Savage Steve Holland—who animated the Press Your Luck Whammy—wrote and directed Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, and directed How I Got into College before quitting teen films to pursue directing, writing, and producing children’s TV programs. With a limited release in August 1985 and a wider release in October, Better Off Dead grossed less than $10.3 million at the box office, but years later found a strong following via cable and home video. “Those video stores just completely saved Better Off Dead,” Holland told Fast Company. “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.’”
The movie centers on Lane Myer (John Cusack), a teenager left devastated when his high school girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss), leaves him for the captain of the ski team. Through a friendship with a foreign exchange student named Monique (Diane Franklin), Lane realizes he’s better off alive. Here are some things you might not have known about one of the greatest cult teen movies of all time.
1. Better Off Dead is based on a true story.
Savage Steve Holland wrote the script based on his own high school girlfriend, who did indeed leave him for the captain of the ski team. Six years after the movie came out, his ex got in touch with him. “I got a call—I don’t know how she got my number—and she said, ‘I’ve been in therapy because I saw your movie and I had no idea,’” Holland told The Sneeze. “And then she sent me cookies and stuff.”
The film’s darkest elements, including Lane’s attempted suicide in the garage, were also rooted in the autobiographical. “I went into the garage, and I put an extension cord on a pipe, 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.” Holland journaled his mishaps and used them as a guide in writing the movie.
2. Henry Winkler played a part in getting the movie made.
In the early 1980s, Holland’s short film, My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party, played at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Henry Winkler saw the film and took a liking to Holland. “Henry took me to lunch and he said that my movie was so funny,” Holland told Fast Company. “And I’m like, ‘Well, wait a minute—it wasn't supposed to be funny. It’s a sad story about my life.’ So he asked if I had any more sad stories about my life and I’m like, ‘Of course I do!’” Winkler set Holland up at his Paramount office so Holland could write the script.
“Everybody talks about [Winkler] being the nicest guy in Hollywood, and he actually is,” Holland told Entertainment Weekly. “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.’”
3. Holland had to fight to cast John Cusack.
At Winkler’s suggestion, Holland checked out Cusack in The Sure Thing, which Winkler executive produced. After seeing the movie, Holland thought Cusack was perfect for the role. “I couldn’t see anybody past John,” Holland told Entertainment Weekly. “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.”
4. John Cusack hated the movie (though he swears he didn't).
It’s been widely reported that Cusack basically disowned the movie as soon as he saw it, which was the night before he was to begin filming Holland’s follow-up comedy, One Crazy Summer. Though Cusack had helped Holland edit the movie, the film’s star walked out of the screening 20 minutes into it. “The next morning, [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,’” Holland told The Sneeze. “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.” Cusack’s “left field” response made Holland not want to do One Crazy Summer anymore.
“Once he said that stuff, it was like a girlfriend who breaks up with you,” Holland said. “You can’t fight with her. It’s like everything is so great, and then they say ‘I hate you’ out of nowhere. There’s really no argument you can have. I had my heart broken. That was the second time my heart was broken since that girl that Better Off Dead was about, honest to God.”
In 2014, Curtis Armstrong told Nerdist he heard Cusack had signed a Better Off Dead poster. “That was huge, because he literally would not sign anything,” Armstrong said. “Somebody would hand him something and he would push it away. It was like a cross in front of a vampire.”
But in 2015, Cusack went on the Nerdist podcast and explained how he didn’t exactly hate the movie. “It was one of those things where I made it, and I didn’t really have a feel for it,” he said. “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.” He said he “felt terrible” about how the cast and crew thought he disliked the movie. “I don’t have anything against it. I mean, I love when he says, ‘It’s a shame to throw away a perfectly good white boy.’ I feel bad that the director [thinks I have something against it]."
Another indicator that Cusack has warmed up to Better Off Dead: in a scene in 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine, a kid in the background can be heard yelling “I want my two dollars” at Cusack.
5. Like Lane's mom, Holland's mother was an experimental cook. And once gifted him with TV dinners.
In the film, Lane’s mom (Kim Darby) makes weird foods from Ladies Home Journal, such as “bacon,” and some goopy thing with raisins in it that slithers away on its own. “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,” Holland told Entertainment Weekly. One year for his birthday—not Christmas—she gifted him with some TV dinners. “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.’”
6. Test audiences loved the claymation hamburger scene.
The silly scene takes place at Lane’s fast food job, Pig Burger, when a hamburger comes to life and plays guitar. Holland told Entertainment Weekly his first job was working at McDonald’s, which is where the inspiration came from.
