Savage Steve Holland Revisits ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘One Crazy Summer’ at the Aero Theatre

Better Off Dead poster

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was sold out yet again when director Savage Steve Holland was there to talk about his two 1980’s comedies “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer” back in June 2008. But the big attraction of the evening was “Better Off Dead” as it still has a huge cult following 30 years after its release. Like many movies from our youth, it was a box office flop and got eviscerated by critics. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down, and Peter Travers tore it apart limb from limb, but it eventually found its audience on video, cable, DVD and Blu-ray. These days, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t watched “Better Off Dead,” and everyone who has seen it loves it.

“Better Off Dead” follows Lane Meyer (John Cusack), a teenager with an obsession for skiing and an even bigger obsession for his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss). But soon after the movie begins, Beth dumps Lane for the captain of the ski team, and this leaves him utterly devastated to where he tries to kill himself in order to get her attention. Throughout, he is forced to deal with a crazed paperboy who wants his two dollars, his mother’s bizarre ways of cooking food, his dad’s insistence on doing something about his Camaro which remains immobile on the front lawn, his kid brother who reads books on how to pick up “trashy woman,” and a lovely foreign exchange student who has the misfortune of staying with the dork heads, ahem, the Smiths next door.

After “Better Off Dead” ended, Holland came to the stage and was greeted with thunderous applause. Dressed in jeans, a white buttoned-down shirt and wearing a green baseball cap, he was so happy to see all these people who came out to see this movie which he made long ago. Along with Holland was Diane Franklin who played the French exchange student Monique, and Curtis Armstrong who plays Lane’s best friend Charles de Mar.

Holland said “Better Off Dead” was inspired by his own life experiences, particularly the one where a girlfriend dumped him for somebody else. One scene has Lane tying an extension cord around his neck in the garage, and Holland said he did the same thing and had attached the cord to a pole while standing on a plastic garbage can. Holland said he became terrified and couldn’t go through with it, and then the lid of the garbage can suddenly broke and he fell right into it. Then the pipe above him broke, water came out and he almost drowned as a result. His mother came into the garage to see what was going on, and she ended up yelling at him for breaking the pipe.

“Better Off Dead” did so well in test screenings to where Warner Brothers gave Holland even more money to make “One Crazy Summer.” The studio executives were so convinced they had a big hit on their hands, and they wanted to work with him again on his next movie. Unfortunately, “Better Off Dead” failed at the box office and, while he did get the opportunity to make “One Crazy Summer,” Holland said he was quickly consigned to what he called “movie hell.” This is the place you go to when your movie doesn’t have a big opening weekend, and all those friends you thought you had in Hollywood stop calling you as a result.

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One fan asked Holland what the difference was between making “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer.” With “Better Off Dead,” Holland said he had total creative freedom to where no one was looking over his shoulder, and this made it the best filmmaking experience he has ever had. With “One Crazy Summer,” it was very different because there was more money involved, and studio executives were on set watching his every move. A lot of this was due to their initial response following the first “Better Off Dead” screening as they came out of it horrified, thinking it was a sequel to John Water’s “Pink Flamingos.”

Franklin, as it turns out, is not French. She said her father is in fact German, so this may account for her looking like she is from another country. As for her French accent, Franklin said she took French classes in high school and became very good at speaking the language, and the accent came to her easily as a result. When she came in to read for “Better Off Dead,” Franklin was actually up for the roles of Beth and Monique. Franklin said making this movie remains the best experience she has had as an actress, and she remarked how Holland created a fun and comfortable atmosphere for everyone to work in. She also confirmed it was indeed a woman who did her skiing sequences in the movie and not a man as many assumed. Holland did say, however, that her stunt double looked almost exactly like her, and the only thing separating them was the stunt double’s tan.

Also up for the role of Monique was Elizabeth Daily who sang the movie’s title track at the school dance. But in the end, it was determined Daily was just “too hot” for the role.

