Manage episode 363699058 series 2828396
On this episode, we continue our informal miniseries on the 1980s movies of director Martha Coolidge with a look back at her 1985 under appreciated classic, Real Genius.
From Los Angeles, California, the Entertainment Capital of the World, it’s The 80s Movies Podcast. I am your host, Edward Havens. Thank you for listening today.
Before we hop in to today’s episode, I want to thank every person listening, from whatever part of the planet you’re at. Over the nearly four years I’ve been doing this podcast, we’ve had listeners from 171 of the 197 countries, and occasionally it’s very surreal for this California kid who didn’t amount to much of anything growing to think there are people in Myanmar and the Ukraine and other countries dealing with war within their borders who still find time to listen to new episodes of a podcast about 33 plus year old mostly American movies when they’re released. I don’t take your listenership lightly, and I just want you to know that I truly appreciate it. Thank you.
Okay, with that, I would like to welcome you all to Part Three of our informal miniseries on the 1980s movies of director Martha Coolidge.
When we left Ms. Coolidge on our previous episode, her movie Joy of Sex had bombed, miserably. But, lucky for her, she had already been hired to work on Real Genius before Joy of Sex had been released.
The script for Real Genius, co-written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, the writers of Bachelor Party, had been floating around Hollywood for a few years. It would tell the story of a highly intelligent high school kid named Mitch who would be recruited to attend a prestigious CalTech-like college called Pacific Tech, where he would be teamed with another genius, Chris, to build a special laser with their professor, not knowing the laser is to be used as a weapon to take out enemy combatants from a drone-like plane 30,000 feet above the Earth.
ABC Motion Pictures, a theatrical subsidy of the American television network geared towards creating movies that could be successful in theatres before playing on television, would acquire the screenplay in the early 1980s, but after the relative failure of a number of their initial projects, including National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and Young Doctors in Love, would sell the project off to Columbia Pictures, who would make the film one of the first slate of films to be produced by their sister company Tri-Star Pictures, a joint venture between Columbia, the cable network Home Box Office, and, ironically, the CBS television network, which was also created towards creating movies that could be successful in theatres before playing on television. Tri-Star would assign Brian Grazer, a television producer at Paramount who had segued to movies after meeting with Ron Howard during the actor’s last years on Happy Days, producing Howard’s 1982 film Night Shift and 1984 film Splash, to develop the film.
One of Grazer’s first moves would be to hire Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, writers on Happy Days who helped to create Laverne and Shirley and Joanie Loves Chachi, to rewrite the script to attract a director. Ganz and Mandel had also written Night Shift and rewrote the script for Splash, and Grazer considered them his lucky charm. After trying to convince Ron Howard to board the project instead of Cocoon, Grazer would create a list of up and coming filmmakers he would want to work with. And toward the top of that list was Martha Coolidge.
Coolidge would naturally gravitate towards Real Genius, and she would have an advantage that no other filmmaker on Grazer’s list would have: her fiancee, Michael Backes, was himself an egghead, a genius in physics and biochemistry who in the years to come would become good friends with the writer and filmmaker Michael Crichton, working as a graphics supervisor on the movie version of Chricton’s book Jurassic Park, a co-writer of the screenplay based on Chricton’s book Rising Sun, and an associate producer on the movie version of Chricton’s book Congo.
Once Coolidge was signed on to direct Real Genius in the spring of 1984, she and Backes would work with former SCTV writer and performer PJ Torokvei as they would spend time talking to dozens of science students at CalTech and USC, researching laser technology, and the policies of the CIA. They would shape the project to something closer to what Grazer said he loved most about its possibility, the possibility of genius. "To me,” Grazer would tell an interviewer around the time of the film’s release, “a genius is someone who can do something magical, like solve a complex problem in his head while I'm still trying to figure out the question. I don't pretend to understand it, but the results are everywhere around us. We work, travel, amuse ourselves and enhance the quality of life through technology, all of which traces back to what was once an abstract idea in the mind of some genius.”
When their revised screenplay got the green light from the studio with an $8m budget, Grazer and Coolidge got to the task of casting the film. While the young genius Mitch was ostensibly the lead character in the film, his roommate Chris would need a star to balance out the relative obscurity of his co-star. A number of young actors in Hollywood would be seen, but their choice would be 25 year old Val Kilmer, whose first movie, Top Secret!, had not yet opened in theatres but had hot buzz going for it as the followup film for the Airplane! writing/directing team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker.
Fourteen year old Gabe Jarret, whose only previous film work had been in a minor role in the 1981 Tony Danza/Danny DeVito comedy Going Ape!, would land the coveted role of Mitch, while supporting roles would go to Coolidge’s former costars Michelle Meyrink, Deborah Foreman and Robert Prescott, as well as William Atherton, who at the time was on movie screens as Walter Peck, the main human antagonist to the Ghostbusters, as Chris and Mitch’s duplicitous professor, Jerry Hathaway, and Patti D’Arbanville, who had made a splash on screens in 1981 as Chevy Chase’s long-suffering girlfriend in Modern Problems.