“There was this rumor that a rat fell into a vat at a chicken place and somebody got served fried rat,” he said. “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.”
7. Diane Franklin talked Dodger Stadium into letting her sing the National Anthem.
At the end of Better Off Dead, Monique and Lane make out at Dodger Stadium, and Lane plays his sax for her. As a promo for the movie, Franklin had her manager contact the stadium to see if they’d be interested in having her do an autograph signing. “I just kind of thought it would be fun for people, because if they saw the movie, and I was at Dodger Stadium—it would kind of be a fun venue for everyone to come and see me there,” she said.
The ballpark said no to a signing but asked her to sing the anthem. “What was unusual about that, was when they introduced me, I thought they were going to say, ‘And here’s Diane Franklin from Better Off Dead,’ or, ‘Here’s Diane Franklin from Bill & Ted’ or something. And they wound up saying, ‘And here’s Diane Franklin.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Who knows Diane Franklin?’ Nobody knows who I am.’ It was so funny.”
8. Yuji Okumoto studied Howard Cosell videos, only to have his voice dubbed by Rich Little.
Yee Sook Ree is one of the two Asian sportscasters who coerce Lane into drag racing them. (Holland based the characters on a high school friend whose natural voice sounded like Cosell’s.) In preparation for his audition, Okumoto studied every Wide World of Sports video. “I went into the Better Off Dead audition ready to go,” Okumoto said. “Knowing that this character learned English by watching the Wide World of Sports, I decided to do my Howard Cosell with an Asian accent. The producers and director thought it was funny and I got cast. Before the film came out, one of the producers called me to tell me that they brought in Rich Little to dub my voice. They explained that they wanted to make sure the audience understood the dialogue. It was a little disappointing but, hey, it’s their film.”
9. Curtis Armstrong was cast because of his role in Risky Business.
Risky Business came out two years before Better Off Dead, and Curtis Armstrong, who played Tom Cruise’s friend Miles in the film, made such a strong impression on Holland that he called Armstrong’s agent and offered Armstrong the part of the JELL-O-snorting Charles De Mar. “I hadn't seen a character like that in so many years—a second banana character that stole the movie,” Holland told Moviefone about Armstrong’s role in Risky Business. “I was like, ‘God, if I could have a cool dude like that playing Charles De Mar, my movie will work.’” Armstrong also starred in Holland’s One Crazy Summer and How I Got Into College, and provided voices for the Savage-created animated show Eek! The Cat.
10. Aaron Dozier insulted Holland before he auditioned.
Dozier plays the ski captain and Lane’s rival, Roy Stalin, who’s a bit of jerk—but a good skier. “When I came in, I didn’t know who ‘Savage’ Steve was at first,” Dozier told Moviefone. “I [looked at one guy and] said, ‘Who's this chubby kid?’ Turns out, he’s the director.” Holland remembers Dozier interrupting him as he watched the dailies. “All of a sudden this pompous jerk comes in and says, ‘Hey, who’s the fat surfer?’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, who is this?’ and they go, ‘Savage, this is the guy coming in for Roy Stalin.’ And I’m like, ‘You have the part! You’re perfect.’”
11. The paperboy looked tough in order to get the part.
Demian Slade was only 12 years old when he won the role of real-life paperboy Johnny Gasparini, who stalked Holland and demanded two dollars from him. When Slade auditioned, he wore a leather jacket and looked serious. “I approached it as if I was a serial killer with no intention of making it funny,” Slade told Entertainment Weekly. “I brought in a headshot of me wearing a leather jacket and looking really menacing.” During the car wash scene, he actually broke the windshield with his newspaper. “It was an accident but I was pretty proud of myself,” he told Facebook. “They had to replace it. It’s not easy to crack a windshield with a newspaper, especially when you are a little kid.”
12. Holland doesn't think Better Off Dead would get made today.
Because of the success of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, studios were hungry for teen movies. In an interview with , Holland said the studio, Warner Bros., trusted him. “I would never get that movie made these days, but I just wanted to put in everything I knew about filmmaking—cartoons, claymation, everything—because I figured I’d have one chance at it. Today the comedy police would stop me.” When the movie came out and wasn’t a success, Holland said he was put in “film jail.” “And I’m grateful for the chances that I had like you wouldn’t believe, but there’s a point where I’m, like, ‘OK, I’d like to try and make a movie again,’ and everybody’s, like, ‘I don’t think so, mister. Stop right there.’”