(Editor note: Hollywood Director “Savage” Steve Holland was born in 1960. He attended school in Connecticut. He created, wrote and produced EEK, THE CAT, produced Sabrina: The Animated Series, directed many films including classics Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer and directed many TV shows including Lizzie McGuire and the Pamela Anderson hit, VIP.)
Jake Thomas: How old were you when you shot your first film?
Savage: I was ten when I made my first super 8 masterpiece called Zombie Island. I was 24 when I made my first feature. They looked pretty much the same.
Jake Thomas: What was the film?
Savage: The greatest story ever told…“Better Off Dead” starring teen genius John Cusack.
Jake Thomas: Was directing your first interest in filmmaking?
Savage: Actually, animation was a big part of filmmaking for me. See, with live action you need a crew and equipment and sandwiches for people to eat, and actors. But when you’re animating, and you simply draw your character it doesn’t figure out you are clearly untalented, and call you a “hack” in front of the crew Also with animation you basically only need a bunch of paper and pencils, and beer for yourself. So, yes, animation was my first friend, and professionally directing a live action film was a bit of a stretch I didn’t dare dream. But it came true anyway, because I wrote the script I was allowed to direct! Which brings us to ---
Jake Thomas: How did you get your first real directing job?
Savage: Complete and total LUCK (OK, and some minor skills to back it up). I had some animated and live action short films in the film festival circuit. So some people in town knew who I was. A lot of people liked my stuff and were very kind to me. Henry Winkler gave me a FREE office at Paramount at his own film company to work out of so I could get a start in the business! I was 22, and it was so cool and I’ll never forget his kindness! Henry introduced me to a great guy named Andy Meyer at a small film company he was starting at A and M records. (A and M Films, which eventually made the John Hughes’ masterpiece “The Breakfast Club”, and later, my lesser movie!) Andy was also a fan of my shorts, (Um, my short films that is) and asked me if I had a feature film idea. He liked my sad but true story which I thought was a tragedy, but he thought was hilarious, and he paid me lunch money to write “Better Off Dead.” He and his company passed the script around, and it was rejected almost daily for over two years. I was continually frustrated, but Andy always believed. One day Andy set up a meeting with a REAL “production style” producer named Michael Jaffe who had somehow read the script. I swore this was the last meeting I was ever going to take on this script and was planning to quit Hollywood and become a living autopsy model at UCLA medical School, which, it seemed, had to hurt less than the daily rejection. So at lunch Mr. Jaffe explained he had a “low budget teen script” that needed a comedy re-write, and asked if I could do it kind of like Better Off Dead. I asked him, if he was meeting with me because he thought Better Off Dead was funnier than his script, why didn’t he just make my script? And to my amazement he said he’d… “think about it.” The next day he called and said that’s exactly what he was going to do! He was gonna MAKE BETTER OFF DEAD! It was UNREAL! I didn’t believe it was true until the first day of shooting and I pulled up and there were all these trucks at the location and I could get a breakfast burrito out of one of the trucks AND NOT HAVE TO PAY FOR IT!!! And in the circle of life, Henry Winkler suggested I meet “the most talented kid he’d ever worked with” on his movie he just produced THE SURE THING to play my lead, and that was of course John Cusack.
Jake Thomas: Is it harder today than when you first started to break into the biz?
Savage: I can’t even imagine. I think I was so very lucky that I have no right to even guess. I do believe that there’s a lot more ways for your project to be seen these days with the internet and home video technology. When I started, VHS tapes and Block Buster style stores were just starting up. If it wasn’t for VHS and cable and DVD’s and HBO and Comedy Central, no one would even believe I made films. Like my parents to this day.
Jake Thomas: What types of films do you like to direct?
Savage: I love directing shameless stupid comedy. I would love to direct a horror film one day.
Jake Thomas: Do you prefer to direct your own material?
