‘Like being struck by lightning’
Sometimes in life we have epiphanies or pivotal moments that, looking back, we realize changed the course of our lives. The new course may steer us down a challenging, thorny path, but one we see in retrospect was the one best suited to our talents—and even our dreams. For horror film producer, screenwriter and author Mallory O’Meara, that moment arrived when she found a photo of Universal Studios artist Milicent Patrick with her iconic design—the Creature costume from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
As O’Meara recalls in her book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon,” released in paperback March 3 this year by Hanover Square Press, she had just finished watching the 1954 monster film, one of the last in the Universal Studios classic monster movies canon. But what separated this creature from Universal’s other infamous “monsters,” Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man, was the terrifying elegance and, yes, even beauty of the waterborne creature.
That elegance and beauty was to be found also, O’Meara discovered, in the creature’s creator. While doing her usual online research after watching the film, a 17-year-old O’Meara found a black-and-white photo of Patrick working on the Creature. The “beautiful, statuesque woman,” she found, was identified in the photo caption as “animator and creature designer.”
O’Meara was stunned.
“All of the well-known special effects artists are men,” she wrote. “The Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, King Kong, Godzilla—the artists who created all of them were male. Even the most devoted monster geek—which, at seventeen, I already was—would have a hard time naming a woman in the field.”
O’Meara called the moment “galvanizing.”
“She clearly didn’t fetch coffee for anyone. She wasn’t someone’s assistant. She wasn’t being helplessly carried away in the arms of the monster. She was creating it. Looking at this picture was like being struck by lightning. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen a picture of a woman like that,” O’Meara wrote of the moment that would change her life.
“Milicent was holding a door open for me that I never realized I had considered closed. Come on, she said. We belong here, too.”
When women, people of color, LGBTQ, or any marginalized people talk about how important it is to “see themselves” depicted on the silver screen, or listed in the credits, in roles in which they have been historically shut out, this is what they mean. One image, one moment, like O’Meara describes in her book, can open up a world of possibilities for someone who thought that what they sought was impossible.
Twelve years after spotting that photo of Milicent, O’Meara is a monster-movie screenwriter and producer, as well as, now, a bestselling author. In her book she recounts, how from that moment, her hunt was on to discover who Milicent Patrick was, and why she as a horror movie buff had never heard of her. Woven into Patrick’s life story is O’Meara’s own daunting struggle to get into the horror film industry and, once there, to be taken seriously as a writer and producer.
I was the same age as O’Meara when I had my epiphanic moment in a high school film class—the only one ever taught at Woodlawn Senior High at the time—while working on a paper that included another classic monster movie: the original “King Kong.”
Although my moment was not about discovering that a woman special effects artist worked on the 1933 creature feature, it, like Milicent’s, changed my life. My paper, “Special Effects of the Special Horror Movies: The Early Films,” detailed the tedious, time-consuming stop-motion and composite photography used to build depth and dimension and believability into the tropical and urban worlds that the two-foot tall Kong models, and his dinosaur rivals, inhabited. I was captivated by the technical, behind-the-scenes work that went into creating one of my favorite monsters, one who, to me, was able to show emotion and pathos because of the talented people behind the camera.
That film class, taught jointly by an English teacher and a social studies teacher, both film buffs, altered the course of my life. After high school I majored in film at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Taught by a motley crew of 1960s filmmakers and artistic dreamers, with an unbelievable amount of hands-on-experience because of the cache of Super-8 and 16mm film cameras and video gear, those first students of the new film major, young men and women, were allowed and encouraged to pursue their interests and passions. Many of them, like me, went on to careers in feature films, television, documentaries and commercials.
The first feature film I worked on after college was another horror movie—a creepy, slasher film shot in an old mansion in the suburbs outside of Baltimore called The House on Sorority Row (VAE Productions, 1982). Although while working on this film I faced another pivotal moment that would set me on the path to becoming a union Hollywood camera assistant, it was also where I first began to encounter crewmembers, OK, let’s spell it out, men, who either did not want me to be working on the camera crew, or who wanted to get in my pants.
