Sunday, November 14, 2010

'On Writing': 'Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead': The Experience's Way...

Did you know that Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead was a spec script that was hidden in a closet for almost a year because the writers were told it was terrible but then sparked a bidding war at three studios? Who says you can't learn things when you go to the movies??

Last night Erika Brooks Adickman did it again! Last year she brought Troop Beverly Hills: The Experience to the little theater Cinespace in Hollywood, and this year she expanded her audience (and venue) with a double bill of Troop Beverly Hills and Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead. As she announced at the start of each movie, what we had trekked all the way downtown (to the Downtown Independent Theater) to see was not simply a screening; it was so much more than that! There were quote-a-long moments, sing-a-long moments, and Adickman and friends even threw cookies at the audience during the infamous "Cookie Time" portion of the first film. And once again, there was a Q&A.

For weeks it was being advertised that Keith Coogan (Kenny "Scruff" Crandell in Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead) was going to be chatting with Adickman, and the audience, about his time working on the film. But then just a few days prior to the event, Adickman confirmed to me that "special guests" screenwriters Tara Ison and Neil Landau had signed on, too.

Ison and Landau and Coogan were all very candid about their time working on the film. As candid as Troop Beverly Hills' Jeff Kanew was when he admitted he first didn't really connect with the script he ended up directing. Landau wanted to stress to any aspiring writers in the audience that "you should never take just one person's opinion" about your work. They showed it to someone who thought it was terrible and for awhile allowed that judgment to discourage them from shopping it around further. But clearly that person was crazy.

They also shared that the original title was The Real World and was supposed to draw attention to the fact that this is a kid who has decided (at least in earlier incarnations) she wants to grow up too soon and try to be taken seriously as an adult, in an adult's world. Coogan (who kept the audience cracking up and indulged us in a few "Rock n Rollll"s!) added that it wasn't until they were already pretty deep into shooting that the title and marketing, in part because of a little MTV reality show that shared it's name.

Even with the title so heavily emphasized on the least known character, Ison and Landau fought to keep her mentioned minimally once she (spoiler alert?) dies in the first act. The studio wanted there to be some sort of side investigation, but they kept pointing out how the joke is funnier if the last line of the movie is "Where's the babysitter?" because by that point the audience has kind of pushed her from their minds and can get a good "Oh yeah" chuckle. That was the last line of every version, including their first draft, of the script, Ison admitted. And you know what? It really does work!

The studio did get their way on having more kinds in the Crandell family, though. Originally it was only Sue Ellen, Kenny, and a little one.

Coogan, who is also really well known for another movie that deals with babysitting, talked about having such a blast on set, and he didn't even seem to really mind wearing the crazy Kenny wigs! Here's a little piece of trivia for you, too: he originally went in for the role of Bryan, "young Clown Dog server" and boyfriend of Sue Ellen, but he really wanted Kenny so he asked if he could come back to the audition, and he did so as Kenny, embodying the surfer/stoner voice and slinky walk that he has throughout most of the film.

Coogan also said that he expected to get lots of emails and Tweets from stoners, but really what he tends to receive is feedback from those who used to be stoners, but like Kenny, turned their lives around. And many of them tell him because of his example in the film, they enrolled in culinary school. Talk about life imitating art!

Before the evening ended, Adickman had to ask what the small panel thought of a potential remake, and though Landau joked that another piece of a franchise would bring him more money so there really was no downside, Ison made a really strong point in that you just can't do the same movie today. For one thing, back then no one really thought twice about a mom who would just leave her kids to fend for themselves, but these days people keep a closer eye on things like that.

But My Life, Made Possible by Pop Culture wants to argue that a lot of what made this movie so great (and funny!) are the time-sensitive references. Like how Sue Ellen fights with the fax machine or Lotus system on her computer. She smokes at work (literally in her office. what the hell?) and seems older for it. No one at the company checked references or Googled her or checked her Facebook page to see if she was a viable candidate for a job or an immature kid. Ahem. And Gus...well, in today's version Gus would be sued for sexual harassment instantaneously or it wouldn't be a comedy but instead a very serious drama like Secretary. Most likely the script would have to be tweaked so the story line finds Sue Ellen developing feelings for both age-appropriate Bryan and a (considerably less creepy version) of businessman Gus. It's the 2010 way of doing things. Then again, if we want to see that, we can just watch Sarah Braverman's character on Parenthood...

Lots of movies are in talks to be remade, and in one way, it is just a testament to how strong this one is if it can withstand the test of time and draw a crowd to an "Experience" event like this but also if studios see it as a potential profitable re-do. But it could never be a shot-by-shot retelling. As Coogan pointed out, when Gus van Sant redid Psycho a few years ago, anything you may have enjoyed from it was literally pulled from Hitchcock's original version. You may have just watched the original. And that is what I believe here, too. In fact, I may just end up watching it again and adding in more quote-a-long moments of my own at home!

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