Vintage ICONS Interview: Savage Steve Holland!

At around 10 years old while completely unsupervised by any parents, my older cousins inadvertently created my obsession and fanaticism for horror films by forcing me to sit through the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Nervous that they’d scarred me for life
, my cousins immediately followed it up with BETTER OFF DEAD, mostly to prove to me that “Tina” was in fact still alive and well and had gone on to break John Cusack’s heart. Needless to say, those two movies were the ones that had the biggest influence on me; opened my eyes wide to the world of filmmaking and I have since followed the careers of everyone involved with both of those flicks.

Cut to roughly 25 years later and somehow I’ve managed to track down and get in touch with Savage Steve Holland, the writer/director behind BETTER OFF DEAD and its follow-up ONE CRAZY SUMMER; 2 of my all-time favorite comedies. Savage also created THE ADVENTURES OF BEANS BAXTER, one of my favorite shows I remember growing up from the very early days of Fox and who’s animation is synonymous with the phrase “big bucks, no whammy”. (You’ll learn why in this interview!)

What was intended to be a brief interview over lunch instead morphed into a lengthy candid conversation over several beers and spawned what I consider to be one of my favorite interviews with a filmmaker ever. While we do delve into Savage’s own film work, we couldn’t help but veer off occasionally to chat about our mutual love of horror movies. And I’ll admit it, I totally cranked Honeymoon Suite’s “What Does It Take” (the end credits song from ONE CRAZY SUMMER) in the car ride over to meet Savage. Read on for the full, unedited, uncut interview with Savage Steve Holland! -Robg.

Savage Steve Holland image
Rob G.: There’s always a point for a filmmaker where they realize that the movies they’re watching were made by people. A writer, a director, an FX artist, a production designer, etc. So for you, when did you first learn about what went into filmmaking and was it something you always wanted to pursue?

Savage Steve Holland: Well, it was 1968 and my dad had taken me to the movies, which he rarely did. I think we saw THE SOUND OF MUSIC, maybe YELLOW SUBMARINE, but the first real movie I remember seeing was PLANET OF THE APES. It’s funny, because I’ll never forget the credit “Arthur P. Jacobs presents.” I looked this guy up and studied him because I wanted to know everything about him. He produced (the original) DOCTOR DOOLITTLE! I was fascinating by a guy that could make DOCTOR DOOLITTLE and then make something as historic as the PLANET OF THE APES. As a kid I thought, “wow, you don’t have to just make one movie and die! You can make other stuff!” So then I decided I wanted to be like Arthur P. Jacobs and I’m still fascinated by him. My daughter’s middle name is Nova after the girl in PLANET OF THE APES. It just blew my mind. I left that theater and said that’s what I want to do for a living. I want to make movies and I want to be Arthur P. Jacobs, whoever this guy is! And that was it! When the gorilla revealed himself in the cornfields, there was such a big build up to it, I thought that was the coolest, scariest thing I’d ever seen. I absolutely loved it, so that was my turning point.

Have you seen the original PLANET OF THE APES on Blu-Ray yet? Because it looks fantastic!

I need a Blu-Ray player! I’m a dorkus that doesn’t even have an iPhone yet. (Laughs) It’s funny because the original negative has so much more information especially when you transfer it to HD, which I never knew. I gotta see PLANET OF THE APES on Blu-Ray though.

Were you living in Long Island, NY at this point? Because I’m from Long Island and I thought I read that’s where you’re originally from?

No, I was living in Freeport in Long Island until I was about 5 before we moved to Connecticut. Then I moved out to LA for school.

How difficult was it for you in the beginning of your filmmaking career? Because anyone that knows your work knows that you started out in animation.

It’s funny, Rob G. When I was a kid, my grandma bought me a Super 8 movie camera. So I started making these stupid movies and they always starred my little sister Squid; that’s her nickname (which I used for the little sister in ONE CRAZY SUMMER), and Squid after a while got wise to it, because I’d say things like “OK, I’m going to light you on fire and push you over this cliff!” And she’d be like, “OK, I guess.” And then after the third time, she’d be like, “I’m not doing this anymore.” (Laughs) And so, I started drawing because I loved animation and all the old Warner Brothers cartoons. I don’t know how I figured out animation, I think I just put up pages against my window in my room and flipped them. It’d take me weeks to do 10 seconds. Super 8 back then used to take 2-3 weeks to get back in the mail. And you’d think, “Oh my God! Is today the day I’m going to get them back?” And you’d watch them and sometimes they’d be God awful! Sometimes it was pretty cool. I just realized you don’t really need people for animation, so that helped me out when I couldn’t get anyone else to light on fire, I just drew it! That was my resume when I went to CalArts. I had a bunch of little animated things and a bunch of live action things. I think I went to CalArts based more on animation and my stupid cartoons. When I got there, I was in this thing called Film Graphics and I realized people were doing these things that were really compositing. We learned a lot about mat stuff.  Putting people in situations they really weren’t in, which today is green screen. Back then it was called rotoscoop. You had to take each frame and outline what you wanted to put somewhere else. Black out everything and shoot it twice. It was a whole big deal and got so boring that I switched and said “Oh, let’s just make live action movies instead of this crazy compositing stuff!” That’s how I ended up doing what I do.

Can you talk a bit about your early short film GOING NOWHERE FAST?

At CalArt, the more obscure your movies were, the more they made sense to the faculty. Seriously! (Laughs) Whenever I did anything comedy-wise, it never worked. The quote I got from my mentor there was “you’d be really good if you put some brain behind what you did.” And I thought, “Oh that’s great advice, thank you very much!” I had a best friend there that I loved and his animation was a bunch of beans floating and everyone there thought it was like the Museum of Modern Art. They loved it. So, I’d always try to do little stories, and they hated that stuff! GOING NOWHERE FAST was literally a stick figure running through stuff, like going through buildings and then it just ended. It made no sense! But it got into all these film festivals.

