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. Director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton are who most people think of when they look back at the 1988 dark comedy (and rightly so), but it originated from the mind of Wilson, his producing partner, Michael Bender, and fellow co-writer, the late Michael McDowell. In celebration of this classic's 30th anniversary, we chatted with Wilson about a movie that might have been very different.
1. It originally had a far darker ending: Lydia (Winona Ryder) was going to die in a fire
Among the several unexpected turns Beetlejuice takes is its ending. Lydia comes back home with mostly good grades and is rewarded with a ghostly dance number by Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis). It's all-in-all a rather cheerful way to leave the characters. Of course, Wilson and McDowell initially wrote up something just a tad 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 was almost given a different, far worse title until David Geffen stepped in
Working as an instructor for UCLA's Extension program in the '80s, Wilson wound up befriending 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 their marketing department at the time. Among the concerns they 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 Brothers 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."
Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice. Screenwriter Larry Wilson said that while Keaton defined the character as we know him today, the original inspiration for the beloved character was a comedic icon — Groucho Marx. (Photo: Warner Bros.)
3. Lydia was going to have a sister
Wilson has joked about the rewrite process he and McDowell had to undergo 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 key 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. The original inspiration for Beetlejuice was a demonic Groucho Marx
He might not have created the character, but nearly everything about Beetlejuice that audiences love today can be credited to Michael Keaton. He developed the look of the character and even improvised most of his dialogue. Still, the idea had to come from where, and Wilson took inspiration 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. Larry Wilson had a sequel idea and it wasn't the much-maligned Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian
Fresh off the success of their unlikely hit, Warner Bros. was interested in making 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 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 share 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 I's 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."
Larry Wilson's new movie, an animated, 3D adaptation of The Little Vampire will be released on-demand later this year.