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Larry Wilson might not have graduated from the Harvard Business School or lived through the Black Plague, but he’s still certainly qualified to talk about Beetlejuice. While most people rightly think of director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton when they look back at the dark comedy, the story was the brainchild of Wilson, his producing partner, Michael Bender, and fellow co-writer, the late Michael McDowell. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the hit film (which opened on March 30, 1988), Yahoo chatted with Wilson about a movie that might have been very different. (Watch the highlights above.)
1. Beetlejuice originally had a far darker ending
Among Beetlejuice unexpected turns is its ending. Dour daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) comes back home from school with mostly good grades and is rewarded with a ghostly dance number by her home’s resident ghosts Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis). It’s a surprisingly cheerful way to leave the characters. But Wilson and McDowell initially wrote up something much more morbid.
“Our first ending was Lydia — she died in a fire and was able to join Barbara and Adam in the afterlife,” Wilson said with a sheepish grin. “A couple of people said to us, ‘Do you really think that’s a good idea? Is that really the message you want to be sending to the teenagers of the world? Die in a fire?’ So, yeah, it probably was darker.”
2. Beetlejuice almost wound up with a dreadfully different title
Working as an instructor for UCLA’s Extension program in the ’80s, Wilson befriended a student named Marjorie Lewis and gave her a copy of his Beetlejuice script. Lewis, who was working in development for the Geffen Film Company, championed the script enough that it wound up being bought and made. Wilson thinks it fortuitous that heavyweight producer David Geffen came on board.
Warner Bros. might love Beetlejuice now, but there was great resistance to the movie from the studio’s marketing department at the time. Among the concerns the suits had was the title. They recommended a truly terrible alternate title.
“The title that I remember being suggested, pretty much before the release, was House Ghost,” Wilson recalled. “I bet it was David Geffen who said no to that, and a big firm no. There were marketing people within Warner Bros. who thought no one would know what ‘Beetlejuice’ was, but they’d know what a house ghost was. Thank God [they went with Beetlejuice]. I would not like to be here talking about House Ghost the movie.”
3. A major character was cut out early on
Wilson has joked about the rewrite process he and McDowell had to endure before Beetlejuice was made. In one interview he said they spent a year “ruining” their first draft. Burton in his book Burton on Burton said they were “burnt out” and so he brought in a “fresh fighter” in well-regarded script doctor Warren Skaaren.
“Lydia, the key character in many ways, the portal for so many people, had a sister,” said, regarding a big change Skaaren made. “She was the goth; the sister was the straight one. Warren got rid of the sister, and what a good decision because then it all became about Lydia. That’s the [change] I remember most vividly … Warren did a really respectful rewrite, which isn’t always the case.”
4. A Hollywood legend served as the inspiration for Beetlejuice
Nearly everything audiences loved about Beetlejuice can be credited to Michael Keaton. He developed the look of the character and improvised most of his dialogue. But before Keaton came aboard, Wilson drew his inspiration for the character from a comedic icon.
“The first thing I remember writing about the character or saying to [Michael Keaton] about the character was, ‘He’s Groucho Marx from hell,'” Wilson reminisced. “Groucho Marx was the fastest, wittiest, most sardonic absurdist person in the room, always. But it doesn’t make a difference because Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice.”
5. The screenwriter had a sequel idea and it wasn’t the much-maligned Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian
Fresh off the success of their unlikely hit, Warner Bros. began exploring ideas for a sequel. Burton, on the other hand, wasn’t as keen on revisiting the world, so he pitched what he thought would be a dud, a tropical adventure, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. The theoretical movie would have had the Deetz family and Beetlejuice experience a zany Hawaiian romp. Fortunately, this never happened. Wilson, who didn’t have involvement in it, says he had an idea back in the day.
“I had an idea for a sequel right away and it would have been a continuation of the story,” Wilson shared. “Mr. Deetz [Jeffrey Jones] would have developed a crush on Geena Davis’s character. That would have been my idea. It would have been driven by character and not driven by a premise.”
Wilson has expressed his support for the animated series and the upcoming Broadway musical that are using the character in ways that are a departure from the original source, but he is wary of sequel plans.
“I would love the money that would come with a sequel but in some ways I’m very glad there hasn’t been one,” Wilson shared. “I’ve always been very worried about what a Beetlejuice sequel movie would be because of ideas like Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. And the character is going to stop being funny and become grating. That movie is, in so many ways to me, like lightning in a bottle. It was one of those one-of-a-kind experiences that the talk of a sequel makes me, creatively, a little bit nervous.”
While he not be entirely into the idea of a sequel, Wilson did say that he’d like there to be a Beetlejuice Cinematic Universe of sorts. “My wife, Cynthia, and my step-son, John, and I are writing a script called Just Buried together,” Wilson revealed. “It’s kind of, in some ways, a story of Cynthia and my very unlikely romance in the world of Beetlejuice. It’s a couple that dies just before they get married and they have to figure out how to get married in the afterlife.”
Warner Bros., meanwhile, hasn’t abandoned the idea and there were reports last year that a new screenwriter was working on a sequel script with the blessing of Burton and Keaton.
Larry Wilson’s new movie, a 3D animated adaptation of The Little Vampire, will be released on-demand later this year.
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