MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK
The question I get asked most often (right after “where do you get your ideas?”) is “how did you break into the business?” For me, it started with a little zombie named Johnny Dingle.
I went to NYU film school from 1985 to 1989. While I was there, I wrote a comedy about a high school kid who’s so in love with a girl that, even after getting shot and killed in a convenience store robbery, he comes back from the dead to take her to the prom. Unfortunately, being a zombie, he now has a terrible craving to eat the flesh of the living (which he finds morally and ethically reprehensible). To make matters worse, he’s beginning to decay — in fact, body parts that might otherwise have come in handy on prom night are starting to fall off. On top of all this, everyone in town hates him — he is, after all, one of the undead.
I called the movie JOHNNY ZOMBIE and, after the screenplay was finished, I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I wrote it in a series of cheap apartments in New York City and Hoboken and I knew more about decoding DNA than I did about getting a movie made. And that’s where the whole thing could have ended except I met a guy at NYU by the name of Adam Marcus. He was a fellow student and he loved the movie. He was also best friends with a kid named Noel Cunningham, who was the son of a Hollywood producer by the name of Sean Cunningham. Sean, among many other things, produced and directed FRIDAY THE 13th.
Life is weird, right?
Sean. (FYI – he also loves pugs…)
So, Adam gives JOHNNY ZOMBIE to Sean in the hopes that Sean might want to make it for very little money and give Adam a shot at directing it. Well, it turns out that Sean does want to make it — for very little money. He brings it to Disney studios and, incredibly, they also want to make it. The only thing they don’t want is for a kid just out of film school to direct it — but don’t feel too bad for Adam. His consolation prize is that he gets to direct FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 9: JASON GOES TO HELL, which you can read about in its own section.
But back to JOHNNY ZOMBIE. So, Disney wants to make it and Sean offers me a three year deal to move out to Los Angeles and become a staff writer for him. There’s very little money in it, but even a little money is more than I’ve ever made before.
Plus, it’s my ticket into the movie industry! I am, to put it mildly, super excited. At the time, I’m working as a night secretary in a big PR firm to make ends meet. I tell my bosses (the managing partners) that I need to quit because I’m moving to LA to make movies. They don’t want me to go, so they offer me a job as an account executive, offering me more money a year than I’m being paid for the movie. I thank them but decline — I’m going.
One of the partners, Owen, is very nice about it and congratulates me. The other one tells me I’m an idiot (which is exactly what he says, by the way: “you’re an idiot”) and that I’ll never make it in the film business and I’ll be broke and homeless within a week. With that as a send off, I pack my few belongings in a U-Haul and drive across the country with Adam and his girlfriend (now a successful writer/director) as well as our mutual buddy Anton Salaks.
We drop Anton off in New Orleans where he gets his first of his many tattoos. A day later, I wreck a hotel in Austin, Texas by ripping the overhang off the front after I slam into it with the roof of the U-Haul — but that’s a story for another time.
Finally, we get to LA and I begin the development process on the screenplay with Sean and Disney. By the end of it, it’s hard to understand what they liked about the script to begin with because it seems like they want to change everything. Gone is my original ending where Johnny and his true love Missy are run out of the prom by angry townspeople only to hide away in the graveyard, where they discover that the zombies that live there are having their own zombie prom — which turns out to be a lot more fun. Gone, in fact, are the other zombies. In the final script, Johnny is the only one.
Johnny is on the right
Jeffrey Katzenberg is the head of Disney films at this point, but I never meet him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a presence. At every meeting, an empty chair is set aside for “Jeffrey” and his notes are placed on it. The Jeffrey notes cannot be argued or discussed — they are the ten commandments, handed down by God himself, and no one has the authority to question them. And even if you wanted to, Jeffrey is not there in person to let you to make the attempt. I’m 23 years old and it’s all very intimidating.
Finally, a director is hired! It’s going to be Bob Balaban – a well regarded actor who had directed a sort-of horror movie called PARENTS that’s very quirky and dark. He’s kind and gentle and I like him.
Casting begins and Balaban has two people he really likes. One is a kid named Michael Goorjian for the role of Johnny. The other is a girl named Carla Gugino for the female lead, Missy. Michael will go on to win an Emmy for his role in DAVID’S MOTHER. Carla will become famous and loved by fanboys everywhere for her sexy roles in SIN CITY and SPY KIDS among many others.
