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Tell us if you’ve heard of this one: Three aspiring rockers break into a Los Angeles radio station with water guns. Their demands? They want their demo on the air. The three in question? Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler.
Along for the ride is Michael McKean, Joe Mantegna, Ernie Hudson, David Arquette, Michael Richards, and Chris Farley. On paper, this reads like a blockbuster cast. Yet in 1994, Airheads couldn’t even make back half of its $11 million budget.
Two weeks after its opening, Airheads was pulled from theaters and rendered a flop. Not long after, Comedy Central began running the film on a continuous loop, the film’s stars became Hollywood fixtures, and a cult following emerged.
This year, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Airheads closed out Cinepocalypse Film Festival, The Lone Rangers burger debuted at Kuma’s Corner in Chicago, and a high school in Canada even mounted a stage version of the film. How’s that for a “flop”?
Today, we look back on a time when real life didn’t matter, every challenge was simply an obstacle to overcome in order to have your voice heard, and all that mattered was the music, the look, and the great debate of who would win in a fight: Lemmy or God.
Ahead, you’ll hear the entire story of Airheads as told by the cast and crew, specifically Fraser, Mantegna, McKean, Marshall Bell, Amy Locane, Michelle Hurst, Nina Siemaszko, screenwriter Rich Wilkes, director Michael Lehmann, Island Pictures executive VP Todd Baker, 20th Century Fox executive Michael London, and 20th Century Fox president of worldwide production Tom Jacobson.
And if it’s too loud, well, you’re too old…
RICH WILKES (SCREENWRITER): I had always loved Dog Day Afternoon. One day it occurred to me, if you did a comedic version of that set up and put it in the world of rock and roll and how do you break through into the music biz, it sort of lends itself to that structure.
I was doing music journalism and interviewing bands. I’d always been into music and played music. And when interviewing bands, you really got some perspective on how difficult it is to make a living playing the music you love.
So I wrote it on spec and it was acquired by Island Pictures. And then once interest started rising in the movie, and people around town were talking about it, they weren’t willing to put the money in to make it right so they sold it off to Fox and stayed attached as producers.
TODD BAKER (EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT AT ISLAND PICTURES): I was very friendly with Rich’s agents at the time, and they sent me the script, which was probably an overnight read. I don’t remember what we paid for it but we made an offer on the script and ended up buying it. And 20th Century Fox liked it and wanted to do it.
From there, the script was brought into 20th Century Fox by Island Pictures, where it was pitched it to Michael London.
MICHAEL LONDON (EXECUTIVE AT 20TH CENTURY FOX): I remember that Island had shown it to me, and I got super excited about it really fast. I vividly remember trying to get Peter Chernin [Chairman of 20th Century Fox] on board. Tom Jacobson was the head of production, but Peter made the decisions. Peter was the green light guy. And I remember how excited I was when Peter read it and said, “This is fantastic. I love this.” Because it was an unusual piece of material. It was about a heavy metal band, which people thought was kind of silly, and it was a movie about these young characters and taking a radio station hostage, which was pretty edgy in those days.
TOM JACOBSON (PRESIDENT OF WORLDWIDE PRODUCTION AT 20TH CENTURY FOX): We were looking for comedies at the time, and it was a fantastic script. It was really funny. The idea was out there and rebellious while also sort of mainstream at the same time.
MICHAEL LEHMANN (DIRECTOR): Michael London had read the script, and I guess he developed the project with producer Bob Simonds. Michael thought it would be good for me because he knew I was a music fan, and he thought the humor was right for me. So he contacted me directly and said, “I have a script in development here at Fox that I think you’d like.”
I remember thinking first and foremost that it was funny and clever, and that it was a take on the rock and roll mentality that was both celebratory and also kind of reasonably, darkly funny. My only question was, “If it’s made at Fox, will it be too commercial?” Will it be too watered down? Is there a way to make this movie be as authentic to rebel rock and roll spirit as it could be, while at the same time it’s sort of having fun with the idea of naively rebellious rock and rollers?