And every one thought it was genius! (Laughs)

Every one thought it was genius, so I thought “OK, I’ll just try something totally stupid.” That worked, everyone thought it was genius and I won a ton of awards for it.

I don’t think much has changed at film schools in terms of what they teach and think is genius! (Laughs)

Isn’t that funny and weird?

It’s funny, because now as an adult, I look back at all these little things that stood out for me as a kid and I realize that you were behind a lot of them! For example, I used to love the game show PRESS YOUR LUCK. And it was because of the “big bucks, no whammy” animation! I look at it now and it’s obviously your cartoon work. Your animation has a distinct style! So in the beginning, were you getting a lot of work specifically from people looking at your animated shorts?

Yeah, that was it. It was the film festival circuit where a lot of people saw my stuff, but I still don’t exactly remember how I got PRESS YOUR LUCK. It’s very mysterious. I think what came before PRESS YOUR LUCK was ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT. Believe it or not, I was working at Paramount and people knew I could draw cartoons and they made Entertainment Tonight. And for some reason, in the first season of the show, I had a little 15 second segment every Friday night. I think they were trying to get rid of me! So they suggested me for this PRESS YOUR LUCK show and I met with Bill Carruthers who was a big game show guy and a really nice guy. In that sense, it was the first computer. Believe it or not, that was drawn on some big high-tech computer. It could only do 12 drawings so that was my limitation as far as the whammy. It was cool for me, because I was used to taking 6 months to do something, but they paid me like $300 bucks a week, so I was in hog heaven! It was so awesome. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. It was a pretty successful game show. Like with everything I’ve done, its years later before people say “this is great.” I think at the time, people were saying, “this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.” But the show was pretty simple and genius when you think about it. It’s been remade now as “Whammy” with CG animation.

They re-did the show recently?

Yeah, just search TiVo with WHAMMY and you’ll find it. I guess I’ll say this because I’m jealous they did it without me – it loses some of its charm being CG now because it doesn’t look as crappy. (Laughs) There’s something about these people losing all of their money to probably the worst animated thing on Earth that made it so much more humiliating.

(Laughs) OK, let’s set the record straight – What exactly are the origins of BETTER OFF DEAD? Because on the back on the DVD, there’s a quote that says you had written something that you thought was serious and depressing, but that everyone laughed at it.

That’s semi-true. They mixed up some stuff. The quote also says that I picked up my camera and shot footage of my friends or something like that. I used to make little movies about my life. I was really inspired by Woody Allen. For instance – BETTER OFF DEAD is kinda a sequel to another short film I made. Listen, it gets worse… When I was 11, I had a birthday party that nobody came to. So I made my first real life movie, it was a black and white 10 minute short called MY 11 YEAR OLD BIRTHDAY PARTY. And it was a live action movie about this little kid (me) having this birthday party and it was a really sad story.  It was supposed to be a Kafka-esque, sad David Lynch-style movie about this kid having a birthday party that nobody comes to. Oh, look. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET… (pointing to the TV)

Oh, it’s actually Dokken’s Dream Warriors music video playing on the screen here. It seems they’re playing all these 80’s hair metal bands that had songs in horror movies at this restaurant!

Wasn’t this one written by Bruce Wagner?

And Frank Darabont!

Bruce to me is this comic genius.

Yes, this one is my favorite of the NIGHTMARE sequels. And it’s funny, because the two movies that shaped me as a kid and turned me into a movie fan was the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and BETTER OFF DEAD.

EVIL DEAD and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET are the horror movies where I thought I’d seen everything and then I saw these and thought, “holy shit. These are scary!”

My favorite movie of all time is EVIL DEAD 2.

Yeah! It’s kind of the same story but not. It’s a reboot or something.

Right, right.

It’s so, so good.

Well, the reason I bring up horror films now besides these music videos behind us is that because before we started this interview, you had mentioned how influenced you were by horror films and that doesn’t surprise me at all. Because there are certain scenes in the movies you’ve done that feel like they’re right out of horror films. For example, in BETTER OFF DEAD, after the dance, John Cusack’s walking through the park and the way it’s lit, when all the bicycle paperboys’ start chasing him, it looks like something out of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or something!

Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s what I was influenced by! There’s a Hitchcock shot right after that when Lane comes home from the roof looking down when he runs inside. Then I did the Spielberg push in and pull focus at the same time. Got that from JAWS. I tried to use as many horror influences as I could, and in a weird way, it really is a horror movie. (Laughs)

As a horror fan, what were some of the films that stood out for you?

Well, things like EVIL DEAD and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET blew my mind. But like we were talking about before, I loved the Universal Monster Movies as a kid and I’d get all the models. I loved them. We had Chiller Theatre every Saturday Night –

With Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul, right?

Yeah, yeah. And they’d show something crappy like THE CRWLING EYE or something. There was one movie on there though that freaked me out so bad, it was about a guy who got an eyeball on his shoulder and eventually it grew into a head and he fought it and it ripped apart from him. I found out about it again on this Kindertrauma website. They wrote a thing on this movie, the title escapes me. It’s funny, when you’re a horror fan, you keep going back. It’s really addicting. You want to see if you can make it through another movie! On Sunday morning’s in NY, they would have a black and white horror movie. They weren’t always great, but I would wake up every Sunday morning as early as I could and I had this little TV and I would hide behind the couch so my parents wouldn’t catch me watching and I had this list. It was this list I made of what I’d watch that I’d hide under the couch. When I thought I’d seen everything that could possibly scare me, I was amazed by how scary the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was to me. Like when Freddy’s walking down that alleyway with his long arms, just visuals like that that you could never have thought of. With EVIL DEAD, my God, it was really creepy with that girl in the cellar. Every element of something that scared you just a little bit was amped on steroids in that movie. I was a believer again after those movies for horror. Most recently, I was impressed with ORPHAN.

Ah, we got so side-tracked by the horror music videos in this place! We were actually talking about the origins of BETTER OFF DEAD, starting with your short film MY 11 YEAR OLD BIRTHDAY PARTY.

