The film was conceived by writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski when they were students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Irritated at being thought of solely as writers for family films with their work on Problem Child and its sequel, Alexander and Karaszewski struck a deal with Burton and Denise Di Novi to produce the Ed Wood biopic, and Michael Lehmann as director. Due to scheduling conflicts with Airheads, Lehmann had to vacate the director's position, which was taken over by Burton.
In 1952, Ed Wood is struggling to join the film industry. Upon hearing of an announcement in Variety magazine that producer George Weiss is trying to purchase Christine Jorgensen's life story, Wood wants to meet Weiss. Weiss explains that Variety's announcement was a news leak, and it is impossible to purchase Jorgensen's rights. The producer decides to fictionalize the film, titled I Changed My Sex!. Wood tries to convince Weiss that he is perfect to direct the film because he is a transvestite, but is unsuccessful since Weiss wants a director with experience. Wood meets his longtime idol Bela Lugosi and the two become friends. Wood persuades Weiss to let him direct the film by convincing him that having a star in the film would sell tickets, and they could sign Lugosi for a low price.
Wood and Weiss argue over the film's title and subject matter: Weiss has the poster printed, which Wood changes to Glen or Glenda and writes the film about a transvestite rather than a sex change. Weiss allows Wood to shoot whatever he wants as long as the film meets the required length. Wood takes to film production with an unusual approach; shooting only one take per scene, giving actors very little direction and using stock footage to fill in gaps. The movie is released to critical and commercial failure. Because of this, Wood is unsuccessful in getting a job at Screen Classics, but his girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, tells him that he should try financing his next film independently. Wood is unsuccessful in finding money for Bride of the Atom, but is introduced to the psychic The Amazing Criswell who gives him advice on how to sell himself better.
Wood meets Loretta King, whom he thinks has enough money to fund Bride of the Atom and ends up casting her as the lead instead of Fuller as planned. Filming begins, but is halted when it is revealed that King is actually poor, and Wood has no money to continue production. Wood convinces meat packing industry tycoon Don McCoy to take over funding the film, who agrees as long as the film stars his son Tony as the leading man and the film ends with an explosion. The filming finishes with the title being changed to Bride of the Monster, but Fuller breaks up with Wood after the wrap party because of his circle of friends, his work, and transvestism. Lugosi attempts to conduct a double suicide with Ed after the government cuts off his unemployment, but is talked out of it. Lugosi checks himself into rehab, and Wood meets Kathy O'Hara, who is visiting her father there. He takes her on a date and reveals to her his transvestism, which she accepts.
Wood shoots a film with Lugosi outside his home. When Wood and company attend the premiere for Bride of the Monster, an angry mob chases them out of the theater. Lugosi passes away, leaving Wood without a star. Wood convinces a church leader named Reynolds that funding Wood's script for Grave Robbers from Outer Space would result in a box office success, and generate enough money for Reynolds' dream project. Dr. Tom Mason, O'Hara's chiropractor, is chosen to be Lugosi's stand-in for resembling Lugosi. Wood and the Baptists have conflicts over the title and content of the script which they want to have changed to Plan 9 from Outer Space, along with Ed's B movie directing style, his casting decisions and his transvestism. Wood leaves the set to go to the nearest bar, where he encounters his idol, Orson Welles. Filming for Plan 9 finishes with Ed taking action against his producers. Plan 9 is premiered and Wood and O'Hara go to Las Vegas to get married.Johnny Depp as Ed Wood: Burton approached Depp and "within 10 minutes of hearing about the project, I was committed," the actor remembers. At the time, Depp was depressed about films and filmmaking. By accepting this part, it gave him a "chance to stretch out and have some fun", and working with Martin Landau, "rejuvenated my love for acting". Depp was already familiar with some of Wood's films through John Waters, who had shown him Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. To get a handle on how to portray Wood, Depp studied the performance of Jack Haley as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, and the acting of Mickey Rooney, Ronald Reagan and Casey Kasem. He watched several Reagan speeches because the actor felt that "he had a kind of blind optimism that was perfect for Ed Wood." Depp also borrowed some of Kasem's cadence and "that utterly confident, breezy salesman quality in his voice".
Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi: An old A-list horror film actor whom Ed brings back into the spotlight. Rick Baker created the prosthetic makeup designs. Baker did not use extensive make-up applications, only enough to resemble Lugosi and allow Landau to use his face to act and express emotion. For research, Landau watched 25 of Lugosi's films and seven interviews between the years of 1931 and 1956. Landau did not want to deliver an over-the-top performance. "Lugosi was theatrical, but I never wanted the audience to feel I was an actor chewing the scenery... I felt it had to be Lugosi's theatricality, not mine."
Sarah Jessica Parker as Dolores Fuller: Ed's girlfriend before his relationship with Kathy. Dolores is embarrassed by Ed's transvestism, which leads to their breakup. Dolores later becomes a successful songwriter for Elvis Presley.
Patricia Arquette as Kathy O'Hara: Ed's girlfriend after his relationship with Dolores. Kathy does not have a problem with Ed's transvestism, and is eventually married to Ed. Their marriage lasts until Ed's death in 1978. She never remarried. Arquette met her real-life counterpart during filming. The actress found her to be "very graceful and very nice".
Lisa Marie as Vampira: Hostess of the local Vampira Show. She is dismissive of Ed at first, but decides to join the cast of Plan 9 from Outer Space, on the condition that she has no lines.
Jeffrey Jones as The Amazing Criswell: A local psychic TV entertainer. Criswell helps Ed with usual production duties, finding investors and acting in Ed's films.
Max Casella and Brent Hinkley portray Paul Marco and Conrad Brooks: Two of Ed's all-around production assistants and frequent actors. Paul is hired to find the Lugosi stand-in for Plan 9 from Outer Space, while Conrad accidentally has a brief dispute with Lugosi during Glen or Glenda.
Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge: Ed's openly-gay friend. Bunny is assigned to find transvestites to appear in Glen or Glenda, as well as portraying "The Ruler" in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Bunny also has an unsuccessful sex reassignment therapy attempt.
George "The Animal" Steele as Tor Johnson: A Swedish professional wrestler hired by Wood to be in two of his films, Bride of the Monster and Plan 9.
Juliet Landau as Loretta King: King replaces Dolores in Bride of the Monster after Wood mistakes her for an heiress able to front the money for the production costs.
Ned Bellamy as Tom Mason: Kathy's chiropractor who is chosen to be Lugosi's stand-in for Plan 9.
Mike Starr as George Weiss: Foul-mouthed Z movie producer known for his work on exploitation films. Weiss hires Ed to direct Glen or Glenda.
Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles: Appears in a cameo late in the film. Maurice LaMarche did Welles' uncredited voice.
Korla Pandit, credited as "Indian Musician", essentially appears as himself; like he originally did on his 1950s TV program, Pandit plays organ and does not speak in this cameo.
The film also includes cameos from actors who worked with Wood on Plan 9 from Outer Space, Gregory Walcott and Conrad Brooks.
Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski conceived the idea for a biopic of Ed Wood when they were students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Alexander even proposed making a documentary about Wood, The Man in the Angora Sweater in his sophomore year at USC. However, Karaszewski figured, "there would be no one on the planet Earth who would make this movie or want to make this movie, because these aren't the sort of movies that are made." Irritated at being thought of solely as writers for family films for their work on Problem Child and Problem Child 2, Alexander and Karaszewski wrote a 10-page film treatment for Ed Wood and pitched the idea to Heathers director Michael Lehmann, with whom they attended USC film school. The basis for their treatment came from Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy, a full-length biography, which draws on interviews from Wood's family and colleagues. Lehmann presented their treatment to his producer on Heathers, Denise Di Novi. Di Novi had previously worked with Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and a deal was struck with Lehmann as director and Burton and Di Novi producing.
Burton began reading Nightmare of Ecstasy and some of Wood's letters. He was taken by how he "wrote about his films as if he was making Citizen Kane, you know, whereas other people perceived them as, like, the worst movies ever". Burton admits to having always been a fan of Ed Wood, which is why the biopic is filmed with an aggrandizing bias borne of his admiration rather than derision of Wood's work. The relationship between Wood and Lugosi in the script echoes closely Burton's relationship with his own idol and two-time colleague, Vincent Price. He said in an interview, "Meeting Vincent had an incredible impact on me, the same impact Ed must have felt meeting and working with his idol." Meanwhile, Burton had been asked to direct Mary Reilly for Columbia Pictures with Winona Ryder in the title role.
