Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Blood before the Stain: An Interview with Joel Rapp

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Blood before the Stain: An Interview with Joel Rapp

Article excerpt

When one thinks of film adaptations of Philip Roth's fiction, Larry Peerce's box office hit Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Robert Benson's stat-studded The Human Stain (2003), or even Ernest Lehman's (tragically) ill-conceived version of Portnoy's Complaint (1972) immediately spring to mind. However, the first Roth story that attracted cinematic attention was not a critically acclaimed or best-selling novel. In fact, the first adaptation of Roth's work is based on a narrative that has never been collected and that most readers have never even heard of: "Expect the Vandals," published in the December 1958 issue of Esquire. In most ways, it is an atypical Roth story, an account of two WWII GIs who survive an American landing on a Japanese-held island. The soldiers, Moe Malamud and Ken Moyer, hide out and observe the enemy forces from a distance, that is, until the day Moe witnesses the Japanese committing suicide en masse, an act that leaves both men dumbfounded. The two then have the entire island to themselves, experiencing both the pleasures and the anxieties that isolation brings, until they are rescued on the morning of 30 June 1946 by a group of American soldiers scouting the island. The next day, Ken and Moe stand on the deck of an observer ship while their island hermitage-which readers now realize is near Bikini Atoll-is subjected to an atomic blast. The short story caught the eye of screenwriter-director Joel Rapp, and the rest, albeit little known, is history.

Rapp was almost literally born into show business, the son of Philip Rapp (creator of the radio shows The Bickersons and Baby Snooks) and the godson of Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor. He has written for both the large and small screens, with credits on such popular sitcoms as Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, McHale's Navy, My Favorite Martian, Green Acres, and The Joey Bishop Show. He also has become a horticultural guru, establishing his own indoor plant business in Hollywood, writing several best-selling books on indoor gardening and cooking, appearing for eleven years as Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford's TV gardener, and making a name for himself as "Mr. Mother Earth, Plant Man to the Stars." Prior to this, he traveled with legendary producer Roger Corman to Puerto Rico, where he shot his adaptation of "Expect the Vandals." The result was Battle of Blood Island (1960) featuring Rapp as screenwriter and director. Rapp writes about his life in Radio, TV, Mother Earth & Me (BearManor Media, 2004, foreword by Roger Corman). I interviewed him about his experiences in adapting "Expect the Vandals," shooting on location, and spending time with Roth discussing his fiction. What follows is the result of an email-based interview in summer 2005.

Derek Parker Royal: What was the impetus behind your choice to make Battle of Blood Island?

Joel Rapp: Back in 1958 or '59, Roger Corman called and told me that he had a tax deal in Puerto Rico wherein he could make two or three pictures back to back and receive a terrific tax break. He intended to use the same crew to make all three, but with different actors, of course. He asked if I'd be interested in joining him and making one of the flicks. I was thrilled and began searching for a project that would meet the requirements and lo, within a couple of days after his phone call, I stumbled on "Expect the Vandals" in Esquire, read it, and loved it. Perfect for the requirements-set on an island, two guys mostly located in a cave, great adult dialogue-I figured correctly that it could be made for $35,000 or less. So I contacted Philip Roth's agent, offered him a thousand bucks for the rights, he agreed, and that's the genesis of the movie.

DPR: By the time that "Expect the Vandals" came out, Roth had already had a few stories published. Had you read him before, or was this your first exposure to his fiction?

JR: As far as I can recall, this was my first exposure to his fiction, and as I said, I came on the story strictly by accident. …

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