As told to TOM WEAVER

The idea for The Underwater City started with my wife Ruth Gordon, or "Ruth Alexander" as she called herself professionally. In an issue of American Weekly, she saw an article about scientists looking into the possibility of a farm type of community on the floor of the ocean. The idea was to build structures on land, tow them out to sea and lower them to the bottom, where the inhabitants would harvest the sea (fish, plant life and other edibles) to provide food for the ever-increasing number of hungry people in the world. Ruth said it might make a good movie -- she was always finding things in the papers and coming up with ideas. We had already done The Atomic Submarine [1959], which dealt with bottom-of-the-ocean activity, so we thought, "Well, maybe this might be a good one to follow up with, if we can get a deal somewhere."

I went to my then-partner Orville H. Hampton, who had already written Jet Attack and Submarine Seahawk [both 1958] for me at American International, and had written The Atomic Submarine. He thought it was an excellent idea, and agreed to do an outline on speculation. At the time, my agent was Lester Salkow, who handled Vincent Price and other well-known names. When Hampton's outline was written, I gave it to Salkow and he said he'd take it to Columbia, to Irving Briskin, head of second-level productions. Salkow had an "in" with Columbia, because of Vincent Price -- Salkow made the deal for Price to be in Columbia's The Tingler and other films.

An appointment was made and Orville Hampton, Salkow, Salkow's "second in command" Maury Calder and I had what I thought was a very nice meeting. Briskin called himself the King of the Bs because he was in charge of the second level unit there -- the Westerns and the second features. Making some small talk, I threw out all kinds of things that I knew about the early days of Columbia Pictures, because I knew that Briskin had been there since the early '30s. Later on in life, I realized that those things don't really mean anything to these people -- they don't care about the past, just their position within the company and what they're doing now.

Once we got down to business, we talked budget and schedule and so on. Briskin was "sounding us out" and trying to figure, very roughly, what kind of budget category the picture would fall into. Finally, Briskin offered two options. If I would let Columbia producer Charles Schneer produce The Underwater City under his banner (I would be "associate producer"), they would give The Underwater City a budget of $650,000. If I insisted on producing it myself, then we would get a much smaller budget, 350,000. I said, "I have made about 18 pictures, American International and Allied Artists and so on, and so I certainly would like to be the producer on this." Briskin said okay. When the question of black-and-white or color came up, there was an immediate mutual agreement that it had to be in color, especially as there was going to be bottom-of-the-ocean activity in it.

Hampton and I formed a company called Neptune Productions to make this picture with Columbia. My salary as producer was $5000. Hampton began writing the script, and when he was done, which didn't take very long, Columbia did budget the picture at $350,000. A budget of $350,000 meant that we had six days of principal photography, and then a few weeks of special effects. When they asked who I would get to do the special effects, the miniatures of the underwater city and so on, I said Howard Anderson and his company, who had a very good reputation for such work. And, to lay it out and oversee it, Howard Lydecker, one of the top special effects men in the business. They approved that.

For director, I suggested Edward L. Cahn, who had directed several of my films at AIP. Columbia agreed to Eddie, so Hampton and I went to see him at Edward Small Productions, located on the Sam Goldwyn lot. Eddie said he'd love to do it with us, but he had an exclusive deal for about a dozen B pictures at Edward Small and he really didn't have the time to do an outside picture. I next pitched Spencer Bennet to Columbia and they nixed him. Bennet had done many Westerns and serials, and they felt he was too identified with B product. At that point, I suggested Frank McDonald. I knew McDonald personally, he'd directed a lot of Gene Autry's Westerns -- not only features but also TV episodes. He was a very nice guy and very efficient, and I knew we would have no problem with him. (And I knew he would give me no trouble on casting [laughs]!) We met with him, and he said he'd be very pleased to do it, and Columbia approved him.

When it came to the casting session, I had to go through Max Arnow, who had been the casting director at Columbia for many years. I suggested Richard Denning, whom I had worked with on Day the World Ended and Girls in Prison [both 1956] and who I knew would be very reliable. But Arnow rejected the idea, even though Denning had worked for Columbia not only in leads but then later in second leads, supporting people like George Montgomery and so on. Arnow wanted somebody a little "stronger" for the lead. He soon began sending actors 'round to see me, and one of them was Glenn Corbett. Columbia had Corbett under contract, and they were willing to go with him in the lead because they were trying to "build" him. I thought he was capable of doing a good job, but I had to tell him, "This is my first picture for Columbia, and I really do need a more identifiable 'name.' I'm not trying to insult you, and I'm sure that you'll go far." He said he understood perfectly.