Shooting would begin on Real Genius in Southern California on November 12th, 1984. Most of the film would be shot on sets built at the Hollywood Center Studios, just a few blocks west of the Paramount Studios lot, while several major set pieces, including the memorable finale involving Professor Hathaway’s house, a space laser and 190,000 pounds of popcorn, were shot in the then quiet suburban area of Sand Canyon, a few miles east of Magic Mountain, a popular theme park and filming area about 45mins north of Hollywood Center Studios. Outdoor scenes standing in for the Pacific Tech campus would be filmed at Occidental College in Eagle Rock and Pomona College in Claremont, while some scenes would be filmed at General Atomics outside San Diego, standing in for an Air Force base in the film’s climax. Shooting on the film would finish after the first of the year, giving Coolidge and her editor, Richard Chew, about seven months to get the film in shape for a planned August 7th, 1985, release.
Going in to the Summer 1985 movie season, Real Genius was positioned to be one of the hit films of the summer. They had a hot up and coming star in Val Kilmer, a hot director in Martha Coolidge, and a fairly solid release date in early August. But then, there ended up being an unusual glut of science fiction and sci-fi comedy movies in the marketplace at the same time. In March, Disney released the dinosaur-themed Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, which was not a good film and bombed pretty bad. In June, there was the artificial intelligence film D.A.R.Y.L., which was not a good film and bombed pretty bad. In July, there was Back to the Future, which was a very good film and became one of the biggest successes of the year, and there was Explorers, Joe Dante’s followup to Gremlins, which featured Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix as teenage boys who build their own spacecraft to explore outer space, and although it was one of the best movies released in the summer of 1985, it too bombed pretty bad.
But then, in a seven day period in early August, we had Weird Science, which was not very good and not very successful, Real Genius, and My Science Project, another Disney movie about a glowing orb thing from outer space that causes a lot of problems for a lazy high school student looking for something to use for his science class final, which is one of the worst movies of the year, and bombed worse than any of the other movies mentioned.
Weird Science, John Hughes’ followup to his surprise hit The Breakfast Club, released only six months earlier, would open on August 1st, and come in fourth place with $4.9m from 1158 theatres. In its second weekend of release, Weird Science would lose 40% of its opening weekend audience, coming in fifth with $2.97m. But that would still be better than Real Genius, which opened on Wednesday, August 5th, which would come in sixth in its opening weekend, with $2.56m from 990 locations. My Science Project, opening on August 7th, could only manage to open in 13th place with $1.5m from 1003 theatres. That would be worse than a reissue of E.T. in its fourth weekend of release.
In its second weekend, Real Genius would only drop 14% of its opening weekend audience, coming in with $2.2m from 956 locations, but after a third weekend, losing a third of its screens and 46% of its second week audience, Real Genius would be shuttled off to the dollar houses, where it would spend another seventeen weeks before exiting theatres with only $12.95m worth of tickets sold.
However, it is my personal opinion is that the film failed to find an audience because it was perceived as being too smart for a simple audience. Real Genius celebrates intelligence. It doesn’t pander to its audience. In many ways, it belittles stupidity, especially Mitch’s moronic parents. Revenge is dished out in the most ingenious ways, especially at the end with Professor Hathaway’s house, to the point where the science behind how Chris and Mitch did what the did is still actively debated thirty-eight years later. Caltech students served as consultants on the film, and played students in the background, while Dr. Martha Gunderson, a physics professor at USC whose vast knowledge about lasers informed the writers during the development stage, played a math professor on screen. Finally, to help promote the film, Martha Coolidge and producer Brian Grazer held the first-ever online press conference through the CompuServe online service, even though there were less than 125,000 on the entire planet who had CompuServe access in August 1985.
Today, the film is rightfully regardless as a classic, but it wouldn’t make Val Kilmer a star quite yet. That, of course, would happen in 1986, when he co-starred as Tom Cruise’s frenemy in Tony Scott’s Top Gun. Gabe Jarret would eventually become Gabriel Jarret, appearing in such movies as Karate Kid 3, Apollo 13 and The American President, and he continues to work in movies and on television to this day. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Michelle Meyrink, who would quit acting three years after making Real Genius, but we’ll talk about that on our next episode. And, of course, William Atherton would cement his reputation as the chucklenut Gen Xers love to hate when he played the cocky television reporter Dick Thornburg in the first two Die Hard movies.
And with that, we come to the end of this episode. Thank you for joining us.
We’ll talk again next week, when Episode 111, on Coolidge’s 1988 comedy Plain Clothes, is released.
Remember to visit this episode’s page on our website, The80sMoviePodcast.com, for extra materials about the movies we covered this episode.
The 80s Movies Podcast has been researched, written, narrated and edited by Edward Havens for Idiosyncratic Entertainment.
Thank you again.