Why John Cusack Thought ‘Better Off Dead’ Could Have Been Better
The 1985 film Better Off Dead helped cement John Cusack as one of Hollywood's rising young stars. But Cusack was unhappy with the finished product, and even walked out of a screening and told the director how much he didn't like it.
The movie was written and directed by "Savage" Steve Holland, who based the dark comedy on his teenage romantic woes. As with Lane Meyer (Cusack), Holland's high school girlfriend dumped him for the captain of the ski team, leaving him despondent and suicidal. The scene where Lane tries to hang himself in the garage, only to have the pipe holding the noose break and spill water on him, actually happened to the filmmaker.
Lane learns to love again, thanks to a French exchange student and he gains the confidence to defeat his rival in a downhill ski race on the toughest mountain in town. In between are a lot of absurd and surreal subplots about a mother's inability to cook, a paperboy obsessed with collecting two dollars and a pair of Asian brothers who drag race against Myer, with one of them learning English from watching Howard Cosell. And there's also that famous scene where a hamburger at the fast food restaurant comes to life and plays guitar like Eddie Van Halen.
Cusack had been introduced to Holland through Henry Winkler, who produced the actor's breakthrough role in The Sure Thing. Holland and Cusack immediately clicked, with the two going out for drinks even though the actor was still a teenager, and Cusack would hang out in the editing room and help out.
The actor agreed to make a second film with Holland, One Crazy Summer. The night before shooting began, the director arranged to show Better Off Dead, which had yet to come out, for the cast and crew, many of whom had worked on the earlier movie.
After 20 minutes, Cusack left the room. As Holland recalled to The Sneeze, "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.'"
"He was just really upset," Holland continued. "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."
Curtis Armstrong, who co-starred in both movies, was at the screening. "He was so angry and so, I guess, disappointed that it was not the movie he was expecting," Armstrong told the Nerdist podcast in 2014. "It seemed like the movie that I read, but he felt it was juvenile or something. ... It’s not that he was refusing to talk to people or anything like that. In fact, he would talk to Savage, but he would also not listen to Savage and he would do whatever he wanted to do. Then after One Crazy Summer was done, that was it. And he wouldn’t have anything to do with anything, and he wouldn’t publicize the movie, or anything like that."
Holland was shaken. "It made me not care about movies anymore," he continued. "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 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."
By 2013, Cusack had softened his stance on Better Off Dead. In a Reddit AMA, he told a fan, "I just thought it could have been better but I think that about almost all my films. I have nothing against the film...Glad people love it still."
Speaking to Nerdist in 2015, he admitted that it wasn't what he expected it to be, but also blamed his blow-up on the pressures of being suddenly thrust into the spotlight at such a young age. “It was one of those things where I made it, and I didn’t really have a feel for it," the actor explained. "But it was fine. It was good. But what happens is that you have to go [to your press tour] and they’d want to talk to you about The Sure Thing or that movie instead of what you were there to talk about. So, it wasn’t that I hated the movie or hated anything. I just didn’t want to keep talking about it."
“And I felt terrible about it,” he continued, “because if the actors or the director [thought that I hated it], that was on me. I never really thought about it. I was just on to the next thing. I was like 17 years old. ... The script had a lot of black comedy elements and surrealism that hasn’t been done in the genre. But I was looking at ‘Oh, I didn’t like the score,' or 'I thought the cinematography would be a little darker.' ... I feel bad that the director [thinks I have something against it].”
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