WILKES: Michael Lehmann, as far as I remember, was the first choice and was one of my heroes because of Heathers. So, it was amazing to get him on board and he’s also a big music guy going all the way back to when he was like 12 years old and sneaking off to see Jimi Hendrix.
LEHMANN: The funny part for me was that particular generation of rock and roll was a little bit younger than me. I wasn’t a big Guns N’ Roses fan. I was a little bit more early punk, garage band, a little bit of Seattle grunge was still in my soul, but it was mostly earlier stuff. I grew up with psychedelic rock and roll in San Francisco, which was where I really got exposed to a lot of rock.
But I was in New York in the mid-70’s and living in the East Village. So, for me in a way, part of the fun of reading the script was that it was about a generation of rock and roll that wasn’t mine and I got a kick out of. And so partly I thought, This would be a great way to familiarize myself, in greater depth, with the trends in rock and roll that weren’t my favorite.
With Lehmann on board, next up was the casting process, and nearly everybody in Hollywood was considered. John Cusack, Bill Murray, Winona Ryder, Malcolm McDowell, Peter Weller, Chris Rock, Richard Lewis, John Corbett, and even a theater actor named Kevin Spacey, who flat-out told Michael Lehmann, “You’d be crazy not to cast me.” Perhaps this version of Airheads exists in some bizarre-o parallel universe.
LEHMANN: My feeling was that I had never done something like this. I was a young filmmaker. I had done a couple of independent movies that were really liked and out of the mainstream. And then I did Hudson Hawk, where definitely the sensibility was a little out of the mainstream and it didn’t play that well out of the mainstream. But I still hadn’t learned my lesson, thankfully, and I thought, I’m going to get people in this movie that you wouldn’t expect to see in a movie like this and that’s going to make it more like something I want to see.
BRENDAN FRASER (“CHAZZ”): I was actually in Chicago when I first received the script, while I was shooting the movie With Honors. And Michael Lehmann had sent the script and I think made a trip out to visit me and say very nice things to me. I was very flattered that this proper director had come all this way to say, “Hey I think you should do this.” So that was good. And I had the living-in-L.A.-out-of-your-truck-and-apartment routine down, but I was no musician. And he’s like, “That’s okay. None of those guys are either.”
WILKES: Brendan was just catching on. I believe it was surreal for him to see his face on a movie poster and be considered a kind of leading man. So it was catching him at a time when he was still getting used to the idea of being a movie star.
LEHMANN: [Adam] Sandler hadn’t proven himself in movies at all. I kind of remember that people were divided about him. The funny thing about Sandler’s humor is it’s this weird combination of way off center and way juvenile, and he sort of built that. And when he was building that style, a lot of people in the mainstream didn’t really get it. And so it was a battle. They didn’t say no. But Fox’s attitude was, “We need to know that he can do this kind of thing.”
JACOBSON: Rich reminded me, which I forgot, that Adam wanted to play the lead. And whomever at the studio thought, Well, he’s not ready yet. This is really his first movie.
BAKER: His then-younger agents at CAA, who are super powerful now, great guys, and they’re really trying to get him into a movie. A good movie. A comedy that he would flourish in. And I remember them being all over us: “You’ve got to cast Adam Sandler.” He wasn’t the big star yet. He was great for the role, but I don’t think he was paid more than $50,000 for that. And I just remember his agent, Adam Bennett, saying, “What about Adam Sandler? What about Adam Sandler? Come on, Todd. What about Adam Sandler? We’ve got to get this role for Adam Sandler.”
LEHMANN: And Steve [Buscemi] had done independent films, and he was known in the independent world as a really good New York actor, and kind of quirky and odd. I had seen his work in a film called Twenty Bucks that a friend of mine had directed, Keva Rosenfeld. I thought, You know, this guy, we always see him in these edgy indie film kind of roles, but he’s very funny. I just thought the guy is so funny and I felt that he could live in a slightly more mainstream comedy and kind of surprise people.