After I turned down Corbett, and a couple of others who Arnow suggested, Arnow started throwing around crazy names like Joel McCrea and George Hamilton and a few others in that bracket. It made absolutely no sense -- I even said to him, "We can't possibly afford these kind of names on a budget of $350,000. We've got to get somebody who's $10,000 tops." (Actually, I'm sure Arnow had no intention of actually trying to get those people -- I think he was just "grandstanding" a little bit.) Finally, at a meeting, Irving Briskin said, "Well, how 'bout William Lundigan? Lundigan did that TV series Men into Space and he's identified with science fiction." I didn't know Lundigan personally, but I'd always thought he was all right on the screen -- nothing special, but "all right" -- and certainly a "medium" type of name. I said, "Okay, why don't Hampton and I have lunch with William Lundigan and his agent, and see if he would be interested?" So we did, we met for lunch at the Nickodell, a hangout for the "movie crowd" on Melrose, just around the corner from Paramount. And, yes, Lundigan was interested and said that he would do it. I'm pretty sure his salary was less than 10,000, but then, it was a six-day picture.

Next it came to casting the girl. I don't know if Nancy Kovack was Max Arnow's girlfriend or not, but it seemed she was around all the time, and he had her come in. She was very nice, but I said, "She's not a name. Yes, she's played supporting roles in a couple of Columbia pictures, but I really think that, even though this is a low-budget picture, we need some sort of a name that is recognizable." I wanted Audrey Dalton, but she was at this time too expensive. Finally, somebody mentioned Julie Adams, and as soon as they did, I said, "Oh, yes! If we can get her for the price, I would be delighted with Julie Adams." They had her come in, and she was very, very nice. I remember discussing with her the six pictures she did simultaneously for Ron Ormond [in 1949], six Westerns with James Ellison and Russell Hayden in which, acting under the name Betty Adams, she was the leading lady. They shot six pictures all at the same time with the identical cast! Anyway, Julie Adams agreed to do The Underwater City.

Now it came to casting the older scientist, and I offered it to Basil Rathbone. I didn't know him personally, but I thought he would be a good choice for that role. And I got a very, very nice letter from Basil Rathbone, which I still have, in which he thanked me profusely for thinking of him, and said he would love to do it, but then went on to say that he was just taking off on a one-man lecture tour of colleges that would take him out of the area for three months or longer. We now began kicking other names around, and one agent said, "How 'bout Raymond Massey?" Raymond Massey was one of his clients. I said [with disbelief], "Why, you don't think Raymond Massey is going to do a six-day picture?" The agent said, "He's back East right now and he isn't doing ANYthing. As long as you stop for half an hour at four o'clock every afternoon and serve him tea -- he's an English gentleman and likes to have his tea -- he'll do it. $7500 a week." I said, "My GOD, just $7500 for Raymond Massey? Certainly!" -- I jumped at it!

Now I had my interview with the man who used to say, "You have nothing to fear but Fier himself!": Jack Fier, the production manager at Columbia. He was a tough-talking old-timer, a John Ford type, loud and intimidating. I'd heard horror stories about him, so in order to perhaps mollify him a little bit, perhaps ingratiate myself with him, the first time I met him, I brought in a bunch of pressbooks from Mascot serials (I knew that he had in the early '30s worked on the Mascot serials). I wanted him to know that I knew his background, that I knew he had worked on those serials and he had produced the Tim McCoy films at Columbia and I said I knew Tim McCoy and so on. That sort of softened him -- but only temporarily! He didn't really "fall" for all that, but at least he acknowledged it! A short time later, just a couple of days before shooting was scheduled to start, Fier had the whole crew in to give them a pep talk -- like Gen. Patton would do before the Battle of the Bulge! It was right at Columbia, in one of the meeting rooms, and I would say there were about 30 of us there altogether, crew members and so on. He told everybody that they'd better shape up if they ever wanted to work at Columbia again; "If you think that the Army was rough, you haven't seen anything yet!"; he said that what he says goes, never mind about listening to anybody else; and, of course, "You have nothing to fear but Fier himself!" -- which he said sort of jokingly. He was a tough hombre, but I guess he knew his stuff. I felt like I was back in the Army with my sergeant major!

