Before ‘Twilight,’ ‘Lost Boys’ made vampires fun
Posted in: Movies
"The Lost Boys" cast included Brooke McCarter, left, Billy Wirth, Chance Michael Corbitt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz and Alex Winter. (Warner Bros.)Link
"We didn't know if ‘Lost Boys’ was going to work," says director Joel Schumacher. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)Link
Corey Feldman plays one of the Rambo-esque vampire-hunting Frog brothers in "The Lost Boys." (Warner Bros.)Link
Kiefer Sutherland in "The Lost Boys." (Warner Bros.)Link
Kiefer Sutherland is the leader of the undead motorcycle fangsters and Jami Gertz is the enigmatic Star in "The Lost Boys." (Warner Bros.)Link
Alex Winter is part of the vampire gang in "The Lost Boys." (Warner Bros.)Link
"The Lost Boys" director Joel Schumacher. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)Link
Director Joel Schumacher's teen vampire film found instant youth culture currency in 1987. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)Link
Alex Winter, left, Billy Wirth, Kiefer Sutherland and Brooke McCarter played the fangsters in "The Lost Boys." (Warner Bros.)Link
Twenty-five years ago, a summer release from a costume designer-turned-director was moving the needle on vampire movies, forever altering how both audiences and the industry engaged with a cinematic staple by dressing it up with teen romance, sex appeal and style.
Fans of “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries,” take note: A lot of what you love about your night creatures descends directly from Joel Schumacher’s 1987 movie “The Lost Boys,” which carries the indelible tagline: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.”
Long before the sub-genre became over-freighted with our fantasies, phobias and revisionist history (Abe Lincoln? Really?), handsome young bloodsuckers with chiseled cheekbones, cool clothes and attitude to spare were wilding through the Northern California seaside resort of Santa Carla, a fictional town with the ignominious title of “Murder Capital of the World.”
Cut to Arizona refugees Michael (Jason Patric), his younger brother, Sam (Corey Haim), and their divorced mother, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), moving to Santa Carla for a fresh start. On the boardwalk, the well-coiffed Michael falls head over leather jacket for the enigmatic and beautiful Star (Jami Gertz), who introduces him to a pack of undead motorcycle fangsters, led by the charismatic David (Kiefer Sutherland).
It’s up to Sam and his comic book-obsessed buddies the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to save Michael from a life of eternal neck biting.
With a still-resonant rock-rap soundtrack (Echo & the Bunnymen, INXS, Run-DMC) and an inventive pretzeling of horror and humor (“It’s the attack of Eddie Munster”), the R-rated movie was met with mixed reviews often citing style over substance (The Times called it “a glossy fiasco with most of the real blood sucked out of it”) but found instant youth-culture currency (and a strong box office of $32 million) and later, unexpected durability, helping to set the stage for Buffy, Blade, Edward and Bella, and beyond.
And now, as old becomes new again with NBC recently greenlighting a Victorian-era “Dracula,” based on Bram Stoker’s classic novel, it’s worth remembering “The Lost Boys,” with its inventive updating of vampire look, lore and gore, as a significant developmental step in the continuing evolution of this very mutable monster.
But back when the movie was being made with its brash, youthful cast — a shoot that experienced as many stomach-dropping thrills as the boardwalk’s famed Giant Dipper roller coaster — few thought it would have any staying power past its theatrical run. No one would have imagined that the film would be shown annually to kick off Santa Cruz’s boardwalk movie series.
“We didn’t know if ‘Lost Boys’ was going to work,” Schumacher says. “I didn’t. Nobody in it did. The studio certainly didn’t.”
“The Lost Boys” began as a mash-up idea that now seems ahead of its time. James Jeremias, an aspiring screenwriter, had been reading Anne Rice’s “Interview With a Vampire.” The young girl in the novel made him think of another character trapped in a never-ending childhood: J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
“So the first notion or idea that started ‘Lost Boys’ was ‘What if the reason Peter Pan never grew up and came out at night and could fly was because he was a vampire?’” Jeremias says. “And that’s what the story was, a retelling of the Peter Pan story. The three main characters were [initially named] John, Michael and the mother was Wendy.”
A self-described movie goon, Jeremias connected with friend Janice Fischer, and they spent five months fleshing out the script. “It was a boys’ adventure film,” Jeremias says. “[The brothers] were 12 and 8, and we purposefully picked that time because we wanted it before sex rears its ugly little head. It was: ‘You’re a kid, and you’re fighting vampires. What do you do?’”
When coming up with the setting, Jeremias envisioned a place where preteen vampires would want to live forever. His answer: Santa Cruz, Calif. “It’s a kids’ paradise, with the roller coaster and the boardwalk right there on the sand,” he says.
Jeremias and Fischer sold their script to a company called Producers Sales Organization and Richard Donner (“Superman”) signed on as director. Donner had recently found success directing another kids’ adventure movie, “The Goonies,” which was made under the aegis of Steven Spielberg.
As Jeremias remembers it, Donner (who declined to be interviewed) wanted to age up the “Lost Boys” so they “were old enough to drive”; not long after, he dropped out to direct 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.” He remained a producer, however, and sent the script to writer-director (and one-time costume designer) Schumacher, thinking he’d be a good choice to fill the squirt gun with holy water and update vampire mythology for a new generation.
