Terry Southern on The Loved One

Have been enjoying this 1990s interview with the late Terry Southern, a writer smack in the middle of the 1960s zeitgeist with projects as diverse as Dr. Strangelove, The Loved One, The Magic Christian, and Easy Rider.

Am especially interested in The Loved One, a black comedy send-up of Los Angeles hucksterism through the metaphor of a high-pressure corporate funeral home. Before your eyes America's twin sacred values of religion and sales motivation stand revealed as pure, dark, necrophiliac lust. Southern tells an amusing anecdote about how this subversive gem got made at all:

The Loved One has been the most underrated film I've worked on. However, it has recently been released on video cassette and will finally be seen, and presumably, recognized. The cinematography by Haskell Wexler should have received an Academy Award. Everyone who knows anything about film agrees on that. The cast which included John Gielgud and Rod Steiger is one of the finest ever assembled. And working with Tony Richardson was extraordinary. He had just come off Tom Jones which won every award possible and made everyone connected with it a fortune - and yet such is the total sleaze and corruption of the studios that MGM refused to renegotiate his contract and made him abide by his pre-Tom Jones commitment to The Loved One for a minuscule fee. They thought they were being "shrewd." Well, Richardson was so completely pissed off at them that he cast an American actor, Robert Morse, to play an English poet (at a time, when Tom Courtney, James Fox and Albert Finney, to mention a few, were available) and he barred Martin Ransohoff from the set. We started each morning in the production office by opening a magnum of Dom Perignon. The dailies were shown at the screening room of The Beverly Hills Hotel, with plenty of canapes laid on. In other words, their "shrewd" avarice cost them a pretty penny in the end.

Southern split screenplay chores with Christopher Isherwood and it would be great to know who did what. We can guess that Isherwood handled the "pompous British expats in LA" scenes and Southern the parts that make fun of commies and the perverse sex lives of the powerful but of course they were also adapting Evelyn Waugh, and incorporating details from a scathing book on the funeral home industry.

But once you say there is a trick and once you accept this untenable situation - which is how dare you presume to fuck around with the work of a great artist like Evelyn Waugh or Nathanael West - you have to do your best as a screenwriter. With Evelyn Waugh I initially couldn't do it. Then I was finally persuaded, reasoned and convinced that it was possible because it was relevant and that we would maintain the spirit. What Tony Richardson wanted to get into his film, which wasn't in the original, was Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, which he read and for some reason he identified with because he had been involved in burying some one in America. He was able to persuade me to change the book from the thirties to the sixties and I participated in the film throughout the production. As it turned out I was happy with the results.