The harder part was convincing the studio to cast him because, in that world, they were kind of afraid of him.
JACOBSON: There probably was some pushback going, “Well, Steve Buscemi’s a really good actor and he does darkly humorous stuff.” He had done some Coen Brothers movies, but he hadn’t done Fargo yet. “But does he say comedy?”
LEHMANN: I also had a very hard time getting Joe Mantegna approved. When I said, “Joe Mantegna,” they looked at me like, “What??” Because Joe had been doing serious dramas. I don’t think he had been seen doing any kind of comedies. He wasn’t a rock and roller. But I thought he was such a good actor. I had seen his work in dramas and thought, This guy is such a good actor. I’ll bet he could do some great stuff with the role. And I feel he did. He grounded it and he was really funny and very dry.
JOE MANTEGNA (“IAN”): It’s funny. During that period, I was doing back-to-back comedies, because the next film I did was Baby’s Day Out. I never knew what was gonna come across my desk. And I remember when Michael Lehmann contacted me, it was one of those things where he just felt I was the guy he wanted for this role.
LEHMANN: He told me he had kind of a rock and roll past and he was really into music when he was younger. And he pointed to an ad for a guitar amplifier for some obscure guitar amp named Condor. The ads used to run in guitar magazines and rock and roll magazines and I knew the ad. And it was just a picture of a guy with long, dark hair. And he said, “That’s me. That’s when I was younger.” I always thought that the ad looked ridiculous so when I found out that was Joe, I thought, I really have to cast him.
MANTEGNA: I wanted to do research on it. So we contacted KROQ here in Los Angeles, and one of their main disc jockies at the time was this guy called Jed the Fish. He was very well known in the rock and roll community here and agreed for me to sit in with him for a couple of days. Just be a fly on the wall. I don’t know if he even acknowledged I was there, which was fine. I wasn’t there to be interviewed. I was there to just kind of observe what it was like to be a rock and roll D.J.
MICHAEL MCKEAN (“MILO”): My manager said, “They want to see you for this movie. Go in and read this part.” So, I went in and I don’t even think I read a scene. But I met everybody and liked everybody. And I brought with me a plastic bag that contained a pony tail that I had actually grown and had cut off a few weeks before, and had decided to hang onto it for some reason. So I brought them a ponytail and said, “If you give me the part I could use this ponytail.” And they seemed amused. So Michael hired me and everybody seemed to be on board with it. They thought I could be this pretentious, backstabbing, ladder-climbing asshole, and I agreed. [Laughs].
LEHMANN: Kayla was a really hard role to cast. I remember that we auditioned a lot of people, and Amy really won it in the audition. She just came on really strong. And she felt very rocker chick-ish. She was skinny and blonde and pretty and also had a little bit of street in her. She wasn’t looking like super sophisticated in the way she played the role which I thought was really fun.
AMY LOCANE (“KAYLA”): I was put on tape in New York City, and then I happened to be in Los Angeles. I can’t remember what I was doing out there, but I happened to be out there for a weekend or something. I actually remember I asked [Michael], “Why did everything change when you saw me in person? Was the tape that bad?” And he was like, “No. For some reason I thought that maybe you were too sophisticated. And then I met you and I realized you weren’t.”
NINA SIEMASZKO (“SUZZIE”): One of the things that made [my casting] cool was that it was one of the times I came into an audition and the director said, “Listen, we want to work with you. We want you in the movie.” That was pretty cool. It was nice to be able to come into an experience and already know something good was going to come out of it.
MICHELLE HURST (“YVONNE”): They were casting out of New York, and I was working at Lincoln Center Theater as a receptionist. And in the building the casting people were Billy Hopkins and Company. And I saw Billy almost every day and I would jokingly, but seriously, say, “When are you going to put me in a movie?”
So one day he said, “There’s this movie I’m doing. I want you to come down and read for this one character. She’s like an end-of-the-movie kind of character.” And I was like, “Fine,” fully knowing I was not going to be cast in it, and said “Where are you shooting?” And he said, “L.A.” I said, “You guys aren’t going to cast me. That’s crazy.”
