More than 30 years since we were first introduced to the ghost with the most in 1988s Beetlejuice, fans still revel in saying his name three times and revisiting the bizarre, hilarious exploration of the afterlife, either during the Halloween season or any time of the year. Director Tim Burtons sophomore feature-length effort sees Academy Award nominee Michael Keaton at his kookiest, creepiest, and most unrecognizable in the (sort of) title role of a self-described bio-exorcist whom the recently deceased Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) mistakenly believe will help them rid their home of a snobbish family.
This clever reversal of the haunted house movie formula is brimming with so much macabre imagination, you must be dying to know what it was like to make it, which we shall reveal with the following behind the scenes facts, starting with a glimpse at the movie it could have been.
I feel I made a pretty good case earlier for why Beetlejuice is remembered as one of the most beloved horror-comedy movies and how its surrealist approach to that genre crossover is key to its enduring iconography. Yet, the movie might have had far less laughs if Warner Bros. settled on co-writer Michael McDowells original vision for a more straightforward scary movie in which, according to Consequence, the title character was a murderous, shape-shifting winged demon who takes human form as a small Middle Eastern man.
If there is one reason to be glad that famed script doctor Warren Skaaren was brought in to lighten up the material, it is what the main antagonist would become instead.
Of all the great Michael Keaton performances I could choose as a favorite (such as his time as Batman or his Oscar-nominated role in 2014s Birdman), it still has to be the manic brilliance he displays in Beetlejuice. As the actor recalled to Charlie Rose during a 2014 interview, he actually had a lot to do with the creation of Betelgeuse (as his name is actually spelled in the film).
After Tim Burton described the character as existing in all times and all spaces, Keaton had the idea to give Betelgeuse an eclectic wardrobe, hair like he stuck [his] finger in an electrical outlet, rotten teeth, and mold all around his face to really sell him as an ancient, grizzled entity - which might have been much different from what Burtons original choice could have looked like.
Anyone familiar with the controversial reception to 1992s Batman Returns knows that Tim Burton is no stranger to receiving some pushback from his distributors, and Beetlejuice was apparently no exception. For instance, while appearing on NBCs Late Night in 1999 to promote Sleepy Hollow, the director said the producers reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when he recommended legendary Rat Pack member Sammie Davis Jr. for Betelgeuse - an idea host Conan OBrien was actually amused by. That would not be the only time during the making of Beetlejuice when he came at odds with the studio.
A passage from Tim Burton: A Childs Garden of Nightmares - a biography about the filmmaker penned by Paul A. Woods - uncovers a moment when Warner Bros. executives suggested House Ghosts as a more marketable title for the film than Beetlejuice. As a joke, Burton replied, Why dont we call it Scared Sheetless? only to realize, much to his horror, that they found the punny title worth considering. Luckily, Beetlejuice would up winning that battle, but there was another person from the Beetlejuice cast who had his own concerns about the films potential.
Academy Award nominee and Alec Baldwin has had a fantastic career, from his biting monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross to his twice Emmy-winning tenure in the 30 Rock cast, and, of course, his countless Saturday Night Live hosting gigs and hilarious random appearances. However, when the subject turned to Beetlejuice during his own personal review of his career for GQ, he had this to say:
When we did Beetlejuice, I had no idea what it was about. I thought my, all of our, careers are going to end with the release of this film. Maybe we're all going to be dead.
In the video, Baldwin recalls the one thing that gave him hope about the film was the performance of his co-star, Michael Keaton, whom he describes as a comedy Annie Oakley. The doubts his neurotic 30-year-old self had about Beetlejuice are understandable when you consider how little experience he had making films at the time.
Future two-time Academy Award nominee Winona Ryder also had very little experience making films when she starred in Beetlejuice as Lydia Deetz, who initially becomes the sole seer of the Maitlands spirits when she moves into their house with her father (Jeffrey Jones) and stepmother (Schitts Creek cast member Catherine OHara). Her self-described strange and unusual personality and appearance was first dreamed up by co-writer Larry Wilson, who revealed in an oral history for CBC Radio that he found inspiration while seeing The Cure perform in concert. However, it was not the English goth bands look that influenced the characters creation, but the audience made up of mostly of young women whose rebellious attitude and sense of fashion really spoke to him.
In that same oral history for CBC Radio, which was also part of a radio show called q, hosted by Tom Power, Larry Wilson (who also wrote 1991s The Addams Family) also talks about how they came up with the unique depiction of the hereafter as seen in Beetlejuice. Apparently, Michael Keaton also contributed to that distinct idea, saying that the afterlife should looks like some unemployment office that implements an endless bureaucracy [from which] youre never going to get what you need.
This clever recommendation would lead to the creation of the creepy office setting where the Maitlands literally spend three months waiting to see someone, amid a whos who of truly unfortunate souls.
The most amazing and fascinating aspects of those sequences in the office of the afterlife from Beetlejuice is that almost everything you see was filmed live on the set. In fact, as director of photography Tom Ackerman points out in a profile by Uproxx, most of the special effects you see in the movie were done practically as part of a rule ordered by Tim Burton to give the film a more old school, handcrafted feel to it. One definitive example of this is the famous Day-O scene, which was apparently a more complex and problem-ridden process than you might have expected.
In the Day-O sequence, Charles Deetz and his wife, Delia, are having her agent, Bernard (Dick Cavett) and his wife, Grace (Susan Kellerman) over for dinner, at which point Adam and Barbara Maitland decide to enact a plan to frighten them out of the house that does not go exactly as planned. They possess the bunch into performing a dance number to the aforementioned Calypso hit by Harry Belafonte, which ends with their shrimp meals forming beastly hands that attack them, pushing them back.
In the following excerpt from an interview with Yahoo!, Cavett - a legendary, Emmy-winning talk show host - talks about an issue the filmmakers kept running into while filming the scene that he helped solve:
It's safe to say this, I think I made a contribution to the film. There was a scene at the table. My contribution had to do with the attacking shrimp. They kept shooting it, but the guys under there couldn't really see where their hand was going and they poked each other in the face. And there were minor injuries... what I recall is saying, 'Why don't you shoot it in reverse?'... I was hailed as a genius.
The next time you watch Beetlejuice and you get to the Day-O scene, keep in mind that when the shrimp hands come up to push the dinner guests faces, they are really pulling away from them.
Larry Wilson also spoke to Yahoo! about another much-needed improvement that was made to Beetlejuice, specifically the ending. As fans recall, the film concludes with Michael Keatons Betelgeuse defeated before he can marry Lydia, who enjoys her own Harry Belafonte dance number after the Maitlands and Deetzes agree to co-exist in the home. However, the screenwriter claims the script originally ended with Lydia perishing in a fire to spend the afterlife with Barbara and Adam, until others convinced them that such an ending might send the wrong message to younger audiences.
The movies upbeat ending and other crucial aspects are key as to why Beetlejuice may just be the most delightfully strange and unusual movie ever made in which death is a major theme.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero