Producer Richard Connor is currently slated to write and produce the film Severed. Based on the murder of The Black Dahlia, it is set to bring the world a look at Elizabeth Short in a way only Connor could do.
Some of his earliest works include the cult film Doin Time on Planet Earth (written by Darren Star, who created Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and Sex in the City). He worked alongside Charles Matthau and later formed The Matthau Company, which focused on finding projects for Charles and his father the legendary Walter Matthau to work on together. Some of the works they released were The Incident, Mrs. Lambert, The Grass Harp, and The Marriage Fool.
Richard has also worked as a producer for America’s Funniest Home Videos and currently resides in Los Angeles. It was my pleasure to sit down with him to learn more about the Severed project.
Can you tell us a little about your background? What were you like as a child? What memories to you treasure most from your early days?
First off, thank you for inviting me today, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
I was born in Illinois, the youngest of 5 kids, the baby of the family. We moved out to Southern California when I was 4, so I’m basically a Los Angeles native. I was a very active kid, into sports all of that stuff, played Little League baseball, everything. As a kid, I thought I’d become a baseball star. I idolized Willie Mays. Didn’t quite work out for me, though!
Anyway, it was pretty much an idyllic early childhood, I really had no idea how good we had it—we lived in a new house with a big swimming pool, great neighborhood, etc. A few years later, dark realities like unemployment and divorce hit our family and shook things up significantly. By the time I was in high school, it was just me and my mom, and we were living basically at a poverty level. It was almost the reverse of the American dream: start off in a big two-story house, and 10 years later, end up living in a cruddy apartment overlooking the boulevard. It toughened us up, I think. My mom really held us together.
Did you always have a love of film and television?
Absolutely. We were one of those families that used to sit around and watch TV together at night, 7 people gathered in the family room enjoying Star Trek or Mission: Impossible or whatever movie was on. I had quite the imagination and would really let those shows transport me. I must have been influenced by them in some way, because when I was about 8, I attempted to write a novel. All I remember about it was the title: The House of Fear. I think I bailed after 2 pages. I guess that was my first introduction to writer’s block.
Another factor was, my uncle was Edward Ansara, an actor who appeared in lots of television stuff, and I saw him star as Dracula in a play in Hollywood when I was probably 10. That had a huge impact on me, the immediacy of the theater, the audience kind of reacting and participating in this story that was being told a few feet away from us. It gave me the chills. I think perhaps the entertainment “bug” got me right then.
What led you to pursue a career in the industry?
It kind of happened on a lark. I wasn’t sure what I was going to study in college. I was a good writer for a high school kid, I would win every conceivable contest or competition that they would throw at us, I even won a Best Actor award for a play my senior year, but I never realistically thought I’d end up in the film business. It just seemed like a bleak proposition; everyone wanted to do that and almost all of them failed. So there I am, halfway through my senior year in high school, and a couple of my best friends suggested I apply to USC, which interested me because I knew they had a fantastic Cinema School, but it was very expensive and I knew there was no way I could go. They convinced me that scholarships and financial aid and student loans would cover the tuition costs.
So I applied… and sure enough, I got in. The next hurdle was getting into the Cinema School itself, which was the equivalent of getting into Harvard Law or Georgetown Medical—it was that much of a longshot. It basically came down to: I’m going to either get into the Cinema School and try to get into the movie business, or I’m NOT going to get in and I’m going to be an accountant, or something like that. The direction of my life literally hinged on whether I got that acceptance letter.
Halfway through my sophomore year, I got the call… I was in. And thus began my journey.
How do you think the industry has changed most since you first started working in it? How would you like to see it change next?
The industry has changed a ton. It used to be that if you wanted a good entry point in the business, going to a film school was a must. Now, that’s not even necessary; kids today have high-def cameras and know how to edit and mix movies on their computers, plus they have all of these outlets like YouTube to show off their wares. The Internet has really ignited a worldwide film community; everyone is making short films or doing performance videos and some of them generate a significant following.
