Tom Schiller on lost masterpiece Nothing Lasts Forever
In 1984, a comic sci-fi starring Bill Murray disappeared without a trace when it was canned by its studio. 35 years later, Nothing Lasts Forever gets its Scottish premiere as part of Weird Weekend – we find out more from its director, Tom Schiller
Every month or so, an old film is dusted off for revival in UK cinemas, but perhaps revival isn’t the correct word, given that the films that tend to get tapped for rerelease have hardly gone away. A Clockwork Orange had a recent cinema run, Jaws played across the UK in the summer and a new cut of Apocalypse Now is fresh from packing out cinemas. Midnight Cowboy, Singing In The Rain and Gremlins are due to do their own laps of honour in the latter half of the year. All fine films, all far from lost or underseen. Praise be then for Weird Weekend, the Glasgow festival showcasing a lineup of cinematic orphans, strays and weirdoes that aren’t likely to receive shiny rereleases any time soon – if they even got released in the first place.
Falling into that last category is comic fantasy Nothing Lasts Forever, the one and only feature from Tom Schiller. Scheduled for release in 1984, the film was unceremoniously pulled by its distributor, MGM. A studio prematurely washing its hands of one of its movies is nothing new: smelling the whiff of a turkey, it's often prudent to write it off and move on to more commercial prospects. The rejection of Nothing Lasts Forever seems particularly harsh though. It had the cachet of Saturday Night Live on its side; Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd appear in the film and Schiller was part of SNL's original writing staff. The film was also in demand from the world’s greatest film festival. Pierre-Henri Deleau, the head of Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight, called Nothing Lasts Forever “a masterpiece” and begged MGM to bring the film to the festival two years in a row; MGM declined.
Which is a shame, as it means this strange gem has remained out of circulation ever since with a handful of screenings and a very brief, unauthorised appearance on YouTube being the only opportunities to see it. Its focus is wide-eyed dreamer Adam Beckett (played by future Gremlins star Zach Galligan), a young man who has ambitions of being an artist, he just doesn’t know what kind. His journey to discovering his true calling is full of absurdist wit and homages to cinema’s past. After touring Europe as a fraud pianist (he fakes his virtuosic concert performances using a player piano) he returns home to a retro-future New York, which has been taken over by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the city’s Port Authority.
His wild journey to redemption takes him down to the tunnels below Carnegie Hall to a realm controlled by the city’s homeless community and on a trip to a shopping complex on the moon by bus, with Bill Murray playing the malevolent ticket conductor. As skew-whiff as the cosmic plot is Schiller’s aesthetic. Shot in luminous black and white, although bursting into colour – Wizard of Oz-style – in key moments, the film resembles a 40s Frank Capra picture that unfolds with the dreamlike logic of a Luis Buñuel joint. The retro style is so convincing that Schiller is able to thread the dramatic scenes with archival footage of old New York and clips from classic silent movies like DW Griffith’s Intolerance and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The results are bizarre and endearing, and bursting with cock-a-hoop invention.
Ahead of Nothing Lasts Forever’s Scottish debut at Weird Weekend, we spoke to Schiller about his lost masterpiece.
Nothing Lasts Forever isn’t like any other feature film to come out of SNL. How did the project get started?
I was assigned to write a screenplay for MGM along with a couple of other SNL writers. I was told to write a “Tom Schiller movie”. So I did. When the president of MGM came into my office and said “I’d like to find a way to make your picture”, I nearly exploded with joy. I had no idea why my script was chosen. At that time MGM was in financial difficulties. You may remember a film called Heaven’s Gate, which was millions of dollars over budget. Maybe they picked mine because it seemed low budget.
Nothing Lasts Forever and many of your SNL short films, like La Dolce Gilda, suggest you’re a lover of movies. What was your relationship to cinema growing up?
I grew up in Los Angeles where my father was a writer on I Love Lucy. As a kid, I got to visit the set where I learned much about shooting films. My mother screened The Red Balloon for my fifth birthday. After seeing it I wanted to become French.
Later, I saw Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and 8 1/2. I loved them. It was then I decided to be a foreign film director. Once when I was in Rome, I visited my great hero Fellini at Cinecitta Studios. I told him I made a homage to him – La Dolce Gilda. He said: “We must arrange a screening.” He saw it and said, “Carina! It has the atmosphere of some of my films.” I was walking on air.
My younger brother and I used to watch TV every night while eating dinner. We watched movies from The Time Machine to The Jazz Singer, and every style in between. I also used to go to an underground film club called Movies Round Midnight where I saw my first experimental films.
Nothing Lasts Forever is full of references to other art forms too. There are multiple gags about Dadaism, for example. The humour is both playful and sophisticated, with an absurdist streak. How would you describe your particular take on comedy?
I think you’ve described it perfectly.
The film feels very affectionate towards New York, although it's also playfully satirising the city as well (the jokes about the Port Authority and the avant-garde art scene). Did you want to make a homage to the city?
