Targets: A Ripple in the Pond of Filmmaking
-By Nic Brown-
Corman, never one to waste a
resource, was owed two days of work by
Seeing this as his big break and
as an opportunity to work with his wife, Polly Platt, Bogdanovich
accepted the job. He and Platt sat down and watched the footage they
had to work with, but they were stumped. How could they work in
footage from a period piece like
The Terror and logically
work it into a modern horror thriller? Finally, he hit upon an idea
that he’d first thought of as a joke - start the film with Karloff
watching footage from The
Terror in a studio screening room with the filmmakers, and when
the lights come up have him declare it’s the worst film he’s ever
scene. This set up a storyline about an aging
Bogdanovich knew the story
needed something else. Some months before, his editor at
Esquire had suggested he
do a piece on Charles Whitman, the former marine who went on a
shooting rampage from the clock tower at the
With the idea in place, Bogdanovich and Platt worked out the story and he wrote the first iteration of the screenplay for Targets. Bogdanovich showed it to a friend, veteran filmmaker Samuel Fuller. Fuller spent several hours working with him on the script and in that short time he helped the young filmmaker redo the script. Fuller refused any credit, suspecting that everyone would say he did the whole thing. Instead, Bogdanovich named the character of the young director working with Karloff in the film for him (Fuller’s middle name was Michael).
Production started in late 1967.
Although he’d written the part of Sammy Michaels for someone else,
Bogdanovich ended up playing the part himself. The part paralleled
his real life role as an up-and-coming filmmaker working with a
master of horror from
Karloff’s experience proved to be a great help to the young Bogdanovich on the set. The veteran shared advice and actually “directed” Bogdanovich in one scene. The script called for Sammy to wake up, turn and upon seeing Byron Orlock (Karloff), be shocked and then start to laugh. Bogdanovich found laughing on cue to be a bit of a challenge. After several unsuccessful takes, an exasperated Karloff told him, “You know, just because you wrote it in the script doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
While the story of Byron Orlock
is playing out, we also have the film’s human monster, Bobby
Thompson. Bogdanovich drew heavily on the events in
When the police arrive at the refinery, Thompson flees and eventually finds another location from which to shoot. Behind the screen at a drive-in movie where Orlock’s film is playing and the aging actor himself is appearing to promote the film. Taking more advice from his friend Fuller, Bogdanovich saved his budget for the film’s finale. The drive-in shootings scenes were filmed at the Reseda Drive-In in Reseda Californian, over the course of 12 days. Bogdanovich shot test footage at the drive-in with no lighting before filming began. He ended up using all of that footage as establishing shots and filler in the final film.
The shootings at the drive-in lead to the film’s climax when Orlock approaches Thompson, who’s confused by seeing the actor both on the screen behind him and before him in the flesh. Orlock disarms Thompson by striking him with his cane and then slaps the man, who, instead of fighting back or attacking elderly man, huddles in a corner until the police arrive and take him. Orlock’s last words are, “This is what I was afraid of.” This is the only time that Orlock and Thompson interact in the film and Orlock’s words carry a greater meaning. The aging actor had been considering his place in the world and was afraid that his type of horror was obsolete and had no place. When the two met, Thompson, who represented the modern horrors of the world, wilted before Orlock, unable to stand up to him. While on the surface Orlock’s statement of “This is what I was afraid of” seems aimed at Thompson, it is really directed at the idea of Thompson and modern horror; Thompson was a hollow villain, whose actions are truly evil, but who, like any common bully, could not stand up to someone with the will to face them.
At the time of the film’s completion, Roger Corman had a deal with American International Pictures who distributed most of his films. However, Bogdanovich asked if he could try to get a distribution deal for the film with a major studio. Corman didn’t mind, as long as he got his $125,000 investment back. Bogdanovich used some connections to get the film screened by Paramount Pictures and they eventually agreed to buy the rights to the film for $150,000. Corman made his money back and Bogdanovich’s first film was picked up by a major studio. What could go wrong?
Despite being well received by critics, the film did not do well at the box office. Still, the critical success of the film was important as it helped establish Bogdanovich as a filmmaker in his own right. The producers of Easy Rider saw Targets and were so impressed that they contacted Bogdanovich and told him that if he had another project he’d like to make, they would take a look at it. He gave them a book and they let him make it. The Last Picture Show went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two.
While Targets was not a financial success at the time, the film has endured due to the solid performance of Boris Karloff, sadly in one of his final roles, and also because of the quality of the story crafted by Bogdanovich, Platt and, although uncredited, Fuller. Targets may have been a small film, but like a pebble dropped in a pond, its effect was farther reaching than anyone could have imagined. It opened the door for Peter Bogdanovich as a writer and director and, proved once more that Roger Corman may be the king of B-Movies, but he’s also a man with a keen eye for talent.