Interview - Producer Richard Connor

Richard Connor has produced various projects over the years from America’s Funniest Home Videos to the cult film Doin Time on Planet Earth, as well as his work at The Matthau Company (featuring screen legend Walter Matthau and his son Charles). The California native developed a love of film and television early on and has since learned to use it well. At the moment he is preparing to work on his next project, the film adaptation of the iconic author John Gilmore’s book Severed. Connor will no doubt give the world a detailed look into one of the most shocking murders of modern time, while perhaps portraying Elizabeth Short (The Black Dahlia) as more than just a victim.

By Tina Hall

You attended USC to further your career in film and television. Would you recommend it to other wishing t o pursue a similar career path?

If you can A) afford it, and B) get accepted into the Cinema School (not easy), absolutely! One thing about USC’s film school, they teach you every aspect of film—writing, directing, camera, sound, editing, acting, everything. You leave there with a very strong understanding of filmmaking and the process, and you take away a set of learned skills which stay with you forever.

Of course, USC isn’t the only great film school out there. NYU, UCLA, AFI, Emerson, Northwestern, there are lots of outstanding universities and colleges out there which teach you the art of Film. So there are options. But getting into these programs nowadays can be a tough road to hoe. You’d better have some really good grades, and know how to write an impressive “Why I want to go to Film School” letter to the Deans of all of those schools!

Richard Connor (in an
undisclosed foreign country). 
Having said that, this is the day and age of the Internet, of high-definition home movie cameras, of Final Cut Pro editing systems, etc. Kids basically grow up learning how to use these different tools and become very accomplished at them by the time they’re young adults. They make their own movies and some of them are very skilled and display a real “voice”. So film school is no longer the necessity it once was. You can basically “home-school” yourself nowadays. Is it as comprehensive as the film school experience? No. But that doesn’t mean talented people can’t flourish carving out their own path.

What advice would you offer those who wish to work in the industry?

Depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a writer, write your ass off. Get good at it. Read other scripts on the Web and learn from them. When you’ve finally reached a point where you think you’re at a professional writing level, contact some literary agents, find out if any of them are willing to read your stuff. Worst thing that can happen is they say “no”. Or they read your stuff and say, “you’re not there, yet”. But you have to give it a shot.

If you’re more interested in “production, the job of Production Assistant is really the jumping-off point in the industry. If you can land a PA job on a movie or a TV show, and you work really hard and impress the people who hired you, you may never stop working again. Many, many great filmmakers and movie executives started out as PA’s. I remember hearing an interview with director Eli Roth (HOSTEL) where he said he his job on the movie PRIVATE PARTS was to basically stand outside of Howard Stern’s trailer and make sure nobody bothered him. Eli ended up doing pretty well for himself, as we know.

Author John Gilmore
For those who want to be cinematographers, editors, directors, etc, showing off your “reel” (of stuff you’ve done) is the equivalent of a writer sending out his/her screenplay. You can upload your reel to a website you’ve created and link people to it. There are also agents out there who expressly represent technical talent: directors, cameramen, editors, composers. You can ask them if they’ll take a submission and send them your reel, or link them to your website. Many different ways of getting your work out there.

By the way, if you can’t handle rejection, I’ll tell you right now, the entertainment industry is the wrong business for you. This industry is all about rejection. It’s the people who don’t take it personally and keep their heads up that usually end up okay… or decide to pursue something else altogether.

Have you always been fascinated with True Crime stories?

This may make me sound morbid… but yes. When I was about 11, I read HELTER SKELTER, the Bugliosi book about Charles Manson. I also read ALIVE, about the plane crash where the passengers resorted to eating the bodies of those who perished to survive. So there was definitely a fascination with dark subject matter going back to my younger days.

I probably should mention at this point that when I was around 16, right after getting my driver’s license, I drove up to Cielo Drive in Bel Air with my best friend so that we could see the Sharon Tate house. It was pretty wild. I remember some goofball had spray painted “Helter Skelter” in red letters on the front gate. For a moment, my buddy thought this was the original writing left by Manson’s family members; sadly, I had to burst his bubble about that.

Your latest project Severed deals with the murder of Elizabeth Short. Do you remember how and when you first learned of the incident?

The name “Black Dahlia” was in my consciousness well before I learned about the actual case. Anyone who grew up in Los Angeles had heard that name and associated it with something dark and tragic. But it wasn’t until I was standing in a book store and spotted John Gilmore’s book Severed—which had just come out—that I decided to start reading about it. I mean, literally started reading it, right there in the aisle of the bookstore. And I couldn’t put it down.

I’ll never forget getting to the middle “photo section” of the book, and how shocking those photos of Elizabeth Short’s body were. I’ll never forget them. They disturbed me and made me wonder, as I do as of this very moment, what kind of hell Beth Short was put through prior to her last breath. And what kind of monster did that to her?