One man was upset he didn’t get the camera assisting job that I landed while working as a P.A. in pre-production, helping clean up the mansion and decorate sets. In the first weeks of shooting he tried in many ways to undermine me, by grabbing equipment out from under me and acting like I didn’t know how to do the job that I was, in fact, learning on the job, thanks to a first camera assistant and cinematographer that did not treat me differently because I was a woman. Another crewmember, in some kind of weird power-play, dragged me across the mansion’s backyard and tried to throw me into the built-in pool—green with algae and percolating for a creepy underwater shot of dead sorority girls. Even though he was probably at least six foot three and much bigger and stronger than me, he was not successful. I remember fighting for what felt like my life—and my dignity—as a woman who deserved to be there as much as he did.
No matter how weird or painful, those were learning experiences that taught me that being a woman in the film business wasn’t going to be easy and I was going to have to, literally, fight to get where I wanted.
The pivotal moment on The House on Sorority Row was when first camera assistant Arthur Eng saw a tiny notice on the back page of Variety for a training program that the Los Angeles camera union gave. He encouraged me to apply (thank you, Arthur) and I did. Taking a test in L.A. with about a thousand others, I was chosen as one of the top 100 candidates for an interview with the heads of the camera departments for all the major studios. That was 1982, and out of those 100 interviewees 10 people were chosen: five white men, two Asian men, one black man and two white women—one of which was me. Thank god for quota systems. A year later, I had an I.A.T.S.E. union card in Local 659 International Cinematographer’s Guild (which later merged with New York Local 600). And although I absolutely loved my 20-year career as a camera assistant and worked with many wonderful men and women, being a woman in a traditionally male job meant proving myself over and over on every set I worked on, fielding crude sexist remarks and, a few times, physical sexual harassment. Luckily, I grew up a tomboy, which in many ways prepared me to be as tough and as foul-mouthed as the male coworkers I went toe-to-toe with 12 hours a day.
Back to Mallory O’Meara and Milicent Patrick.
In Lady from the Black Lagoon, O’Meara chronicles her own battles as a young woman fighting her way into the male-dominated film business. I found myself cheering with delight, crying and shouting in anger as I read the book, as so many of O’Meara’s experiences parallel my own, even though our entrances into the business were separated by decades—mine in the early 1980s and O’Meara’s in the mid-2000s. She threads into her own story her quest to find out everything she could about Milicent Patrick, who had her own hurdles being taken seriously as a film artist, and why as the creator of the Creature design she had been summarily erased from film history.
“Over the years, I searched for information, for anything that could tell me more about her. For all of my adult life and film career, Milicent Patrick has been a guiding light, a silent friend, a beacon reminding me that I belonged,” she wrote. “But while Milicent opened the door to horror filmmaking for me, the door to her own story was closed. Information on her life was scarce and often contradictory. Some claimed that she didn’t design the Creature at all.”
For women in the film business, or those who aspire to be, O’Meara’s account of how she tracked down and reclaimed Milicent Patrick’s rightful place in film history is fascinating and a catharsis for all of us who struggle to realize our dream careers. The book, although a somewhat cautionary tale, is one full of spirit and love and encouragement.
“As I worked my way into the business, I thought of all the girls in the world, girls who love monsters, girls who love film,” O’Meara writes in the introduction. “These girls are sitting on the sidelines, not content to watch, but filled with a frustrated desire for momentum and creation. All these girls are potential artists, designers and filmmakers. It’s so difficult to be something if you cannot envision it. To see no way in, to see the world that you love populated exclusively with those who are not like you is devastating.
“I wanted to whisper in all those thousands and thousands of ears that yes, you belong. Yes, you can do it.”
Right on, Mallory and Milicent. Right on.
Susan C. Ingram is a former Hollywood camera assistant and former community newspaper journalist. She writes and edits from her home in Baltimore County, Maryland. More at newzcook.wordpress.com