Almost anybody who loves sci-fi/horror books and films is familiar with the work of Karl Alexander. In 1979 his novel (with a screenplay written by Nicholas Meyer) about H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper traveling though time and space, Time After Time, hit the big screen starring Malcolm McDowall and Mary Steenburgen. The movie was a hit and should have launched a terrific career. But why did the road turn?
My multi-part interview covers Karl's beginnings in the business right up to where he is now. He is a straight talker whose journey can open up a lot of practical doors for many of us.
What was the genesis of "Time After Time"? Was it your first novel?
First published novel, yes.
How many did you have in the cue before you finally had one published?
Over how long a period of time?
After three you weren't getting frustrated?
Of course I was frustrated. I also had maybe ten screenplays and I had optioned five or six of them. They went into development hell.
Which is not uncommon.
No it's not.
So you started out as a screenwriter?
No I didn't. I was a college professor in the Midwest and I'd gone to the Writer's Workshop on a playwriting fellowship and the GI Bill. Thank God. I met Norman Felton there who was a big-time Hollywood producer. Actually he gave Spielberg his first job on a television series called The Psychiatrist (1971). He read my stuff. He loved my stuff and brought me out to California to write a novel for him. The novel was called Off the Block and it was about a slave auction that a Black Fraternity held because I was teaching at a Black university called Central State in Ohio. Funny idea. I thought it was a great book but Norman could never find a publisher for it. Then I wrote a screenplay for him and even though that was the time of the Black Exploitation movies he couldn't place that either. So that left me out here with a little bit of money and frustration and I just kept writing.
What year are we talking?
So from there you wrote a couple of novels, and you were writing screenplays all the time too?
Nothing was catching?
I optioned four or five screenplays in that time period. You know how producers are. They would pick something up. They would say it's great and they would try and put it together for about three or four weeks and then they would write it off as a tax loss.
With that much of a body of work at that time with nothing seeing print or screen, what was that doing to your head?
Oh wait. I did co-write and co-produce a movie during that time period in 1975. It was called Rattlers. I got a bunch of my friends together. We went out in the desert. We spent six weeks out there. I got a deal on the equipment. I got a deal on everything. We made this movie for $80,000.
That's a pretty good budget for those days.
Yes it was. The guy who put up most of the money owned an adult motel. He obviously had some money to burn. It was a horrible movie that made a lot of money. Unfortunately we signed a deal with Crown International Distributors. They made a lot of money and the movie was nationwide for like two months. It's been on television a bunch and they didn't give us any money. So we sued them. We got a judgment against them and then they went Chapter 13. So the most I ever saw from that movie was $850.
Where are the rights to that at this point?
I have no clue.
Couldn't you possibly be the rights owner?
No, I think the other co-producer would be the rights owner because he was also the director. He had a bigger piece than anyone else. But I don't even know if he's in the business anymore. He was a very strange man. I never got to know him well.
So the one thing you had actually happen in all the years after leaving college as a professor was something you wrote and produced yourself?
Did that start doing headtrips to you as a creative person?
Of course. I wake up every day with self-doubt. The first thing occurs to me is I was on the fast track for a career in the Marine Corps and I’m thinking “Why the hell did I ever get out? I’ve already been to Vietnam and it can’t hurt me any more than that. That was a great life.” In fact I’ll never forget the day I went in to tell my C.O. that I was going to grad school because I wanted to be a writer and he said, “You can write in the Marine Corps. You can have plenty of time.” Well. I didn’t listen to him. But that’s history.
From the time frame we were discussing with Rattlers when did Time After Time start playing in your head?
Two years later. I got the idea in 1977 and I started writing it. At that point I had met Nick Meyer at a screenwriter’s friend’s house because he was having a party and I had gone to school with Nick. Nick was a very successful novelist. He had around three best-selling novels. One of them had been made into a movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. So we got to talking and he said, “What are you working on?” I said, “Nick, I’m working on this thing about H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper.” He said, “I’d like to read that.” So he read the first draft and called me the next day and said, “I want to make a movie out of this. I want this to be the first movie that I direct.” We made a deal and I helped him with the screenplay. A couple of weeks later he had a movie deal at Warner Brothers. The movie became what they say is a modern classic.
You had some great people attached.
I got to know a producer at Joel Silver’s productions or pictures a few years ago and he looked up the data on it and the movie was made for $3.5 million and it made $20 million which I guess is pretty good if you figure out the percentage.
So it made almost 7 times its cost.
Right. I still get royalty checks. Every quarter I’ll get a check for about $45 and take my wife out to lunch.
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Karl Alexander can be found on Facebook.
Del Howison is a journalist, writer and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. He is also the co-founder and owner of Dark Delicacies “The Home of Horror” in Burbank, CA. He can be reached at Del@darkdel.com.