In the mid-1960s, Peter Bogdanovich, a writer for Esquire, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. He had the good luck to meet filmmaker Roger Corman at a movie theatre one night and Corman, who knew Bogdanovich’s work, asked him to be his assistant on a new film called Wild Angels. The pair worked together for twenty-two weeks. After filming, Corman, known for his ability to spot talent, offered Bogdanovich the opportunity to make his own film, any film he’d like…sort of.
Corman, never one to waste a resource, was owed two days of work by Hollywood legend Boris Karloff. So the ground rules for Bogdanovich’s project were simple: shoot twenty minutes of the film with Karloff and use another twenty minutes of Karloff footage from a separate Corman project, a period horror film called The Terror. Shoot another 40 minutes of footage, put it all together, and that would be the movie.
Seeing this as his big break and as an opportunity to work with his wife, Polly Platt, Bogdanovich accepted the job. He and Platt sat down and watched the footage they had to work with, but they were stumped. How could they work in footage from a period piece like The Terror and logically work it into a modern horror thriller? Finally, he hit upon an idea that he’d first thought of as a joke - start the film with Karloff watching footage from The Terror in a studio screening room with the filmmakers, and when the lights come up have him declare it’s the worst film he’s ever seen. This set up a storyline about an aging Hollywood horror icon struggling with his relevance in the modern film world.
Bogdanovich knew the story needed something else. Some months before, his editor at Esquire had suggested he do a piece on Charles Whitman, the former marine who went on a shooting rampage from the clock tower at the University of Texas. Bogdanovich decided to tell two stories together. Karloff would represent old horror while a Whitman-like character named Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) would be the face of modern horror as a sniper killing random people.
With the idea in place, Bogdanovich and Platt worked out the story and he wrote the first iteration of the screenplay for Targets. Bogdanovich showed it to a friend, veteran filmmaker Samuel Fuller. Fuller spent several hours working with him on the script and in that short time he helped the young filmmaker redo the script. Fuller refused any credit, suspecting that everyone would say he did the whole thing. Instead, Bogdanovich named the character of the young director working with Karloff in the film for him (Fuller’s middle name was Michael).
Production started in late 1967. Although he’d written the part of Sammy Michaels for someone else, Bogdanovich ended up playing the part himself. The part paralleled his real-life role as an up-and-coming filmmaker working with a master of horror from Hollywood’s golden age. Karloff’s character was close to the man himself, although Bogdanovich is quick to point out that the real actor, unlike his character, was neither bitter about his career nor about to retire. In fact, the director praised Karloff’s work on the film, noting that despite having braces on both of his legs and being on oxygen between takes due to severe emphysema, he never complained and was a true joy to work with.
Karloff’s experience proved to be a great help to the young Bogdanovich on the set. The veteran shared advice and actually “directed” Bogdanovich in one scene. The script called for Sammy to wake up, turn and upon seeing Byron Orlock (Karloff), be shocked and then start to laugh. Bogdanovich found laughing on cue to be a bit of a challenge. After several unsuccessful takes, an exasperated Karloff told him, “You know, just because you wrote it in the script doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
While the story of Byron Orlock is playing out, we also have the film’s human monster, Bobby Thompson. Bogdanovich drew heavily on the events in Texas, even to the point of having Thompson start his killing spree by shooting his wife and mother.
Part of the film has Thompson shooting at cars on the LA freeway from the top of an oil refinery. Bogdanovich admits that they were very lucky during these sequences. The crew spent two days shooting on and around the freeway, which he knew was not allowed. “The thing I learned from Roger Corman was that you don’t pay attention to the rules if you’re going to do guerilla filmmaking.” To save money, the scenes of the freeway shooting were all shot without sound. Dialogue and sound effects were added in later - an impressive accomplishment for sound editor Verna Fields, who had as many as thirty tracks running at once to create the sound effect for the scene.
When the police arrive at the refinery, Thompson flees and eventually finds another location from which to shoot. Behind the screen at a drive-in movie where Orlock’s film is playing and the aging actor himself is appearing to promote the film. Taking more advice from his friend Fuller, Bogdanovich saved his budget for the film’s finale. The drive-in shootings scenes were filmed at the Reseda Drive-In in Reseda Californian, over the course of 12 days. Bogdanovich shot test footage at the drive-in with no lighting before filming began. He ended up using all of that footage as establishing shots and filler in the final film.
The shootings at the drive-in lead to the film’s climax when Orlock approaches Thompson, who’s confused by seeing the actor both on the screen behind him and before him in the flesh. Orlock disarms Thompson by striking him with his cane and then slaps the man, who, instead of fighting back or attacking elderly man, huddles in a corner until the police arrive and take him. Orlock’s last words are, “This is what I was afraid of.” This is the only time that Orlock and Thompson interact in the film and Orlock’s words carry a greater meaning. The aging actor had been considering his place in the world and was afraid that his type of horror was obsolete and had no place. When the two met, Thompson, who represented the modern horrors of the world, wilted before Orlock, unable to stand up to him. While on the surface Orlock’s statement of “This is what I was afraid of” seems aimed at Thompson, it is really directed at the idea of Thompson and modern horror; Thompson was a hollow villain, whose actions are truly evil, but who, like any common bully, could not stand up to someone with the will to face them.
At the time of the film’s completion, Roger Corman had a deal with American International Pictures who distributed most of his films. However, Bogdanovich asked if he could try to get a distribution deal for the film with a major studio. Corman didn’t mind, as long as he got his $125,000 investment back. Bogdanovich used some connections to get the film screened by Paramount Pictures and they eventually agreed to buy the rights to the film for $150,000. Corman made his money back and Bogdanovich’s first film was picked up by a major studio. What could go wrong?
Before the film could be released by Paramount, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. There was suddenly a huge public outcry over violence in films. According to Bogdanovich, half the executives at Paramount wanted to bury the film and never release it. The other half wanted to release Targets immediately to capitalize on the public furor. Finally, the film was given a limited release in August of 1968.
Despite being well received by critics, the film did not do well at the box office. Still, the critical success of the film was important as it helped establish Bogdanovich as a filmmaker in his own right. The producers of Easy Rider saw Targets and were so impressed that they contacted Bogdanovich and told him that if he had another project he’d like to make, they would take a look at it. He gave them a book and they let him make it. The Last Picture Show went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two.
While Targets was not a financial success at the time, the film has endured due to the solid performance of Boris Karloff, sadly in one of his final roles, and also because of the quality of the story crafted by Bogdanovich, Platt and, although uncredited, Fuller. Targets may have been a small film, but like a pebble dropped in a pond, its effect was farther reaching than anyone could have imagined. It opened the door for Peter Bogdanovich as a writer and director and, proved once more that Roger Corman may be the king of B-Movies, but he’s also a man with a keen eye for talent.