John Cusack stars as a teen who repeatedly tries to commit suicide while trying to win back his ex-girlfriend with the help of an incredibly versatile French exchange student – and gets stalked by a paperboy who wants his $2 while barreling down a mountain on one ski — and yet there’s not one extra on the new Better Off Dead… Blu-ray that’s out today? WHAT?!
It’s time to bring back EW Extras, a recurring column that allows us to right these kind of tragic wrongs (see also: Weekend at Bernie’s) and create the DVD extras that never were.
“It’s so funny, I work at Paramount now, and so I saw a sign for it, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” says BOD writer-director Savage Steve Holland, who directs Big Time Rush episodes and movies for Nickelodeon and has never been approached to record an extra for his 1985 feature directorial debut, which already has two bare editions on DVD. “Throughout the years, I’ve never even known who’s had the rights to it. Every now and then, someone will pop up and say, ‘Do you know who has the rights to it, because we’re talking about maybe doing a remake of it,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, please don’t do that. The stupidity of the moment is what’s key. It’s not a great story or anything, you know,’” Holland laughs. “It’s sort of like my baby that got taken away when I went to film prison. Nobody liked Better Off Dead… when it first came out, so they just took this movie away, and it’s been out there in the ether world, and it just shows up every now and then in a new box.”
Let’s begin. Enjoy your EW Extras for Better Off Dead…
“This movie is the most autobiographical movie ever made that’s just exaggerated,” Holland says (yes, his high school girlfriend dumped him for the captain of the ski team). “It was very heartbreaking, and I did think about committing suicide. I did the stupidest thing, which made me kind of write the movie. I stood on a plastic garbage can with an extension cord around my neck going, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this. This might be the worst idea EVER,’ and then the garbage can lid caved in. The pipe that I had my little neck thing on broke, and it started to pour water into this garbage can that I was stuck in, so I was basically drowning in a garbage can, and then my mom came out and yelled at me for breaking a pipe. First of all, I was very grateful that the pipe broke and that everything worked out. But I thought of stupid ways that people try to kill themselves, and I was like, ‘Wow, life is just really short.’ It was a big lesson to me. Nothing’s that serious.”
Other autobiographical bits: “My mom would get McCall’s magazine, and she would find these recipes and make these things, and have some excuse why they didn’t taste good — because she forgot something or she didn’t have an ingredient,” he says. “One year, for my birthday, she was like, ‘And I got you these really cool frozen dinners because you like the peach cobbler in this one’ or something. And I was like, ‘Wow. Really? This is my life.’”
The relentless paperboy? Also real. “He would not go. I would come home from school, and this kid would sit on the lawn across the street and he would see me there, and it was probably $4 he wanted, and I would say, ‘My mom’s not home. I’m a kid. I don’t have money.’ And he’d sit on the lawn for about 20 more minutes, then come over and say, ‘All right. I’m ready for my $4.’ And it would go on and on and on.”
Not autobiographical: He never ended up sitting on the hood of his car with a girl on home plate at Dodger Stadium. ”That part might not be a true story, but filming it was cool because I got to ride in a helicopter inside Dodger Stadium,” he says. How did Lane (John Cusack) get so lucky? “I’m gonna assume that Monique [Diane Franklin], who can do anything, picked the locks,” he says.
“I made a short film that Henry Winkler saw, and he gave me an office at his office at Paramount to write Better Off Dead...,” Holland says. “Everybody talks about him being the nicest guy in Hollywood, and he actually is. He didn’t pay me or anything, but he said, ‘I believe in you, and I believe in your twisted vision, and I want to give you an office.’ To have someone who was probably the coolest guy on TV in your childhood say that to you was super inspirational. He was a big supporter of the film and took it around with me a lot. He had just made The Sure Thing with Cusack, and he showed it to me, and I was like, ‘My god, that kid is so great.’ I couldn’t see anybody past John. I had a little bit of a scuffle with some of the studio people because John had just been in Sixteen Candles playing kind of a nerd. And they were like, ‘This is not a leading man.’ I was like, ‘Yes, he is.’ They hadn’t seen The Sure Thing yet. I was like, ‘You don’t even know what you’re getting right now. You’re gonna be so ahead of the curve to get Cusack now.’ I really went to bat for him, and they let me have him. I still think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me and the movie, getting Cusack. Nobody else could have pulled that off.”
