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Charlie Watts 1941–2021

From my forthcoming book, Legends of British Blues:

Charlie Watts (Charles Robert Watts)

Main Instrument: Drums

Born: London, England; June 2, 1941

Died: London, England; August 24, 2021

Recommended Cuts: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (The Rolling Stones). Rolling Stones friend Pete Townsend claimed that Charlie’s drums weren’t properly recorded until Exile on Main Street, which showcased five terrific blues songs.

Charlie Watts grew up in Wembley near London, a truck driver’s son. At age ten, Watts discovered jazz. He began playing music on a banjo he had turned into a snare drum. Watts’s parents gave him his first drum kit in 1955. He practiced drumming to jazz records. He studied at the Harrow School of Art until 1960, then worked as a graphic designer for an advertising company while playing drums with local bands in coffee shops and clubs. In 1961 he met Alexis Korner, who invited Watts to join him in Blues Incorporated. In 1962 Charlie met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. After they matched his pay rate, in early 1963 Watts agreed to join The Rolling Stones.

Watts has had many non-Stones projects. In the late 70s, he joined Ian Stewart in the rootsie boogie and blues band Rocket 88, which featured many top UK jazz, blues and R&B players. He toured the world in the 1980s with the 32-piece Charlie Watts Orchestra (which included Rocket 88’s Jack Bruce) and released several LPs. Charlie’s previously-moderate use of alcohol and drugs became problematic, especially when he became addicted to heroin: “I became totally another person around 1983”, he confessed, “and came out of it about 1986. I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behavior.” It was Charlie who selected bassist Darryl Jones (ex-Miles Davis and Sting) to replace Bill Wyman after Wyman left the Stones. In 1991, Watts formed the Charlie Watts Quintet, a tribute to Charlie Parker, releasing Warm And Tender (1993) and Long Ago And Far Away (1996), jazz performances of American standards. The Charlie Watts Tentet recorded Watts At Scott’s (2004) at Ronnie Scott’s. In that same year Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent radiotherapy. The cancer went into remission.

In 2006 Modern Drummer voted Watts into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. In 2009 he performed with The ABC&D of Boogie Woogie. Watts continued to play with the Stones until August 5, 2021 when he announced he would not participate in their 2021 tour due to health reasons.

Trivia: Charlie had a compulsive habit of sketching every new hotel room he occupied immediately upon entering it. He kept every sketch, but didn’t know why he felt the need to do this.

During the mid-1980s, an inebriated Jagger phoned Charlie’s hotel room late at night asking where “my drummer” was. Watts reportedly got up, shaved, put on in a suit, tie and freshly shined shoes, descended the stairs and punched Jagger right in the face, saying, “Don’t ever call me ‘your drummer’ again. You’re my fucking singer!”

The British newspaper The Telegraph named Watts one of the World’s Best Dressed Men. In 2006 Vanity Fair elected Watts into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame where he joined his style icon, Fred Astaire.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #95

I argued against Dan O’Bannon‘s nihilistic ending (I felt that after all of the horror our characters had suffered, at least a few of them deserved to live) — but lost. Here are my design elements for the end of the film:

This was our first day of shooting. We shot this up near the top of Angeles National Forest. Early in the shoot I was scurrying around, getting stuff set up and didn’t notice the blades of a chest-level rear truck lift. I ran right into them and broke some ribs. I got treated by our nurse but told her to keep my injuries a secret until I had mended.

This was a rough of mine for the matte painting. I don’t do matte paintings, as it requires very specific knowledge (like matching the film grain, which is why a lot of matte paintings look so impressionistic; if you paint it too tight or photographic, it doesn’t work) to do well.

I storyboarded the stop motion animation of the nuclear shell being loaded into the cannon. I know I’ve still got those boards but, for now, I can’t find them. When they turn up I’ll include them on this page.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #93

Here are some more fun boards and a vengeful practical joke:

There are all kinds of producers in the Film Biz. Graham Henderson was our line producer. That’s an actual job — not just a title. Graham oversaw spending, budgets, schedules — facing and dealing with all of the workaday difficulties and problems in making a film.