So you don’t get nervous about those kind of auditions. You just go. And all of a sudden, a couple days later, Billy says, “Do you wanna go to L.A.?” I said, “What’re you talking about?” “The director liked you and he wants to put you in the movie.”
With Airheads inches away from production, now was the time when conversations began about what exactly these characters could do and how far they would be permitted to go.
LEHMANN: Peter Chernin, who had just moved into the position as the head of the movie side of Fox, had been heavily involved in setting up the Fox TV network, which was still fairly young. He was a very smart guy. I liked him a lot, and he was supportive of the movie. He got it and wanted to make it. But I think Peter still had a bit of a T.V. reflex that you don’t go too far because he felt that it would limit the broader audience appeal.
LONDON: Peter always loved the movie. He loved the script, he loved the cast, he loved the idea, and there was room for disagreement with some of the stuff, but at the very top of the studio, we had someone who loved the project madly.
FRASER: Michael Lehmann really wanted to make an edgier movie than the studio was allowing us to. They wanted us to look like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. That is about as edgy as they were willing to come.
LEHMANN: I wish I could’ve made the R-rated version of the movie. That’s the only thing that doesn’t sit perfectly with me today. I feel like, “You know, if they hadn’t been so resistant to that…”
LONDON: Michael, bless his heart one of my oldest friends in the world. If you tell Michael Lehmann what to do, he will push back at you. Not because you’re right or wrong, but because he doesn’t want you telling him what to do.
WILKES: Adam Sandler originally had a tattoo on his neck and they were like, “No, we’re not going to have some dude with a tattoo on his neck. That’s way too radical.”
LEHMANN: My response was, “If you look at all the worldwide popular rock and roll stars, they were all at that point starting to sport crazy tattoos,” which they’ve continued to this day. And it wasn’t really radical the idea that a guy would have a tattoo on his neck, but Peter thought it would be too much for mainstream America.
FRASER: I remember overhearing a conversation he was having with Bob Simonds about the T-shirt that Steve [Buscemi] wore that said, “Blow Me”. The studio saw the dailies and they’re like, “There’s no way that that’s going to be on screen for the next 45-50 minutes.”
WILKES: And then we had leather pants for Brendan Fraser and Buscemi and they’re like, “No way you’re going to have leather on these guys. That’s too edgy.” And it’s like, “What are you guys talking about? Have you seen a music video in the last 10 years?”
LEHMANN: I don’t know if that was a so-called commercial choice or whether it was just a taste choice. That Peter didn’t like the idea of leather pants so we had to put him in jeans, which was fine. That wasn’t going to make or break the movie.
FRASER: But I still do have the leather pants from Monkeybone.
LONDON: The pressure clearly came from above, by the people that I respect and love and green lit the movie. I think, in that moment, that was a really hard choice. They’re making a movie that could’ve just been like a kind of cool, indie studio movie, and they were trying to find a middle ground between the authenticity and the stuff we all loved about it that felt very real with the high concept of it. And their jobs were to make sure that we made something that would be broadly popular.
WILKES: Right before production, they wanted to bring in a comedian to do a pass on the script. And he was really hot at the time. And I said, “No. No fucking way.” Because then, as far as the industry was concerned, if it’s funny, they’ll go, “Oh, that guy came in and did it.” And he’ll get the credit and I won’t and that was a real big deal to me at the time. And since then I’ve realized that it’s completely a collaborative medium and you take whatever help you can get so long as it’s making the movie better. The comedian was Dennis Miller.
LEHMANN: We also wanted a really interesting, really good, really kind of gritty soundtrack. And we wanted to reflect the style of music that The Lone Rangers might have enjoyed or played or that was in line with that, but better quality than what they themselves would produced. And we didn’t want to make fun of the music at all. We wanted a killer soundtrack, but it was also very difficult because a lot of the bands that we would have liked would never allow their music to be used in a commercial major studio motion picture. The bands were very picky back then. They didn’t want to sell out or be seen to be part of an entertainment machine or any of that stuff. And they were protecting their brand, I guess.
