powered by AFI
Writer/director/animator Savage Steve Holland's quirky offbeat comedy Better Off Dead (1985) stars John Cusack as Lane Meyer, a high school student who is thrown into despair when his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) dumps him for the captain of the ski team. Whenever he's not thinking up creative ways to off himself, Lane dedicates himself to winning Beth back. In the meantime, Lane must deal with his mother's bizarre cooking, his annoying neighbors the Smiths, and a deranged paperboy with a score to settle. Filled with eccentric characters, off-the-wall sight gags and a heightened sense of the absurd, Better Off Dead is a true comic gem from the 1980s.
Better Off Dead marked the feature directing debut of 25-year-old filmmaker Savage Steve Holland, who initially had the idea for the film right after college. When his girlfriend broke up with him, Holland was driven to half-heartedly explore ways to kill himself. "I went into the garage, and I put an extension cord on a pipe," said Holland in a 2004 interview, "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...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."
Even the persistent paperboy ("I want my two dollars!") came from Holland's own life. "...honest to God, [the paper boy] would come up to the house - I was a latch key kid - my mom wouldn't come home until six," said Holland, "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 think he'd wait for my mom's car to pull up..."
After channeling those ideas into a couple of short films that got him noticed on the film festival circuit, Holland decided to develop the concept into a feature-length script for A&M Films (which also made the teen classic The Breakfast Club ). Andy Meyer, an executive at A&M, loved the screenplay and passed it around Hollywood trying to get people interested for over two years. "One day Andy set up a meeting with a real 'production style' producer named Michael Jaffe who had somehow read the script," said Holland. "I swore this was the last meeting I was ever going to take on this script and was planning to quit Hollywood and become a living autopsy model at UCLA Medical School, which, it seemed, had to hurt less than the daily rejection. So at lunch Mr. Jaffe explained he had a low budget teen script that needed a comedy re-write, and asked if I could do it kind of like Better Off Dead. I asked him: if he was meeting with me because he thought Better Off Dead was funnier than his script, why didn't he just make my script? And to my amazement he said he'd think about it. The next day he called and said that's exactly what he was going to do! He was going to make Better Off Dead! It was unreal!"
Holland was introduced to his Better Off Dead star John Cusack through actor Henry ("The Fonz") Winkler. The latter had just produced the 1985 Rob Reiner comedy The Sure Thing and recommended Cusack to Holland as one of the best talents he had ever worked with. Better Off Dead would be one of Cusack's earliest roles and help establish him as one of the leading young talents of the 1980s.
According to Steve Holland, Better Off Dead was a fun shoot with a great deal of camaraderie among cast and crew. The film received very positive reactions from early test screening audiences, and Warner Bros., the distribution company, was sure that it had a huge hit on their hands - so much so that they went ahead and greenlit Holland's next project, One Crazy Summer (1986) as a vote of confidence in the new director.
Holland received a shock when he screened Better Off Dead prior to the film's release for the cast and crew of One Crazy Summer--also starring John Cusack--just before production was about to get under way on location in Cape Cod. Twenty minutes into the screening, Cusack walked out and never returned. "The next morning," said Holland, "[Cusack] 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'...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...It was so out of left field that it just floored me." Cusack finished One Crazy Summer since he was contractually obligated, but he never worked with Holland again.
Holland received another blow when Better Off Dead, despite the high expectations from Warner Bros., opened at the box office with a whimper. While it did make a profit, theater audiences didn't quite know what to make of the oddball film, and it was considered a disappointment.
Better Off Dead was a film that gradually found its audience over the next few years on cable and home video. Over time, the film acquired a loyal cult following that has endured to this day, making it one of the most popular under-the-radar teen comedies of the 1980s. "Sometimes I still look at it and I go, 'This is still one of the funniest movies I have ever seen'...Cusack being in it was amazing," said Holland looking back in 2004. When asked to comment on the film in 2003 by Entertainment Weekly, John Cusack said, "The director was trying to do absurdism, and that was really attractive to me. It was this surreal teen comedy, and I thought, 'Wow, when am I going to get a chance to do this again?' People still really like that film, but I never had much of a feel for it." In 2008 Cusack told writer Diablo Cody in an interview that fans still come up to him all the time to repeat the "I want my two dollars!" line - something to which Cusack's 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine gives a winking nod, much to the delight of Better Off Dead fans.
Producer: Michael Jaffe
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Screenplay: Savage Steve Holland
Cinematography: Isidore Mankofsky
Music: Rupert Hine
Cast: John Cusack (Lane Mayer), David Ogden Stiers (Al Meyer), Kim Darby (Jenny Meyer), Demian Slade (Johnny Gasparini), Scooter Stevens (Badger Meyer), Diane Franklin (Monique Junot), Laura Waterbury (Mrs. Smith).
by Andrea Passafiume