It is the curse of every parent who works in a creative field that, at least at some point, their children will be completely unimpressed with their work. When "Savage" Steve Holland was involved with Disney and Nickelodeon shows like Big Time Rush and Unfabulous, his kids were into other shows on the same channels. Of course, the greater tragedy was that they had no idea their father had written and directed Better Off Dead.
Last October, the Egyptian Theater in L.A. hosted a 30-year anniversary screening of the seminal teen movie, and Holland brought along his oldest kids, who are 15 and 16. Perhaps it was because they’d finally reached the minimum threshold age for "getting" the movie, or maybe it was seeing it in a theater teeming with superfans, but the kids finally, perhaps begrudgingly, admitted to their father that he had once been pretty cool. Talking to Holland now after he’s spent so many years doing journeyman work on a cavalcade of kid’s TV shows, one gets the sense that he may have forgotten himself.
Early 2016 marks 30 years since the moment in between the release of Better Off Dead, which launched his career, and its follow-up, One Crazy Summer, which nearly killed it. Both films starred John Cusack, cementing the cherub-faced actor's movie star charisma. Both bombed financially until they reached HBO, which looped the movies endlessly, turning into a low-key Velvet Underground of influence for a generation that would grow up to make its own beloved comedies. Recently, Co.Create talked to Holland to find out the whole story behind what happened, how he ended up working in kids shows, and whether he’ll ever return to making movies. (For anyone feeling impatient on that last score and wanting to skip ahead, the answer is yes: a potential One Crazy Summer sequel called One Epic Fall is in the works.)
"It's almost a miracle we ever got Better Off Dead made, especially knowing what I know now and the way the business is," Holland says. "I was a doofus out of college and I just thought maybe what I was doing was the way it works all the time."
Holland went to the California Institute of the Arts based on his interest in animation. Indeed, the doodles in Better Off Dead and the cartoons in One Crazy Summer were his. Because everyone else seemed to be interested in movies, Holland picked up the urge by osmosis. One day, he told a friend the heartbreaking story of a birthday party he’d thrown as an 11-year-old, which nobody showed up to except a drunken clown. The friend suggested he make that story into a movie, which he did: the seven-minute short, My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party. The neophyte director borrowed equipment from the live-action department and in the course of making a short, realized he liked live-action better than animation. ("It’s really boring and it hurts your back and to do a three-minute short takes nine months.")
After playing at some minor film festivals, My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party ended up opening the more prestigious inaugural LA Film Festival. Fortunately for Holland, his movie ran before the highly anticipated future cult classic, Eating Raoul, meaning everybody even vaguely hip in L.A. apparently saw it. One of those people was Henry Winkler.
"Henry took me to lunch and he said that my movie was so funny. And I'm like, ‘Well, wait a minute—it wasn't supposed to be funny, it's a sad story about my life,’" Holland says. "So he asked if I had any more sad stories about my life and I'm like, ‘Of course I do!’"
Only four months out of college, Holland suddenly had an office at Paramount where he wrote a movie about the time his high school girlfriend broke up with him. He also weaved in some other details from his life, such as a rogue paperboy. It was about a year after Fast Times At Ridgemont High came out, and many studios were on the lookout for the next left-field teen hit. Even though Henry Winkler’s production company did not end up making Better Off Dead, they hooked Holland up with John Cusack and helped get the screenplay out into a robust seller’s market. Eventually, producer Michael Jaffe bit.
Some aspects of the movie changed only after it went into production. Holland’s original conception of the Lane character was as a high school Woody Allen-type nebbish, more like himself. ("I thought of him as more of a stupid person.") Although John Cusack would later go on to play a Woody Allen surrogate in Bullets Over Broadway, at the time, he seemed much too happy and confident to hit that particular note. He instead made the character more likable, and Holland was ecstatic with the results.
"Really, it was the only super fun time I've ever had making a movie," he says. "For some reason, nobody checked on me. It was just me doing my stupid jokes that, watching it now, I was like, ‘How did I ever get away with that?'"
Better Off Dead is one of those eminently rewatchable 1980s movies that are a staple of savvier online dating profiles. Stocked with idiosyncratic side characters at every turn, imaginative absurdist gags that messed with convention, and cliche-cementing story beats that still hold up 30 years later, it's a movie that was destined to be loved.
While Holland claims he felt satisfied just getting to make the movie he’d set out to make, one of the producers was more optimistic about its chances of being a hit. He urged the director to get ready for the opportunities that might come his way upon its release by writing his next script before Better Off Dead even hit theaters. In a comparative rush to how he’d written his first film, Holland banged out a script that took place in a quaint seaside village.
"Really, I just wanted to be able to hang out in Cape Cod for the summer," Holland says. "So I figured I'd set a story there and see what happens."
While Holland was laboring away on his script, Warner Brothers began screen testing Better Off Dead. The results were overwhelmingly positive. It tested so well with 18-25 year olds, Warner sent the director out on a tour to screen the movie and talk about it at colleges. The response to this tour was also phenomenal, and Warner wanted to lock down Holland’s next project too. Even though the screenplay was in much rougher shape than the first film, the studio snapped it up. It was a firm display of how confident the executives were that everyone would love Better Off Dead.
Everyone did not end up loving it, though. The movie ultimately grossed $10 million in its theatrical run, about a third of what its hoped-for predecessor, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, had made. Even more distressing for Holland, the star of the movie was among its detractors.
"John Cusack didn't like Better Off Dead at all," he says. "That was difficult."