A day or two before the picture was due to start, we had our first problem: Raymond Massey was on his way out to Hollywood from New York when suddenly there were weather problems, and the plane had to be diverted to Boston. All of a sudden, it was going to take an extra day for him to get out here. Irving Briskin announced that he certainly wasn't going to "shoot around" Massey or change anything, and so we would have to get somebody else to play the part. And then he pushed in Carl Benton Reid. Reid was a very good actor, certainly nothing wrong with him, very nice guy -- but there's a vast difference between having Raymond Massey in a picture, and Carl Benton Reid!

The second problem came on the first day of shooting. I got there a couple of hours ahead of time, and as the morning progressed, we realized we couldn't find William Lundigan -- that he wasn't there! An hour later, I finally found him in his dressing room, just sitting there, completely unprepared, and he had the most tremendous hangover. He hadn't read the script, he didn't know any lines, he didn't know Anything He said, "I'm not feeling well this morning ... I don't know whether I can do this..." I said, "Listen, you gotta come out..." I was absolutely frantic, because this was the first day of shooting -- what was I going to DO? I don't remember if I called Frank McDonald in or not, I MAY have; I know I wasn't alone in pushing him out there onto the set. Of course he still didn't know his lines, and McDonald had to feed him his lines.

And so it went throughout the picture: Lundigan was always late coming on set and always, when he stepped into the scene, he wasn't ready with his lines. He blamed it all on, "I don't know what's wrong with me ... I must have the flu ... ", but it was obvious he'd been drinking. We lost hour after hour when he couldn't do his stuff. It was an absolute disaster.

For scenes of the actors walking on the ocean floor, we shot on Columbia's Stage 33. It was a large soundstage, perfectly dry, of course, but "dressed" to look like the bottom of the ocean. The set was impressive-looking in person, because it covered most of the stage. The camera shot through a large fish tank in which we had some very small fish swimming; to heighten the effect, there was a continuously revolving paddle in the tank, stirring the water in order to create a bit of a ripple effect. Lights were reflected off huge tinfoil flats, suspended from the stage ceiling and rolled slightly. This bathed the entire set in what looked like reflected rays of the sun, so familiar underwater. To complete the illusion, we also had the actors walking in slow motion. Between the set dressing and the tank and the fish and the reflected light and the slow-motion actors, we actually did achieve the effect that they were on the bottom of the ocean. (Incidentally, some of the diving equipment that the actors wore, and a few other things on the underwater set, were supplied by Jon Hall, who by this time had retired from acting -- he was now developing underwater camera equipment, renting out stock footage and so forth.)

Again, however, there was trouble. I believe we began shooting these ocean floor scenes on the third day -- and Lundigan refused to get into his diving outfit. As usual, he said he just wasn't up to it, he kept saying he wasn't feeling well. He even refused to come out of his dressing room. So I called for a double. And then Lundigan had the effrontery to call the Screen Actors Guild and have a representative come out to Columbia and threaten to fine us, because there was another actor there in his part when he, Lundigan, could and should be doing it! It was ridiculous! I told the Guild guy, "YOU get him out there. WE can't get him out of his dressing room, he doesn't know his lines -- how the hell can we shoot with him in this condition?"

"He'll be all right, he'll be all right," the Guild guy said. "You've got to use the actor if he's able to play the part..." So on the other days of shooting on the ocean floor set, we had to use Lundigan, even though it took forever to get that outfit on him. (At least when he was in that diving outfit, he didn't have any dialogue.) I don't know if the Screen Actors Guild actually did make Columbia pay a fine -- they said they would. I'm sure Columbia was probably very well "in" with SAG and probably worked it out some way, and it wouldn't have been a large fine in any case. But it caused a problem on the set.

There was an additional problem on the ocean floor set. The actors' air tanks produced helium-filled bubbles that rose up into the air, and the effect was marvelous. The problem, the thing that nobody anticipated was that they would then come back down again! We had bubbles coming out of these tanks, and it looked very realistic, but then as the scene continued, suddenly you saw the bubbles dropping down again, and everybody was saying, "What the hell is that?" We had to put men up in the rafters of the soundstage with fans to blow the bubbles away before they could come back down into the scene. That took us a little while to solve, but it turned out all right.