Savage: I used to, probably only because I don’t want to wreck someone else’s great work. And nothing in our business is harder to do than write a great script! But I have to admit, the writers I’ ve been directing in TV these days are way more talented than me, so they make me look good. So selfishly these days I’m really loving directing other writers stuff!
Jake Thomas: Any “do’s and don’ts” advice you would give to a young filmmaker who is just starting his career?
Savage: DO persevere and DON’T give up. It’s really frustrating, but if it happens it’s worth it. And that said only pursue it if it’s fun. If it’s just a job it probably isn’t worth it. And DO be nice to everyone you deal with. I went to Paramount to pitch a movie a while back and the executive I was pitching to said he started his career parking cars on my 2nd movie. Thank god he said I was really nice every day. (But he didn’t buy my pitch. )
Jake Thomas: Which of your films/TV shows would you recommend to a new filmmaker to show a lot of different ideas/techniques?
Savage: I stuffed every thing I had into Better Off Dead. Animation and SFX and claymation and shots I stole from Spielberg and Hitchcock. I figured I’d only have one shot in my lifetime to make a movie so I tried to put every style of filmmaking I knew into this one chance!
Jake Thomas: In 1992 Eek the Cat premiered. It was a concept you came up with. How were you able to get someone to listen to your idea about an animated cat? Did you invest in a spec cartoon to show people?
Savage: Ok here’s the EEK story. A girlfriend handed me this adorable kitten, and sorta said, “you’ll need something to love because it won’t be me! I’m dumping your sorry bloated ass.” Then she left. And I loved this kitty. I named him EEK. A couple of weeks later I went to Canada for a TV job and took my new best buddy EEK. We got to the hotel and we were on the 19th floor. And I opened the window to look at the view and then opened EEK’s little cat carrier to let him out. At that moment a seagull laded right on the sill of the newly opened window. EEK’s eyes went wide as saucers and he ran as fast as his pudgy legs could carry him and rocketed for the bird! The seagull, of course flew away just as EEK flew past him and out the 19th story window. It was the most horrible thing ever. I looked out just as he hit the cement below. Naturally I just wigged out, and I remember thinking “How can a cat be that freaking’ stupid?!“ So to memorialize the dumbest cat with the biggest heart, I came up with the EEK show. And yes, I invested about $30 K of my own money to make a full color, 5 minute section of the pilot script I wrote…and no one cared and it just was ignored. Then, out of nowhere, years later, the president of the start up FOX KIDS NETWORK, Margaret Loesch found the EEK tape in a stack of REJECTED stuff. She tracked me down at home (where I was biting my pillow and weeping for wasting that freaking $30K) and asked if she could make 13 episodes (Which became over 66!) It was another Christmas miracle! Still, I wish that EEK didn’t jump.
Jake Thomas: You are beloved by all you work with. A Savage Steve Holland set is known to be a fun set. Is that by design to get the most from your actors and crew, do you have a need to keep those around you laughing, is it that you just love what you are doing, or is it a combination of all of the above?
Savage: Well that’s really nice, seriously I appreciate that. As you know Jake, a set is a bunch of funny crazy people who are just so excited to do what they do. Actors have hilarious ideas, crew people want to make you laugh, Craft services people want to make you fat. It’s just infectious how fun it is. It’s like a party with 100 people, and you’re creating something together you can all look at and be proud of for the rest of your lives! How can you not love that?! The day I walked onto the set of Better Off Dead was the happiest day I’d ever had up until to then. All these talented people wanted to help me make my dream come true. And I’ve never NOT appreciated how lucky I am to keep walking onto sets. It’s just such a blast and it never gets old! And most important, I’m the Director, so everyone HAS to laugh at my jokes. It’s in the DGA charter!
Jake Thomas: What was the first film that people took notice of you? How old were you? Can you shed light on what it took for you to complete that project? Ok! Let me know if you’re getting bored?