The film is based on the book of the same title by Noir icon John Gilmore. What was it about his version of events that spoke to your more than other accounts of the story?

On the set.
I just believe he got the story right. Various versions offer different scenarios about what happened to Elizabeth Short, but I believe Gilmore heard first-hand exactly what happened to her… from the man who committed the crime. I also believe that SEVERED captured Short’s saga the best, from growing up to moving to Los Angeles to struggling to make ends meet to, finally, falling prey to a seriously disturbed killer. SEVERED was the first great book on the subject, and, to my mind, also the last.

Do you admire his determination and dedication to finding the true identity of the killer?

I’m not even sure finding the killer was important to Gilmore. I think telling the story about this wayward girl who would get off of trains holding a suitcase with nowhere to go was what he wanted to explore. And that went all the way back to him meeting Beth Short himself, as an 11-year old boy, when she visited his house. He never forgot that meeting, her kindness towards him, her stunning beauty. It was a major moment in Gilmore’s life at that time—not because of what tragically happened to her, but because she simply had that much of an impact on him. The fact that she did end up lying dead in two pieces in an empty lot 3 months later eventually served as an impetus for Gilmore to try to answer a simple question: “What happened to this girl?”

Thus began an amazing bit of journalistic exploration that lasted a good many years. During that time, Gilmore never stopped digging, asking questions, talking to people. His determination to find answers took him all over the country, as well as into his own backyard. And almost by a fluke, he met someone who knew more than anyone else about the circumstances behind the murder. Everyone has their top suspect in the Black Dahlia murder— Dr. George Hodel, Dr. Walter Bayley, club owner Mark Hansen, even the great actor, Orson Welles… but I truly believe Jack Anthony Wilson is the one who killed Elizabeth. And I believe he acted alone in doing so.

You know what’s funny? John Gilmore himself will never claim he found the real killer (Wilson). He may know it in his heart to be true, but you’ll never catch him saying it.

Are you looking forward to working with him in regards to the Severed film? What do you think he brings to this project that no one else could?

Mr. Gilmore and I already meet regularly as I prep the screenplay, and I learn from every meeting. What he provides more so than even factual information is the emotional connection he has with the case. Given that I plan on Gilmore himself being a major character in the movie (how could he not be?), that’s invaluable. This man sat across a table from those who were closest to the case, rocked by it, haunted by it. He remembers facial expressions, utterances, details about what happened during every encounter. I can draw on that and hopefully infuse the script with all of that vivid detail and emotional resonance.

So to answer your question, yes, I am very much looking forward to working with John as I adapt his book into what I hope will be a terrific movie.

What are you looking forward to most on this project? What do you hope the viewer takes away from the experience?

If I can pass onto the viewer the same kind of emotional reaction I had when I first read the book, I’ll have done my job. Which is to say, I want to sweep up the audience in its story, its characters, its horrifying violence, its pathos. I would call SEVERED an “emotional crime thriller”, one that covers several decades and impacts many, many lives. I’m not sure if people realize how much a single event such as this (murder) can ripple the existence of so many individuals, whether it be her family members, friends, those accused of killing her, those investigating her murder, etc. It’s astonishing, really. The weight of tragedy doesn’t just include the victim.

What do think drives a person to commit murder? Do you think it is a fear of the unknown that draws people to be so fascinated with such things?

I can’t really answer the first question. I do think human beings are capable of great evil and perhaps that’s all about going down to our most primordial and base of instincts. But very few ever cross that line and act out that evil. I suppose we should all be grateful for that.

As to fascination with murder… there’s something about that aberrant behavior that intrigues people. At least, people like me. I always find myself trying to put myself into the victim’s shoes. What would I have done? How would I have reacted? Elizabeth Short is really the epitome of this idea. The killer tortured her. She was alive for quite some time before dying. What must she have experienced at the moment she realized that this man was set on killing her? What went through her mind? It is actually very difficult for me to even think about it, because it’s so horrible. The girl suffered beyond anyone’s comprehension. She didn’t deserve that. Even as I talk to you now, I grieve for her and her poor family.

What are your feelings on death? Do you have any beliefs on the subject?

I have to believe there’s something beyond our life “here”. Because if not, what’s the alternative? It’s hard for me to ponder the idea of “non-existence”. Like, we die, and then there’s blackness, and our consciousness ceases to exist? I can’t wrap my head around that. Our mind or soul or whatever you want to call it, it has to go somewhere. To a higher plain of existence, I’m hoping. If I’m wrong about that, I’m going to be seriously bummed. (laughs)

Anything you would like to say before you go?

Just thank you so much for having me. I love talking about SEVERED because I love the book and I hope to do it justice as a movie. My very best to your readership and I look forward to talking to you again!