Tom Fox was a different kind of producer. He was our money guy. That is, he came up with the money needed to finance the film, either out of his own pocket or, most likely, by finding investors. Other than that, I could pretty much tell that Tom knew absolutely nothing about what it takes to make a movie. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Tom from having a vanity license plate on his car that said “PRODUCER”.

Oh, please.

Tom’s wife and kids wanted to be in the movie. Tom guaranteed them, being the Big Shot producer of the film, that having them appear in the film was merely a matter of his demanding it.

Director Dan O’Bannon refused his demand. Tom hammered away at Dan until finally, weary of Fox’s nagging, Dan agreed to put Tom Fox’s wife and kids in the movie.

Then, Dan approached me.

“Bill. I want you to design the most uncomfortable make-ups you can come up with for Tom’s wife and kids.”

Dan later approached the victims (Tom’s wife and kids).

“Okay; we’ll be shooting your scenes tomorrow. Show up at 5:00 AM at the make-up trailer to have your zombie make-up applied to your faces and bodies. Don’t be late.”

At five the next morning, the wife and kids endured a several hour make-up process. Once the make-up guy was done, Dan approached them.

“Remember…Don’t touch any of your make-up or you’ll have to have it reapplied all over again. I’ll call you when we’re ready to shoot your scenes.”

The day was hot and muggy. The make-ups that had been applied started to itch. As the day wore on, the itching increased to the point of being painful. Dan approached them at lunch time.

“Remember — don’t touch a single bit of your make-up.”

Late in the afternoon, the wife and kids were in extreme agony.

At 7:00 PM we finished that day’s shooting. Tom’s wife and kids were itching like crazy and were in tears, crying from the pain and discomfort.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to your scenes,” Dan told them. “We’ll get them tomorrow. Be sure to show up at the make-up trailer tomorrow morning at 5:00 AM.”

They never showed.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #92

We built the basement domain of the Tar-Man inside one of our Burbank warehouse sound stages.

I consider character entrances incredibly important. I get angry when I watch a film and see the entrance of an important character just thrown away without any serious thought given to the character’s introduction to the audience.

An example of a great entrance is the first time we fully see Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster: Anticipation has been built — we are finally going to see the face of the Frankenstein monster for the very first time. It has been wrapped in bandages up until this point. We see a shape slowly emerging from the shadows — but that shape stays in silhouette. The creature finally steps into the light. But do we see its face? No! The monster has backed into the light; we’re seeing the back of his head. Now, however, there is no way we can look away. The monster slowly, slowly turns around, until, finally, we see that great Jack Pierce make-up for the first time. Then, Wham! Wham! Wham! — we witness a series of three quick jump cuts as the camera zooms in on the monster’s face.

I took the visual introduction of the Tar-Man just as seriously. Here are my storyboards for that scene:

As you can see, I did a similar visual tease of the audience in introducing the Tar-Man. Silhouetted, then a glimpse of a dripping hand hits the light, then ribbons of light showing us pieces of the Tar-Man’s face, then the entire face of the creature itself. As the Tar-Man approaches Tina, the camera moves closer to her face, too, as we are seeing her from the Tar-man’s point of view.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #91

The role of the Colonel Glover was given (on my advice to Dan) to my wife’s (she was an actress) friend Jonathan Terry.

This handmade address sign by me sported the name and street number of the Colonel’s home. The translation of “Estrella Oscura” is “Dark Star”, the name of Dan O’Bannon’s first film.

We shot the General’s San Diego home in Palos Verde Estates. It was inside the home that my limited (I hate using a ruler) skills in designing high-tech stuff came into play.

This cabinet was put together rather quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the Bondo adhesive to the phone plug hadn’t yet dried. You can see the gooey attachment coming apart in the very first cut of the film. We had to promptly create a matte to block the audience’s view of the taffy-like Bondo as the plug adhesive was coming undone. Very embarrassing!

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #90

I love making storyboards; it’s like directing on paper. A lot of problems can be solved very cheaply by boarding a scene in advance. You can see what works, what doesn’t and what’s fixable by adding a shot or two. I often use storyboards to design a set, so that we don’t overbuild.