Disney will not approve either of them. But they also don’t pick Alyssa Milano — who tells me that her scalp is bleeding because she’s had to dye her hair so many times recently for various movie roles, making me think “this girl is driven.” They also don’t hire Patrick Dempsey for the role of Johnny. Personally, I’m really pulling for Brandi Burkett in the role of Missy — she’s an actress and a friend from Conyers, Ga, my hometown. In all honesty, none of the other girls make me laugh as much as she does. But they don’t pick her either.
Eventually, Andrew Lowery and Traci Lind are cast as the leads.
Everyone on set had a crush on Traci…
Both turn out to be very good choices — and they’re not the only excellent people involved, either. It’s the first (or almost first) movie for a LOT of actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Matthew Fox, Matthew McConaughey as Man #2. I think Renee Zellweger was an extra. There’s also a great cast of adult actors. Cloris Leachman is the one you’ve probably heard of, but there were a ton of wonderful veterans.
Matthew Fox, pre-LOST
The movie is going to shoot in Austin, Texas (ironically the place where I destroyed the motel on the way to LA). This means we’re going on location, which sounds very exotic. And it turns out, I love Austin! It’s a great, hip, fun town full of college kids. We start shooting and there are immediately a few red flags. In spite of Balaban’s pleas to the contrary, they’ve elected not to spend the money on a special effects artist to do Johnny’s makeup. Instead, they hire someone local who does regular makeup to try and turn Johnny into a zombie. The results aren’t inspiring. Don’t believe me?
You tell me…
The dailies are also a little odd. Balaban is shooting in a very stylized way and has chosen to focus on the gentleness of Johnny. The movie doesn’t seem to have much edge, but it’s certainly quirky. It’s also kind of slow. I had imagined a rapid-fire movie, like BACK TO THE FUTURE, but this is methodically paced, although interesting.
I’m concerned about the dailies but the studio absolutely hates them. They demand that the first week of shooting be completely reshot. We had a seven week schedule. Now we have to redo the entire first week and shoot the rest of the movie in the remaining six.
Balaban is pissed. He liked the work he was doing and points out, rightly, that the script itself is very quirky and stylized. There’s one scene in the dailies where all the townspeople shout something in unison. Balaban shows everyone the script where, sure enough, it says: “TOWNSPEOPLE (in unison).” He also wonders if anyone watched his previous movie, PARENTS. It, too, is slow and stylized. Why would people expect anything different from him?
Cool movie — check it out
He’s right. But the studio hates it and we’re going to reshoot. Unfortunately, this has taken the wind out of Balaban’s sails and now he’s hurt and angry and I can see why. And here’s where I learn something about making movies. You can give your opinion to the director and you can argue points but, at the end of the day, you should either support that person or replace them. Neither of these things are done for Balaban. He’s not supported and he’s not replaced. It’s unfair to him and he seems miserable.
A few little remembrances from the shoot…
Early on, I notice that all the actors and directors and producers have chairs with their names on the back. I don’t. I ask if I’m going to get one and the prop guy laughs at me. Eventually, they get one for me and present it with a great deal of pomp and circumstance — but it’s all very condescending. Look who wants a chair — the writer! How cute. Where were they, I wonder, when I was all alone in a tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen dreaming up this whole thing? Where were they when my former boss was calling me an idiot for wanting to pursue it? Where were they when I gutted my way through draft after draft of notes from Disney? I’m shocked at how little that act of creation is valued.
Another memory. The editor comes out to Austin. Sean wants to have lunch with him, so for some reason he takes us all to a strip club. For lunch. By the way, here’s what you don’t go to a strip club for: lunch. The whole thing is… awkward.
Another memory. I’m hanging out with Andrew Lowery (who plays Johnny, the lead). He’s a nice guy and a good actor. He tells me that Balaban has taught him the key to being funny: don’t try to be funny. I remember thinking “Good God, why not?” I later realize that it’s just a different and much more dry style of humor — one that Balaban has made a career of as an actor.
Another memory. Mary Beth Hurt plays Johnny’s mom.