According to various sources, including Cusack himself, the young actor didn’t find the finished product as "dark" or "surreal" as it had seemed in the script. Perhaps he saw a cut of it that didn’t include a scene where an obscenely gelatinous meal up and walks off the family dinner table or the multiple parts where Cusack considers killing himself. In any case, the actor was reportedly uncooperative with press for Better Off Dead and emotionally checked out during half of the filming of One Crazy Summer.
For Warner Brothers’ part, the studio was so disappointed with the receipts from the movie that it pulled out much of the marketing budget for the follow-up. One Crazy Summer ended up out-earning Better Off Dead by about $3M, but it still wasn’t a hit. At least at first, anyway. What helped pave the way for the next phase of Holland’s career was when HBO and video stores got a hold of his movies.
"Those video stores just completely saved Better Off Dead," he says. "It was always out at any Blockbuster Video I walked into, and then I’d talk to the guys who worked there and they were like, 'You know, people rent it and they don't bring it back.'"
Making a movie so beloved people were stealing it en masse meant that for years after his last box office effort underperformed, people were still taking Savage Steve Holland’s calls—and going after him to participate in their projects.
His next movie, How I Got Into College, was a work-for-hire directorial job. The original helmer had dropped out at the last minute and Holland’s name came up as a replacement. The movie was pitched to him as a comedic 12 Angry Men-style piece about the college application process. Holland was unconvinced, but he took the job anyway. Despite the inclusion of fresh Saturday Night Live talent from that era, like Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn, along with third-time returning champ, Curtis Armstrong, the movie turned out about as well as the pitch sounds today.
"We tried to ad lib and make up stuff, but it seemed a little doomed from the start," he says. "I almost felt like we all kinda knew it wasn't gonna be a hit. And that's why I was worried about taking the job. I was like ‘Three times failing is a big problem.’ So that was the last straw for Hollywood thinking of me as a director."
How I Got Into College was the last film Holland made that had a theatrical release. In an alternate universe, Savage Steve Holland, John Cusack, Diane Franklin, and Curtis Armstrong collaborated on three or four other gems until they’d all aged out of college-age believability, and then perhaps went on to make some raucous grown-ass adult comedies. Instead, he went the other way and focused on projects for viewers who ranged from every age between ‘just-below-Better-Off-Dead’s-audience’ to ‘toddler.’
First he wrote and directed the series The New Adventures of Beans Baxter for Fox, on the strength of some executives at Fox who saw Better Off Dead in a hotel room late one night during a conference and sought Holland out. ("It was kind of a failure, like everything else I do.") The network that got so much mileage out of running his movies also wanted to be in the Savage business, and so HBO hired him for Encyclopedia Brown next. After that, the director reconnected deeply with his animation roots and created the character Eek! The Cat for Fox’s burgeoning kids channel. He developed an animated spinoff of Sabrina The Teenage Witch as well. Aside from a couple rough patches, Holland stayed consistently working in television, almost exclusively for kids, and he continues to do so to this day, with shows like 100 Things To Do Before High School.
"It’s fun because on TV I don't have to really worry about that opening weekend thing that hurt me at first in my career," he says.
W.C. Fields once cautioned aspiring entertainers to never work with children or animals, but Holland’s experience directing kids over the years has not bore out this truism. In fact, working with one young actor in particular inspired him to make an enormous change in his life.
"I started having children late and the reason why, finally, was Hillary Duff," says Holland, who directed 13 episodes of Duff’s show, Lizzie McGuire. "Before I was working with her, I never wanted to have kids, and then I was like ‘This kid is so sweet, if there’s a chance that a child can be as nice and adorable as this kid is—you know what, honey, we're gonna have kids.’ Now I've got four."
According to the director, though, the less said about the parents of some child actors, the better.
Currently, Holland is at work on a spinoff of the Nickelodeon cartoon that would be a live-action version of FairlyOdd Parents. There’s another spinoff in the works, though, that his original fans—not the ones who grew up watching Lizzie McGuire—might be more interested in.
"I'm doodling with Bobcat Goldthwait on a semi-sequel to One Crazy Summer," he says. "Our lives are just really different but I still love him and we say we gotta do this thing. So we are working on One Epic Fall. Of course, Joel [Murray] is gonna be in it. The question is, how do we make it a sequel when Cusack's not gonna be in it? But we have so many bad, dumb, great jokes we're piecing together to see if we can pull it off. I don't think Demi would be on board, but with Joel, Bobcat and Curtis, you've already got a trifecta of genius there."
After talking at length with Savage Steve Holland, it’s no surprise to hear him leave himself out of this "trifecta of genius," reserving that designation only for his collaborators and friends. Although he’s upbeat and friendly and refuses to put anyone else down, the director spares no opportunity to take a shot at himself and his perceived lack of success. This self-assessment appears most glaringly in his other idea for an adult movie that he is hoping to make one day—another spinoff of an old project. Hearing him pitch it sort of functions as the Rosetta Stone of his worldview.
"That 11-year-old birthday party that nobody showed up to made me the kind of crazy that I am, because it was so sad. And so I wrote a script down the line called The Big 1-3 that I still hope to make someday," he says. "It was about a kid whose dad had a really bad birthday that changed his life. He was sort of a winner and the birthday wrecked his life and made him a schlub. So when his own son turns 13, he wants to make it the greatest birthday ever. And of course he fails in every way and that's basically the script. And I've had it forever and its really good and it's gotten some great responses but I've never been able to sell it."
Well, at least he thinks the script that’s a parable for his supposed failings is "really good," despite the legions of Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer fans who would disagree with the subtext.
"But that's kind of my dream script," he says just before our conversation ends. "That’s the one I wanna make and then I just wanna, like, go off into the sunset."