Yes! I made that short, I submitted it to film festivals and I put it in as a drama. But then it won for “best comedy” short at a lot of these festivals! I was like, “wait a minute. This is a really sad story about my life!” Then, that’s when I wrote BETTER OFF DEAD. I thought, well if they think that’s funny, then you should really hear about my break-up with my girlfriend from high school. And I’m glad I wrote it! I was talking with Curtis (Armstrong) on a podcast recently about how I really had about 10 pages of stuff, and then what I would do; I would fill in jokes, because I didn’t know how to write dialogue. So I would do joke, joke, joke. I would do things like, um… ok here’s some dialogue. “I want my $2 dollars.” And I swear to God, Rob. People love and quote that, which is funny to me because I really didn’t have anything to write so I’d come up with something like that. (Laughs) It’s funny how the lines from that movie have become quotable when they came out of desperation.

You never can tell what will stick with people! Now that I can analyze the movie as an adult, your movies to me seem like live action cartoons.

I understand that and I have a reason for that. When I was doing movies, I had no money so I had to storyboard everything and I had these really primitive storyboards. But what I did with BETTER OFF DEAD, I had so much time because I tried to sell it for 2 and a half years, which I still feel lucky that I did. In my spare time, I would storyboard it. When I finally met this guy named Michael Jaffe who produced the movie, he was asking me to re-write another teen comedy. I thought well if you met me based off of BETTER OFF DEAD for a rewrite on something else, then why don’t we just make BETTER OFF DEAD? I brought all the storyboards. I literally had the whole movie storyboarded from start to finish exactly the way I was going to shoot. For example, if I had a close-up of you and you’re in my shot, I’d only have you say one line like “that’s a nice tape recorder.” If I knew that’s all I needed, then I would only shoot that close-up and save on film. And so when I had my boards done, he could see all my shots. I had the whole movie done basically. If I didn’t just shoot those pieces, the movie wouldn’t get done. He could take the book I put together and film it and it would get done. So it was nice that I had that kind of ammunition to get it sold. That’s why it looks like a cartoon. My storyboards are straight forward.

Even the gags! I always laugh at his mother leaving the note on his forehead. (Laughs) It’s just brilliant! And hilarious.

You know what else paid off big in test screenings? When he pours the cat food for the cat. Audiences were going crazy for that, him pouring the cat food and all of it coming out the side. Little things like that paid off so much more than I ever imagined.


One of the things I love about both BETTER OFF DEAD and ONE CRAZY SUMMER is they’ve both got all those animated sequences in them. Was that always the plan from the get-go? Did you always want BETTER OFF DEAD to open with an animated title sequence? Was Hoops in ONE CRAZY SUMMER always meant to be an artist?

Well, with BETTER OFF DEAD, it was definitely the plan, because I boarded it out. No one was doing animation at the time and I had a crew of great animators I wanted to hire. Let’s put some animation in this since I got a break on a movie was my thinking. When we tested the movie, the audiences loved the dancing hamburger first, and then the animation, which was really interesting to me. So when I got to do ONE CRAZY SUMMER, I said well let’s do some animation for that too. I got David Silverman who does The Simpsons to be one of the main animators on my movie and I was so excited. In the second movie, I’ll say now I had free reign to bring in my animator buddies into the movie world and it was really fun.

I think the quote I’d read from you was that since BETTER OFF DEAD was your first movie and you never knew if you’d get the chance to make another one, you wanted to throw everything in it. Animation, claymation, etc.

Yeah, exactly. And I did. That even goes back to having those scenes that were kind of horror scenes. I figured if I failed at this, I could go and do a horror movie. In the end, looking back on it, it made it cool. Even I watch it now and think I can’t wait for that shot, or that stupid joke. It still makes me laugh. There’s at least 5 really big laughs in there every time I see it. But yeah, we tested it, people loved the animation, so when Warners made the next movie, they were really cool about it because of how test audiences reacted. They were like if you want to make it about animation, then cool. I didn’t really have a script. They were saying, what’s your next movie? And I was like, “um I’m going to go home and get it.” And I was at home going… well, there are these guys in Nantucket!

How autobiographical is BETTER OFF DEAD?

It’s super autobiographical. I swear to God, it’s mostly true. It’s exaggerated, of course. The only thing that’s not true is that I didn’t get on the ski team and race that guy and beat him. (Laughs) There’s no happy ending basically.

Why skiing?

Oh, I really love skiing!

OK, so that was a personal thing? Your love of skiing?

Yeah, yeah. I really was trying out for the ski team. I was in 11th grade and there was a guy in the 12th grade that was the captain of the ski team and he was just like that guy –

He was Roy Stalin!

He was so Stalin! He really wanted to bone my girlfriend. He made sure I didn’t get on the ski team. He made sure I wasn’t on the team so he could sleep with my girlfriend, so it all worked out for him. But it’s very heartbreaking!

It was years after the movie came out when the actual “Beth” saw the movie? Was that awkward for you?

Well, yeah. It was 2 or 3 years later and she was married with kids. She was like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe I hurt you so bad.” I really exaggerated it, but she felt bad. And I felt bad because I didn’t want her to think it was really that horrible. Through exaggeration, you have comedy. Anyway, it was all fine. It wasn’t all awkward because I was able to explain that it wasn’t such a bad thing.

I wanted to talk briefly about the actors, because you’ve always got these great character actors filling out these roles. You’ve got these bit parts, but then you’ve got guys like Vincent Schiavelli, Taylor Negron, Bruce Wagner, Curtis Armstrong. Were these people you went after? Or auditioned?

