Behind the Scenes – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

In 1963 John Sturges made a deal for his Kappa Productions outfit with United Artists.  The director was keenest on The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and what became Hour of the Gun (1967) but The Satan Bug was greenlit first because of the production difficulties inherent in developing westerns. To cut down on travel, Sturges decided to shoot in and around the desert area close to his home turf of Palm Springs and the Joshua Tree National Park. He called in James Clavell, responsible for the screenplay of The Great Escape (1963), and Edward Anhalt (Becket, 1964) to Americanize  and update the English-set Alistair Maclean thriller written before the Cold War escalation of the Cuban Crisis and the increasing fears of nuclear arsenals.

Hardly a director known for “message pictures” – more likely to emanate from the likes of Stanley Kramer – nonetheless he recognized the implicit threat of biological warfare for “its terror potential” and envisioned a powerful climax in the evacuation of Los Angeles. He swapped the married, lame and disfigured hero of the novel for a hip loner in the Steve McQueen mold.

Unable on a $6 million budget to afford a leading man of the McQueen calibre – a strange notion when Two for the Road’s $5 million budget included $1 million for Audrey Hepburn – he settled on rising star George Maharis (Quick Before It Melts, 1964) who had graduated from television’s Route 66 (1960-1963). “We were disappointed that we were not able to get a major star to play the leading role,” commented producer Walter Mirisch, whose company Mirisch Pictures bankrolled the picture. “The idea of using… George Maharis was suggested… John (Sturges) pressured us to cast him. I had felt the subject required a major action-adventure star. George Maharis wasn’ t that, nor did he ever become a major shooting star. ”

Richard Basehart was also plucked from television – the star of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) – as was Frank Sutton (Donald in the film) from comedy Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964-1969). Initially cast as the general’s daughter, Joan Hackett (The Group, 1966)   – in what would have been her movie debut – was replaced by Anne Francis. In fact, Hackett worked on the movie for two weeks. “John called,” explained Mirisch,” and told me he was very dissatisfied with Joan.” Sturges had worked with her replacement Anne Francis before on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Sturges biggest problem was creating imposing research facility Station 3. Sticking it underground saved a chunk of cash on the budget, since interiors were minimalist. “The set cost us nothing,” said Sturges. But to add a sense of tension, the set was lit with an ominous amber glow.

However, it proved impossible to achieve the one effect Sturges had set his heart on – the panic-crazed evacuation of Los Angeles. City officials put a block on the gridlock called for in the script. Recalled Sturges, “The sons-of-bitches wouldn’t let me stop traffic…we didn’t get the panic on the streets, the motorists trapped on the freeways…the nightmare of the evacuation.” The director was forced to resort to “glass shots” and background noise to create the sense of pandemonium, the gridlock limited to the roadblock.

Also hampering production was a sense that the director’s mind was not fully on the job. Screenwriter John Gay (The Hallelujah Trail) was often on set conferring between shots with Sturges. The laughter they enjoyed dreaming up ideas for the comedy western seemed at odds with the mood of the pandemic thriller, leaving some actors annoyed.

Commented Mirisch, “It never developed any momentum on its (U.S.) release and wasn’t successful commercially.” According to the Mirisch internal records, the picture’s negative cost (excluding marketing and advertising) was $1.78 million. It only brought in $850,000 in rentals from the U.S. release though foreign business was better, $1.75 million, but the combined total was not enough, once the promotional costs were included, to turn a profit.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008,p243-248; Walter Mirich, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, p211-212; Mirisch Financial Records for 1965.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

22 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes – “The Satan Bug” (1965)”

  1. In Charlton Heston’s Diaries book, he has an entry about being offered the lead role and saying that the after reading the script he found role kind of rather lacking so he turned it down. Rather smart on his part.

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    1. Oh, wow. This is awesome to know. Yeah, I can see Heston in the role. But yeah, I guess it is, when you think of the bombast of Apes, Omega Man, and Soylent Green, The Satan Bug — which not many sci-fi’ers recall — is “lacking” in scripting. Nice, this is why I like the opinions from the blogverse. Never knew the Heston connection.

      And that goes back to Brian discussing the budget. If they had Heston, more money would have rolled in. But I can see why, when you look at the pedigree behind the book and the screenplay, and who is directing, you can see why Heston was offered the role. A bigger budget would have turned those underground labs into another Andromeda Stain. That’s what makes AS rock: the sets. Or, even the sets of Chosen Survivors (the apoc bats in the nuke bunker movie) would have looked nice. All of those ol’ wooden tables with the beakers . . . I thought I was on a spaceship of a John Carradine space vampire flick.

