Brian Thomson interview - Crazed Imaginations

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Reprinted from Crazed Imaginations #106: an original interview with set designer Brian Thomson - meet the wizard who designed Rocky Horror's look!

From the Unseen Hand to the Sydney Olympics: A Long Strange Trip with Brian Thomson

Interview copyright 2001 by Robert Shaw. Many thanks to Lush.

Present Day: It is pouring rain and my nerves are shot. I am on a mission to interview Brian Thomson, the original production designer of RHS/RHS/ST. How will the man who designed Frank’s surroundings live and what will he tell me?

Brian Thomson with his gold RHPS soundtrack. Photo provided by Leon Tencer

At his home, I am greeted not by a hunchbacked butler but Thomson himself. The surroundings are elegantly minimalist, with details of revealing Aussie iconography. Brian himself is an engaging host and a great storyteller. I hit RECORD as soon as he starts talking about Nell.

Time Warp to Sydney October 1, 2000. The world’s eyes are on the closing of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. With Brian Thomson serving as Supervising Designer, colour and movement aplenty are guaranteed.

Elle McPherson struts along the zoom lens of a giant camera, Greg Norman plays golf atop an enormous shark, Kylie Minogue sings “Dancing Queen,” and a gaggle of drag queens re-create moments from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (this last despite indignant opposition from the Church and embarrassed Ministers of Parliament: “We knew we’d get shot, but so what?”, ponders a bemused Thomson).

“One of the things that was proposed was that we have a huge jukebox and Nell doing the Timewarp with hundreds of Transylvanians bopping around. It would have been nice to pay homage to us Aussies,” says Thomson, quietly but with the conviction of someone who knows how important Australians have been in RH history.

Thomson speaks of his work on the Olympics with the same warmth and enthusiasm as when we start to talk Rocky Horror. It is hard to maintain a respectful dignity as Rocky artefacts and stories blossom like Triffids in the night.

Time Warp to London, 1972. As the swinging sixties were morphing into the pansexual glitter of the Glam era, Jim Sharman and Brian Thomson arrived in London, fresh from successful stagings of Hair in Melbourne and Jesus Christ Superstar in Sydney and Melbourne.

Capsule bio of Brian Thomson from the 1971 Melbourne production of HAIR. Photo provided by Leon Tencer

The fateful meeting between Richard O’Brien and the newly landed Australians came when O’Brien was cast to understudy Herod in Superstar. “Jim gave the role to O’Brien and he did it as a British Teddy Boy with a big flat-top hairdo, huge sideburns and one of those long jackets,” explains Thomson.

"Richard’s Herod was a kind of rock and roll Herod. Tim Rice was all right with it, but Andrew (Lloyd Webber) didn’t like it and Robert Stigwood hated it. He had that taken away from him so, instead of being just a chorus girl, he went away, got stoned and wrote a few songs. At least that’s what I think happened…"

By the time that Thomson, Sharman and O’Brien met again in the Upstairs Theatre at London’s Royal Court Theatre, O’Brien had developed those songs into the rough ideas for a new rock musical. Thomson and Sharman were staging a production of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand. “Jim felt a bit guilty about what had happened to O’Brien on Superstar and asked what did I think about getting him in for Space-Freak Willie.” recalls Thomson. “Space-Freak Willie is a character who arrives halfway through the play. His dialogue is the entire play that has gone before, backwards. O’Brien came in and he was very, very good.

“As the audience came up and settled into their seats, Richard Hartley used to play piano. They would all sing doo-wop songs like ‘Duke of Earl.’ At rehearsal Richard used to play these songs that he had written. and Richard and Jim got to talking. Jim and I had a complete fascination about B sci-fi which O’Brien shared. We (Jim and I) had made our own little sci-fi film before we left Australia, Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens. So it was an interesting meeting of talents and concepts.”

Sharman was quick to marshal these interesting songs, people and ideas into a new venture. A demo tape of the songs that would become RHS was recorded in Jim Sharman’s basement flat in South Kensington. Present were O’Brien, Sharman, Iain ‘the count’ Blair, and Richard Hartley.

“They recorded some of the songs; not all them had been written then. They played it to a London producer, Michael White; and to Harriette Cruickshank, the manager of the Royal Court Upstairs Theatre. They both agreed to put L1000- into the project. And that’s how it kinda started,” Thomson explains.

While Jim Sharman helped Richard O’Brien re-draft the original libretto, Thomson was charged with finding a look and feel for the show. “O’Brien always wanted the show to be like Star Trek or Dr Who. There was no way we could do that with a budget of L300. Unless you can do that kind of thing beautifully, there’s no point.”

