Larry Wilson is a man who’s had more than one life, it seems. Originally a writer, he then moved to development and the world of studio executives. And then? He moved back to writing, with Beetlejuice, which he also co-produced.
Here, he chats to us about his new webseries Cindy, as well as taking us back to the days of Beetlejuice, of bringing James Cameron to Aliens, and how Young Sherlock Holmes – a film based on his idea – was a disappointment to him.
Oh, and there’s that Beetlejuice sequel too…
Let’s start with what you’re up to now, your webseries Cindy. I understand you pitched it originally to Nickelodeon, but it sounds like a show that’s been swimming in your head for a while now. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Yeah. It was one of those ideas that I feel like I woke up with! Cinderella, as a reality show. And I was getting in pitch mode, and looking for work. And I took it into Nickelodeon… I worked it out a bit, a very brief beat sheet before I went in to pitch it. But I got a meeting. It was one of those meetings where they go ‘we really love it, but…’! And I just thought, you know, I’m very tired of hearing this. I need to get something made.
I teach also, and I’ve been on this DIY soapbox for several years now, and I just thought it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. And let’s do it as a web series. It started to come together from there. I am so glad I made that choice. It’s been an incredible experience. It’s been a terrific process.
Your project comes at a point where some crowdfunding projects, particularly very big ones, have given the process a bad name, and spoilt it a little for some of the smaller ones. Cindy seems to be finding a way through that, though?
I’m feeling, particularly the last few days looking at the way it’s expanding on Twitter and social media… there’s a beautiful theatre here in Los Angeles called the Vista Theatre. It was built in the 1920s, it was restored a few years ago. And there was a midnight screening of Beetlejuice there on Friday night and I did a Q&A. We were able to show the Cindy trailer for the first time on a big screen. And it played really great.
I should probably not say this out loud, it’ll jinx it I’m sure, but I am starting to get that feeling you get when you have something that’s developing an energy and a momentum. It could take off. It might – I’m going to use the word! – be a hit! But you never know until you know.
It seems special for you for a few reasons too. Firstly, it’s very much yours. Secondly, you’re directing. And thirdly, your daughter – Autry Haydon-Wilson – is in it as well. Has all of this been the upside of why you wanted to go this way, or was that why you went this way in the first place?
When I decided that I was going to try and find my own way of doing this, one of the first thoughts that came to me was that if it’s going to be Cinderella, it’s going to be Autry, my daughter. She’s a beautiful girl inside and outside. Along with that, she’s a terrific actress. She’s really good. She goes to a performing arts high school here in Los Angeles. And then she’s surrounded by really talented friends. It just seemed a really likely path to go on.
The ‘wicked stepshits’ are both from the same school. My ex-wife is the fairy godmother. It just, once I made this choice about Autry, became a friends and family project.
So is this doubling up as family therapy then?!
[Laughs] That’s another interview!
Where do you see the long term of Cindy?
There’s a couple of things. The first is that my writing partner Megan [Hannay]… it’s funny how close to home this all was. Megan was actually a student of mine in one of my screenwriting classes just a couple of years ago. The first bit of her work she submitted to me, I thought boy, this girl’s got something. Every once in a while, you have a student who’s just got that x-factor. And so we went from being teacher-student to being collaborators and friends and all of that.
But to answer your question, Megan and I have already talked about a season two. We’ve got an idea. Season one ends on a cliffhanger. Season two will combine Cinderella with The Wizard Of Oz. But Oz is a little town on the way to the Death Valley desert. We’re thinking ahead. Kickstarter’s going to be all-consuming for the next few days, but we have been talking about where it’s going to go, and we’re sorting out those options. Maybe Hulu, who knows.
What’s really important to us at this point is that we maintain creative control. And that it remains a unit from the cast to Jason Hampton, the line producer. I’d love to use my DP, Jonathan Bruno again. We keep the unit that did the first ten episodes. It turned into a labour of love. Noone got rich doing it!
We do have plans for it. I’d love to see it go on to an IFC or cable channel platform. There might be a movie in it. We’re open to all options.
You bring up creative control there. I’ve just been reading Burton On Burton, oddly enough, where Tim Burton talks about nailing down the script on Beetlejuice, and why it originally appealed to him.
Burton talks about how you and Michael McDowell ‘got beaten down by the constant questioning’, and mentioned script meetings that ‘lasted for 24 hours over two days’. Is that a fair reflection for you?
Yeah! The interesting thing about that, and Tim’s absolutely right, but before he got attached to it, Michael and I, we sold it to the Geffen Company. Not overnight, but relatively quickly after we finished it.
I won’t name names here, but I worked at Universal Studios at the time. I was director of development for the director Walter Hill. I had a very good relationship with a very prominent executive at Universal. He liked me, and he liked what I was doing with Walter, and the material I was bringing in.
I gave him Beetlejuice to read, and I gave it to him on a Friday, and on Monday his assistant called me and said well, he wants to meet with you. My initial reaction was wow! He’d read it. He must have loved it or he wouldn’t have wanted to see me so soon. But I went into his office, and he literally said ‘what are you doing with your career?’
‘This piece of weirdness, this is what you’re going to go out into the world with? You’re developing into a very good executive. You’ve got great taste in material. Why are you going to squander all that for this piece of shit’, was basically what he was saying. It goes to show, right?
Shortly after that, we sold it to the Geffen Company, but again without getting into names and finger-pointing – and it certainly wasn’t David Geffen – we worked with an executive before Tim truly became attached, for a long year. We did draft after draft after draft. And Michael and I felt by the end of that process that we’d ruined the script. It was very demoralising.
