A giant papier-mache skeleton drapes the back of the Universal Amphitheatre stage, the artificial smoke curling around its base tinted with lime-green lights. Alice Cooper, middle-aged icon of the heavy-metal scene, steps through the chest cavity, a riding crop in his hand, ghoulish eye makeup visible to the back row, and launches into a growling performance of something called “Feed My Frankenstein”:
Feed my Frankenstein
I’m hungry for love, and it’s feeding time
Feed my libido .
A remote-controlled camera attached to a crane gracefully swirls over the crowd of 400 frenzied extras clustered at the base of the stage, zooming in on two of its members. One is pale and pie-faced with an awe-struck smile beneath his baseball cap and dark, shoulder-length hair; the other sports a blond road-kill mop and nerd glasses, his mouth tight with a combination of excitement and panic. Those mythical cable access viewers from Aurora, Ill., and real-life fans of “Saturday Night Live” will immediately recognize their heroes--Wayne Campbell and his sidekick, Garth Algar, of “Wayne’s World.”
The Universal Amphitheatre is subbing tonight for a Milwaukee concert hall. Wayne (played by Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) have arrived in their Mirthmobile--a pale-blue Pacer with flames painted on the side and a can crusher mounted on the dash--at the Cooper concert. The nervous duo hold a couple of prized backstage passes high overhead and are given the magic nod to duck behind the curtains for a private audience with their hero.
Because even though Garth might insist that “we are not worthy,” the basement-bound boys with a passion for bass guitars and babes (pretty much in that order) are starring in their own feature film. Paramount found them worthy.
The plot will take them from the comfort of cable access to the heady atmosphere of regional broadcast, together with Rob Lowe (“Bad Influence”) as an oily television executive; Brian Doyle Murray (“SNL,” “Ghostbusters II”) as a corporate sponsor, and a veritable “babe-a-lonia,” as the boys like to say, of love interests that includes Tia Carrere (“Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”), Lara Flynn Boyle (“Twin Peaks”), Donna Dixon (“Spies Like Us”) and Ione Skye (“Say Anything”).
Fans who want to party on with Wayne and Garth in theaters across America need only hold their breaths until early next year. Meanwhile, the cast and crew of the film--which was green-lighted in June and completed shooting in 40 days between August and October--will try to catch theirs.
The film’s hectic pace was in part dictated by the production schedule of “Saturday Night Live.” The principal players, writers and producer all had to be in New York the last week in September for the show’s season premiere. The script itself, a first-time feature effort by Myers and two veteran “SNL” writers--husband and wife team Terry and Bonnie Turner--went through about 25 rewrites. And those are just the official rewrites. Even at that, jokes were being tweaked and changes made up to the very last day.
“Dana (Carvey) was nervous because he had done pictures that had delivered less than he wished,” director Penelope Spheeris says days after the Universal shoot, sitting in her office on the Paramount lot. “Mike (Myers) was nervous because he’d never done a picture. I was nervous because it was my first studio picture. And Lorne (Michaels, creator-producer of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and producer of ‘Wayne’s World’) was nervous because ‘Three Amigos’ (which he co-wrote and produced) may not have gone to the top of the charts. And Paramount was nervous because they had all these nervous people involved.”
Yet Spheeris professes pleasure with the outcome. “It sometimes surprises me,” she says, “but from total confusion how the sublime is born. That’s what I feel has happened on this picture. It was a painful childbirth. But it’s a beautiful baby.”
Conception took place a year and a half ago, when Michaels signed a multi-picture development deal with Paramount. He then turned to Myers, an actor and writer and fellow Toronto native whom he had brought into the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1989, to discuss whether heavy- metal head Wayne Campbell had a life beyond his basement.
The 28-year-old Myers, who had been developing the character since becoming a suburban teen metal head himself, started work on a script. In February, when it looked as though the project could be shot during “SNL’s” summer hiatus, the Turners, who have written “Wayne’s World” skits with Myers and Church Lady skits with Carvey, were brought in to help shape the script.
The green light was given in early June, before Brandon Tartikoff’s July 1 arrival as chairman of Paramount Pictures yet close enough to perhaps appear as though the former head of NBC was going to rely on television as a prime source of material. A leading question was raised in the film industry: Could a late-night skit be stretched the length of a feature film? According to Myers, the answer has always been “yes.”
“I’d always envisioned ‘Wayne’s World’ a movie,” Myers says. “I’d done it on TV before it was a film. So people know it from TV, but its heart is a movie.” Myers prides himself on having overcome “SNL’s” limits of one set per sketch. “It’s a sketch, more than others on the show, that does get out of the basement. It has fantasy sequences. I’ve always seen it in the context of many scenes, of (Wayne) in life. And despite the world coming to his basement, I’ve been on ice with Wayne Gretzky, I’ve been to the Four Seasons Hotel with Madonna and I have done fantasy sequences with multiple sets with Candice Bergen and with Aerosmith.”
To ease Paramount’s concerns, Howard W. Koch Jr. was brought in as executive producer. Koch has a solid Hollywood pedigree--his father was the head of production at Paramount during the ‘60s, and his own projects have ranged from “Chinatown,” of which he was assistant director, and “The Long Walk Home,” which he produced. He was finishing up a location shoot in Texas on Paramount’s current release “Necessary Roughness” when he got the call.
“I am more of a feature person and the studio felt comfortable with me here,” Koch says.
The film exemplifies Hollywood’s current lean thinking. Koch won’t give an exact figure but assures that the budget is below the industry average, which he pegs at $20 million. The decision was made to have Los Angeles stand in for Aurora, Ill., and the Chicago area as a way to keep costs under control and guarantee that everyone would be done in time to catch those planes to New York.
For those familiar with Spheeris’ two acclaimed feature documentaries--"The Decline of Western Civilization,” about the punk music scene of the late ‘70s, and “The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years"--about the heavy-metal music scene in the late ‘80s, choosing her to direct might seem inspired. Koch and Michaels make the decision sound much more pragmatic.
“We had very little time to make this movie,” Koch says, “and we needed someone who was a filmmaker and a shooter and understood the metal world.”
Michaels, speaking from New York, where he was preparing for the first salvo of “SNL’s” new season, says he knew Spheeris could do comedy--they had worked together on two Lily Tomlin TV specials in ’73 and ’75 and Spheeris produced Albert Brooks’ short films for “SNL’s” first season before going on to produce Brooks’ first feature, “Real Life.”
“We also wanted someone who had worked low-budget and who knew how to get more for less,” he adds. “She understood where rock ‘n’ roll and comedy meet. That’s always been a part of ‘Saturday Night Live’; those sensibilities rub off on each other.”
Spheeris, a tenacious woman in her mid-40s whose strong features are animated by a “just-do-it” attitude and framed by a shock of unruly red hair, hopes that “Wayne’s World” will lead to more studio films.
“This was my first studio picture, and I felt I really had to prove myself,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get to the studio for so long, and do a comedy for so long. I’ve been known as someone who makes dark cult movies. And I had to get out of that rut sometime or I’d be dead.”
Between documentaries, the UCLA Film School graduate has cranked out a string of low-budget movies, including “Suburbia,” starring real street kids in a story about outcast teens, and “The Boys Next Door,” with Charlie Sheen and Maxwell Caulfield as outcast teens turned serial killers. Much of her interest in the rootless, violent world of today’s youth stems from her own upbringing.
She was born the eldest of four children; her father was a circus strongman and her mother a ticket taker for the circus. Her father was murdered when Spheeris was 7, and she helped raise her siblings as her mother passed through multiple marriages and descended into alcoholism. She says her goal as a filmmaker has been to bring a certain believability to the screen about a certain type of kid. And Garth and Wayne are a comic exaggeration about that type of kid.