Unfortunately, in hindsight, Cusack didn’t think the absurd comedy was the best thing to happen to his career. “He was like 17, I was like 24, and we laughed our asses off every day making that movie. That was probably the highlight of my life, except for, you know, my kids and all that stuff. We went up to Cape Cod to do One Crazy Summer [in which Cusack also starred and Holland wrote and directed], and we had a screening of Better Off Dead… and John walked out within the first 10 minutes. I just thought he was going to the bathroom or something, and he never came back. The next day, we were supposed to start shooting, and he looked really pissed off. He just said that he hated the movie, and, from the sense that I got, that I betrayed him making a movie so stupid. But the thing is, making a movie is really monotonous and you do it all day long. I don’t know what he missed as far as the tone of the movie. But I was just super sad because we were starting another movie, and I was going to do the same tone, so I was kind of lost. It was just heartbreaking for me that he didn’t get it.” Cusack never came around, Holland says. “To this day, he won’t even talk about the movie. It’s almost like he made a snuff film or something. I still look at it and think it’s one of the cutest movies he’s ever done as far as him being a great character and a really good lovable guy. It’s so long ago,” Holland laughs, “but it still hurts me. It’s sorta like having your best friend say, ‘I always hated you.’ You’re like, ‘What?’”
At the first test screening, the movie was about five or 10 minutes longer. “A kid came up to me at the end, and he said, ‘Hey, maybe better luck next time.’ Nobody knew who I was. I guess I was just the saddest looking guy in the room because everybody hated the movie,” Holland says. He cut a handful of scenes. One of them he lost: “Lane plays the saxophone, right? In my script, the only song he could play was the really sad theme song for the show Flipper, so that’s what he played all the time. So I had him in music class, and the teacher had noticed that he wasn’t playing the song they were all playing, he was playing the theme song to Flipper. So everybody looks at him like he’s an idiot, but then you cut to somebody who’s clapping, and it’s a seal. He’s like playing these horns, and he liked it,” Holland says. “It was kinda funny, but obviously the audience was like, ‘Is this real or not? I just don’t get this movie.’” But the “weirdest one, where everyone went crazy,” according to Holland, was a cut scene involving Lane’s mother. “Lane, at some point, talks to Monique and says, ‘My mom got into this really weird cult and she’s all better now’ or something. But then I dissolved to her in an airport and she was in the cult of Gumby. She was wearing a Gumby suit handing out leaflets. It was really stupid, and obviously the audience didn’t like that either.” One scene he concedes he was better off losing: “I had Charles De Mar [Curtis Armstrong] ask Lane if he’d mind if he took out Beth. They hated that. The audience was like, ‘He needs a friend that stands by him.’ I think they were right on that one for sure. That would just suck, ’cause then it was like he’s got nobody.”
The scene that took the most takes? “When Kim Darby, who plays Lane’s mom, pulls out the green goop, we were all so in hysterics that I literally had to hide under a table because I was giggling so much. You know that laughing that you can’t stop no matter what? Every single person there had that,” Holland says. “She just did it with a straight face every single time, and it killed David Ogden Stiers [who played Lane's father], it killed the crew, but she never broke. It took about 25 takes, and on Better Off Dead…, two was a lot of takes.”
Another fun moment: Though Cusack and Aaron Dozier, who played Roy Stalin, had never skied before, they barreled down the mountain without injury. Holland, however, wasn’t so lucky. “I got smacked in my face and knocked out by my ski, and I had six stitches under my nose so I looked like Hitler when we were shooting,” he says. “It was horrible also because the producer was like, ‘You cannot go skiing, it’s against the rules because of insurance,’ and I’m like, ‘I promise, I won’t.’” (Fun fact: In the original script, the film was set at a ski resort. “But the budget was so low — it was about $3 million — it was like, ‘How about you make your story about a guy driving to a ski place?’” Holland says. “We could only afford a week of skiing up at Snowbird in Utah.”)
Did Lane really win the race at the end if he started before Stalin? ”I read somewhere the other day on a blog or something that Lane takes off first, therefore he really doesn’t win the race, and I never really thought about that,” Holland laughs. That’s okay with him: “I wanted to have them tie, because that’s the Rocky thing. He hits Apollo Creed, and they both go down at the same time, which proves that he’s as good as Apollo Creed. He didn’t really win, but it was a win because he didn’t lose,” he says. “That’s what I did, and then there was test screenings, and all the people were like, ‘He has to win!’ So we made it that he won. But in this new theory that Roy had a five-second delay, really Lane lost. I can’t believe I’ve never thought of that before.”