Jack Fier never came on the set, but he had a second assistant director reporting to him every hour whether we were behind schedule or if there was a problem and this and that and so on. That was very, very awkward, a tough situation to be in. It was like a police state, everybody was watching us all the time! But before everything started going downhill, with Lundigan and with this second assistant director and all, I loved being at Columbia. Every day I looked out of the window of my office, overlooking the Columbia lot, and it was amazing to me: "Here I am in an office at Columbia, producing a picture!" And, another nice experience: The Three Stooges were shooting on the set next to us, so it gave me an opportunity to meet Moe Howard. Larry Fine I just sort of said hello to -- he was always off to Vegas, gambling and so on. But Moe I talked to almost every day. Actually, he came on our set and he wanted to know what we were doing and so on. I was absolutely dumbfounded: Here I'm standing, talking to somebody who looks like Moe, and yet he talks like the most creative kind of producer-writer-all-around-filmmaker. Obviously, I knew that he wasn't going to be like he was in his movies, but I also didn't expect this. If you closed your eyes, you'd think you were talking to any one of the Hollywood big shots. It was very, very impressive, the way he knew the business inside out. He was a remarkable person.

Instead of going six days, Underwater City went seven days, a day over schedule, which everybody was very unhappy about. It was Lundigan who caused the delay -- nobody else held us up in any way. Well, we did have that little problem with the bubbles, but we solved that very quickly. So that alone would not have caused it, it was strictly Lundigan. With him refusing to come out of his dressing room and never knowing his lines, we just kept going behind and behind and behind -- I remember Frank McDonald was going out of his mind. Lundigan was responsible, completely responsible, for the delay and the extra day. It was nothing but a hassle with him.

Now it was time for the special effects guys to start shooting the effects footage. We'd made a deal with Howard Anderson and Co. to do the special effects under Howard Lydecker's supervision. Lydecker was absolutely great. He did the special effects on most Republic pictures, everything from S.O.S. Tidal Wave [1939] to serials and Westerns, he and his brother Theodore. Howard had the whole layout, every shot storyboarded -- there was a completely detailed storyboard, down to the tiniest thing, in his office at Columbia, which was next to mine. He knew exactly what he was going to do all along the way.

I don't remember how long the post-production special effects took -- maybe about six weeks. Not awfully long, but certainly longer than the principal photography on the picture! The destruction of the underwater city and the scenes of the octopus and the giant eel, those were shot by Howard Anderson in a tank in Santa Monica. The octopus and the eel, they didn't hurt each other in their fight scene, they just sort of swam against each other and so on, but neither one was hurt. (The octopus stuff was not all that exciting, but at least it was there!) I wasn't there for the shooting of any of that, but I was on the set every minute at the studio and at the Columbia Ranch.

Ronald Stein did the music score for The Underwater City -- I remember I had to put up a little bit of a fight for him, but I'm glad I did. Briskin said, "Look, we've got George Duning here at Columbia, he's our music director. Why not use him?" I said, "It would be very expensive to do it the way Duning would do it, with a big orchestra and 'scoring to picture' and so on. [Editor's note: When "scoring to picture," the orchestra performs the score while the scene for which each piece of music was written is projected on a screen behind them.] Ronnie Stein does it without 'scoring to picture.' He looks at the movie on a Moviola and he times every sequence where he will write music, and then he goes away and he does it all. He doesn't have to 'score to picture.'" I won Briskin over that way, I said, "We just don't have the budget," and he gave in. Briskin insisted, though, that we use a studio orchestra -- Ronnie couldn't go down to Mexico or anywhere else on The Underwater City, Columbia being a signatory to the guilds and all that. So Ronnie Stein conducted the studio orchestra.

When we finally got to the end of the picture, I thought it wasn't bad. Briskin looked at the rough cut and made some comments, I forget now what they were, but nothing disparaging. He thought it was all right for a co-feature. Columbia was going to put it out with The Three Stooges Meet Hercules [1962] -- Hercules was supposed to be the companion picture, because it was in black-and-white, and Underwater City was supposed to be the top of the bill. Or at least equal-billed. Anyway, we had Underwater City all done and Irving Briskin approved it, and now it was supposed to be shown to Sam Briskin, Irving's brother, who was head of production on a higher level there.

