The Musical World of Rocky Horror

Brian Thomson Interview (1979)        3,305 views

Exclusive Interview: BRIAN THOMSON
A conversation with the big banana of anti-set design in Rocky Horror.


Set designer Brian Thomson could be the curator of a kitsch museum. His living room is crowded with every cliched trinket known to western civilization. The walls are decorated with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Coca-Cola signs and strange snapshots of Thomson in front of huge plastic bananas. "I just love cliches," he explains. If one should miss the point, a life-size cardboard figure of Cheryl Ladd is stationed behind the television set. "Look over here!" Thomson says. "I have a complete collection of Annette Funicello albums. Now I wonder what happened to my Mouseketeer ears?"

Thomson, who is dressed in his favorite uniform of jeans and leopard-trimmed shirt, links his obsession to his childhood in Sydney, Australia. "When I was growing up television was a relatively new thing. Kids weren't out in the streets, they were at home watching the 'telly.' I learned a lot about American cliches just from sitting in front of the TV set. Americans are often too close to their own culture to pick up on the cliched elements. You may create them, but we enjoy them."

Cliches play an important part in Thomson's visual vocabulary as a set designer. "I love to mix very obvious kitsch elements together. The end result can be quite extraordinary." The Rocky Horror Show is a prime example. A pastiche of campy science fiction, gothic horror and British burlesque, the story piles so many cliches together that it's difficult to determine where one begins and another ends. "The original Rocky Horror script was a mail order catalogue of kitsch ideas, mingled with science fiction and horror. We all brought a lot of our own thoughts into it, and what emerged was a result of this 'mating point,' because, luckily, most of us were thinking along the same lines."

Many of the people originally involved with Rocky Horror had collaborated before. Thomson met Jim Sharman in Australia and worked as set designer on his London productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sam Shepherd's The Unseen Hand, which featured Richard O'Brien as a "Space Freak" with musical arrangements by Richard Hartley.

Thomson and Sharman were thinking about B-movies and science fiction long before they met O'Brien on Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1971 they made a low-budget SF film, Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens, which is almost a Rocky Horror in embryo form. "It's interesting that we were developing the same ideas on a different continent," says Thomson. "The plot involved a group of aliens who took over Luna Park, a Coney Island-type amusement area, and turned it into their Earth headquarters. One day some 'rockers,' people like the Eddie character in Rocky, entered the park and discovered the aliens. We took a very B-movie approach to the film, but it was really an amateurish attempt."

Thomson, Sharman and O'Brien eventually pooled their mutual interests in B-movies and science fiction to fashion The Rocky Horror Show two years later. "While we were rehearsing for The Unseen Hand we'd have these great sing-a-longs. Richard would play the guitar and we'd sing these fifties rock and roll songs. Every so often he would slip in one of his originals so we suspected something was going on. Then one day he announced that he'd written this little musical and would we mind taking a look at it. Everything just finally clicked."

Thomson started work with a bare script, a bare stage and a bone-thin budget. The idea of framing the play within the confines of a movie screen had not been formulated in O'Brien's original concept, so Thomson was given free rein to create the setting as well as the set design.

"One day we were all sitting around wondering how we were going to handle the staging. We wanted a hardware science fiction look, but could hardly afford it on a set design budget of $600. Suddenly I remembered an image I had stored away. A few months before I had gone to the cinema and saw this usherette selling ice cream on the side of the stage with a spotlight shining on her. I thought it was one of the most theatrical things I'd ever seen. I suggested that "Science Fiction," the show's opening number, be sung by an usherette. The setting of the show just evolved from there."

"Once we hit on the idea that it was a derelict cinema we were able to fashion our ideas very cheaply. In a way The Rocky Horror Show is an example of anti-set design. All you are really presenting to the audience is a big white movie screen. Now I've had no stage design schooling, but I reckon one basic principle would be never to put a big white blob in the middle of the stage. Luckily, the big white blob worked quite well."