It’s funny, because when you’re able to make a movie, you get carte blache with who’s in it. The only person the studio, in this case CBS Studios, wanted to approve of was the lead, John Cusack. I felt so lucky when I got him. But there was a moment where they thought, well he just played a nerd in a couple of movies, so I had to fight for him. I got introduced to him by Henry Winkler who took an interest to my script. He said I can’t buy this or make it, but I can give you an office to work out of, which was amazing. He gave me this little place to work out of at Paramount. So Henry had just worked on this short with Cusack and introduced us. And I loved John. We went out, had dinner and were like best buddies. He was my pick immediately. He’d never really played a lead. So Henry Winkler stuck up for him and I stuck up for him, so they approved him. But everybody else were all people that I had met. I got into a weird world with my short films where I got to meet some really cool people at film festivals. So I met Amy Heckerling who’d just done FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. She introduced me to Taylor Negron and Vincent Schiavelli and I was just in awe of those guys because they’re so talented and funny. Vince was in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. I was so amazed by those guys. When I got the green light to do the movie I asked all those people to be in BETTER OFF DEAD. Taylor had done a short film of mine, and I kept saying “one day I’ll pay you back!” They were so sweet. Curtis was the one I pursued the most…

REVENGE OF THE NERDS had come out at this point, right?

It had just come out, but it was RISKY BUSINESS. Miles was my favorite part of that movie! He was this kid who was cocky, but goofy and a guy that Tom Cruise was looking up to. I thought wow, how do you get to be that confident guy? So I thought he’d be perfect for Charles De Mar, who’s got to be kind of an idiot that every one respects for some reason. (Laughs)

Was Charles De Mar based on anyone?

Yes, I had a best friend named Charles De Mar –

So you didn’t even change his name? (Laughs)

No and that’s where I get into trouble, because some names are really close. For example, Cookie Campbell in ONE CRAZY SUMMER, my sister Squid ran into her while out to dinner one night. But Beth wasn’t a real name or anything like that. Lane Meyer was based on another friend I had back home. And Charles De Mar was the most talented guy I knew. He was really funny and outside-the-box crazy. Now, he’s a fantastic artist that does movies posters just like Drew Struzan. Charles was this guy in junior high school who I’d laugh at movies with. He inspired me, because he was kind of a goofy guy, but mega-talented and nobody knew it. Lane Meyer was like that too. Lane Meyer’s dad was the principle of the high school I went to. So Lane would wear his pajama’s to school because his dad would never kick him out of school! So I loved Lane. I used real names of people I respected.

What about casting Kim Darby, who is so funny as Lane’s mother in BETTER OFF DEAD?

Kim came in and I didn’t see her as the mother at all. I remember her coming in and I remember her from TRUE GRIT. I don’t want to use the word weird, but she was just so different that I didn’t see her as the mother character, but it’s funny, I was talked into it by the producer who was like, you don’t even know! She’s like an Academy Award Nominated Actress! And I’d respond, “but… she’s so strange!” But that works for the character. It really does. When you do things based in truth, I kind of saw my mom, who is this little blonde Mrs. Cleaver type. Kim Darby made it Mrs. Cleaver on acid, which was awesome!

I rewatched it recently and there’s that great joke when the electricians see Lane in the back of the garbage truck and say, “that’s a shame when people be throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.” People have re-used that joke! I believe it’s in MEN AT WORK.

Yeah, yeah. Emilio Estevez used my joke, but I knew him at that time, so let’s say it was an homage. He’s a really nice guy, but I think that was funny he used that. (Laughs)

Just curious, have you ever in fact had “monster egg-nog with lighter fluid” in it?

Negative, no. I have not. I was just trying to think of the stupidest thing. A thing that got pushed in the 80’s was there was always the druggy guy at school, the dude who was smoking the doob. Some of the new teen movies have the guy who pushes the drug use too far. I didn’t really grow up like that, so I didn’t really have anything to draw from, so I wanted to make a buddy like that but also make fun of it. So Charles De Mar was that character who didn’t do drugs because he couldn’t get to them. So that was my joke and it ended up being pretty funny, like the idea of “this mountain” being “pure snow”. It’s awesome the way Curtis delivered it. But yeah, it was making fun of those characters in those 80’s movies that were always trying to be Spicoli.

FAST TIMES was written by Cameron Crowe, and obviously that era had all the great John Hughes movies. Were any of those films an influence to you at all? Or were you just doing your own thing?

I was just doing my own thing. I was just coming out of college and doing that style of stupid stuff. Again, it was influenced by Woody Allen more than any of the teen stuff. But then I would see some of the teen stuff that I really loved. I loved the John Hughes stuff. I love VACATION. That was such a great movie. And so, he had some free reign to do some stupid jokes in those movies that were great, so it was really inspirational to me. I would also say ANIMAL HOUSE, there’s this scene where Bulushi just takes his mustard and suddenly dumps it on himself. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s just great. I figured I could just amp that up. I can maybe get away with it. Or maybe that’s why the movies didn’t do well when they came out because I pushed it too far!

Oh, but they’re classics now! Let’s talk about E.G. Daily really quick. First of all, I saw her at the double feature screening this past summer and man does she still look fantastic, if not better than ever.

She’s gorgeous!

She’s got a lot of music in BETTER OFF DEAD so I’m curious how that all came about? Did you know her through her music? Or as an actress?

The lucky thing about getting your movie greenlit is you can call anybody! So the people I had the biggest crushes on were Diane Franklin from THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN, and EG Daily from VALLEY GIRL. I think I called in some of the girls from The Go-Go’s, because I was in love with them. My problem was between Diane and EG Daily and Amanda Wyss – I had EG possibly in to play Beth, but the problem was she was so sexy, so hot; Lane would deserve the problems he has if he actually had EG as his girlfriend. I just couldn’t let her go, because she was really funny and great. I was kind of torn, because I loved her, but Amanda was better for that part. EG told me she was also a musician, so I remembered I had this scene at the dance. So I thought, write the theme song! I got her cute hotness in there.

You had started ONE CRAZY SUMMER right after you finished shooting BETTER OFF DEAD, but BETTER OFF DEAD hadn’t come out yet, right?