Spheeris, who supported herself as a waitress from the age of 14 through college graduation, studied psychobiology before switching to film at UCLA. “I’d be a shrink if I weren’t a filmmaker,” she says. “And I have to be a shrink, very often. It’s a constant challenge on the set. Sometimes I know what’s motivating someone, and why they’re having problems. And I have to stop myself sometimes from nailing it too hard. Because when you hit the truth too hard with people they react negatively.”
It was a fine line she walked with a lot of people watching.
“Lorne Michaels told me I would be here through the end of the picture provided the picture looked good and I was able to control the actors,” she says.
“The last part got tricky. . . . They’re a different breed, comedians. There were times when I had to drag them in; they were having problems and didn’t want to shoot. But it worked out.”
The director admires Michaels’ ability to cultivate a healthy climate of competition on the set of “SNL” and strove to do the same on this film. Possibly succeeding beyond her hopes, she understands the frustrations her stars may have felt.
“You just want the whole movie to yourself,” she says. “But it’s Wayne and Garth. Not just Wayne, not just Garth.”
It’s 9 p.m. on the Universal set. The extras are inside the Amphitheatre fluffing bleached locks, smoothing black leather and polishing silver-enameled nails. The actors, having finished with their early-evening makeup calls, are hanging out in the gypsy caravan of modest trailers parked in the lot outside. After a cappuccino , and despite the late hour, Mike Myers is just warming up to conversation.
“At Second City, the show would start at 8, so I’m at prime concentration about 11:30 at night,” he says, recalling his days with the Toronto branch of the famed improv troupe.
So the string of night shoots leading up to Alice Cooper’s performance hasn’t fazed the comic actor. Instead it seems to trigger the improviser in him, unleashing a passel of characters, most of whom, like Wayne, spring from his life. There’s the highly religious Filipino driving instructor from whom he’s been taking lessons while in L.A. (“I pray for you every day, Mr. Myers”), and here comes his charming British mum (“Ooh, I’m just grist for your comedy mill!”). Indeed, Myers’ entire life seems to have been grist for his comedy mill.
“Wayne is based on everybody I hung out with in the suburbs of Toronto,” he says. “I used to talk like this in life, then when I stopped talking like this in life, I used to make fun of my friends. I became a punk but still had guilty pleasures in secret listenings to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin.
“The Mirthmobile had its own counterpart. I had friends, and we would listen to tunes in a Dodge Dart Swinger, brown, that had a vomit stain on the side of it that we could never get off ‘cause the guy’s gastric juices had burnt through the paint job. And dirt had collected in it, so brown and brown and brown, into the shape of Elvis, and we chiseled it to make it look more like Elvis. I wanted to do it for the movie, but it would take too long to explain.”
Myers also embraced punk and mod during the course of his formative years. “It’s all theater,” he says, “and that’s what interested me most of all. When I was a punk, I got to be in costume all day. How great is that? That’s what I love most about it. You could be a society within a society and have a sense of belonging. You’re responsible to a community. There’s music. There’s gods. There is a Valhalla that people make offerings to.”
The message that metal heads are sending to the world, he says, is “just leave us alone.”
Myers is the youngest of three boys born to a British actress, who gave up her career to raise a family in Canada, and a father who sold encyclopedias. This latter might account for Myers’ vast storehouse of knowledge.
His father was also a fan of pop music--"He’d sing ‘Psycho Killer’ by the Talking Heads while cooking breakfast,” Mike says--and comedy. “He’d wake us up to watch ‘The Goon Show’ and ‘Monty Python’ on television.
“Pop music and comedians were gods in our house,” Myers adds.
After retiring with a bad case of adolescent attitude from his brief career as a child actor, Myers saw his luck hit a pinnacle on his last day in high school. He auditioned for Toronto’s Second City, was hired and was accepted to York University, all by 6 p.m. the same day.
“I thought I would just do Second City for two months to save for tuition,” he says. He stuck with the improv troupe instead, eventually finding his way to the Chicago branch, from which he was hired for “SNL.”