      I love The Satan Bug, and this is not a put down: As I watched it last night — with all those TV actors, afoot — well, did it “feel” like a TV movie to anyone else? Maharis, while a fine actor — and I get he was hot off of Route 66 — is not theatrically engaging. Some TV actors do not transition. He was one of them. Oh, and I wonder if the makers of Warning Sign (awesome, with the awesome Sam Waterson), seen this. They seem so similar, too me.

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  2. Yes. Now your talking: The Satan Bug! Forever stocked in the VHS shelves of my mind with The Andromeda Stain and Colossus: The Forbin project. Honorable mention to Fritz Weaver, speaking of odd castings, in The Demon Seed.

    Come to think of it: all these pictures failed due to casting. Satan Bug/Maharis. Andromeda/Arthur Hill and James Olson. Colossus/Eric Braden. None of the “McQueen” caliber. When you think of it, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood weren’t “theatrical,” either. But 2001 had big bucks behind it to overcome the lack of “stars” in it . . . but you need a “star” for the money. And around it goes.

    Anyway, John Sturges doesn’t equal biological warfare, but, he gave us the looks good, but very dry, Marooned. Overall, this makes me think of Damnation Alley, in that it also greatly detracted from the source novel to barely resemble the novel. Shoot. I need to watch this, again. Been a while. Bound to be a copy online.

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    1. Andromeda Strain was actually a big hit, in the Top Ten at the US box office for its year. Sci fi almost seemed to go for non-stars or perhaps it was a case of stars avoiding such projects. I’ve got Marooned on my list to watch.

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      1. Don’t forget the Robert Altman-directed Warner Bros. production of Countdown in ’68, which goes hand-in-hand with Marooned. But then there was Hammer Films — in conjunction with Warners — with their failed “space western” Moon Zero Two, which is just a ’60s swingin’ mod space flick. Love those film, even though Countdown, while accurate, is even more dry than Marooned — but I enjoy it, none the less.

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      2. Yes. Again, even though most critics of the day “said dry,” and I agree, to a point, it is none-the-less “real” and thus, engaging. The acting is dandy. To me, while it is a fine picture, the later Apollo 13 is a little too, “science fiction” instead of “science fact,” which makes Countdown a winner.

        It’s those exterior scenes in Apollo 13: If Kurbrick made it, you’ll have that “2001” aesthetic, where Kubrick was dealing in science fiction, yet rose it to the next level into “science fact.” “Move goers need to hear ‘sound and see ‘explosions’.” Ugh. Even thing is going great, then those retros have to “hiss” and ruin it (for me).

        Even Marooned: I love it, regardless of the critics’ “dry” comments. It’s “real.” Now, while I enjoy it, in a boyhood, nostalgia way — and it’s inventive in it’s own way (the dried eggs-in-the-steamers scene; the alien orb; the Russian cosmonaut scene looks expensive, and from another film, but it’s not) is Mission Mars with Darrin McGavin and Nick Adams, is a fail on the 2001-obvious cash-in. Moon Zero Two? Well, that’s also in the Mission Mars ballpark, or orbit.

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  3. It is interesting to ponder the projects Heston didn’t do. One such project sounds so cool. It was PROGENY OF THE ADDER which was modern day vampire novel about a big city cop tracking a vampire who is ravaging the city. Heston was poised to it for American International Pictures in 1972, but pulled out of due script issues. He came back to the project in 1974. AIP had hired Michael Anderson to direct. However, Heston was unhappy that the new script was now more of a police procedural and a few weeks before shooting was to start he dropped out again. A missed opportunity to me.

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    1. Certainly sounded an interesting project. It was based on a book by Les Whitten that was published in 1965. So it had probably been all around the houses by the time Heston got involved. Especially after I Am Legend you would have thought the Heston name would be enough to greenlight the film.

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      1. Good to hear. So few Hollywood marriages lasted any length of time. To have a reliable sounding board for an actor over potential parts sounds like a marital bonus.

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    1. Oh, that’s interesting about Sturges’ input regarding the script. Quite often I imagine the original screenwriter, with other commitments, refuses to go on location – as happened with The Magnificent Seven – and
      the director changes the script as he goes along so it would not surprise me if that was the case here.

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