Armstrong came up with some of the most memorable aspects of Charles de Mar. The scene where the ski captain asks Beth what her name is and Charles replies, mistakenly thinking he the one being talked to, was Armstrong’s idea. He also came up with the top hat Charles wears throughout the movie, saying it was inspired by his love for The Beatles and, in particular, George Harrison. It was also his idea to bring along the jar with the dead pig in it to school. However, Armstrong said he could not take credit for this famous piece of dialogue: “I have been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”

Armstrong also brought up a brief conversation he had with Kim Darby who played Lane’s mom. At one point during a break from filming, Darby came up to Armstrong, took him by the shoulders and said, “Watch out! They’re trying to destroy you!” After that, she never spoke to him again.

Holland also discussed some of the movie’s deleted scenes, and among them was one which showed how Lane’s mother belonged to the cult of Gumby and was collecting money for it at the airport. Other deleted scenes included Lane’s father (played by David Ogden Stiers) coming home to find his wife vacuuming the lawn, Lane trying to practice the theme song to “Flipper” on his saxophone, and there is a seal there which ends up applauding another person who ends up performing it better than him. Also, the scene of the paperboy falling off the cliff actually lasted a lot longer as Holland had about three minutes of it on film, but test audiences had a very sickened reaction to it, and it got shortened as a result.

If there was one thing which dampened the mood for “Better Off Dead” fans, it is the fact Cusack hates the movie. Holland said he got along great with Cusack while making “Better off Dead,” and he really wanted Cusack to like it as much as he did. Before they began shooting “One Crazy Summer,” Holland got the cast members to hang out with each other in Cape Cod so they could become comfortable with one another. While there, someone was presenting a screening of “Better Off Dead” which they all went to. Twenty or so minutes into it, Cusack walked out. Holland figured Cusack had to take a call or something, but the actor never returned. Holland later caught up with Cusack who told him he thought the movie was horrible and that he no longer trusted him as a director. Suffice to say, this really brought the audience at the Aero Theatre down.

Someone else asked how Rupert Hine came to score “Better Off Dead.” One of the companies involved in the movie’s making was A&M Records which had worked on soundtracks for other films like “The Breakfast Club.” Hine was a featured performer on that soundtrack but had never actually done a film score before. “Better Off Dead” was his first effort as a film composer, and the resulting soundtrack release for the movie is indeed awesome.

This evening was a lot of fun for everyone involved, and it says a lot about “Better Off Dead” that it remains so popular decades after its release. One fan proudly proclaimed it as being “bar none, the greatest movie ever made.” Such a fan this guy was, he got Holland to sign an authentic air filter for a 1967 Camaro, just like the one featured in the movie. Along with that, he also had the original vinyl release of the soundtrack as well as the movie’s original script.

“Better Off Dead” is truly one of the most entertaining comedies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is a movie Cusack really should be proud of. What else can you say about a movie in which Steven Williams utters one of the most famous lines in cinema history?

“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.”

The article’s over… You can go home now.

 

Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ Takes Us on an Irresistible Journey

Something Wild movie poster

I got to revisit “Something Wild” recently at New Beverly Cinema, and it quickly reminded me of what a unique filmmaker Jonathan Demme was back in the 1980’s. He had a wonderfully offbeat approach to making movies few others did at the time, and they functioned as parties he gleefully invited us to time and time again. This style of filmmaking disappeared in the 1990’s when he made “The Silence of the Lambs,” and while it is one of the best movies ever made, it marked the beginning of his work having a darker and less playful look to them. This is not to take away from his resume since as it includes such great movies as “Philadelphia,” “Rachel Getting Married” and a number of Neil Young documentaries, but watching “Something Wild” made me realize how much I miss Demme’s earlier style of filmmaking as it was more joyous and anarchic than much of what he has made since.

Jeff Daniels stars as Charles Driggs, a conservative looking banker whose wife and kids have since left him. We catch up with him while he is eating at a diner in the urban part of New York, and he suddenly decides to leave without paying his check. However, he is caught in the act by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who confronts him about his felonious act and sees a rebellious side in him she is eager to exploit. From there, she offers to drive him back to his office and ends up kidnapping him on an adventure which flies in the face of everything considered conformity.