Thomson has designed the sets for London as well as in Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Tokyo and Oslo. "The only time the set design failed was in New York. We simply lost control of the show. I wanted to stage it in some old cinema down in Greenwich Village, but Lou Adler, who produced the show in the U.S., wanted to duplicate a cabaret atmosphere. It worked with Rocky in L.A. at the Roxy, but New York is not L.A. Adler pulled out the whole orchestra section of the Belasco Theatre and put in tables and chairs. Waitresses served drinks and hamburgers. It was publicized as "The Beautiful Belasco, New York's first cabaret theater." Well, as it turned out, New York didn't need a cabaret theater and Rocky was a disaster. What Adler didn't understand was that the cabaret angle didn't matter. It wasn't the important thing about the play. Rocky is basically a little show. If you try and approach it as "The Rocky Horror Show — Direct from the West Coast" — you ruin everything."

Thomson was reluctant at first to get involved with expanding the play for the screen. "I had problems because I wanted to set the film in a derelict drive-in cinema, but no one went along with that idea." They wanted to get away from the movie-house location altogether, which made keeping the usherette too obvious a stage device. Consequently, the problem arose of how to handle her opening number.

"The original shooting script had a book opening with visual images from each film mentioned in the song. One page would have a picture from The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Invisible Man, and so forth. I thought that was really boring. More than that, the song is not about seeing images; it's about remembering images. You didn't need any way of depicting these things except in the mind. That's why I didn't go in for a real science fiction or Gothic horror look. We all know that and our image of it is far better than anything I could ever do. I went for the kitsch angle instead."

Thomson got the idea of using the huge lips for the title song from a painting by Man Ray. "We borrowed Richard O'Brien's voice and Pat Quinn's lips. It works well, although I never dreamed it would become a logo." Thomson derives much of his inspiration from art, particularly from Magritte whose acute sense of the absurd appeals to him. "For the movie I thought it was very important to turn Frank into an art connoisseur. He and I have similar taste, although Frank goes a little haywire at times. That's why I threw in the Greek sculpture with a Michaelangelo and a few Magrittes. It's tasteful, but at the same time it's just a little wrong, a little too eclectic. Did you notice the top hat on one of the griffins in the ballroom? That's a Magritte image. Wonderfully surreal."

The first quarter of the film was originally scheduled to be shot in black and white. With Frank's entrance down the elevator the image was to switch to color, his vivid red lipstick the first clue to the change. "The idea was dropped because there was a problem matching in the black and white with the color print. You'll notice that the beginning of the film looks totally washed out. It was done specifically in white, blacks and greys to contrast with the later ballroom scene which was suddenly supposed to explode with color."

If Thomson was concerned about how to handle the set design, his spirits picked up considerably once he saw the location of Frank-N-Furter's castle, an old house once used in Hammer films for gothic horror settings. It was a vintage cliche, just perfect for Thomson. He did eight weeks of pre-production, supervising the design and construction of the half-dozen interior sets in the house and the exterior and interior of the wedding chapel. "First the laboratory in the old house was built and then it was pulled down immediately to make room for the ballroom. At one end we constructed the RKO emblem and the swimming pool. The narrator's study was in a separate room. We thought that the pool would give the "Don't Dream It" number a very sensual feeling. I wanted to make it syringe-shaped to tie it in with the whole drug thing, but that was vetoed."

The film was shot in seven weeks and the time pressures resulted in some quick-thinking script changes. "Jim came over to me one day and said, 'Where's the secret entrance into the lab? You know, the one Dr. Scott comes through.' I had forgotten to put it in. Jim looked at me and said, 'That's just great. How are we going to get Dr. Scott into the lab then?' I was getting a little tired at this point so I told him, 'Just push him through the wall.' That's why Jonathan Adams comes flying through the cardboard like that."

Thomson is the first to point out the film's weak points. In fact, he really doesn't like the movie, preferring the original version that was unveiled at the Theatre Upstairs six years ago. "If Rocky is a success as a film it's due to the kids. At first I thought the whole cult thing was a bit desperate. You know, 'those poor kids with nothing better to do.' But then I remembered how I used to watch the Mouseketeers on telly. It came a lot later to Australia so I must have been in my teens when I watched it. I was as devoted to the Mouseketeers as these kids are to Rocky Horror. Every week I would turn on the telly, put on my ears, and wait for Annette. It's all basically the same thing, isn't it?"