overly dramatic zoom shot that was cut. Her reaction was way too much. Like she saw something horrific. It was too much for the first reel. I wanted it to me more subtle. To ease into the mystery.
SB - Then again, she was reacting to a film with a different protagonist. The Watcher was totally different. Her reaction was not in tune with your watcher.
HE - I suppose so. We also shot a different beginning. We went back to the same woods, the same location in England.
SB - Did you have any input with the editing of the final segment?
HE - Yes. When we finished shooting Vince went off to do another show and Tom (Leetch) and I worked with the original editor.
SB - Were there any mattes done for the second version?
HT - There was probably the eclipse and I think the matte department put together some of the elements on the Watcher. But I'm not too sure. David Mattingly was head of the matte department then.
SB - What about the chapel set for the final scene?
HE - Everything was reconstructed with the same Production Designer, Elliot Scott. A wonderful man, an old time English production designer. They had saved all the parts of the set. Everything was reconstructed and then a wall and a doorway was shipped back to Burbank to shoot where Bette Davis walks in.
SB - Truthfully all the new footage was matched in perfectly.
HE - Oh yeah. They did a great job. It was great. Very gratifying.