FRASER: I was taught some power chords and told, “Do less. Don’t sing. Just belt it out,” which was good advice because it came from Rob Zombie when we recorded the song after we wrapped out of there. So, I have the distinction of saying I sung a rock and roll song with Rob Zombie once.
WILKES: Fat Mike from NoFX, I brought him to an early screening at the studio, and when it got to the end song, he was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. You got a Reagan Youth cover.” And I didn’t know what he was talking about. I hadn’t heard of Reagan Youth, which was one of his favorite old-school punk bands. And the band that had recorded it, who was the old singer from Reagan Youth, and he had recorded his own song. And at that point, I don’t think anybody in the production knew that it was a cover of an earlier song. So that was a little bit of a freak out at the onset, but then we realized that he was the one who wrote the song so it wasn’t going to be a problem.
LOCANE: The theme of the film itself is rock and roll, the theme of rebels, and people who are spirited. That’s consistent throughout the film. So that, to me, symbolizes rock and roll. Just their attitude. The fact that they just don’t care what people think, that they’re passionate about their music, and they just want to play. They’re making all the wrong moves, but they’re still so into their music.
HURST: It was still a time when a bunch of guys would get together, think they were incredible, everyone was going to love their music, and love them, and it didn’t matter what they looked like or where they came from. That was real back then.
On June 21st 1993, a little over a year removed from the first draft of the screenplay, cameras began rolling. The most important thing to those involved was that the film must hit the right tone comedically.
LEHMANN: I felt that, when I read the script, because the situation was so hyped and dramatic with these people taking a radio station hostage, the fact that they were really kind of fools would make it funny in itself. The best way to get the humor out of it would be to play it as straight as possible. I wanted really good actors to come in and play it straight, and let the situation itself carry the humor. And because Rich’s script was so funny, and it had so much great inside rock and roll stuff, that really is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because the people who say that stuff are so serious about it. And that was kind of the joke of the film. And I thought we would really ruin it if we would ever wink to the audience or say, “We’re making comedy here.”
LONDON: Michael and I saw the movie as, “We should never be laughing at these characters and their desire to be heard, to get their voice out there, to be musician which was rooted in the very kind of real stuff to them.” Even though it was also outrageously funny. So there were constant conversations about leaning in or away from the comedy.
FRASER: I remember the first day, I was shooting an exterior where I’m driving up on a motorcycle. Rich Wilkes, who then had really long hair, grungy, Gen-X hair, he’s like, “Great hair, man. I wish mine looked like that.” I’m like, “Dude, it’s a wig. You know that.”
LONDON: I was overly involved in this project. Executives are supposed to just be along for the ride. But it was the first movie that I was involved with as an executive that I loved passionately. I had fought for it and I loved the script and the writer and the director who was my buddy. So it was shooting in Los Angeles, which made it possible for me to be there a lot.
LEHMANN: I did a lot of shots in that radio station because there were so many characters, and if you need to cut to a close up of one for a reaction to something that’s happening, that’s a separate shot that has to be done. So, I remember at one point, the producer saying to me, “Do you really need all these shots?” And I said, “Yes, you do. It’s hard to imagine, but in order to get all of these people in one place and get all their reactions to things that are happening, you can either do a shot that moves around through everybody, which is fine and dynamic and great and we all love that, but then you’re not going to get individual reactions to specific things that will help play the humor. You can’t just shoot this as a drama. You need to have the pieces that you need for reactions and variations on comedic performance to create that kind of humor.”
HURST: I learned a lot about filmmaking when I went out there, because I was mostly a theater person. This was very interesting in terms of me seeing how things got done and how directors handle a huge group of people.
SIEMASZKO: It just felt like summer camp. It didn’t feel like a job.
WILKES: Crew members were saying this was the most fun shoot they had been involved with on the Fox lot since Young Frankenstein.