A night at the cinema, indeed the very cinema where RHPS now screens in London [Ed. Note: The Prince Charles, which, sadly, stopped showing the film this September], provided the inspiration. As Thomson and Sharman waited for the main feature, Cabaret, they were struck by an odd British custom. “Down walked this girl in this really unbelievably tragic-looking outfit. She turned around and a tiny unfocussed spotlight shone on her. She was selling sweets. The whole thing was astonishing! I remember saying to Jim, ‘That’s the way we should do the show. We should set it in a derelict cinema. I can do it on budget and it will give us a look.’”

Realising that costumery would be vital to this show, Thomson decided to call in extra help on costume design. The obvious first choice was Maria Bjornsen, with whom Thomson was working on a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.

Bjornsen, who later designed the lavish settings and costumes for The Phantom of the Opera, declined. “I don’t do drag shows, but I have a friend who might,” is the response Thomson recalls. “And that friend was Sue Blane, so Sue came in and added a whole new dimension. Everybody at the time was invited to contribute and everyone did.”

Triptych of Tim Curry as Frank in the London production. Photo from Brian Thomson's personal collection.

There was a lot of work to be done developing O’Brien’s embryonic libretto into a full scale show. “As O’Brien had it, two children are watching TV exactly when Brad and Janet arrive at the Castle. There was no Time Warp, no background with Brad and Janet at the wedding, Dr Scott’s song wasn’t there…”

The idea that the musical needed a ‘dance craze’ (the Time Warp!) was Sharman’s. Thomson threw in the idea that Dr Scott is indeed German, possibly a Nazi. Blane ‘moved over’ costumes from an earlier production of Genet’s The Maids. Sharman came up with a name for the show from O’Brien’s ideas. Listening to Thomson speak, one gets a real sense of a team effort.

The final piece in the RHS puzzle was the casting. Little Nell, another Australian, auditioned to play Columbia and stole the part. Nell was already known to Thomson and Sharman: she tap-danced every night to entertain audiences waiting to see JC Superstar. “We wanted Nell to be the new Annette Funicello.”

Our conversation meanders and we never really return to the staging of the Rocky Horror Show. As soon as Thomson starts talking about RHPS I am too engaged to think about trying to stop him! The short version of the now well known story is that the play was a hit. The London production quickly moved to a real derelict cinema, fulfilling Thomson’s design vision.

Productions modeled on the original were mounted in Sydney (also in a run-down cinema) and Los Angeles, incorporating the existing designs and costumes. A ‘traditional’ Rocky Horror Show had emerged.

Amidst the excitement of RHS’s international success, the film rights were secured. The new dilemma was how to turn a musical set in an abandoned cinema into a film. O’Brien’s vision was very much of a sci-fi style film. Thomson was reluctant to work on the project but was persuaded by Sharman.

“I knew that doing it in a science fiction way was wrong but I didn’t have a better alternative,” Thomson explains. Inspiration hit during a visit Thomson and Sharman made to Bray Studios outside of London, where the film was to be shot.

Brian's personal favorite self-portrait, with the Denton sign. Photo from Brian Thomson's personal collection.

“Bray Studios is where they did all the old Hammer Horror films. While we were there, this guy asked if we wanted to see the old house. So we trudged across a paddock and immediately recognised the house (Oakley Court) from the old B-movies. The house was under a Preservation Order but the owners wanted to knock it down, so they had taken all the lead out of the roof. Inside it was a disgrace,” recalls Thomson with rapidly growing enthusiasm.

“The beautiful moulding and wallpaper was peeling off and festering. The upholstery that had been there for maybe a century or more was rotting. On one level, it was devastating that this house had been allowed to rot, but I said to Jim, ‘this is it! This is how the film should look’.

“I figured that they arrived in some kind of spaceship and landed with no-one seeing them, which you could do out there. They found this house but they didn’t really understand it. The rotting wallpaper and rain coming in would seem like a natural occurrence. Magenta wouldn’t know anything about housekeeping.”

Shooting the Floor Show. Photo from Brian Thomson's personal collection.

With Frank and the gang now located in a classic horror movie environment, O’Brien and Sharman set about re-writing the screenplay. Thomson, meanwhile, let his imagination run free as he drew the designs, built model sets, and collected the set-dressings for RHPS.

For Thomson, the job of a designer is to create a world that the actors and the audience can believe that the characters inhabit. He summarises the approach by telling me: “You can design a set in five minutes. To make it live and breathe takes weeks. Everything has to have a reason.” Brian explains, using Frank’s art collection as an example.

