Now available on DVD I somehow found myself in the privileged position of interviewing the 70-something while apparently on his lunch break from filming. He’s obviously still going strong.
It’s my understanding that Milton Subotsky gave you your break in directing because he thought that editors make good directors. How exactly did that come about?
In the early 70’s I optioned a dozen short stories from Chetwynd Hayes entitled ‘The Unbidden’ thinking to make a TV series out of them. Myself and two friends adapted them into half hour films and unsuccessfully shopped them around the TV world. Somehow they landed on Milton’s desk and he called me in to chat about them. The upshot was that he selected 4 of them and wrote a connecting story (the Peter Cushing link) and offered me the directing task. After I picked myself up off the floor and told him that I had never directed a whole film – he uttered the immortal words “editors make good directors…and I’ll surround you with great actors and technicians…don’t worry….“.
He did and that’s how ‘Beyond The Grave’ came about and my career started.
Was it always your intention to become a director?
No not at all – I thought directing was far beyond my reach – in fact I wanted to be a camera operator – I liked the idea of swooping up on the camera crane arm. My intention was to produce the horror films – but once I got the bug of directing … it never stopped.
The three films being released on DVD on 30th July (The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core and Warlords of Atlantis) all concern a sort of ‘lost world’ that is subsequently found. At the start of your career was this an idea that fascinated you or where there other motivations behind your choice of theme?
To be honest, I sort of fell into the Edgar Rice Burroughs world thanks to Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg at Amicus. They liked what I did with ‘Beyond the Grave’ and offered me ‘Land That Time Forgot” and it went from there for several years. Just a great time and fun making those monsters on such low budgets.
Are there any films that influenced you when directing these?
Not really. Of course I had seen ‘King Kong’ and a few others of the genre but I didn’t consciously reflect on them or the styles. Hopefully brought a bit of my own touch.
Out of the three new releases my favourite is The Land That Time Forgot which I remember seeing as a quite young child and loving (although I never knew what the film was called until I rewatched it a few days ago!). Which is your favourite?
Of that series ‘Land’ is my favorite. It was a good script and I was surrounded by great technicians like Alan Hume (DP) and Maurice Carter (Production Designer). All the monsters were hand puppets designed by Roger Dickens. We shot the opening sequence up in Skye – buzzing about in a helicopter. Wonderful memories of an innocent time.
Does looking back at the special effects make you cringe or are you proud of the epic stories you managed to tell on such a relatively small budget?
Yes, some of the effects are bit ‘cringe worthy’ when you see them today. But you have to take them in the time they were created – and the low budget, of course – so I don’t feel too bad about it. The submarine stuff was excellent I thought and still stands up today.
With The Land That Time Forgot being only your second large project how involved were you with the special effects? Why did you use puppets and not stop motion?
I was very involved with all aspects of the production. The reason we went for the hand puppets was for a more fluid look. Roger Dicken, who created the dinosaurs did such fine details and had the movement down so well that we went with him and used that technique. Also, we developed the use of a small VistaVision camera to shoot the dinosaur back-ground plates which gave us great quality because the exposed frame is twice the size of a normal 35mm. Everything was shot front projection as well.
Your follow up to ‘Land’ was ‘At the Earth’s Core’. The special effects work and production design were much more fanciful here. Was that to differentiate it from your previous films more conventional premise?
Yes, we tried to get the beasts bigger so as to interact better with the actors – more one on one. We had a somewhat bigger budget thanks to the success of ‘Land.’ The beasts were specially designed so that small stunt guys could work inside the suits in a crouched position and on all-fours. Needless to say it was very cramped and the stunt guys had to take frequent breathers. Some worked better than others – but we were experimenting and trying something different.
Was having an experienced actor who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in the form of the great Doug McClure a huge asset to you in those early days?
Doug was a great asset. In fight scenes he was especially good due to his hours of American TV action films. He knew exactly where the camera was at all times and threw punches precisely where the effect would work for the screen. He was always co-operative and came up with many ideas. Great guy. I miss him.
You also got with work with Peter Cushing on the first two! How was that?
Peter Cushing was one of the great gentlemen of the cinema. ‘Grave’ was my first directing assignment and Peter was so supportive and responded to my direction and ideas without question. I did several films with him and he never changed his love for everyone on the crew and fellow actors. I saw him in Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ the other week – what a career Peter had.! My strongest memory of Peter was his wearing of white cotton cutting room gloves when smoking off camera – to stop his fingers being stained by the nicotine.
Was there anything you regret or would change about any of the three films?
Not really – but I would like to have had bigger budgets because clearly the audiences loved ‘Land’ and there was a great future in the genre. Unfortunately, the powers that be, felt that ‘children’s films’ were limited at the box office financially. If only they could have seen what was round the corner!!
Even now in your 70’s you have a prodigious output -are you having any thoughts about retirement?
Well, I’m still at it – mainly TV these days but I am still pressing ahead with my feature projects that I am passionate about. Those are the hard ones to get made!! When the phone stops ringing – as they say – is when I retire – but I don’t like that word really.
So what does the future hold for Kevin Connor?
I’m looking forward to directing a picture called ‘Crossmaglen’ – a very fast and taut IRA thriller set during the early 80’s in Ireland. We have a fantastic cast, Ben Kingsley, Vinnie Jones and Michael Gambon, and crew lined up – but it’s been a difficult show to get off the ground. I also have two other personal movies in the works ‘Target Churchill” – rather like ‘Day of the Jackal’ – but set against Churchill’s visit to the States to give his ‘Iron Curtain Speech’. Michael Gambon has agreed to play the great man. I also have a more ‘commercial’ script that I adapted and I’m getting it underway to be shot in North Carolina entitled ‘Agnes and the Hitman’. A ‘rom-com’ as they say here!
StudioCanal released the Amicus Production classics At The Earth’s Core, The Land that Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis on DVD on 30th July.