MCKEAN: If there was a Stockholm syndrome going on, let me die that way because it was really fun. It was fun to be physically taken out of things for a while. I spend a chunk of the movie tied to a chair. It’s very relaxing I found. It’s like the Raymond Burr job. “I’ll do the show Ironside but never stand up.”
LEHMANN: At the time, it was not an all-star cast. I knew we had a great cast. I had no question we had a great cast. But I did not feel like, “This is an all-star cast that people are going to be talking about as a great ensemble.” It was more like, “I hope they all work together because I love these guys.”
LOCANE: I think when you get funny people who work together on that kind of level, always sort of challenging one another or always sort of doing jokes together and one-upping having healthy competition with each other, it was interesting to watch.
FRASER: Sandler and Farley were cut up funny together. I learned a thing about comedy duos and partners in comedy. They’re constantly challenging one another, at least these two guys were, to take bigger risks. To be the one to have the most courage to do something and they’d just try to get the other one to laugh.
This was really bad, but we’d sit around on these canvas chairs. Adam was wearing shorts and he pulls his ballsack out, his scrotum down onto his thigh past his shorts. He’d press it against his thigh with his thumb. [Laughs] This is nasty. He’d go, “Hey Farley, look at this, man. I think I’ve got a wart.”
It was just so nasty. I guess you just kind of had to be there. And Farley would be like “Oh yeah, that looks serious.” And of course I’m like “Oh God you guys stop!” But this is just how they behaved. They were constantly like, and not just for the sake of grossing each other out, but who can make the other one crack up.
MARSHALL BELL (“CARL MACE”): I didn’t know who any of those guys were. And as a result, they liked that. It enabled me to create a friendship. The friendship wasn’t based on anything.
FRASER: I also remember Adam had this running gag going with this guy who was doing playback. His name was something German. And Adam had everybody convinced that he was a cannibal. He would be intimating him eating a human leg like he had just been caught with his hands in the cookie jar.
MANTEGNA: I always felt that if they had filmed Adam Sandler off-camera, it would have been as good a movie as Airheads was. Because before the camera started rolling or after the camera stopped, Adam would just be on fire doing all kinds of crazy shit — and everybody else would contribute. Some of us were less intuitive comedians as he was, but you have to have some common sense to it. But Adam was pretty much a very strong driving force of that of keeping it very light on the set.
LOCANE: Buscemi gave Adam some competition. He could make anything funny.
MCKEAN: Brendan was as funny as anyone, but he was also the best audience in the entire world.
HURST: I got along so well with Michael McKean. I love him. To this day I adore him. And I say this with all humility, he is one of the smartest people on this planet. He’s brilliant.
LEHMANN: And I’ve got to say he’s a pleasure to work with because he knows exactly what he’s doing and his approach is completely bullet proof. You can rely on him as a director to come in and have a take that’s really strong and he can be very funny.
LOCANE: Brendan and I had a connection that’s really not hard to work at. I always get the feeling working with him as an actor that he always sort of has my back and I think he felt the same way with me.
LEHMANN: Chris was into [playing over the top] because he was playing really broad characters on SNL and people loved him for that stuff. And he could do it so well. But I also felt that Chris, you could use him as just an actor. He was a really good actor. It wasn’t a problem to get him to pull back the comedy a little bit. He was all on board for that and it was super funny. This was something that we were very intent on doing and it was very deliberate.
LOCANE: I remember him being like a really big personality, really funny, and just fun to be around. Always kind of making the people around him feel really special and important.
BELL: He was a very beautiful soul. What a great loss he was. I’m a recovered person and I worked with him a little bit on that. Adam was very, very hands on. He had a lot of people trying to keep him around because nobody didn’t want him around.
SIEMASZKO: Michael hired actors he knew he could let go and play. He literally hired us because he knew we would go play and have fun and we would do service to the story. He just would place us into spots and then we would go. It was fun. He gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of latitude and if something wasn’t right he’d go, “Hey try this.” He was totally cool. I can’t imagine what it must be like to carrel all of that energy on a daily basis.