As a costume designer, Schumacher had worked on Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” and “Interiors,” among other films, and he famously went on to direct two of the 1990s “Batman” movies in addition to “A Time to Kill,” “The Client” and the indie drama “Tigerland.”
When Donner initially approached him about “Lost Boys,” however, he was coming off the 1985 hit “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which was produced by Donner’s then girlfriend and later wife, Lauren Shuler Donner. Schumacher says he initially had a hard time envisioning what he would do with the movie.
“I read the script, and it was like ‘Goonies’ go vampire,” he says. “It was very G-rated, and you know that’s not my strong suit.”
He decided to pass on “Lost Boys,” but before he called his agent to turn it down, he reconsidered, striking on the same idea Donner had had. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t these vampires be teenagers?’” he says. “‘And why couldn’t they ride motorcycles? And why couldn’t they look like English gypsies?’”
Influenced visually by the long overcoats and blown and moussed hair of Duran Duran spinoff band Arcadia and “European fashion magazines, especially German [ones],” Schumacher set to work with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) to sex up the plot and up the ante on laughs and the violent disposal of vamps, while loosening the Barrie ties.
Peter was renamed David and John changed to Sam. Star became a young woman and the love interest of Michael. A loopy and lovably gruff grandfather (to be played by Barnard Hughes) was introduced.
The film stayed in Santa Cruz, however, after Schumacher made a visit to NorCal’s version of Surf City and soaked up the neon eeriness of the amusement park at night. “There were all these stoned-out kids selling Grateful Dead merchandise, and I thought, ‘If I were a teenage vampire, this is exactly where I would come,’” Schumacher says. “All the kids were transient, so they could disappear and no one would even notice.”
Feldman, who also appeared in “The Goonies,” was one of the film’s few young actors cast with any name recognition. Schumacher tapped Haim off the strength of the young actor’s turn in “Lucas” and decided on Sutherland after seeing his small role in “At Close Range.”
“The minute I met Kiefer, I knew he would be head of the vampires,” Schumacher says, citing the actor’s intensity and ability to project a certain smirking menace.
Schumacher says it took six weeks to persuade Patric to take the part of Michael (he did so by promising that the actor wouldn’t have to wear any vampire makeup, a promise he later broke). Patric recommended Gertz, with whom he had worked previously, to play Star.
“I was the only girl in this sea of young actors, and it was just insane,” Gertz says when asked of her memories of making the movie. “If they were riding bikes really fast, I wanted to ride bikes really fast. If they were eating tons of food, I wanted to eat tons of food. It was just that kind of tit for tat, trying to stay alive with this group of rambunctious and rowdy young men.”
Shooting the film in summer 1986, with a reported budget of $8.5 million, Schumacher faced challenges from the start. Looking to protect its reputation as a family-friendly destination, Santa Cruz would not allow the production to shoot on the boardwalk unless the movie came up with a different name for the city — hence the fictional Santa Carla, Schumacher says.
And then there was the issue of managing an ensemble of young, exuberant and often immature actors.
Early on, Sutherland crashed his motorcycle when “trying to impress a girl by doing a wheelie down the boardwalk” and “broke my left wrist in two places,” he says.
“I was like, ‘I can’t wear a cast.’ So I went to a surfboard shaper and said, ‘Can you immobilize my hand with a very thin layer of polyurethane?’ That way I could get the glove back on. Halfway through the film, I’ve got a clutch and a brake on the right handlebar of my bike and we would just tape my left hand to the other handlebar. And that’s how I would ride.”
Viewing the dailies, the studio began voicing concerns about the film’s tonal mixing of the serious and satiric, with the movie sending up the very form that it was embracing, earning chuckles from the characters’ straight-faced reactions and practical solutions to frightening, supernatural conundrums.
When asked by executives whether he was making a comedy or a horror movie, Schumacher remembers replying: “Yes.” When he was told that that wasn’t a satisfactory answer, he said: “It’s not costing much money. Let’s dare to be lucky.”
The gambit worked. Schumacher kept the set loose, and the cast gelled. Patric developed a sibling relationship with Haim, Schumacher, says, “putting Corey under his protective wing. So they really were, for that movie, brothers.”
Memorable lines were conjured up on the fly, with Schumacher looking to the actors for creative input, which they gladly gave, such as Feldman and Newlander doing basement-octave Stallone impressions for their Rambo-esque vampire-hunting Frog brothers.
Schumacher credits the film’s appeal not only to the story (with its slight metaphorical nods to teenage alienation, peer pressure and sexual worriment) and the cast but also to the colleagues who surrounded him, including cinematographer Michael Chapman (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,”) and Oscar-winning makeup artists Ve Neill (“Beetlejuice”) and Greg Cannom (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”).
Sutherland, however, says Schumacher deserves recognition for having “a vision” and “an unbelievable sense of style.”
“Joel really is a wonderful director-conductor,” Sutherland adds, “and he took all the parts and blended them together perfectly.
“We were so young and innocent, and we had all the energy in the world. We didn’t realize how lucky this was going to be for us and how much it was going to matter. There was a kind of wonderful freedom in that. ‘Lost Boys’ in a weird way has become a very good friend to all the people who were involved in it. It was so unabashedly fun.”
— Tim Swanson
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