Exactly. The chronological order is we tested BETTER OFF DEAD and it tested very, very well. I tested it at colleges and the audiences loved it, so the studio was very excited and they were like “we’re ready for your next script.” This is true, I was like, “Oh, let me go get it.” And I went home and wrote it in one weekend the outline for ONE CRAZY SUMMER. That’s why it’s a lesser movie because I didn’t have a lot of time on that one. Getting Bobcat Goldthwait really helped because I didn’t have the type of comedy that Bobcat brought to it. What happened was there was a bidding war for this piece of crap that I wrote. So I went back to Warners because they gave me a shot with my first movie. So we went right into ONE CRAZY SUMMER before BETTER OFF DEAD even came out. So what was interesting about it, when we finished ONE CRAZY SUMMER, BETTER OFF DEAD had come out and was kind of a disaster. It was a $3 million dollar movie that didn’t do very well. So then Warners had my next movie and everybody thought that BETTER OFF DEAD was going to be this huge comedy. So they didn’t put much into ONE CRAZY SUMMER after that. They put it out in the winter instead of the summer and just let it die.

What was the original title?

It was called MY SUMMER VACATION and then it got changed to MY NANTUCKET VACATION. I kind of hated the title ONE CRAZY SUMMER. It was kind of obvious.

It breaks my heart to hear that John Cusack doesn’t like these movies.

You know what’s so funny, I was just thinking about that, because Curtis and I had done this podcast and I always learn a new thing. Somebody had given the guys we were interviewing a BETTER OFF DEAD DVD and everybody involved with the movie had signed it except for Cusack. And they said they asked him and he refused to sign it.

That’s just such a jerk thing to do. Especially if everyone else signed it, sheesh. Now, maybe you can shed some light. The story I heard was that while you were making ONE CRAZY SUMMER, you showed him BETTER OFF DEAD and he walked out 10 minutes into it…

Yep and he hated it. Hated it.

But here’s my question – he met with you. He read the script. He was there while you were shooting it. What was the surprise?!

He came to dailies! I seriously don’t know what happened. And it was so heartbreaking. It was seriously like having a rug pulled out from under me. We were laughing our asses off every night looking at dailies. Every joke worked. When we watched the scene with the slime coming off the plate, we were dying! It was so funny. So I don’t know where he got spun out. And I’m sure someday he’ll tell. It was so sad, because he left that screening of BETTER OFF DEAD after 10 minutes and never saw the payoff. He must’ve hated something in the first few minutes of it that he really didn’t like. And so it was sad because the next day we were shooting on ONE CRAZY SUMMER and I asked, “John, where were you? What happened?” And he said, “I’ll never trust you again.” It was essentially this speech of how much I sucked and I didn’t see that coming. “I’m sorry if you think I betrayed you in some way by making this comedy. It’s just a comedy. I don’t really know how to proceed to make ONE CRAZY SUMMER with you, but I would say do whatever you think is your best instinct because we have to make this movie. Do whatever you think is right for a scene and I’ll… try not to bother you with my directing.” (Laughs) Not that I’m any kind of director at all, but I think I know set-up and pay-off for jokes.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER, Tom Villard, Bobcat Goldthwait, 1986. ©Warner Bros.
So did that make shooting ONE CRAZY SUMMER more difficult?

It was horrible. I have to admit, it was just so sad and heartbreaking and it bummed me out everyday. But what happened was other people stepped up. Bobcat as Egg Stork was a minor character who stepped up and took over the movie. Bobcat came in and saw this tension and sadness, but came at it as I’m going to make this the funniest movie I can and do everything I can. After a while, if you watch it, Cusack and Demi start doing Bobcat-isms. They really do. Demi has a cool voice, but her mannerisms, and even John if you watch, I think Bobcat rubbed off on them. I think John learned that BETTER OFF DEAD was a little bit better than he thought. One thing that was happening was we were sending it around the country, and we were getting these reviews back. We got one back from the Rhode Island newspaper that was 2 pages about how great this movie was, how Cusack was a comic genius and the crew people tacked it up on his door. I had the same crew on SUMMER that I had on BETTER OFF DEAD, so they were bummed by his reaction to it too. So they put a few things on his door. Ya know, as time went on, he lightened up a lot. But yeah, I just don’t get where that came from. You read a script, you shoot scenes, you put them together. We were editing it together. I wanted him to see how funny it was turning out so he’d come by the editing suite. I just don’t get why he hated it.

You’ve never spoken to him since then?

No, I ran into him at a bar like 10 years later and he sent over a drink. I thought that was enough. I will say this – without him, the movie never would’ve worked. It’s not that I have anything to forgive or anything like that, I’m just heartbroken that he didn’t like it. I really thought we were a team. And we were talking about things like, “wouldn’t it be fun to do this forever? Keep making these Jimmy Stewart-style movies together that are funny.” It’s so weird. It’s like all of a sudden looking at your wife and she’s a Gilla Monster. Where’d that come from? I didn’t see that coming at all. It wasn’t like “I’m scared to see the movie because I’m worried it’s going to suck.” It was watching 10 minutes, then he’s gone and I’m wondering where he went and the next day he’s like, “you succcck!” (Laughs)

I’m sure I speak for a lot of people my age, but those movies are how we got to know him. The reason I’m a fan of his was because I saw him in your movies.

Yeah and I love him. He’s such a good actor and such a great comedian and such a great every man. The thing is everybody loves him in the movie and they love him as an every man. So it’s not like you see him in the movie and think he’s an idiot. There’s none of that. People see him in those movies and think “I love him.”

Have you seen HOT TUB TIME MACHINE yet?

Yeah, I missed the “I want my $2 dollar” joke though. Is it in there?

Oh it’s in there. I just don’t know how they can homage your movie if he’s got such distain about it?

My gut says he did that sort of as an “F you”. Because doesn’t he say in the movie he “hates the 80’s”? I think that was part of his statement to say he hated the 80’s, that movie, everything he did in the 80’s, his cloths. (Laughs)

Now, moving onto Demi Moore, ONE CRAZY SUMMER was still fairly early in her career. Similar to EG, Demi got to do a lot of music stuff in SUMMER. Was it a similar situation to EG?