The flip side to this, of course, is that we have a short-attention-span audience out there now, as they’re growing up on these quick, visual, sonic pieces that the Web has given birth to. Real storytelling has taken a back seat in many ways because people want things loud and brash and spectacular, or else they get bored. You need only look at the success of all of these comic book movies to see that. More intimate stories about real people are now the territory of cable TV or indie films, not movie studios, but I’m hoping they make a comeback and become part of the mainstream again. Perhaps films like The Descendents will swing things back around.
What do you love most about being a producer?
There are different types of producers. Some are the deal-making types, others are good with finances and budgets, and still others are more the “creative-producer” types. I’ve got a little bit of category #1 in me, but basically I’m category #3. I am very interested in making the script work, first and foremost; I don’t think a film should go before the cameras unless the screenplay is as good as it can be. As someone who writes, I love that process.
Hiring the right director and cast is obviously huge, as well, because a mistake in those areas can undo even the best of scripts. So it’s all about meeting those people and making sure they’re on the same wavelength and can help produce the vision you have of the movie, and even surpass that vision with their own ideas. I love working with people, especially creative people, so this is one of the joys of the business to me.
Finally, going all the way back to USC, I am an editor at my core. Editing, in many ways, is writing the movie a second time… what if this scene works more effectively following this scene now, even though it’s different from the script? Which of the shots from this angle allows us to best capture our actor’s intent? And so on.
In short, I love all three phases of the filmmaking process: pre-production, production, and post-production. Some producers dislike one of those categories, but not me.
What was it like to work with Charles and Walter Matthau?
Charlie is one of my best friends in the world; we met at USC and he has been like a brother ever since. He is a director through and through, a perfectionist, he doesn’t miss a thing. He is also welcome to ideas and input, which makes him a joy to work with.
Walter was exactly as you would expect him to be from watching him in movies: brilliantly funny, self-effacing, and just humble as can be. I can say this about very few people in this business, but he was completely unchanged by his fame. He was the same guy as a movie star as he was when he was a starving actor struggling to make a living in New York City. I consider it a blessing that I got to work with him.
What do you think you’d be doing right now if you hadn’t of became a producer?
I’d probably be a film editor. I came very, very close to going in that direction graduating from USC, but other job offers sent me in a different direction.
Are there any little known facts about yourself you’d not mind sharing with our readers?
If anyone here has ever watched an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, and is familiar with that show’s well-known musical montages… well, those are mine. They are a complete kick. You haven’t lived until you’ve cut a montage of people wiping out to a Katy Perry tune.
I was sent to you by the iconic noir author John Gilmore. Have you known him long? Why do you think his work is so iconic? Do you find him as fascinating as I do?
I reached out to Mr. Gilmore around June of this year. I had been a fan of SEVERED since it came out, and felt like enough time had passed since Brian DePalma’s film THE BLACK DAHLIA was released where I could revisit the idea of making a movie in this town about Elizabeth Short. And Gilmore’s book, to me, was the only one that made sense. So I contacted him and asked him if the book was currently under option. He said no, so we met, and I pitched him exactly how I saw the movie being realized. We agreed to terms and have since become good friends.
Mr. Gilmore is indeed iconic, because he was born in Los Angeles and really has this town’s seedy underbelly ingrained. He has seen all of the horrible things going on beyond L.A.’s shiny veneers and he writes about them in an almost detached, matter-of-fact way that just chills you. “Fascinating” doesn’t even begin to describe Gilmore. Here’s a former actor who was dear friends with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe back in the day but also sat down with Charles Manson face to face literally hours after the latter’s arrest. He is a fearless, brilliant man.
What influenced you to produce the film based on the murder of Elizabeth Short?
Like so many people, I have always been fascinated by the true story of “The Black Dahlia”. It’s probably the greatest “open” unsolved murder in Los Angeles history. It involves a classic scenario of a beautiful girl coming to Hollywood to find fame, and within a matter of months, she is dead, brutally murdered, in senseless fashion. The fact that she DID became famous, but in death, is a heartbreaking irony. So first and foremost, I believe there was a great story to tell here. Secondly, it hadn’t been told yet—not properly, anyway. So I decided to acquire the rights to SEVERED, because that was the best book on the subject as far as I was concerned. It had everything I needed, Gilmore had done all of the hard work for me. He had done the research, he had interviewed every conceivable person connected to the crime or to Beth’s life. I felt he captured the gravitas of the event better than anyone ever did… the tragedy of it, the sense of loss, the futility of those trying to solve it or even make sense of it. More importantly, I feel like Gilmore found and met the actual killer. I know this is a major point of contention with Dahlia aficionados, but I truly believe that Jack Anderson Wilson murdered Beth Short. I wouldn’t endeavor to make this film if I didn’t believe that.
Will this piece show more of her as living individual as opposed to just focusing on her being a victim?
I would say about half of the film will involve Beth as a living person occupying the story. The rest will be the investigation—not just the police investigation initially, but Gilmore’s private and very personal investigation many years later. Structuring all of this is tricky, because it covers decades and people remembering things and differing points of view, etc. It is very challenging to write, but I love it.
Why do you think the world is still so taken with the story of her demise?
Several reasons. The fact that it is unsolved. The fact that somebody got away with it. The fact that it was such a brutal murder—“the worst ever committed upon a woman”, the coroner said. The fact that Beth Short’s whereabouts for the week prior to her body being discovered is mostly a mystery. And finally, it all goes back to what I said earlier: a young starlet shows up in Hollywood to become a star, fails… but then, tragically, becomes famous in death. That connects with people, because that’s the American Dream turned upside-down and shaken.
What can our readers expect from the film? Do you know who will be starring in it yet?
I have no idea who will be starring in it. I plan on completing the script before the year is over and then pursuing every great actor I can find to occupy key roles, because I think “packaging” is a big key in getting any movie made. Movie studios like it when you have a major star attached to your project; it gives them a good reason to say “yes”. I will say that I doubt very much the role of Elizabeth Short will be played by a “name” actress. I prefer she is a complete unknown, because I don’t want the audience to associate a famous actress’s previous work at all with Ms. Short.
What people can expect from this film is that it will be a serious, high-quality piece of work which treats Elizabeth Short and the events surrounding her murder with respect. It will not be without its share of thrills, chills, and intense drama. I consider David Fincher’s ZODIAC the gold standard for rendering a true-crime saga onto the big screen. Whether you agreed with John Graysmith’s “take” on that story or not, you have to appreciate the way that film was put together in terms of the production, the acting, the authenticity, everything. I can only hope that this project achieves that level.
What do you hope to accomplish with your portrayal of Ms. Short?
To me, that’s the biggest challenge of this film: capturing the true Beth Short. Because this was a complex, charming, sad young woman. She carried stress and pain around with her and yet she lit up rooms when she entered them. She was naïve but also canny. I don’t agree with (Detective) Harry Hansen’s characterization of Beth as being “a tramp”, but I also don’t think she was an “innocent”. People tend to romanticize tragic real-life figures; Marilyn Monroe is a classic example. Elizabeth Short was a girl who possessed a great many shadings. There was nothing black and white about her… well, except for her photographs.
What other projects are you looking forward to bringing the world next?
I’ll be preoccupied with SEVERED for awhile, but I am very interested in bringing other high-profile true crime stories to the big screen. For instance, I can’t believe that the best production we’ve ever seen on the Charles Manson/Sharon Tate murders was a TV movie, HELTER SKELTER, way back in 1976. Surely there is room for that to be a feature film someday… not an exploitative one but a quality, big-budget one. So I am looking into that as well as other projects of that ilk for the not-too-distant future.
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Just to keep an eye out for news on SEVERED in the upcoming months! I hope I can make Black Dahlia devotees everywhere proud by finally giving this story the thoughtful treatment that it deserves. And thank you again for having me!
(Also on our site see SHE A Memory of Marilyn by John Gilmore)