Out of Bounds

Who's No. 1?

Richard O'Brien's 'Rocky' road to stardom

By Howard Waldrop





I'm no fanatic.

I only saw Rocky Horror Picture Show twenty times before the dress-up crowd began to show up and make the soundtrack inaudible.

I know that I'd never seen a movie like it before, and neither had a lot of other people, to judge by the reactions in those first six months of its run in Austin.

Those pre-Rocky days seem like the Lower Pleistocene now, and the film is a midnight show fixture throughout the l country. Dr. Frank N. Furter, Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott seem to have entered our collective psyches since those dim times.

Richard O'Brien wrote the original Rocky Horror Show play, adapted it for the screen, and played Riff-Raff in both. He was in town on a promotional tour for his new film, Shock Treatment.

I entered his hotel room. O'Brien is incredibly thin, looks a little like Max Schreck from the original Nosferatu. His features are as sharp as Agnes Moorehead's axe, and his head is shaved for the tour.

He wore Riff-Raff black clothing, white spats and python shoes. He moved with an actor's grace and offered me a glass of wine.

He doesn't strike me as the type to go walking down Congress Avenue early in the morning, but that's just what he had finished doing.

"If the street were half as wide, it could almost be Tauranga (a town near Aukland in New Zealand where he grew up). Same age buildings, atmosphere. On tours like this, one never gets to see the cities. I think the only way to get to know a town is by walking it, don't your he asks.

ME: Did you know you were creating a whole Saturday night business when you wrote Rocky Horror?

O'BRIEN: Not at all. It was originally supposed to be a bit of nonsense to fill up five weeks in London. It eventually played seven years. We took it to LA in 1973, and it was a hit there. We brought it to New York and told them, "This is the hit play you've heard about." The critics there said, "No, we tell you when you have a hit. You don't have a hit."

ME: Did you have any large expectations about the movie?

O'BRIEN: No. We made it, and we went through the New York thing, and the movie went into release and seemed to have gone nowhere. It was so left field, I'm not sure they knew how to advertise it. I was doing other things, busy, you know, and about nine months later it began its runs as midnighters, all that. It didn't turn the financial corner until three years after it was released.

ME: What does the sight of 5000 people doing the Time Warp do to you?

O'BRIEN: It's sort of amazing. Anytime you see, hear anyone singing or doing bits you, as a writer or actor, created there's sort of a feeling of disbelief. Nice, too.

ME: Since you were involved in so many phases of it, how did Rocky Horror change while you were filming it?

O'BRIEN: Most of the changes actually came during the play's rehearsal. So many ideas were flying around. For about five weeks, we added, changed, expanded. I tend to underwrite. That keeps me from having to cut a line later. We'd finish rehearsal and aim Sharman would say, "Good. By the way, Richard, I need a song right here in the script."

I'd say, 'Oh, God'; go home, wash up and drink something, and start playing the guitar. "Toucha-Toucha-Touch Me" was written like that, overnight. Some of the things I sweated on three weeks were never used. I wrote a song literally in the shower for Shock Treatment.

ME: Okay, is Shock Treatment a sequel, prequel, or what?

O'BRIEN: It's an equal. We started at one time to do a sequel. Got part way through with the script and said, this, this is just Brad and Janet in Another World. Same thing. Decided that wasn't the way to go, at all. It ran through five drafts, and now we have Shock Treatment.

ME: An equal?

O'BRIEN: Yes. It's a movie that delves into marriage, into manipulation. We explore the characters in a controlled setting, seeing what makes them go, what motivates them. We see how people can use each other, what they do, how they change. We see a woman trying to find those things which she thought marriage would give her but hasn't. We see what happens when a man becomes uncentered.

ME: All this through Brad and Janet?

O'BRIEN: Amazing, isn't it?

ME: Shock Treatment, like Rocky Horror, is relatively low budget. In these days of super blockbusters, were there any problems getting it financed?

O'BRIEN: No, we were promised the money from the start. But by a fortunate stroke of luck, there was an actor's strike or something, and the funds were frozen. This made us change things, find new ways to do it, cut corners. Then we hit on the idea of doing it in a TV studio, in a controlled environment keeping everything close. I think it worked creatively, and we saved a million from the budget.

ME: Do you think lower-budget films are going to make a comeback?

O'BRIEN: I hope Shock Treatment is one of the first. It makes sense to do five movies for thirty million, hoping three will do well, rather than rolling it all on one film.

ME: You're a writer, lyricist, actor. Do you enjoy any one of these more than the others?

O'BRIEN: No, I like them all. Doing different things, especially going from one to the other. If the writing is going badly, you can pick up the guitar and work on songs. Acting takes you away from those. I've done some acting lately on things which I had no hand in, creatively. It was nice to do that for a while, being an actor only, rather than trying to handle three or four jobs. But I like the challenge of each.

ME: Were you as changed by seeing Attack of the 55 Foot Woman (1958) as I was?

O'BRIEN: I don't think that one ever made it to Britain. But I do remember the final lines from The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), where Grant Williams steps through the windowscreen and says. ..

And O'Brien gives the ten or twelve lines verbatim. O'Brien has been animated, laughing, talking during the interview. The photographer gets ready to take some pictures.. Each time the shutter is about to click, O'Brien goof into the narrow eyed look with which Riff-Raff first greets Brad and Janet.

He gave a particularly glum scowl for the last shot.

"I'd like two prints of that one," he said.