However, Burton dropped out of Mary Reilly over Columbia's decision to fast track the film and their interest with Julia Roberts in the title role instead of Ryder. This prompted Burton to becoming interested in directing Ed Wood himself, on the understanding it could be done quickly. Lehmann said, "Tim wanted to do this movie immediately and direct, but I was already committed to Airheads." Lehmann was given executive producer credit. Alexander and Karaszewski delivered a 147-page screenplay in six weeks. Burton read the first draft and immediately agreed to direct the film as it stood, without any changes or rewrites. Ed Wood gave Burton the opportunity to make a film that was more character-driven as opposed to style-driven. He said in an interview, "On a picture like this I find you don't need to storyboard. You're working mainly with actors, and there's no effects going on, so it's best to be more spontaneous."
Initially, Ed Wood was in development with Columbia, but when Burton decided he wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white, studio head Mark Canton would not agree to it unless Columbia was given a first look deal. Burton said black-and-white was "right for the material and the movie, and this was a movie that had to be in black-and-white". He insisted on total creative control, and so in April 1993, a month before the original start date, Canton put Ed Wood into turnaround. The decision sparked interest from Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox in optioning the film rights, but Burton accepted an offer from Walt Disney Studios, who had previously produced The Nightmare Before Christmas. Similar to Nightmare, Disney released Ed Wood under their Touchstone Pictures banner. With a budget of $18 million, Disney did not feel the film was that much of a risk, and granted Burton total creative autonomy. Burton also refused a salary, and was not paid for his work on Ed Wood. Principal photography began in August 1993, and lasted 72 days. Despite his previous six-film relationship with Danny Elfman, Burton chose Howard Shore to write the film score. Under the pressure of finishing the score for Batman Returns, Burton's relationship with Elfman became strained and Burton admitted he and Elfman experienced "creative differences" during The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The movie was filmed at various locations in and around the Los Angeles area.
When describing the film's accuracy, Burton explained, "it's not like a completely hardcore realistic biopic. In doing a biopic you can't help but get inside the person's spirit a little bit, so for me, some of the film is trying to be through Ed a little bit. So it's got an overly optimistic quality to it." Burton acknowledged that he probably portrayed Wood and his crew in an exaggeratedly sympathetic way, stating he did not want to ridicule people who had already been ridiculed for a good deal of their life. Burton decided not to depict the darker side of Wood's life because his letters never alluded to this aspect and remained upbeat. To this end, Burton wanted to make the film through Wood's eyes. He said in an interview, "I've never seen anything like them, the kind of bad poetry and redundancy– saying in, like, five sentences what it would take most normal people one [...] Yet still there is a sincerity to them that is very unusual, and I always found that somewhat touching; it gives them a surreal, weirdly heartfelt feeling."
The scenes of Bela Lugosi used for Plan 9 from Outer Space were not filmed outside his own house, as the film depicts. They were, in fact, filmed outside Tor Johnson's house. Additionally, Lugosi was not prone to fits of swearing, particularly in front of women and did not perform his own water stunt in Bride of the Monster. Lugosi is also depicted as dying alone and miserable. Lugosi's wife of twenty years, Lillian, did leave him in 1953, but he remarried in 1955 to Hope Lininger. They were together until his death a year later. This, plus any reference to Lugosi's teenage son, Bela G. Lugosi, were omitted, as is any mention of Lugosi's role in the 1956 United Artists film The Black Sleep. Also, when Ed Wood talks to George Weiss about making I Changed My Sex!, Weiss mentions Chained Girls, implying that Chained Girls was made before Glen or Glenda, when in fact Chained Girls was made afterwards.
The film also omits any reference to Ed Wood's 1954 film Jail Bait, which was made between Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster.
The scene where Bela is seen walking towards his house after Ed drops him off, he mentions how Hollywood has changed its horror films and how they aren't what they used to be back in the 1930s. He mentions movies about giant bugs (Them!), giant spiders, (Tarantula) and giant grasshoppers (Beginning of the End), however these movies came out after when the scene was supposed to be set and after the release of Glen or Glenda.
