Friday, January 14, 2011

On the Track of the Moonbeast: An Interview with Charles Sinclair

Folks, there are horrible guy-in-a-rubber-suit films from the 1970s, and then there's Track of the Moonbeast (1972). Like its contemporaries Octaman, The Milpitas Monster, and Slithis, the New Mexico-lensed Track rehashes monster movie tropes from the 1950s against a backdrop of the eco-conscious but fashion-challenged 1970s. Only, unlike its contemporaries, Track of the Moonbeast sports an excellent musical interlude and a really long scene about making soup.

Also unlike its monster-flick competition, the film boasts a pair of screenwriters with an unusual pedigree: Co-writers Charles Sinclair and Bill Finger had earlier worked on The Green Slime, a bunch of episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, and a Batman twofer featuring Walter Slezak as The Clock King.

The late Finger, in fact, was the uncredited co-creator of the Batman character, and had been writing comic scripts since the 1940s. Sinclair joined the radio/TV biz in the 1940s, primarily working as a trade magazine editor and PR man while dabbling in screenwriting on the side.

I caught up with Sinclair (now in his 80s) last year, and I've since conducted two lengthy interviews with him about his film work. Below, I've excerpted the part of the interview pertaining to Track of the Moonbeast.

For the record, the film was completed in September 1972, but there doesn't appear to be any indication it had a theatrical release. It first aired on television around 1978, but is generally listed with a 1976 release date.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who put me in contact with Sinclair. Nobleman is currently writing a Bill Finger biography, and you can learn more about this unheralded comic writer over at his blog, Nobelmania.

How did you get involved in writing the film Track of the Moonbeast?

CHARLES SINCLAIR: I will start by saying that Track of the Moonbeast was the equivalent of a literary one-night stand, honest to God. It came, it went, and I kind of forgot about it. Mercifully, perhaps! The original tip off on this thing came from a lady I knew in the film industry named Joyce Graff.

She tipped me off that there was a company that was looking around for a property because they had been in contact with something like the New Mexico Film Development Board or something to that effect. The state government of New Mexico had decided that it would be nice to have them come down and make movies there to spread the economy around and all that. They were offering location assistance, and everything you could offer a film company.

When this quickie tip came in the early 1970s, Bill Finger was kind of winding down, the poor guy. He was fading away. He had had heart trouble. Bill was ten years older than I was. He was kind of living from hand to mouth a bit. At this point Bill had been working for the government, of all things, in some sort of government film job. The U.S. Army Signal Corps had a studio out in Long Island, the Kaufman Studios, where they made training films and other stuff. It's a famous little studio. They filmed Marx Brothers movies there.

So I got this tip. I thought to myself, what do I know about New Mexico? Not very much. I had never been there. I did a very quick study at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street on the state of New Mexico, and took some notes about the tourist attractions, something of its history, and so on.

Then I got together with Bill, and explained what this was and that we needed a quick, basic idea that we could expand on to make a low-budget film of some nature. All of this is taking place in a matter of a few days. So Bill and I sat around a pot of coffee and knocked ideas back and forth.

The producers were Frank and Ralph Desiderio, and the director was a man named Richard Ashe.

Yeah, yeah. I think we met with the Desiderio people, and who also had a third person there that was to be their cinematographer. So we met in just very routine restaurant somewhere in the east 50s, sat around a table drinking coffee or beer or whatever and discussed this thing.

We pitched our idea, and they liked it. They felt there was enough to produce it, and to get the New Mexico people involved because it was utilizing a New Mexico Indian legend, science fiction stuff, these basic ideas.

We bounced the idea off them and we talked money. And they pleaded that they were a very low-budget operation. I've been trying the last couple of days to remember how much we were paid for this thing. It was a split between Bill and myself, either $12,000 or $20,000 for the finished screenplay. It covered everything, all rights. There was a finder's fee for Joyce Graff, who had pointed us in the direction of this thing.

It was very much the last major thing that I ever did with Bill Finger. The money that he got from it was enough to keep him alive in the last few months and pay off some debts here and there.

Bill's forte was coming up with quick plots, because he had a hell of a memory. He remembered every movie he ever watched, and he would borrow a little here and a little there.

He also wrote nice, tight dialogue. He was a joy to work with on things like that. In comic books you can't be verbose. You're not going to come up with the Gettysburg Address when someone asks about the weather. It had to be simple and readable and snappy and terse. He was a great collaborator.

But we did this movie, we got the money, we paid off Joyce Graff, forgot the whole thing. Bill's fortunes did not get much better. In 1974, clunk, he died. So that was the end of that.

I almost literally forgot about the movie. I have a son on the West Coast who is involved as a writer out there. He phoned me one night, and said "Guess what? Track of the Moonbeast is coming up on an obscure TV channel." It was on the Sci-Fi Channel or Comedy Central or something of that sort. I said, "Great, I've never seen it." I looked in on it that night, and thought, "Oh my god, did I have a hand in this thing?"

It was kind of chopped up and mixed in with these people making corny jokes.

Then you saw the Mystery Science Theater version.

I was vaguely astonished to see that one of the characters in the movie was a fairly presentable, good looking girl who was kind of running around in what looked like these short, baby doll nighties. She's running around with hearts stitched all over her. I thought, "Did we write a girl into this thing?" I guess we did.

By the way, the original working title -- Bill and I always had great working titles that never got used -- was The Lunar Analog. I thought that was very sexy. My brother was a nuclear physicist, and he thought that was pretty good.

How long did it take to write the script?

One weekend. We just talked about the story line, then sat down in Bill's apartment, I think. We started in the evening after work, Friday evening. So we had a spaghetti dinner, because Bill was a very good short order Italian cook. He was hardly a gourmet cook, but he made terrific pasta dishes because they were cheap and filling. We sat down with beer and pasta and a couple of typewriters, or maybe just one typewriter, taking turns. We just went directly from the story treatment we had right into writing a script.

It was done and delivered I guess to Joyce Graff, who delivered it to the Desiderios. Checks came back, and that was it.

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