Then Tim got attached, and he went through his own battles, certainly. But the beauty of it was that we somehow got back to the essence of the first draft, which is what Tim had read that had got him excited in the first place. That isn’t always the case that the first draft is your own favourite draft, but in this case it was. It turned into an amazing development success story in that regard, that we got back to what the original intention was.
Obviously on Beetlejuice, there was talk of a sequel a long time ago, and now there’s fresh momentum behind a Beetlejuice 2. Were you, or are you, involved in either of those?
There was a time – this was a long time ago again, because a Beetlejuice sequel has been talked about since the film became a hit… there were lots of different reasons why it never happened. But there was a time where there was an announcement from Warners that a sequel was getting active. And I said to my agent, I think I should probably be writing this! And my agent contacted Warners, and the Warners people back then said ‘well we love Larry, but we feel he’s too close to the material!’
One of my favourite Hollywood quotes of all time! So I’m assuming that I’m still too close to the material. But Michael McDowell and I have underlying rights to the characters, so if there is a sequel, it may be the FU money that we all dream about!
The thing I feel so strongly about a sequel, and I think everybody does…. I saw the new Michael Keaton film Birdman a couple of weeks ago now, and I contacted Michael. I hadn’t had any contact with Michael since Beetlejuice. But I loved the film so much that I contacted him and told him that. He sent me back a really nice email, and said that we were really part of something original together.
And it’s true. Beetlejuice was lightning in a bottle. Once it got out of development, and once Tim was involved, it just became one of those serendiptious projects where the right people come together. You get that alchemy. You don’t always know how it’s happening or what’s in control of it. But I’m at a midnight screening this last Friday night, with 200 hardcore Beetlejuice geeks in costume and all of that. And that’s an amazing thing.
Whatever happens with the sequel, what I want it to be is good. I want it to capture what the original film captured, and that in my mind is really tricky. People have asked me about Beetlejuice and why it has such a peculiar, original energy, and whether it could be recreated. And I don’t know. I sometimes describe it as like a great psychedlic album from the 60s that was recorded on four tracks, and you look at it now and wonder how they did it! When people say ‘we have 1000 tracks, so we’ll do it 1000 times better!’
If it becomes a CGI orgy, or becomes people playing it safe because of demographics, all those things that could happen, I’d rather it didn’t happen. But all being said, there does seem to be a lot of serious talk about it. Tim and Michael seem interested, and they’ll have the same concerns that I do, I know that.
I have to ask: can you tell us the story of how you helped bring James Cameron to Aliens? Is it true?
It’s absolutely true.
When I went to work for Walter Hill, he said to me that one of the main things I had to do was to try and find a writer for the Alien sequel. It was heating up, and so he said see who you can find.
I read the Terminator script, I got it through Jim’s agent. Terminator was either in production or pre-production, I forget. And I’ll say this about it: it was a very good call on my part, but if you read Terminator and you couldn’t see how this guy was going to blow up, you did not deserve to have my job! It was just there on the page!
Then I had several meetings with Jim, talking about a project he had at the time called New Year’s Eve 1999 [which eventually turned up as Strange Days]. He brought in all this extraordinary conceptual artwork he’d done for that, and then we talked about Aliens. It was me who brought Jim into the process, and beat the drum for him. Believe it or not there needed to be a drum beaten at times.
Yeah. It was my finest moment in many ways as a studio executive I guess. That year I worked for Walter, the two people I brought into his office and said these were people we should be working with were Jim Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow!
I gather too that you came up with the original idea for Young Sherlock Holmes?
Young Sherlock Holmes, I was a studio executive at Paramount then. I had left writing behind. I was having a very severe case of writer’s block, so was working as a story analyst at Paramount, writing my own stuff in the evening. It was not going well.
But I had this opportunity to become a studio executive under Michael Eisner and Jeff Katzenberg, and that was my path. I was doing well at that, but we were under enormous pressure to not only find scripts and writers, but also to bring in original ideas. I had kept behind some index cards with my own ideas on them, thinking if I ever go back to writing, I will write this. Young Sherlock Holmes was one of them.
But the Monday morning meeting came, I didn’t have anything to pitch, so I took it out of the pile and I pitched that. Jeff Katzenberg really, really liked it. He said if we can get Chris Columbus to write it then we’re going to do it. And that started that process. It became the film that it is, but honestly, the film was very disappointing to me. It had strayed very far from my concept of it. And it did okay-ish. I don’t think it was particularly successful either as a film or commercially.
It was one of the first moments where I was saying to myself that I may want to start writing again one day. It actually started a chain of events that we lead to me going back to writing. And then the first thing I did was Beetlejuice.
Which brings us full circle. Cindy, your name is very much all over it. Is this about the purest it’s got for you then? Can you foresee, if it works, ever going back down the studio route?
I have an episode of Tales From The Crypt that I wrote and directed called Doctor Of Horror, that I consider as purely me as anything I’ve done. Both in terms of the themes it deals with and the way it’s shot, the dark comedy being mixed in.
I’ve got projects in more traditional development, but I’m loving this process. But I’m not getting any younger. And it seems to be the average is every five, six, seven years I get something made through the traditional route. At that rate, a couple of projects down the line, I’ll be going to the premiere on my walker! I feel so strongly that I’m in a very good space with my writing right now, and that my creative energy is very strong. I’m prepping a music video next, there’s a graphic novel I’m working on as a producer. I’ve got an idea too for another graphic novel – I’ve read comics my entire life – and I’m going to pursue that. That could potentially become a film.
For me, in some ways, it feels like you can find new way of doing things, or you can go away. And I’m not ready to go away!
Larry Wilson, thank you very much!