The mom you wish you had…
We’re shooting in a graveyard at night. She keeps pronouncing a word wrong in the scene, so I quietly go up to her and tell her how it’s pronounced. She stares me down and says “I only take direction from the director.” And she’s right. I’ve mistakenly crossed a line. That’s the way it’s usually done in the movies, although I’m too green to know that. Even so…
Another. Cloris Leachman arrives in town to play an older woman named Maggie whose husband, years ago, became a zombie. She’s easily the biggest name in the cast and I’m excited to meet her. Sean, the producer, tells me that she’s asked that I go to her hotel room because she needs some help with the script. I turn to go when Sean adds: “Remember, you’re about to give direction to an Academy Award winning actress!” And then he cackles, knowing this will unnerve me. It does.
I get to her room and she’s very nice. It turns out she only has one question: can she wear a flower pot on her head? She has a character reason for wanting to do this, but I am frozen. I am 23 and have no idea how to tell Academy Award winning actress Cloris Leachman that she cannot wear a flower pot on her head in the movie. I fumble around, muttering “not sure, maybe…” Later, she asks the same thing of Balaban and he gently talks her out of it, but only after telling her what a clever idea it is. I think: so that’s how you do that.
A final memory. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Little Chuck, the bully — a dense, snarling neanderthal. He gets to shout things like: “I’m gonna kill you, dead kid!”
Philip Seymour Hoffman — pre-EVERYTHING
I never really get to know him, mostly because he largely stays in character on screen and off. The crew makes fun of him behind his back, imitating his muttering and brutish mannerisms. I think he’s really good in the movie but he doesn’t seem all that approachable. It’s odd to me that a kid just starting out is so committed. Turns out he stayed committed because he became one of Hollywood’s finest actors until his tragic and untimely death.
Eventually, we wrap. A cut of the movie is assembled and, after the screening, there’s panic. It doesn’t work. It’s too slow… too nice. Balaban wasn’t allowed to make his stylized version of the movie but the end result is not a straight down the middle crowd pleaser, either. It’s a feathered fish.
New scenes are demanded, ones with more edge and pace. Dream sequences are added. Blood is added. A comic book framing device is added (always a bad sign…) Balaban shoots the new stuff (and seems to kind of like it) and the movie improves, although it’s still very odd.
The studio changes the name. It’s no longer JOHNNY ZOMBIE. Now it’s MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK. Not sure why. No one asks my opinion.
Eventually it comes out in theaters to scathing reviews. One Canadian newspaper says that it shouldn’t even be shown “to one-celled creatures living on the bottom of the sea.” Another review calls it “the nadir of the summer.” I have to look up the word “nadir” in the dictionary. The answer is not encouraging. Another review takes me personally to task for naming it MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK without putting the actual song “My Boyfriend’s Back” in the movie. I, of course, didn’t name it that and, as the writer, had nothing to do with the songs they chose. Doesn’t matter. I get blamed.
It tanks at the box office.
Not going to comment on the poster…
It turns out my former boss at the PR firm was right — I’ll never make it in the film business. My career is over.
Except it isn’t. Because it turns out that a lot of people in Hollywood loved the script — thought it was clever and funny. And I get work as a result.
Years go by… many years… and I rewatch the movie. And you know what? Not as bad as I once thought it was. Some very funny, quirky stuff. It’s not the movie I saw in my head when I was writing it but… is it ever? I like the dryness and subtlety of many of the performances. And I’m struck by an odd desire — I really want to see the movie that Balaban wanted to make. The strange, stylized one. I wish it existed…
And I’m left with very mixed emotions. It was my first thing, my first baby and it came out all strange and yet… I have a real fondness for it. I loved my time in Austin. Loved drinking Shiner Bocks and hanging out with the cast. But I feel I’ve learned some hard lessons…
Writing wise, I learn that a funny conceit doesn’t sustain through an entire movie. The conceit of JOHNNY ZOMBIE is that no one really questions the fact that he’s a zombie. Everyone’s casual attitude toward a real, live zombie in their midst — “man, I hate that dead kid” — is funny, but it’s a well that I went to once too often.
Producing wise, I learn that you either support the people around you or you replace them. What you don’t do is cut them off at the knees and expect them to still be passionate.
Years later, when I’m working on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, Balaban’s name comes up as an actor for a particular role on the show. No one knows that I once worked with him. I really hoped we’d be able to hire him, because I want to see him again. Doesn’t happen. Maybe someday…
In the end, all these years later, I have a real fondness for the movie… or at least the experience of making it. And I’ve been surprised at how many people have reevaluated the film since it’s been out on video — mostly in a positive light. Take a look at it if you get a chance. Netflix has it.
And remind me to tell you some time about that motel I wrecked in Austin…