“I imagined that Frank had an insight into art he had seen, maybe in books or movies or somewhere and decided he wanted.” For a moment Thomson becomes Frank soliciting the Mona Lisa from the Louvre: “maybe a picture of that woman. We’ll have two of those.”

“To Frank it wouldn’t matter if they are black and white Xeroxes facing opposite ways. I may still have all the letters that I wrote from Frank to the Louvre and places. There are also letters between Frank and the local authorities regarding noisy motorcycles and a strange blue glow coming from his house. They’re never seen in the film but everything was totally authentic.”

The degree of effort to achieve authenticity is revealed when I see a complex scale layout drawing of the house. “I’ve read that the house is architecturally incorrect but it isn’t; I calculated it all,” Thomson tells me while demonstrating how the elevator and dome correspond to each other throughout the house.

To furnish the film, RHPS set dresser Ian Whittaker joined Thomson on a kind of scavenger hunt among prop hire outlets in and around London. “It was pure indulgence, but in this case, it was totally correct for the characters. That’s how Frank would live.”

The back of the Denton church facade at Bray Studios. Photo from Brian Thomson's personal collection.

The item that seems to have impressed itself most firmly in Thomson’s memory is the Coffin Clock from the Time Warp scene. The skeleton really is someone’s mother, the clock a whim of the bereaved, now long abandoned to props departments. [Ed. Note: see CI #68 for a brief history of the coffin clock.] While coffins are on the agenda I ask why the coffin in the Church scene is so small.

"Oh, at the time I imagined the American Gothic couple were having a funeral for their child." The reply is so deadpan that I am still thinking about it as Thomson leaves to answer the door. It turns out to be a delivery boy…

With Brian gone I seize my chance to furtively touch some of the ‘Rocky relics’ around me. I feel delightfully wicked and feel a strange emotional attachment to them, particularly costume pieces.

The delivery turns out to be the statuette for Thomson’s Canadian DORA Award for Outstanding Set Design on a production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. It is a humbling reminder that I am sitting with a world-recognised production designer and digging for obscure details on coffins and donuts!

Thomson is clearly pleased by his award. Regardless, “it’ll probably go in a cupboard,” he tells me. I am relieved when he assures me that his well- deserved Tony for The King and I is displayed more prominently. Almost embarrassed when I tell him that I cheered his Tony win, Brian seems relieved to return to the topic of Rocky Horror.

In the name of settling some old debates I find out that the formula on Frank’s lab wall is not the formula for LSD; that it is a “big sugary donut” that Riff offers Brad and Janet during the Time Warp, not a bagel; and that to the best of Thomson’s knowledge there was no Easter egg hunt on set. (Shooting took place closer to Christmas than Easter). The chair used in Shock Treatment is indeed Frank’s chair painted red. Its location is now uncertain.

In talking about detail and its importance to a believable setting, I tell Brian about a friend who has registered a star under the name of ‘The Planet of Transsexual, In the Galaxy of Transylvania’. “Good, I’m glad. It has to exist.” comes the firm response. “It’s pleasing that people believe so fully in Frank’s world.”

Prompted to comment on his favourite ‘touches’ in the design, Thomson first cites Frank and Rocky’s wedding chamber. The presence of Atlas in the stained glass is one of Thomson’s trademark visual games. Does Frank know the difference between Atlas the Greek God and Charles Atlas the 1950s muscle man? He also fondly remembers the dinner scene where Magenta’s incompetence as an earthling housekeeper is displayed.

The Transylvanians’ failure to comprehend Earth living is highlighted in the hilarious story of Magenta’s failed attempt at chicken farming. Unfortunately difficult to catch in the final cut of the film, the scene is best described by Thomson himself.

“The (ballroom) alcove on the right, closest to the stage, is covered in chicken wire because I made the decision that Magenta was keeping chickens. She has given them a beautiful chandelier and a nice water setting. But she gave up on that, so all the chickens have tried to get out of the cage. They have tried to peck their way through the wire and their little heads have gotten caught.”

[note: the ‘chicken coop’ can best be spotted just before Nell’s entrance in Time Warp and during the ‘Brad and Janet undressed’ scene]

Thomson’s memories of the time are clearly fond ones of an exciting and fun time working with some exceptionally talented people. Behind the fun, however, lies a lot of hard work. A big chunk of the Thomson aesthetic is revealed when he explains that “if you’re going to do kitsch well, you have to take it very seriously and on Rocky we did. We had a lot of fun but we took it seriously.”

Thomson recalls the 70s as having been almost entirely consumed by Rocky Horror; for the core creative nucleus it was a busy time. It wasn’t long until the first work on a sequel to be known as ‘All this and Rocky Too’ began….