WILKES: Michael Lehmann was so incredibly generous. I was on set the entire time, as much as I wanted to, giving whatever feedback. “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” It was like going to film school. He was just absolutely generous and completely comfortable in his own skin that he didn’t feel threatened by the writer hanging out, which is very unusual. It was the most involved I’ve ever been, and to his credit, he let me do whatever the hell I wanted.
MCKEAN: Joe was always kind of cooking something, either literally or figuratively. I’d walk by the craft service truck parked outside the stage, and he’d be in there stirring the sauce, you know. I’d go, “How you doing, Joey?” He goes, “Eh. I got the sauce cookin’, I got Sinatra on the box. Life is good.”
FRASER: Joe Mantegna was just the elder statesmen there and the consummate gentlemen. He was kind of looking out for us just like his character was in ways. I remember he gave me great advice. I think I was complaining about my boots or something and he said, “Brendan, you want to get that right. Get some insoles. You want your feet to be comfortable. If we’re looking at your feet, then you’re not doing your job. You’ve gotta get your footwear right.” And you know what? He’s damn right. To this day, I don’t care what the shoes are, as long as they’re comfortable. If you’re looking at my feet, then what am I here for?
HURST: With David Arquette, I was like, “I don’t know if he is really like that or he’s just playing this character.” I said to him, “You’re a little mad, aren’t you?” He says, “I guess so. Yeah, I might be.” And also, Reg E. Cathy was a brilliant, brilliant theater actor. And the kind of actor that was incredibly versatile. He was being wonderfully insane in that movie in terms of being funny.
SIEMASZKO: I had the best line in the whole movie. It’s when there’s that whole announcement that the station’s going soft rock and I say “All those blowjobs for nothing.” Because it’s throwaway and if you blink you’ve missed it, but it’s really fucking funny. Michael Lehmann really did everything he could to keep that line in the movie. It was a total improv line.
WILKES: The concept of Doug Beach [played by Michael Richards] was a Michael Lehmann idea. He was like, “Well, I guess you already thought of doing a Die Hard thing and having somebody up in the air vents.” And we were like, “No. I actually never thought of that. That’s kind of hilarious.”
LEHMANN: I was worried that the story would get a little thin if we were just dealing with the guys in the stations and the cops outside and the cuts to Kayla in her car with the cassette. And then I thought, A guy in the vents like Die Hard hadn’t been done comedically before. I thought it would be really funny to have somebody escape into the building and basically get nowhere. The joke was that he wasn’t actually able to stop anybody from anything, and as it turns out, Rich worked it in so that’s how these guys got a real gun in their hands.
WILKES: I got to watch him plan his movies. The gag is he falls down onto a desk, he rolls onto the floor. And everything he did, and I heard this about Seinfeld too every time he came through the door, everything was precisely calculated. And he would go over the set meticulously and examine everything and plot where he would land and when he would reach onto the desk what he would knock over.
ADAM SANDLER (“PIP”): [On his nude scene via 1994 interview with The Virginian-Pilot] `Man, that scene was totally nude. I mean I had to strip off and do the scene in front of about 20 burly guys who are the crew. The lighting people and all that crowd. Well, I mean, it was a comedy scene, and it’s pretty harmless but, for me, I’d been putting this scene out of my mind for weeks until the day came I had to do it. It was with Nina Siemaszko and she was, well, uh, very helpful, but still. The guys in the crew applauded at the end of the scene so I guess, you know, well, uh, I guess, uh, it was all right.”
SIEMASZKO: I remember shooting it and thinking, Oh God. I don’t know if I can keep a straight face.
MCKEAN: I have to understand, and to a certain extent, love everybody I play. And so, I put Milo’s intentions very high morally. I couldn’t tell you how I did that now, but I really had to at the time. I think he’s just a very self-centered, self-preservationist.