Savage: Here’s what happened. When I was 20, I had a friend in my senior year at CAL ARTS who basically asked, “why are you so depressing? You are a study in moppishness. What the hell happened to you to make you this way?” And I had two excuses. Getting dumped in High School, and my 11 year-old- birthday party. I passed over the dumped story and explained; when I was 11 my mom threw me a party and not one kid showed up. The only person who did show up was this clown my mom hired who was HAMMERED drunk, and tried to pick up my mom and called me “Mr. Popular” every time a car drove by my house. He passed out watching the Flintstones. So this friend in school said I should make a movie about that. So I spent like 300 bucks and made my first live action film called “My 11 Year old Birthday Party.” (That friend, Mark Hensley, played the mean clown.) I shot it over two days, in black and white, and remember I bought chemicals and developed the negative myself in buckets to save money. So just before I graduated I heard L.A. had a film festival in the fall called FILMEX. So I submitted this “tragic” short film and a couple of my “cartoons”. So I graduated from CAL ARTS and life went on and I got a call from the festival that two of my animated films were going to show and my live action film “My Eleven Year Old Birthday Party” would open the festival as the short before the main opening feature which was a Paul Bartel’s twisted masterpiece, called EATING RAUL. So I actually got invited to the festival, and I remember meeting Buck Henry who wrote The Graduate, and is one of my heroes. Then my short played at the opening and all these people laughed at it. Which I guess was OK for such a sad story but whatever. So the next day my newest girlfriend broke up with me (she was waiting til after the festival cuz she bought a new dress and stuff) and I drove to the beach to spend the day mixing salty tears with the salt water. And that night when I came home my answering machine was full. And it was people like Mike Ovitz (a huge cool agent) and even cooler, Henry Winkler! The FONZ!!!! They were really complimentary and wanted to set up meetings! SO I realized people liked stories from my miserable life. It was really cool.
Jake Thomas: Did you attend a film school? How important is that to a young filmmaker?
Savage: My original plan was to skip college and just move to Hollywood after High School and start directing. Bad idea. A great teacher suggested I check out Cal Arts, a place I’d never heard of. Thank God they felt sorry for me and accepted me. I learned a crap load about every aspect of film, and there were actors there and technicians and animators and dancers. Also back then there was nothing else up there so it was really boring. There was/is the famous pool where students and faculty can swim naked. But the horrible part was only mutated people you NEVER wanted to see naked chose to swim naked. So you stayed inside a lot to keep your eyes from burning. And that meant working on your projects.
Jake Thomas: Was there a time you said “this sucks! I’m quitting!”? If so, what happened?
Savage: Seriously driving to meet the Producer who green lit Better Off Dead was it. I didn’t want to go. I was done and ready to move back home shamed. My sweet agent Rosalie Swedlen insisted I go. She said “Just One More MEETING ya pansy crybaby! Than quit if you want!” She was like 5 feet tall and could kick my ass. So I went.
Jake Thomas: What director do you most admire?
Savage: Frank Capra! He captured the average Joe as a hilarious, yet heart felt hero. And his movies are ageless. My guilty pleasure director is Ted Kotcheff. “First Blood” KICKS ASS!
Jake Thomas: Have you shot digital and edited it as well?
Savage: Yes, like many of us born after WW II, I was suspicious of digital. Change is hard, digital at first feels like video and it just hurts a film lover’s brain. But in the end, and especially in post, it’s light years ahead of old fashion film. Sorry film. But your little holes are still cute.
Jake Thomas: What is the most important part of filmmaking for the director? Story? Script? Casting? Equipment/crew? Editing? Promotion?
Savage: All of the above. Seriously you never know. A good script can be ruined by a hack like me. A great actor might make a film swell. You hear stories that JAWS was great because of music or editing, or Spielberg, etc. etc. All elements are important! BUT ALL UNSUNG CREWS ROCK!
Jake Thomas: Is it possible to get noticed without compromising your films? Savage: That’s a good question. Sorry Jake. I’m stumped like a pirate on that question, and out of beer so losing my focus. But, God I hope so!
Jake Thomas: Finish the sentence: If I wasn’t a filmmaker I would be…….
Savage: REALLY SAD.