When I was on Conan the Barbarian, I asked line producer Buzz Feitshans as to why he had films storyboarded.

“When we’re shooting, the director is getting about three hours of sleep per night. On occasion, the director will show up in the morning completely spent and empty. On those days, instead of just sitting around, we shoot the boards.”

I learned another smart thing from Buzz. Buzz had the storyboards of that day’s shooting schedule (the “call sheet”) xeroxed on the back of everybody’s call sheet. It gave everyone a better idea of what we were doing that day, putting us all on the same page, so to speak, and greatly speeding up the set-up process for that day’s shoots.

Here are some of the boards I drew for The Return of the Living Dead:

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #89

Another key principal zombie was Trash (originally named “Legs“), played by scream queen Linnea Quigley.

In the film, Trash is one of the group of punk friends. In an infamous scene, Trash does a striptease dance on top of a tomb plinth.

We had begun filming the scene when producer Graham Henderson walked by.

Jesus Christ, Dan! We can’t show pubic hair in our film!”

Dan O’Bannon took me aside.

“Take Linnea into the make-up tent and shave her.”

Sometimes being production designer is a tough job — but I was up for it.

We began re-shooting the scene. Graham returned to the set to check on us.

“Oh my God! It’s worse! You can see everything! What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Dan whispered to me.

“Make a cast of her pussy and design a seamless plug for the shot.”

Ahhh…the things I’ve been forced to do as a production designer.

Barbie Doll plug in place, we got our shot. It’s why in the film, Trash’s genitalia appears to be seamless.

Later, Trash’s worst fears are realized and she is attacked and bitten by zombies — turning her into one.

I’m not a sculptor; I’m much too slow. Nevertheless, Dan insisted that I sculpt the transformed version of Trash. Here’s my clay sculpt:

My sculpt after some doctoring by Tony Gardner.
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Untold Tales of Hollywood #88

Dan O’Bannon gave the cast of The Return of the Living Dead a tremendous gift: two weeks of rehearsal. Because the film hadn’t been fully cast, I filled in on those yet-to-be-cast roles during the cast’s rehearsals. What that did was bond everyone, making the relationships of the punks seem real. I think that gift from Dan is the reason I remain very good friends with the cast (we traveled all over the country together, guesting at most of the nation’s horror conventions a few years ago). The Return of the Living Dead is the only movie in which I can make that statement.

I was originally cast as the shopping cart bum. Producer Graham Henderson nixed that idea; I had enough on my plate as production designer. That’s not me in that role in the film, however (despite the IMDB credit) — it’s a real actor.

I got cast in a non-speaking role. I was the alcoholic bum sleeping on the sidewalk that the punks step over early in the film. I should have groggily raised my head during that scene but I was all about being in character. I designed my own costume:

This is how I would have appeared in the film if I had stood up. This photo of me was shot by the film’s official still photographer, Rory Flynn, the daughter of Errol Flynn.

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Untold Tales of Hollywood #87

One of the first signs that the dead are returning to life in The Return of the Living Dead is what we called the Yellow Man. He was a jaundiced individual hanging inside the Uneeda Medical Supply‘s freezer (that frost inside the freezer was Christmas tree flocking). Here are some of my first attempts at his design:

In the film, the Yellow Man comes back to life and pursues Bert and Ernie. Frank joins them in capturing the Yellow Man and saws his head off. Thinking they have disabled the Yellow Man, the three stand back for a well-deserved break. The headless corpse jumps up, however, and chaos reigns until they chop up the Yellow Man into a trash bag full of wiggling pieces.

I carefully storyboarded out this entire scene. Here are my storyboards for that part of the film:

Here are my revised storyboards for this scene:

Here’s what Bill Munns’ version of the headless Yellow Man looked like:

Seriously. I couldn’t believe it. I promptly demanded a do-over.

Unfortunately, after fixing his Yellow Man work, Bill paid little attention to my boards and constructed what we needed on the wrong side, opposite to what I had boarded, destroying the scene’s visual continuity.