No, I just loved her voice. Someone told me to go see ST. ELMO’S FIRE, which I did and loved. We shared an agent, so they told me to see her in that movie. She was also adorable in BLAME IT ON RIO. I talked to Demi on the phone and she was so awesome and sweet and such a nice person. Speaking to her, she had the most bitchin’ voice and I knew it’d be great to work with her. It was sad for her, because John was so mad while making the movie, and it was heartbreaking because she didn’t fully understand what was going on. The other thing was we were there for a couple of weeks early. I wanted us to get to know each other a little bit so that we could have some fun. The producers were so cool, they rented some hotel rooms and we came up and did our insanity. We probably had 2 weeks where we all just hung out. But then that BETTER OFF DEAD screening happened where John walked out. And he was sitting with Demi at the screening. So I’m sure she must’ve thought something and was probably nervous about me after that. But she was a good sport. It’s such a stupid movie and she’s a real actress, so she was great. As far as the singing, I just assumed she would be a good singer because she had such a cool voice.

Did you write Cassandra as a musician in the script though?

Yeah, yeah. Again, I went to Aimee Mann who at the time was in the band ‘Til Tuesday. She was my first choice but a bit too serious for the role. When I spoke to Demi, I knew it was someone with acting chops. I was looking for a singer/comedian and there’s no such thing really! So, I went for the actor. With her voice, I thought she’d be a cool singer. The songs are kind of corny, I mean we wrote them right there, but she did a good job.

What’s the origin of the “cute and fuzzy bunnies”? Are there autobiographical elements to ONE CRAZY SUMMER as well?

Somewhat. I’d say 50 percent of it is. I did have a grandmother who just hated having us at her place. (Laughs) She did! She hated having kids over. She’d put plastic on everything when we showed up and made us feel so unwelcome, which is weird for grandma’s house! So I exaggerated that, of course. The cute and fuzzy bunnies – I had this book about this heartbroken rhino who was tortured by these bunnies. I had another break-up and I’m always weeping about that kind of stuff, so I made this little book about it, thinking I was going to publish this really sad story about a rhino being tortured by bunnies. So I had that part, so when they said “where’s the script”, I just trunked that bit out and tried to write scenes around the cartoon stuff. Which is shameless! But it seemed to work out OK. It was a guy trying to write that story.

Did you write the movie around that Godzilla scene? Was that the first comedy set piece you thought of for it?

Yeah! What’s funny was I had the animation, the cute and fuzzy bunnies and the Godzilla scene and I thought, how am I going to get to that point? I know that’s funny! A guy in a Godzilla suit destroying a fake little town. How do I get a little town? OK, the bad guy will be a real estate guy. You know what I mean? That’s how I wrote it. Looking back, it all worked out pretty good. That Godzilla scene kicks ass, but it is shameless. To get Bobcat to do that was amazing. Anyone else doing it, it wouldn’t have been as funny.

You mentioned your love of JAWS earlier, so I imagine “FOAM 2” and “the killer dolphin with rabies” was your homage to JAWS?

Oh yeah, totally. When I was a kid, before I had a driver’s license, I went to Martha’s Vineyard with that girl “Beth”, the real Beth and we drove up from Connecticut to Martha’s Vineyard and we went and rented a dune buggy. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet! That’s how weird and free it was on Martha’s Vineyard back then. It was a stick shift which I didn’t know how to drive. I remember driving around and I saw them filming JAWS, and I had read the book and thought it was so cool. So I was always so inspired by JAWS. First of all, I saw a movie being filmed. I didn’t know who Spielberg was, I didn’t know about any of that stuff. Usually you see a movie being filmed and it’s kind of boring, but I knew this was something cool. And then to actually see the movie blew my mind. So I had to pay homage to it. Right after PLANET OF THE APES, JAWS is the most important movie in my life. JAWS was so cool and it is a horror movie, which most people don’t think it is, because it’s a really good drama too. But it always ends up being the number one horror movie on those horror movie lists.

From the commentary on the ONE CRAZY SUMMER DVD I learned that Bobcat Goldthwait shot the horror movie that plays at the drive-in…

Oh yeah!

I want to see CHAINSAW DATE and HEMORRHOIDS FROM HELL! (Laughs) Was that more of your horror influence seeping in?

Yeah, because when I went to Cape Cod for the summer, we’d go to the drive-in movies and it was such a big deal to me because that’s where I’d see horror movies. I saw THE OMEN there for the first time which scared the crap out of me! I saw BURNT OFFERINGS there. My mom would take us for double-features there and I’d be too scared through the first feature that I couldn’t make it through the second movie. (Laughs) The drive-in was huge for me growing up so it was fun to put one in Nantucket even though there wasn’t really one there. In Cape Cod there was. That was my favorite part of going away for summer vacation was the drive-in, so I had to come up with a comedy horror movie title like CHAINSAW DATE.

I love it. It’s like the most exaggerated version of a “slasher” movie. “You touched my girlfriend!” (Laughs)

It’s funny, because I had a B-unit with Bobcat while I was shooting (Jeremy) Piven and Cusack. Bobcat went with this other unit into the woods to shoot all the horror movie stuff for the drive-in. When I’d check up on him, I was so jealous. He had the fog machines going and the horror atmosphere. I was like “you bastard. I have to shoot stuff with Piven and John hates me.”

What was it like to get back together with Bobcat Goldthwait and Curtis Armstrong to record the commentary track on ONE CRAZY SUMMER?

Oh, it was awesome! It was so awesome. We laughed just as hard as when we made it. It’s funny, I couldn’t fire anybody. I had this hair lady that I loved and she gave John Matuszak this pink hair and it was the worst. Bobcat teases me in the commentary asking if I’d ever seen a punk rocker before. But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings so I figured I’d just shoot it. I work with producers now that don’t let that stuff go by. Back then, I’d be like, “oh ok, we’ll shoot it.”

It worked for the gag though! With the fish in his hair? On the commentary, it sounds like Bobcat wasn’t shy about the trouble Cusack gave you during filming.

