March 01, 2004
Better Off Dead - Savage Steve Holland
Savage Steve Holland wrote and directed Better Off Dead, in addition to being an incredibly nice guy. I recently had the chance to hang out with both Savage and Dan Schneider (who played Ricky), to discuss the movie in depth.
The following is Part One of our talk which includes, among many interesting topics, Savage's very candid and detailed explanation of just how much John Cusack hates the movie.
Exactly how well or not well did the movie do?
Savage Steve: I think it did fine because it was only 3.5 million dollars to produce and it made 10 million, but everybody was still super-disappointed.
Did you feel vindicated when it became so popular later on?
SS: Somewhat. First of all, I didn't know the business or anything. Really, I was always just making little short movies. So this was like my big opportunity, but I didn't even think of it like that. To me it was just another step, and it was the funnest thing I could have ever done, making the movie, and meeting Dan, and all the people were all so amazing in it.
And every day we were going, "This is hilarious. Am I wrong?" And it was like, every day anything we shot was really funny. So at my first test screening... I'll never forget it, the movie was like five or seven minutes longer, and the audience reaction was pretty good, but it wasn't that good.
And I remember one guy walking out, and for some reason he knew me, and he goes, "Hey, better luck next time."
And I'm like, "Oh shit, I'm doomed." It really hurt.
Do you know where he is today?
SS: He's probably running Paramount with my luck.
I was just hoping he was homeless.
SS: No, because mean people always get the good jobs.
But we cut out about five really over the top, stupid jokes that were in there that you would never miss. I loved them, but they were really stupid. And at the next screening it was like 99% of everybody thought it was great.
I got a call from Michael Ovitz who was my big agent at the time. And he said they had the best screening Warner’s ever had. Like the best audience reaction, with people cheering and going crazy. And he said he witnessed it, and this movie was going to be a giant movie.
I thought it was going to make a hundred million dollars. I think that the fact that it has become so popular in its after life is an indication of that. It’s just how the stars align. We just assumed because it was so funny, it would just kick ass.
Dan Schneider: If the movie had come out four months earlier, or four months later, been marketed a little bit differently, I think it could have made all the money in the world.
SS: You just never know.
When did you write it?
SS: Really right after college.
DS: Did you write it as a lark? Or did you think, "I’m going to go right out and sell this?"
SS: You know what? Honest to God, it was just a movie I really wanted to make. I had always made short movies, and I started with an 8 minute movie which got me into film festivals, and kinda got me noticed around here. And then based on that I did a longer one which was 22 minutes. And I said “Shoot, I should just write the whole story.” But Better Off Dead is a true story, pretty much. It’s an exaggerated true story.
So there was a girl you were that broken-hearted over?
SS: Oh yeah.
Have you ever spoken to her again? Does she know the movie is about her?
SS: That’s a great question. It’s really weird but she really broke my heart, and even through college I was still bummed out about it, but life went on. Then I made this funny movie. And like 6 years later, I got a call, I don’t know how she got my number, and she said, “I’ve been in therapy because I saw your movie and I had no idea."
I mean, she knew she hurt my feelings, but she was like, “I just feel horrible that I put you through all that.” And she sent me cookies and stuff.
And I was like, “Hey, I just bought a house. I wouldn’t worry about it. And you know when you’re a director you meet girls.”
Did she leave you for the dude on the ski team?!
SS: Oh, yes. Totally!
DS: I didn’t know it was that autobiographical. You didn’t really think about killing yourself, did you?!
SS: I did! I totally went through a suicidal stage. But this is where my suicidal stage went. This is the truth about as far as I got. I got an extension cord…
DS: It’s already funny.
SS: It gets worse. Because that part when Lane does this in the garage is true. I went into the garage, and I put an extension cord on a pipe, and I’m on a garbage can, and I’m thinking “Should I do this? Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” Anyway, it was a plastic garbage can, and my weight just like crashed through it, and I fell, and the pipe broke!
And it starts pouring water everywhere. And I’m basically in a garbage can, drowning. And my mom comes and, and my mom starts yelling at me for breaking a pipe, which is what any mom would do.
So I started writing down stupid ways to kill yourself that would fail after that, and I put them in sort of a diary. And that diary kind of became Better Off Dead. And you know, all the bad stuff that happened to me in high school.
I just had this book of stupid stuff. And my paper boy, honest to God, Johnny Gasperini would come up to the house—I was a latch key kid, my mom wouldn’t come home until six, and this kid would come up to me and would say “Give me my two dollars.” And I’d say, “Hey, I’m just a kid in school! I don’t have two dollars. My mom will be home soon!”
And he would sit across the street waiting. And then he’d come back in ten minutes and say “You got my two dollars?” You’d think he’d wait for my mom’s car to pull up, at least, so I wrote that down.
How come there was no commentary track on the Better Off Dead DVD?
SS: I know. It’s because this movie is a bastard step-child. No one ever believes in it, cares about it. No one ever calls me about anything. The only time I hear nice things are when people like you tell me how much you liked it.
DS: You really didn’t have a thing to do with the DVD?
SS: Not a thing. Really. They didn’t even tell me it was coming out.
DS: That’s terrible. With the exception of Cusack, everyone would have gotten together to do commentary on it.
SS: Well, this movie has just never had respect, and it’s sad. But it’s so goddamn funny. I’m not just saying this because I made it. Sometimes I still look at it and I go, “This is still one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.” But again, it’s not because of me. And I have to say, first of all, Cusack being in it was amazing. He hated it. We’ll get to that. But Danny Schneider. I mean, things I never imagined. I never even pictured Danny Schneider as Ricky Smith.