According to Bela G. Lugosi (his son), Forrest Ackerman, Dolores Fuller and Richard Sheffield, the film's portrayal of Lugosi is inaccurate: In real life, he never used profanity, owned small dogs, or slept in coffins. And contrary to this film, Bela did not struggle performing on The Red Skelton Show.
Burton biographer Ken Hanke criticized the depiction of Dolores Fuller. "The real Fuller is a lively, savvy, humorous woman," Hanke said, "while Parker's performance presents her as a kind of sitcom moron for the first part of the film and a rather judgmental and wholly unpleasant character in her later scenes." During her years with Wood, Fuller had regular TV jobs on Queen for a Day and The Dinah Shore Show, which are not mentioned. Fuller criticized Parker's portrayal and Burton's direction, but still gave Ed Wood a positive review. "Despite the dramatic liberties, I think Tim Burton is fabulous. I wished they could have made it a deeper love story, because we really loved each other. We strove to find investors together, I worked so hard to support Ed and I."
Ed Wood had its premiere at the 32nd New York Film Festival at the Lincoln Center. The film was then shown shortly after at the 21st Telluride Film Festival and later at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where it was in competition for the Palme d'Or.
The DVD edition of Ed Wood initially had difficulty reaching store shelves in The United States and Canada due to unspecified legal issues. The initial release had a featurette on transvestites — not relating to the film or its actors in any way — which was removed from subsequent releases. An initial street date of August 13, 2002 was announced only to be postponed. A new date of February 3, 2003 was set, only for it to be recalled again without explanation, although some copies quickly found their way to collectors' venues such as eBay. The DVD was finally released on October 19, 2004.
Ed Wood had its limited release on September 30, 1994. When the film went into wide release on October 7, 1994 in 623 theaters, Ed Wood grossed $1,903,768 in its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $5,887,457 domestically, much less than the production budget of $18 million.
Ed Wood received critical acclaim and has a rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 60 reviews with an average score of 8 out of 10. The consensus states "Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team up to fete the life and work of cult hero Ed Wood, with typically strange and wonderful results." The film also has a score of 70 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 19 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert gave a largely positive review: "What Burton has made is a film which celebrates Wood more than it mocks him, and which celebrates, too, the zany spirit of 1950s exploitation films, in which a great title, a has-been star and a lurid ad campaign were enough to get bookings for some of the oddest films ever made." Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the film "Two Thumbs Up" on Siskel and Ebert, with Siskel calling it "a tribute to creative passion and to friendship" and "one of the year's very best".
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised Burton's decision to not make a direct satire or parody of Wood's life. "Ed Wood is Burton's most personal and provocative movie to date," he wrote. "Outrageously disjointed and just as outrageously entertaining, the picture stands as a successful outsider's tribute to a failed kindred spirit."
Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times, thought Johnny Depp "proved" himself as an established "certified great actor". "Depp captures all the can-do optimism that kept Ed Wood going, thanks to an extremely funny ability to look at the silver lining of any cloud." Todd McCarthy from Variety called Ed Wood "a fanciful, sweet-tempered biopic about the man often described as the worst film director of all time. Always engaging to watch and often dazzling in its imagination and technique, picture is also a bit distended, and lacking in weight at its center. The result is beguiling rather than thrilling."
Richard Corliss, writing in Time magazine, gave a negative review. "The script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski posits Wood as a classic American optimist, a Capraesque hero with little to be optimistic about, since he was also a classic American loser. That's a fine start, but the film then marches in staid chronological order." Corliss continued, "One wonders why this Burton film is so dishwatery, why it lacks the cartoon zest and outsider ache of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or Batman Returns."
Ed Wood was nominated for three Golden Globes: Best Musical or Comedy, Johnny Depp for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy and Martin Landau for Best Supporting Actor. Landau won in his category, while Depp lost to Hugh Grant (for Four Weddings and a Funeral). Landau and Rick Baker won Academy Awards for their work on the film. Landau also won Best Supporting Actor at the first Screen Actors Guild Awards. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were nominated for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen by the Writers Guild of America, which was a surprise as few predicted that it would be considered.