October, 2011. This interview with Ian Ogilvy was supposed to coincide with a Blu-ray release of Witchfinder General, but there was some problem with the timing – was the release delayed? I can’t even remember – that meant it didn’t run. So again, online it went, as a vaguely Hallowe’eny thing. Lots of good anecdotes from Ogilvy about making the film, and working with Michael Reeves and Vincent Price. It was originally published at The Phantom Zone, but since that site is no longer updated and gets very few visits, here’s the full thing.
Michael Reeves was only 24 when he directed Witchfinder General, his third and final film before his untimely death in 1969. Now rightly lauded as a classic, the film nevertheless had a troubled production, thanks to the fractious relationship between Reeves and his star Vincent Price. With the Witchfinder General Blu-ray just released, Price’s co-star and Reeves’ lifelong friend and collaborator Ian Ogilvy looks back on an exhausting summer…
Witchfinder General has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years, although it’s come up consistently all through my life. Film students have always written about it and done their theses on it, so it has come up over the years. I suspect the interest was always there, but there are more forums now for people to be interested: things like Facebook and messageboards and all these autograph shows, one or two of which I’ve been to. I haven’t seen it very recently: perhaps in the last five years. I can’t imagine what it looks like on Blu-ray; is the original quality of the film up to that?!
There was much less money on Witchfinder than on some of its contemporaries like the Hammer films, although I think that’s one of its strengths. It doesn’t look like it was made on a shoestring, but it wasn’t a wonderfully comfortable film to make. We were out in the wilds of Norfolk, shooting in an old aircraft hanger, rather than a studio. It was summer, but it was summer in Norfolk…
It’s bleak and brutal, but it wasn’t unremittingly gloomy in a sort of Swedish way; there’s a lot of exciting stuff in it. Michael always said we were making a Western. He thought it would be the closest he ever got to making one. Michael was extraordinary, because he was so young, but crews liked him, which is always a good sign. Once they realised that he knew what he was doing, he would earn the respect of a hard-bitten crew very quickly. He’d been making movies since he was about 14, and he had the most encyclopaedic knowledge. He could tell you who the second assistant director was on any movie. If you wanted to know anything at all about any movie ever made, you asked Mike Reeves. If you didn’t have any interest in film you’d have thought his conversation was quite boring! The legend is that he once hand-cranked a print of DW Griffith’s Intolerance, studying every frame. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But he certainly understood the language and geography of movies.
We weren’t at school together, but were introduced by a mutual friend when we were 15, who knew that Mike wanted to direct and I wanted to act. We met in one of those endless coffee bars that were around in the fifties on Kensington High Street, and I went and stayed in his mum’s house with some other friends of his and we made this movie. I think tiny clips of that still exist; they’re very scratchy and black-and-white, and they’re silent. I lost touch with him for a while after that, and went off to drama school and did some early television and some stage work, and then my agent called me one day and asked if I knew somebody called Mike Reeves, who wanted me to be in his film. So we had a renewed acquaintance, after several years. He learnt from his first film (The She Beast, 1965), which was completely dreadful, and then the second (The Sorcerers, 1966), which is better, and then there was Witchfinder, which is the one everybody talks about. I’m in all of them!
My dealings with Vincent Price were actually very few and far between, because a lot of the time when I was shooting, Vincent wasn’t even around. The few scenes I had with him, he was very nice. The only one that was a bit difficult was the famous one in Orford Castle, when I’m killing him with an axe, and he was a very miserable, unhappy man by then. He was determined to be uncooperative. He’d had it with Mike, by that point. He didn’t want to wear any padding, and Mike wanted me to hit him as hard as I could with this rubber axe, which I said I wasn’t going to do. And we had a huge number of set-ups to do, and very little time, and we couldn’t go back, so we had to get what we could get. It was a tricky night, all a mad rush, and not helped by Vincent being dour and glum in the background.
Vincent’s problem with Michael was a) that he was so young, and b) someone had told him that he wasn’t the original casting for the role. Mike wanted Donald Pleasance, which would have shifted the emphasis of the movie completely. He wanted the character to be physically rather ridiculous: not the imposing figure that Vincent was. He wanted the person to be an unprepossessing little creep. So Vincent knew all this and it didn’t please him very much, but he found himself under contract to AIP, doing supposedly the last in the series of the Edgar Allen Poe movies, although it had nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe. And instead of being in a nice comfortable Hollywood studio, which he was used to, he was now out in Norfolk, in uncomfortable circumstances, being told not to grimace and overact by a 23-year-old director. They didn’t get on at all well. Vincent really resented it. He considered himself to be rather an iconic Hollywood star, and he thought Mike was impertinent, really. He thought he’d been hired to “do Vincent Price”, but Mike didn’t want that; he wanted him to be real. But in the end of course it turned out as one of Vincent’s best performances. You can’t imagine the film without him, and in many ways I think Vincent came rather belatedly to realise that, and was quite proud of the performance. But it was certainly down to Mike that he got that performance.
Mike didn’t like directing actors at all. He liked casting right. He always said he didn’t know anything about acting, so he used Don Siegel’s trick – Don Siegel was his great hero – who believed that if you cast a thing properly you can leave the actors alone. But Mike found he was unable to leave Vincent alone. Mike’s directions tended to be just “Can you do it faster?” but with Vincent, it was always “Can you please not do that?” It was always in the negative, which is a little off-putting for actors.
Vincent was actually very, very nice… when he was happy! All you had to do was keep him happy and he was the most charming man in the world and he’d entertain us with wonderful stories. We were staying in this very nice old country hotel in Bury-St-Edmonds, and he had the “Dickens Suite”, because supposedly Dickens had stayed there. And in the evenings he’d be surrounded by people because he was so friendly and amusing. He really could be a delight. Just not on the set of Witchfinder General…
Witchfinder General is available now on Blu-ray from Odeon Entertainment.