How Savage Steve Holland Changed Teen Movies Forever With “Better Off Dead”
A childhood birthday party with a drunk clown changed the course of cinematic history
BY GARIN PIRNIA
On August 23, 1985, Warner Bros. distributed the dark teen comedy Better Off Dead, written and directed by first-time feature director Savage Steve Holland. It starred John Cusack as lovesick Northern California teen Lane Meyer, whose girlfriend, Beth (played by Nightmare on Elm Street’s Amanda Wyss), breaks up with him. He’s so heartbroken about her dating the ski jock Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier) that Lane repeatedly attempts — and fails — to commit suicide. It was a comedy based on Holland’s own life, and inspired by another dark comedy, 1971’s Harold and Maude.
“When I was 11 years old, I had this birthday party and nobody came to it except for this drunk clown,” Holland tells InsideHook. At California Institute of the Arts, where he attended college, he says people wondered why he was always so sad. “I pinned it on that birthday party,” he says. “That was a first-world problem — I had a shitty birthday party and I was depressed about it. I made it into a movie thinking, ‘What a sad story.’” A film-fest audience viewed his short film, My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party, as a comedy. “People thought it was so pathetic and sad that they were laughing their heads off. That’s how I started my career. I dug into things that sucked in my life, and the girlfriend thing that happened to me was the biggest suck of all.” Though almost every time Lane attempts suicide he reconsiders, Holland thinks the movie couldn’t be made today. “It was dark, but I was trying to find a way out that wasn’t so depressing,” he says. “And Cusack actually helped a lot. He felt the same way about it. You don’t want Lane to be such a loser. He has to go, ‘I have something to live for.’ As long as the jokes played off in the end and you laughed at his attempts, I think we were okay.”