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Face Magazine Interview

Shock Treatment is Richard O’Brien’s follow-up to the Rocky Horror Show. A musical satire about media manipulation, it was filmed entirely within the confines of a television studio—by accident rather than design.
Report by NEIL NORMAN in "The Face" Magazine
WHEN YOU think how much of the world we view solely r through the television screen it’s surprising there haven’t been more films dealing with the potential of mass manipulation via this medium. For all its attempts at objective documentation the TV eye remains unflinchingly subjective, as much a prey to the motives of programme makers as it is to the events portrayed. The world’s most influential medium, it is also the most abused.

Richard O’Brien is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last person to commit his views on the influence of TV to film but Shock Treatment does make something of a unique statement in its depiction of the suburhan town of Denton, USA, where the dividing line of reality between the screen and the viewer has completely disappeared.

Originally intended as a sequel to his Rocky Horror Show, O’Brien’s latest and the final concept—that of shooting the entire film within the confines of a TV studio—came about by accident.

"It was because of the actors’ strike in America," explains O’Brien, who not only appears in the film as Cosmo McKinley, a zany TV shrink, but also wrote the script and the songs.

"We were going to do location shots in the States—we were actually going to have an old house for the hospital and certain location shots, downtown Denton, etc. and with the SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) strike we couldn’t turn a camera there. We had to find another way of doing it and once we’d come up with it I was frightened the strike was going to finish too soon and we’d have to go back to our original conception because I thought the new conception was much, much better.

"It knocked a million dollars off the budget: we had a controlled environment which meant we could shoot at any time of the year if the weather was nasty and keep the whole thing very tight-knit and theatrical. It became more theatrical which is nice, because Rocky had a theatrical flavor about it and I think that element of it is quite important. "

It seems that Jim Sharman, who has directed all of O’Brien’s work on stage and screen to date, was responsible for the drastic changes in the initial draft, which read more like Rocky Rises From The Grave than the film it has become. Was the continuing saga of Brad and Janet something he’d wanted to do since Rocky?

"Not really. It came to the stage where Rocky got into profit and I went to Michael White to see if he was interested in a sequel. (At that point, Rocky had made about 15 million dollars profit.) He agreed and I came up with a script which was very much Rocky Rides Again. Jim said that he wasn’t really interested in going with that sort of concept and I didn’t want to write a whole new script so we turned it around, chopped out a few characters like Frank, and made Brad the protagonist.

"Then over lunch we decided that Janet should be the protagonist so I said ‘That’s all right. All we need to do is every time it says Brad we cross that out and put Janet and vice versa. It’s very simple.’ Two drafts later . . ."

Not as simple as all that, then, but the TV element had been in there from the start with all the main characters, shown watching TV as their focus on reality. The new staging simply heightened the original concept.

"I think that element—using the studio as a microcosm of society works very well. Because you only need one of each; you only need one security man and all he has to do is growl and be officious to represent the entire police force of America."

O’Brien laughs easily, at himself besides others, and possesses an offbeat charm in marked contrast with his appearance. Clad entirely in black, his gaunt figure is topped by a cadaverous shaven skull containing deep-set eyes and an aquiline nose that together produces the not unjustified impression that he has watched too many old horror movies. Born in Cheltenham, he lived until his twenties in New Zealand where he returns to work from time to time dividing his time between acting and writing—songs, screenplays and theatre scripts—with enviable ease.

"I'll do anything, as it happens. I know that sounds cheap but I will have a crack at mostly anything. If it seems to me that I’ve been too long away from something then I’ll get back to it. That’s why I did Eastward Ho! at the Mermaid Theatre last year because I hadn’t been on the boards for about two years."

Not being a director also leaves him free to appear in his own works. Riff Raff from Rocky Horror Show and Cosmo in Shock Treatment being examples, though he also cast himself in his poorly received Tarzan musical, T-Zee ("A sad, bad British musical" enthused one critic) at The Royal Court. I wondered if he found it easy acting in his own stuff.

"I found it difficult acting in Shock Treatment. I felt I didn’t know what my character was and I also found it was awfully difficult acting in those glasses because I didn’t realise how important the eyes are until I did that. I felt that I was acting quite heavily and quite strongly and quite positively but when I watched a couple of rushes I could see that it wasn’t enough and I still think that I actually underplay a little too much in Shock Treatment. I’m not totally happy with my performance. I think it could have afforded to be a little broader."

But he doesn’t have too much too worry about. Apart from Shock Treatment, he has another musical called The Stripper, based on a Carter Brown thriller, opening on stage in Australia in the summer and has just completed three new songs for a film called rhe Return Of Captain Invincible which is currently being filmed over there with Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee.

Working on his home ground has several advantages, not the least of which is the availability of funds for the visual arts, but O’Brien predicts a backlash against Antipodean product soon if they continue to make too many films too quickly.

"I’ve seen two scripts recently. One has gone into production without the songs—it’s supposed to be a musical—which is just nonsense. It seems to me that’s too ill-advised for words."

"It was very odd, the guy who’d written the film wrote to me and said ‘ Dear Richard, I was thinking the other day that I want to do a Richard O’Brien type song in the film. Then I thought, why have a Richard O’Brien type song? Why not have a Richard O’Brien song? So I’m writing to you to ask if you are interested.’ And it was signed Doris somebody or other PP this person’s name and I thought that’s a bit horrid isn’t it?"

"So I wrote back and I signed it Gloria Vavavoom PP Richard O’Brien—I’m sorry. Up to my neck in it’. And he had very pretentious notepaper. It had across the top ‘Palm Beach Film Productions’ or something really pompous so I put ‘Disaster Productions’ across the top of mine. We used to have this company called Disaster Productions and I remember when we formed it and the guy went along to get the company seal the bloke there said 'Well, you’re not going to have any trouble with anybody duplicating this name . . .' "

The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996