“I always think that the ‘No Talent’ police are going to come and take me away,” Myers says. “And if they don’t, they at least have a warrant for my arrest. I always feel that at any given time, this is going to be my last job.”
Dana Carvey made his escape from the suburbs, although about 10 years earlier than Myers.
“I was a pot-smoking, mushroom-dropping hippie, and the heavy-metal thing was just all punk, fascism and violence to me,” says Carvey, 37, sitting in his dressing trailer. His glasses and frazzled blond wig add a certain dementia to what is still capable of being a pixieish face. “I do like hard rock, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, the Who. But I feel sorry for the kids now,” says Carvey, a newly minted father of a 10-week-old baby, Dex.
“We grew up in such a great time. We had Muhammad Ali and the Beatles; they’ve got New Kids on the Block. It’s not quite the same. We just came up through a really culturally lucky time.”
The Missoula, Mont., native was raised in San Carlos, Calif., a bedroom community south of San Francisco. After graduating from San Francisco State with a degree in broadcasting, he quickly conquered the local comedy club scene. In 1981 he landed in Los Angeles, where he was cast in a slew of television series, pilots and films. Unfortunately, none of them led to stardom.
“My career’s been real bizarre,” Carvey notes, his mouth tightening toward a Garthish smirk. “I was like the equivalent of the dumb blonde, because I had blond hair and I looked 12 when I first got to Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter said I looked like Bonnie Franklin in drag. I didn’t have that much confidence, so I got cast as Timmy in the ‘Lassie’ show over and over again. Straight guys with lines going, ‘Hey, let’s go.’
“I was straight man in everything until ‘SNL’ (which he joined in 1986). I just always wanted to do something really funny. Garth is only there to be really funny.”
“Saturday Night Live” has allowed Carvey to abandon his Timmy image for such wickedly funny creations as the Church Lady, fitness nut Hans, who exists only to “pump you up” and a dead-on impersonation of President Bush. Indeed, Carvey has enjoyed the kind of attention on “SNL” that was once granted the likes of Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner and Murphy. So what is he doing playing second banana to Myers’ creation, Wayne?
“Mike asked me to be his partner,” Carvey explains. “There were not many parameters. I’m just the sidekick, and I like Wayne. So I got the blond wig, and I thought it might be good to use Brad, my brother, merge him with this character, go nerd with heavy metal.”
On the show, Garth gets to say little more than “Party on, Wayne” and “I am not worthy,” before genuflecting in front of such guest stars as Madonna or Aerosmith. Carvey promises that Garth’s full personality will emerge from this film.
“I didn’t want him to just go around for the whole movie going, ‘Excellent!’ That’s boring. I think I say ‘Excellent!’ once in the movie. We’re not ‘Excellent!’ dependent, hopefully. We’re in therapy for it.”
“Garth, to use ‘90s terms,” Carvey continues, “comes from a dysfunctional family. Suffers from chronic low self-esteem. He’s paranoid. Because of the trauma of his childhood, he tends to bail out when things go bad.”
In the opinion of screenwriter Bonnie Turner, “Wayne is who we’d all like to be. Garth is who we all are.” She sees the film as a survival story.
“I’m from the Midwest, and I appreciate that whole thing, surviving the malls. And surviving the suburbs. That’s really what Wayne is--he survives where he is, like most of the kids in America. And just makes up life.”
“Wayne’s World” was the first feature film project for the Turners.
The Turners, to their surprise, were involved with the film every step of the way, including total access to the set.
“Everyone was incredibly collaborative. Everyone did what they specifically did best, and we kept shuffling the deck until there was this movie,” Bonnie Turner says. “None of the jokes in the picture are forced because we were there. If Penelope saw it wasn’t working, we could work almost the same way that an improv team works, or ‘SNL’ works, which is really at the soul of the picture.
“We work directly with actors, the director, the script, and it keeps moving all the way to 11:30 when it goes live on Saturday night. This picture was the same way. Only on a daily basis. It was like writing ‘Saturday Night Live’ 90 times.”