“I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” holds a special significance for me because I coordinated the PR push for the film’s sole American theatrical engagement back in September 1999. The project was a lot of fun for me, but I think I was the only person who actually enjoyed being associated with this debacle.
“I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” is the rare film which is a lot more interesting to talk about than to watch. It is a truly horrible movie, which should not come as a surprise since it was based on an unproduced screenplay by Edward D. Wood Jr. Yes, that Ed Wood who gave us “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Bride of the Monster.” Written by Wood in the 1960s, the screenplay follows a mental asylum escapee who robs a bank, hides the cash in a funeral parlor coffin, loses track of the coffin, and then hunts down the people he suspects as having the cash. Wood hoped to get John Carradine and Aldo Ray to appear in the film, but financing never materialized and Wood tucked the script away, where it became quickly forgotten. Wood himself was forgotten by the time he died in poverty in 1978, one year before the publication of the book “The Golden Turkey Awards” lead to a rediscovery of his weird little films.
Shortly after the release of the Tim Burton biopic “Ed Wood” in 1994, the script to “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” was rediscovered and was optioned by first-time filmmaker Aris Iliopulous, who miraculously got Billy Zane interested in the project. Zane, whose career at this time was on an upswing, was so enamored with “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” that he agreed to star as the lunatic thief and to co-produce the movie.
If the Ed Wood angle was not enough, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” had two additional novelties: the film had no dialogue whatsoever (the only wordplay came in a musical number sung by Eartha Kitt) and it was packed with an all-star cast who appeared mostly in fleeting cameos. With the possible exceptions of Christina Ricci, the “stars” who turned up here were primarily B-list TV and minor league movie celebrities: Sandra Bernhard, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, John Ritter, Ron Perlman, Tippi Hedren, Will Patton, Karen Black, Nicolette Sheridan, Ann Magnuson, Andrew McCarthy, Rick Schroder, and Summer and Rain Phoenix. A very young starlet named Tara Reid also turned up, along with Ed Wood’s widow Kathleen and two stars from the original Wood atrocities, Conrad Brooks and Vampira. Bud Cort, oddly, appeared but did not accept billing.
All of this sounds intriguing, yes? So what went wrong? The problem was not the Wood script, which was dumb but forgettable. Instead, director Iliopulous decided to play the entire film for campy laughs. This missed the point of the charm that Wood’s films possessed: they were so serious and sincere that in their incompetence they gained a belated charm, pleasing those who love so-bad-they’re-good flicks. Whereas Wood cast bad actors who tried (and failed) to give good performances, Iliopulous cast credible actors and instructed them to give intentionally bad performances. Thus everyone is in ham heaven, with the entire cast rolling their eyes, sneering their lips, doing wild double takes and gasping as if they’ve been stuck in the posterior with a safety pin. As you can imagine, 90 minutes of this becomes very tiresome very quickly, and it doesn’t help to have Zane (never a subtle actor to begin with) try to out-camp the entire cast with a broad physical performance that would’ve been rejected by Mack Sennett as being too outlandish. As film critic Dustin Putman aptly noted: “this movie is a pure and simple dud.”
“I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 1998 and attracted no interest from U.S. theatrical distributors. Cinequanon Pictures, which financed the film and hoped to sell off the rights, found itself with a property that no one wanted. Rather than dump it straight to video or follow the Miramax example and stick it on the shelf, Cinequanon took the curious decision of releasing the film–curious because the company had no experience releasing films and the cold reaction from Toronto did not suggest a bonanza was at hand. Even Billy Zane realized this. When I was setting up his press schedule for the film’s opening, he specifically instructed me not to arrange for national media exposure; all of his interviews were strictly with local media sources.
And then fun really began. In September 1999, the film opened in New York at the now-defunct Screening Room to mixed reviews and no box office. Within a week’s time, the film was gone. And soon Cinequanon was gone, too. Cinequanon had experienced significant financial problems during the course of 1999 (including another unsuccessful theatrical offering, the re-release of the 1973 animated classic “Fantastic Planet”) and the failure of “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” was the proverbial final nail in its coffin. The company left a trail of ill-will and unhappy creditors, most visibly web designer Gregory Gilleland. Cinequanon paid Gilleland by check for the film’s web site, but that check bounced. Gilleland posted the bounced check on the web site (www.iwokeupearly.com) and detailed his tortured dealings with the company, and the web designer even set up a PayPal link for sympathetic Net surfers to help him recover costs that Cinequanon never honored.
With Cinequanon dead broke, “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” disappeared into legal limbo. Except for a single screening at the 2000 B-Movie Film Festival (where it won several awards including Best Picture, Director and Actor), it has never been shown in an American theatrical venue. The film did turn up in Hungary and Germany in 2000 and in Tokyo in 2001, but for the most part it remains unseen.
For a couple of years after its disastrous premiere, I’ve received e-mails asking if the film is going to play anywhere or if it will be out on video. Gregory Gilleland’s web site also gets inquiries about the film. To date, the legal problems surrounding Cinequanon’s meltdown have kept the film out of commercial American home video and DVD release. The film somehow got released on DVD in Germany and bootleg videos based on that presentation can be found floating around.
But to be honest, don’t seek it out. “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” is an unfunny curio, not worth the bother of tracking down. Anyone who needs an Ed Wood kick will do better to find the 1950s Grade-Z cheapies and get some guilty laughs from that. “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” is, if you pardon the obvious pun, as funny as a funeral.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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