Oh definitely. It’s funny because I had John who hated me and then I had Mark Metcalf who hated me. Mark Metcalf is a very serious actor…

He did the Twisted Sister videos though, right?

Yeah, yeah! And that’s how I got him was through Dee Snider, who’s friends with Bobcat and I love Dee. He told me Metcalf’s really funny, he’d be great. And I thought awesome, because I’ve got this real estate asshole in my movie and thought Metcalf would be great! I thought he was going to show up and be a hilarious guy, but he wasn’t, he took a lot of work. He was very serious and I’m just not a serious director! I just want to show up with my cast & crew and make jokes. But he needed a lot of attention. We didn’t want to be too derogatory towards anyone in that commentary, John or Mark.

You skate the fine line in the commentary, but Bobcat’s pretty straight forward!

He was. I still feel really bad about the whole thing, but Bobcat doesn’t. He thought it was really unprofessional and it pissed him off. It was a new movie and a new cast and to him, he was angry. My feelings were hurt, and that’s how I handle things, but Bobcat is more like, “just do your job”. He’s fearless which is why I love him.

Can you talk a bit about the alternate ending you shot for ONE CRAZY SUMMER, which actually brought back Diane Franklin from BETTER OFF DEAD?

Oh yeah! It was a way to come full circle because there was no way around the fact that it was a similar movie to BETTER OFF DEAD. But with boats! I love boats but I don’t really sail, but I thought it’d be fun to shoot something like that finale with the boat race…

Which was probably complicated to shoot, right?

I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I heard all the stories about JAWS and how the shark never worked. We had our stupid dolphin! Same problem! I thought “what am I doing?” Whatever they couldn’t do with JAWS, I figured I’d be able to do with the dolphin because it had been 10-15 years or whatever, and it was a disaster! (Laughs) That stupid dolphin. We were on boats for 2 weeks straight. It’s the 25thanniversary, so I’ve been talking about BETTER OFF DEAD a lot, and it’s just funny there were so many things I forgot – This guy asked me a question about the name Hoops McCann, and it’s actually a character in the song called Glamour Profession, which is a Steely Dan song. I used to listen to this song and I’d think “wow, what if this guy had this name Hoops McCann, but he sucked at basketball?” And that was the only little seed of making an entire movie! Then I realize that ONE CRAZY SUMMER came about because of that Godzilla joke, that animated cartoon I was working on and that song. (Laughs) Those 3 things all made a whole movie.

Oh, so what was the ending you shot with Diane Franklin for ONE CRAZY SUMMER?

I really wanted to go to Rhode Island School of Design. I was going to go there or CalArts. I don’t know if I ever applied to Rhode Island but that’s where the real Lane Meyer went and he was my hero, a year older than me, and just awesome because again, he’d come to school in his pajama’s because his dad was the principle. My whole story is about a kid trying to get into the Rhode Island School of Design. So my whole thing was Hoops gets into the school, he says goodbye to Demi, he gets there and the first person he meets is Diane Franklin. She wasn’t the character from BETTER OFF DEAD, she was just her regular American self. You’re supposed to think that everything’s going to be OK and they’ll be together. That’s kind of pretentious on my part I guess, because BETTER OFF DEAD bombed so who would care? I just thought well it’s my new movie and I want to put all my friends back in it. So even though it got cut out, Diane at least got to come to Cape Cod for a few days that summer.

I can’t think of ONE CRAZY SUMMER without the Honeymoon Suite song that plays over the end credits, What Does It Take. How’d you get that?

A & M Film & Records was the company that started to spin off and do movies, they did THE BREAKFAST CLUB and that was their first movie I think. They might have done 2 more after that and then they did BETTER OFF DEAD. In their library were things like The Beach Boys, which was great. They had all this great stuff and let me use anything out of their library of music for my movies. On top of that, they would bring in acts they were trying to promote, much like with Simple Mind’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” for THE BREAKFAST CLUB. That’s now synonymous with that movie. So for ONE CRAZY SUMMER, they brought me that Honeymoon Suite song and I love that song! I was so excited to use it. I got a lot of cool music for it including some Beach Boys stuff. I actually wanted The Beach Boys to write the theme to the title sequence for ONE CRAZY SUMMER. I met Brian Wilson, showed him the movie and he didn’t get it at all. Him and his psychiatrist thought it was depressing, because I don’t know if you know, this was a time when his psychiatrist was writing a lot of songs for him or something. Then I met the other Beach Boys. They came and they said Nantucket was depressing because it’s foggy there. I don’t know why they think it’s foggy? So they wouldn’t write anything original for it. Then we got Van Halen in there for a bit, because I’m a huge Van Halen/David Lee Roth fan. They had just broken up but we had Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony to see the movie and the whole time Alex just kept asking me if I boned every girl in the movie. “Did you bone her? How bout her?” They wouldn’t commit, so I went with David Lee Roth. A & M Records just had a cool library and gave it to us.

I just found the music video for that song and it’s exactly what I’d hoped it’d be.

Oh really? I’ve never seen it!

I will send it to you later! I want to recut a video of that song to footage of ONE CRAZY SUMMER. By the way, is that you singing the song in the commentary?

Oh God. No, that’s Bobcat!

Bobcat says in the commentary, “Savage Steve isn’t scared of the power ballad.” (Laughs)

Bobcat’s also a really good singer. Part of his act would be that he’d be Bono from U2, which was hilarious. We used to have garage band night at his house a lot and he’s a really good singer. He’s got such a cool voice.

A lot of people don’t know this, but you created one of my favorite shows growing up, THE ADVENTURES OF BEANS BAXTER, which was kind of like a teenage James Bond, and again, the opening credits had your awesome animation.