DS: You know who almost got the part? Do you remember?
SS: Who? Oh, you’re going to say Clint Howard.
DS: Is that not true?
SS: It is true, but it’s not true in one way. In one way, the casting lady really wanted him, and he is Ron Howard’s brother, so there is that kind of thing. But that was just kinda old, and it wasn’t too funny.
DS: Oh, you didn’t want him?
SS: No. And I don’t mean that in a mean way! I’ll tell you what, if you hadn’t walked in the door, probably it would have been Clint Howard. And that’s with all due respect to him. He was the second funniest guy. But other people we saw, just wouldn’t have made it.
So, let's talk about Cusack hating the movie.
SS: Yeah. That was tragic. That was really sad.
I had met John when he was 17. We went to Yamashura and had drinks, which was totally illegal, and he was just the coolest guy. He was just so much fun and so funny and I was like, “You are my Lane.”
DS: But when it was all done and he was watching the final edit, he told you “I hate this?”
SS: No. It was worse than that. He actually came to a lot of the editing. We were really good friends. We had a lot of fun.
Then he went off to do some other movie, and when he came back he agreed to do One Crazy Summer. Which I had written a rough draft of, and he didn’t think it was that funny. And I just said, "I’m just gonna let you guys do your thing, and make it funnier when we get there." And I guess they paid him a lot of money.
SS: So this is short of a shocker. but we all got up to Cape Cod, and the night before we started shooting One Crazy Summer, we screened Better Off Dead for everyone that was up there because it was mostly the same crew, and a lot of the same cast.
We didn’t get Danny for some reason, I think I was mad at him or something- no I’m just kidding.
DS: Maybe you were mad at me, but I don’t know why.
SS: I’ve never been mad at you, that’s insane!
DS: Then why wasn’t I in One Crazy Summer?
SS: That’s a good question. I probably had something for you, but it got cut out. That was like a 150 page script, and it just got trimmed way down. Everything went crazy at that point. It wasn’t the “joy” that Better Off Dead was.
So we’re all watching the Better Off Dead screening that night, and John walked out of the movie. About 20 minutes into it, he walked out, and he never came back.
The next morning, he basically walked up to me and was like, “You know, you tricked me. Better Off Dead was the worst thing I have ever seen. I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don’t speak to me.”
DS: Are you kidding?!
SS: No, it was that bad. He was just really upset. And I said, “What happened?! What’s wrong?!” And he just said that I sucked, and it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and that I had used him, and made a fool out of him, and all this other stuff.
And I was just stunned, because it was as funny as shit. And he was great in it. And he was helping me edit it throughout the summer.
How did that affect you?
SS: It made me not care about movies anymore. And I didn’t even want to do One Crazy Summer at that point. I was just gone. It was sort of like the break-up that I made Better Off Dead about. It was so out of left field, that it just floored me.
And I told John, look, “I have this scene, you’re in it. Do what you want to do. But this is what it says and you can do whatever you want.” And then some reviews started coming out about Better Off Dead while we were still shooting One Crazy Summer. And people were writing giant stories about what a great, funny movie it was. It previewed in Rhode Island, and someone write a 3 page newspaper story about how funny it was, and one of the grips tacked it on John’s door. So he started to lighten up. And Bob Goldthwait is really funny, and he brought a lot of levity to all of it, too. And started to tease John for being so cranky. But, you know, John doesn’t want to be “foolish” I guess? He’s more serious than we think, I guess.
Do you watch his movies?
SS: I think John is awesome. I love his movies. I think he is probably one of the best actors I have ever seen. And I’m grateful to him.
DS: I don't understand why he had such a negative reaction to it. I supposed that after he made it, he must have just decided it wasn't the type of movie he wanted to be making. But it’s weird that he’d blame you because he clearly read the script before signing on. He knew what he was doing and he knew that it was being recorded on film. It's not like you put roofies in his Diet Coke and then "tricked" him into acting in the movie.
SS: And he was at dailies every night, too.
DS: So why would his reaction be like he’d never had anything to do with the movie until he saw it?
SS: It was a little out of left-field. I have to admit. And I just don’t know if he was more mad that he was in the second movie that was way more absurd than even Better Off Dead. And what was interesting was that the dream was we always wanted to absurd kind of stuff like Woody Allen’s “Bananas.”
And it's funny, John will never talk about Better Off Dead, and One Crazy Summer, and I read something recently where he called me “the director." He wouldn’t use my name, and he said, “the director wanted to do absurdist comedy and that’s just not the thing I like to do,” or something like that.
I feel like I let him down. And it totally surprises me so much because I have to say the most important person to me about that movie, was John. I really wanted him to love it as much as I loved it. And once he said that stuff, it was like a girlfriend who breaks up with you. You can’t fight with her. It’s like everything is so great, and then they say “I hate you!” out of nowhere. There’s really no argument you can have. I had my heart broken. That was the second time my heart was broken since that girl that Better Off Dead was about – honest to God.
It made me think, “What’s this business about? It’s no fun.” But, I will say that Better Off Dead was the happiest time of my life without a doubt.
I really thought as time went by, he might feel differently. But I read one other article that he got jailed for something. Somebody in his car had something, I don’t know what, be he got jailed for something. He said, “Jail sucked the most because everybody kept coming up to me going ‘I want my two dollars!’”
I bet you he hears about that as much as any movie he’s been in.
SS: I've got a feeling.
Click here for the Better Off Dead interview with Dan "Ricky" Schneider.
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