The screening for Sam Briskin was an absolute disaster. Irving was not present -- it was just Sam and me in the Columbia executive screening room. He blew his top: "We can't release the picture this way! It doesn't have enough action, it doesn't have this, it doesn't have that. It needs all kinds of things." And he told me, "Put together about ten minutes of stock shots from other pictures, real disaster footage and creatures and all that sort of thing, and we'll put that on at the front of the picture, or work it in SOME where with some narration over it. Maybe then we can release the picture." When I came away from that encounter, of course, I could hardly walk! Here Irving had approved it, and Sam said it was unreleasable!

It took me about a week to scour every stock shot library in town. I borrowed everything from Cecil B. DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind [1942] on down, and I got a terrific ten-minute reel of action and ships being crushed and just EVERYthing -- it was absolutely great. And Sam Briskin told me, "Well, we'll let you know about this..."

That was on a Friday. And the following Monday, I found out that The Underwater City is already playing, I forget where, somewhere on the West Coast -- and in black-and-white! Here, I'd been working on this reel of action for a week or longer, of course getting all color footage, and then I come to find out it's already playing and it's playing in black-and-white! (And I had a contract that specified that it would be in color.) It had opened somewhere "solo," and then went out as the second feature to The Three Stooges Meet Hercules instead of the other way around!

I went to see it in a theater, and sure enough it was in black-and-white. It looked completely washed-out in black-and-white because (naturally) the underwater stuff had been shot as though for color, and "timed" for color. When you see that in black-and-white, it's just like running off a black-and-white print of a color picture. In the bottom-of-the-ocean scenes, you couldn't see the bubbles, you couldn't see Anything distinctly -- there was no real contrast. Hampton went by himself and saw it too. That's when we decided we would sue. The picture's box office potential had obviously been "damaged," you could tell that from the bookings that it got. The bookings it didn't get, I should say!

I got in touch with my lawyer Irwin Spiegel, and we tried to get Columbia to give us an explanation. Well, they said, they didn't want to spend the money on color prints, this and that, so on and so forth. Anyway, the end result was that we had to sue them -- I wasn't going to stand for this. So "Neptune Productions" sued Columbia, and the thing dragged on for about five years. Then Spiegel lost interest because he was working on spec, and eventually the statute of limitations simply ran out. By then, of course, I'd started getting reports on the picture, and we were deeper in the hole every time a report came in. Finally Columbia just stopped sending reports altogether, they told us it really wasn't worth it because no money was coming in on it. So that's how that situation ended.

Needless to say, Columbia didn't pick up my option. I had a six-picture deal, but they canceled that. So I was "out" of Columbia, and that was the end of the saga of The Underwater City. I was glad that eventually it began playing on TV in color, and if it ever comes out on home video, I hope it will be in color. Naturally, I want my stuff to be seen in the best possible light.

It's not one of my favorites amongst my movies, it's way down on the list. Hampton, Salkow and I hoped for much more, and we hoped we might get a multiple picture deal out of it. We thought this might help us get into a slightly higher bracket. With all the problems that we had, and the end results, it was a very disappointing experience. But we had embarked on it with the best of intentions -- I still remember how very excited my wife Ruth was when she saw the article about the underwater farm community. Which is a notion that keeps popping up, it's never a dead issue for long. It comes up from time to time, and then it's dormant, and then it comes up Again. In fact, just last week [May 2002] it was on the radio -- somebody in the House or Senate brought it up, they were talking about trying to figure out how they could farm the ocean floor, to alleviate world hunger. It's definitely an ongoing thing in the various think tanks, but I guess they haven't yet figured out how to do it properly, and "at a price." We've always thought that this is one idea that should certainly be followed up and investigated.

Tom Weaver wrote the liner notes for the upcoming CD featuring music from the original The Fly, Return of the Fly, and Curse of the Fly, available from Percepto Records:

"The drifters, the hipsters, the hot sisters! Today's big jolt about the beatnik jungle!"
The Rebel Set

"The slick chicks who fire up the big wheels!"
Hot Rod Rumble

"From juke joint to drag strip, it's the livin' end!"
Speed Crazy

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