Yeah, it was one of the first 8 shows on Fox! And that’s how I sold it, as a teenage James Bond. And it’s funny, when they started the network, the executives went to some retreat to talk about what the network was going to be, and in the hotel, the movie was BETTER OFF DEAD. So apparently, the story was that someone saw it and said “that’s what we need for our network!” So I was so lucky because they called me in to pitch a show. And the one thing I’d always wanted to do was a teen James Bond. Charles Hershmore who was one of the execs there said “that’s my dream too!” It was perfect! They gave me carte blache, because the network didn’t really know what it was yet. For instance, if you made a show, they had to make more because they had nothing to back it up. Nowadays there are 50 things in the pipeline, but in Fox’s first couple of months there was nothing else. If Beans got cancelled, there was nothing to take it over. So I was very lucky because I think I got about 19 made, which is a lot before I got caught. I could never break any good TV ratings because at the time Fox just couldn’t get the ratings. Somebody once told me that Beans is what almost killed Fox. People around the country that owned TV stations and said “yes, I’ll make my TV station a Fox station”, affiliates. A lot of affiliates just didn’t get Beans Baxter, they thought it was too weird! Then the ratings sucked too, so they all felt like Beans was going to kill them. What they ended up replacing it with was COPS. Which is funny, because at the time I thought, “Fine. Because COPS is never going to work.” (Huge Laughs) Then I started watching it.

There were so many cool things about The Adventures of Beans Baxter, for example, you had Wendy O. Williams from The Plasmatics as one of the lead villains!

Again, it was someone that I saw on MTV that I thought was so outrageous and so cutting edge. She’d got to be evil! She’s got to be the bad guy on my show! Instead of making it the guy petting the cat, which actually I had too with Kurtwood Smith as Mr. Sue, we gotta have a new, cutting egde world order of bad guys. Like Wendy O. Williams! She’s so cool. She puts the S in sassy.

I loved that the evil organization on that show was called U.G.L.I. And I loved the gags that came from that. Like I think there was one where Beans is fighting with Bruce Wagner on the lawn and his mom’s like “what are you doing?” “Mom, he’s U.G.L.I.!” And she says, “well, someone’s physical appearance is certainly no reason to start a fight!” (Laughs)

Right. It was the Underground Government Liberation Intergroup. They were U.G.L.I.

Any chance we could ever see a proper release of that again?

I have no idea! It’s in the Fox archive like the other stuff they made, but there are only 19 episodes so it’s not syndicated, so there’s no way they could put it on again. But I do get residuals for it from Europe or something. They must still play it somewhere. I don’t know how they do that!

How I Got Into College
We have to touch briefly on HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE. That was a different situation because it wasn’t something you wrote, it was something you were brought in on, correct?

Beans got cancelled and I came to work. The trailer I had for it was being towed away. So I decided to have lunch at the Fox Studio Commissary one last time, so I went there and Fox had gotten this new president named Scott Rudin who’s this really great producer. He walked into the Commissary, came right up to my table, I had never met him before and he said, “you’re Savage Steve Holland, you do these teen movies!” And I said, “yeah, wow, thanks for knowing!” He said, “well, I’ve got this movie that’s in trouble and I really need you to direct it.” Think how weird that is, I seriously went to that Commissary to eat one last time and the guy sees me, recognizes that I make teen movies and approaches me. Basically what had happened, they had fired the first director of HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE and they had this crew sitting there. So he gave me the script and it was a really serious movie, it wasn’t very funny. I just failed in TV, my first 2 movies failed. I said, “Scott, God bless you for thinking of me, but I can’t do this.” He responded, “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.” I thought whoa, this is great! He said at least meet the cast. And the cast was Anthony Edwards, Lara Flynn Boyle, Charles Rocket, Phil Hartman. I brought in Bruce Wagner, Tom Keeny and Curtis Armstrong. I figured I’d give it a shot. When I showed up, they were 2 weeks behind on the schedule and I had to reshoot those 2 weeks in my schedule. But the guys were all so nice. Anthony Edwards was so nice and Lara Flynn Boyle was really freakin’ hilarious. I seriously think she’s in the top 10 along with Bobcat as one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Every day with them was really fun and we’d try to rewrite every scene. I brought in Dan Schneider and anybody I could think of to try to bump it up. I knew it was my last movie and I was going to go to movie jail after that. But it was so fun and I had a great time.

I saw it recently on the big screen and it’s interesting, the parts where it works the most are the scenes that are obviously written by you. The stuff with Curtis or Bruce Wagner. That’s when it feels like one of your movies.

Yeah, and you can tell. No disrespect to the writer, but it’s a very dramatic teen comedy. When you’re doing a teen movie, teens are going to want to see it and they’re going to want to laugh! John Hughes, even in his most dramatic shows, he’d always have something that would make you laugh your ass off. We needed that. And everything in the script was very deep.

For me personally, I went to community college, so for me it was never a big deal to get into college. I don’t fully understand the urgency of it all.

Oh it’s a really big deal for people in high school. I remember I just wanted to go to Hollywood and just get a job. But I recall the people around me were going super mental over getting that envelope. There’s the joke about the fat and skinny envelope. If its fat that means you have all the information you have to fill out. If it’s skinny, it means you got a “sorry” letter. I had that with all my friends around me that would get a skinny one and say, “I’m doomed!” It was interesting, because I had one teacher in high school that said “you really shouldn’t just go out there to get a job”. She said, “I found this school called CalArts and you should really look into it.” And that was the only school I applied to. Every one has that one teacher that changes their life and she was the one for me. And so I could really relate to Marlon trying to go to one school because the girl that he loved was going there. I could totally relate to that. I applied to one college which was CalArts and when I got on the wait list, I suddenly realized life was scary! (Laughs) What’s going to happen if I don’t get in? I already told everyone I was going to California! And what’s funny is I sent CalArts a big poster of myself waiting by the mailbox with cobwebs all over me, and that was the thing that pushed them over. Wow, it just pays to follow through with stuff and keep trying. That teacher talking to me and going to Cal Arts really changed my life. And I got to follow my dream.

Many, many thanks to Savage Steve Holland! Check out PART ONE and PART TWO of this article about the 25th anniversary of BETTER OFF DEAD!


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