What tested best with audiences? The claymation hamburger scene, which he insists he wasn’t on drugs when he wrote. “I have no excuse for being that stupid,” he says. “I did have a different scene in there. My first job was at McDonald’s, that’s why I made Lane work at Pig Burgers. There was this rumor that a rat fell into a vat at a chicken place and somebody got served fried rat. That was what I had in the original script. The producer said, ‘That’s really just disgusting and not even funny.’ So I saw this guy Jimmy Picker had made this really funny claymation short film about mayor Ed Koch called Sundae in New York. I was like, ‘If I could do something like that and still incorporate it into a hamburger scenario.’ And then I had the Van Halen song. I put that together, and it was just so, so out there and stupid, that everybody was really worried about it. But it was the highest testing thing when we went to the test audience. They thought that was the greatest thing in the whole movie.”
His biggest fight with the studio: The title of the film. “I wanted to make a movie that you wouldn’t know exactly what it was. They were demanding that I call it Out on a Limb, because they had that on a list of approved titles. And I hated that title so much. It actually ended up being a Matthew Broderick movie, by the way.” He won that battle, but after Better Off Dead… bombed at the box office, he lost the fight on his next film. “One Crazy Summer was originally called What I Did On My Summer Vacation, or something like that, but they made me call it One Crazy Summer because they wanted the audience to know exactly what they were in for. I was like, that’s like calling a Woody Allen movie One Neurotic New York Jewish Guy. It’s so in your face.”
Other tidbits: The drag racing Asian sportscasters were inspired by a friend Savage had in high school who was “cursed” with the voice of Howard Cosell. “It was just a thing he was born with. He’d come up [in Cosell voice], ‘Savage, you’re looking really good today. It’s an audacious display of handsomeness.’ I was like, ‘Wow, you really talk like that?’ ‘I certainly do.’ Also, I loved Howard Cosell,” Savage says, “and Woody Allen always made fun of Howard Cosell and Woody Allen was one of my early inspirations.” Savage’s friend wasn’t Asian, but he loved actor Yuji Okumoto when he met him. “I said, ‘I’m gonna make you the Howard Cosell guy,’ and I did a rewrite for him. And he ended up in The Karate Kid, Part II.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Another actor who made a name for himself: Dan Schneider, who plays Ricky Smith, went on to star as Dennis Blunden in the TV show Head of the Class and became a prolific producer at Nickelodeon (iCarly, Victorious, Drake & Josh, All That). “You know when Ricky runs out of the dance and he has a balloon, and then loses the balloon and he jumps and tries to catch the balloon? It’s my favorite part of the movie. This is why Dan’s a multimillionaire at Nickelodeon right now. It’s probably the most ingenious moment in the whole movie,” Holland says.
Holland, incidentally, also thinks Ricky Smith did well for himself in the end, too. “I think that Lane eventually bought the ski slope. He went through a hard time with Monique and they were trying to buy the ski slope because it’s where they met, and then they had to hire the richest man on Earth, who is Ricky Smith, to give them a loan,” Holland says. “And Roy Stalin shows up and wrecks everything.”
What about the actor who played Johnny the paperboy? Today, Demian Slade, who costarred in the short-lived 1987-88 TV series Second Chance with Matthew Perry and the 1987 movie Back to the Beach with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, is writing and starring in a web series, Untreated, which he describes as “The Office, if The Office was a rehab instead of just an office.” He nabbed the paperboy role at the age of 12, he says, because “I approached it as if I was a serial killer with no intention of making it funny. I brought in a headshot of me wearing a leather jacket and looking really menacing.” Because Better Off Dead… didn’t become a cult hit until years later on cable, people have never recognized him for that part. “They have to find out somehow. Usually, someone else will tell them, or I’ll say, ‘I was a child actor.’ ‘What did you do?’ And then I never know how they’re gonna react,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll go, ‘Huh? I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And then other times, they’ll go ‘Holy s—!’ and they’ll freak out. I’m either going to feel like an idiot because they don’t even know what it is, or they’ll think it’s a big deal, and I’ll be like, ‘Aw, shucks, it’s nothin’.'”