Yes, I did. Although New York in the mid-70s was kind of scary, I was thrilled to be living there. I would hunt down buildings and restaurants, landmarks that were there from the 30s or 40s or locations that still existed from vintage movies I’d seen.
One thing I noticed was a huge bus station called the 'Port Authority.' This struck me as funny as I wondered if the Port Authority was a human entity. I used that in my movie when the city was in the midst of a massive strike and it was under control of the Port Authority. New York also had a lot of art galleries and performance spaces where I usually found them pretentious and good fodder for the movie.
I believe there were a lot of young actors who auditioned for the role of Adam Beckett. What drew you to Zach Galligan?
Matthew Modine auditioned, Griffin Dunne, and Matthew Broderick among many more, but I didn’t want to use a known actor. I wanted an unknown so the audience wouldn’t have any preconceptions. What drew me to Zach was he was convincing as an innocent 18-year-old who was earnestly trying to find his art.
The film’s about a young man who wants to be an artist but doesn’t quite know what kind of artist he wants to be. Was the character autobiographical in any way?
Yes. Totally autobiographical. I still don’t know what kind of artist I want to be. When I was 16 after seeing French New Wave movies, I tried to dress and act like a French artist but with no inkling what kind I was supposed to be. In my ‘20s I moved to Europe and tried to “find my art.” In the film, the episode in the train really happened when a Swedish architect said: “Don’t worry, you will find your art, only you won’t find it in the way you expect.”
Bill Murray is kind of playing against type here. He’s the closest thing the film has to a villain. How did you and Murray connect at SNL and why did you want him for Nothing Lasts Forever?
When Bill first joined SNL we became pals and hung out. At that time he wasn’t known and we’d walk down the street and no one noticed him. I dubbed this period as “the last days of anonymity.” Eventually, when he became a huge celebrity, people would mob him for autographs. No more anonymity.
I wanted Bill to play evil in the movie because he hadn’t played that type of role before, and also sometimes flight attendants have a subtle undercurrent of hostility. And who can blame them?
You seem to have been invited to quite a few screenings of Nothing Lasts Forever over the last few years. How has the new generation reacted to the film?
Yes, for a film that has supposedly never been released, it’s been shown at lots of festivals and screenings all over the States and some foreign countries. If Weird Weekend is any indication, I’m hoping that younger Glaswegians might like the film too.
I first saw Nothing Lasts Forever when it appeared on YouTube a few years ago and got a few nice write-ups, like Richard Brody's great piece in the New Yorker. How did you feel about it leaking online and the reaction?
I was delighted it was online. The YouTube appearance was a fluke. When MGM found out they yanked it.
MGM refused to release Nothing Lasts Forever. From your point of view, what do you think turned them against the film?
It wasn’t commercial. I don’t think a big studio could do a general release and make any money. When I screened the final print for the executives at MGM they said: “it’s an art film.” I was thrilled, but they apparently weren’t.
Do you think they were expecting a film along the lines of Animal House or Caddyshack?
Yes. It’s strange, MGM executives read the script, they visited the set. I think they didn’t want to spend the dough to release it properly. Due to a twist of fate, I was able to make a personal film at a mega-studio.
The film did have champions, particularly at the Cannes film festival. It must be one of the few times a studio has refused to take their film to Cannes when invited. Why do you think MGM wouldn't let you screen at the festival?
I snuck a print over to the official who was in New York to select films for Cannes' Director’s Fortnight. Suddenly I got a phone call – and in a French accent he said, “You have created a masterpiece, you will be the sensation of the festival!” So I met him at the Algonquin Hotel lobby where he ordered champagne and told me I had created a “chef-d'oeuvre.” My heart was pounding out of my chest because all I wanted to be was a foreign film director. And Cannes! Wow!
So later, in LA, I went to meet with the president of MGM and excitedly told him they wanted me in Cannes and he said, “Baby, you could get hurt at Cannes” (he really said “baby.”) So I said, “give me an example of a film that was hurt at Cannes.” And he said, “Baby, I can give you a list of 50 on your desk by tomorrow.” The list never materialized and the film never went to Cannes. They even asked it again the next year, but MGM still wouldn’t let it go. I desperately wanted to be shown in France, even if they did like Jerry Lewis.
Can you see any way the film might get a wider release in the future?
I would be delighted, but it would risk losing its cult film status. Strangely enough, I like it being kind of obscure.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from making Nothing Lasts Forever?
The main thing I learned is that an undistributed film can still live on even after 35 years and have screenings (like in Glasgow). That is heartwarming to me. Somehow the film continues to live on and nothing is really lost forever.
Nothing Lasts Forever screens on 35mm as part of Matchbox Cineclub's Weird Weekend, and will be followed by a Skype Q&A with Tom Schiller
30 Aug, 7pm, CCA, Glasgow, tickets here