When Lulu gets a hold of Charles’ pager (yes, this movie was made a long time ago) and throws it out her car window to his utter shock, we are along for the ride as she brings out a side of him he has not exercised for quite some time. What I love about “Something Wild” is that, while Lulu essentially kidnaps Charles against his will, it tapped into something deep within me to where I would be open to her taking advantage of me. What Lulu does is force Charles to abandon his normal lifestyle and engage in something adventurous, and there’s a point in all our lives where we want to break out of a lifestyle which eventually becomes much too stifling for our own good. Granted, common sense usually kicks in as we can’t afford to get into the kind of trouble they get into in this day and age, but this is why we go to the movies: to experience things we have the knowledge to avoid in real life.

We are with Charles as Lulu takes him on an adventure no one could easily prepare for, and it makes what we watch in “Something Wild” all the more exciting. The movie digs into our deepest desires as these two engage in an unexpected road trip which has the two of them falling in love. Things, however, take a sharp turn when Lulu’s husband, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), comes back into the picture and threatens to destroy their newfound coupling with his Svengali and violent ways.

It’s fun to watch Daniels in this role as he makes the squarest of human beings appear more charismatic than what was on the written page. This could have been a thankless role in the hands of another actor, but Daniels makes Charles’ transition from a conventional banker to a love-struck man determined to save the woman he has fallen in love with very believable to where we are with him every step of the way. Daniels’ career had nowhere to go but up from there as he went on to deliver brilliant performances in “The Squid and the Whale,” “Steve Jobs” and “Dumb and Dumber.”

Griffith’s career was at its height in the 80’s as her performances in “Working Girl,” “Body Double” and “Stormy Monday” showed us she was an actress who did not back down from a challenge. Her performance as Lulu, who is later revealed to be Audrey Hankel, is one of her best as she fearlessly portrays a character who is as free-spirited as she is reckless in her law-breaking ways which allow her to live life on the edge. At the same time, Griffith gives Lulu/Audrey a vulnerability which makes her performance all the more fantastic as even she comes to see her fling with Charles has become much more than that.

But then along comes Ray Liotta as Audrey’s violent ex-husband, Ray Sinclair, who steals the show. The audience at New Beverly Cinema applauded loudly when the actor made his first appearance in “Something Wild,” and it’s not hard to understand why. From the moment he arrives onscreen, Liotta gives us an infinitely charismatic villain we can’t take our eyes off of. We know he’s dangerous, but like Daniels’ character we can’t help but go along with him on a ride. You know he’s bad for you, but Liotta’s unpredictability keeps us pinned to our seats. He is mesmerizing as he fights to get Audrey back into his life even as she struggles to break free of him once and for all, and he makes it easy to see why it is not at all easy to get rid of him.

Demme pulls off the impossible here as the screenplay written by E. Max Frye starts off as a road movie and then turns into a domestic thriller. Such a shift can be jarring in a movie, but Demme keeps everything running smoothly even as the story heads into darker territory. By the time we are introduced to the devious Ray Sinclair, we have come too far with Charles and Audrey to just give up on them.

The director also works with a colorful palette which keeps things feeling light even as we head towards a violent conclusion. He also provides us with a terrific soundtrack with choice tunes from Fine Young Cannibals, New Order, Oingo Boingo and David Byrne. This is not to mention Demme’s usual cast of actors he has worked with constantly like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Sister Carol and Gary Goetzman who bring their unique energies to the roles they are given, and they make us remember their characters long after we have left the theater. There are also some inspired cameos from filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters, and Waters’ cameo is as priceless as the expression on his face when Audrey offers him a bribe.

Looking back at “Something Wild” makes me realize what a uniquely talented filmmaker is as he cheerfully invites us on a ride which goes against what’s normal and becomes all the more exhilarating as a result. Some filmmakers try to keep you at a distance from their characters’ exploits, but Demme instead offers you a front seat to the action, and it results in a truly irresistible time at the movies. In addition, his casting choices here are perfect, and you can tell the actors are having a blast with the material they have been given.

I find it good to see a movie like this every once in a while as it makes me question whether I have become too complacent in my life. Granted, I wouldn’t be that quick to jump into a car with a complete stranger behind the wheel unless it was a Lyft ride I requested, but to be taken on a ride which allowed me to break out of the routine of life feels absolutely necessary as time continues to speed up as we get older. Demme understands this, and he makes “Something Wild” into an invitation we movie buffs would be foolish to turn down. It remains as entertaining today as it did back in 1986.

* * * * out of * * * *