MANTEGNA: When he finds out Michael’s character is going to go over to easy listening and stuff like that and he feels betrayed and realizes that the people in charge aren’t necessarily smart people and that the guys that maybe seem like knuckleheads aren’t really quite as knuckleheaded as you thought. And that’s apparent in there and I love that aspect of it. That Ian really gets behind them 100 percent. “You call yourself whatever the fuck you want. I’m with ya. We’re not going to have that argument over The Lone Rangers or not or the fact that you took over the station. It’s like all is forgiven. Let’s move on and be successful together.”
WILKES: Beavis and Butthead had just came out, and maybe it was Lehmann who had the idea [for their voice cameo in the film]. But I had a lunch meeting with Mike Judge who was super cool. I hit it off with Mike Judge, and we wrote that bit together or passed it back and forth.
LEHMANN: When we went and did the Fox Plaza stuff, we went into a full two or three weeks of night work, which meant everybody was completely turned around. We started working five P.M. and finished at dawn. And that was also very physically demanding and complicated but I remember quite a bit of fun.
LONDON: We took over this corner of Century City, which is adjacent to the Fox studio. And Fox Plaza, which was this building overlooking the studio, is where we shot all the scenes where the police surrounded the building. And so we were up there for three or four days shooting every night, all night. Shooting the sequence with tons of extras and tons of cops and tons of action. And we were doing it literally a hundred yards from our offices at the studio, and every night it was like a party up there.
BELL: I’m walking over to set and Lemmy’s there, and I’m walking over to Lemmy, and I’m about to say, “Wow!” And he starts talking first and says, “I just want you to know I really loved Total Recall.” And I said, “I’m not worthy.” And I went down on one knee and the crowd went ape shit.
WILKES: We got Stuttering John, who was in the film at four in the morning, to call into the [Howard] Stern show to get on the air. He got on and Stern was yelling at him saying, “What the hell are you doing calling me from this stupid movie set? You idiot. They only cast you so we’ll talk about the movie.”
LEHMANN: I remember Bernie Brillstein, who was my manager at the time, we were talking about Harold and he said ,“Oh Harold Ramis. He loves to act!” And he kept telling me how much Harold loved to act because Harold was a writer and director. And I had seen Harold way back on SCTV and I had been a fan. And I knew him. And so I kind of squeamishly approached him and said, “Would you be in my movie?” And the great thing was he said yes. And once he showed up on set, it was like the second coming of Jesus. Every single comedy person on the movie, they immediately flocked to him because more than anything else I think because of Caddyshack.
FRASER: To whoever stole my leather jacket off the wardrobe rack, whoever was a background extra and ripped it off: Fuck you. [Laughs]. I’m still mad about that. Whoever you are, wherever you are. I went down with the first A.D. and shouted into the holding room of all the extras. “Three weeks of nights and you rip off the one thing I need. The skin off my back. You just stole it.” And I had to use a double after that. It wasn’t as good.
After a mostly easy-going shoot, minus the jacket thief, Airheads entered post-production. Here, the biggest problem arose that would make or break the film: “How in the hell do we market this thing?”
WILKES: There was this really shitty ad campaign they did where they decided to score the trailer with the William Tell overture. We wanted to get the rock and roll audience, and if you’re scoring it with the William Tell overture, you’re telling them that this is not for them. It should have been White Zombie on there or something.
LEHMANN: Part of the problem is once a studio marketing team gets ahold of a movie, it sort of doesn’t matter what we think. You can tell them up and down how you disagree with their choices, and they will say, “Well our research showed that more people responded to this. You’ve got The Lone Rangers in there. So put the William Tell Overture in. That’s funny.”
LONDON: I remember there being a lot of conversations about whether we were selling a broad comedy or whether we were selling something edgier and more real. And just as the conversations that were had about wardrobe, which was don’t make it feel too real, those same conversations were being had at the marketing stage. “If we make it look too real and edgy and dark, then it becomes an independent film.”
And the other side of that was if you made it look too silly and broad, then it feels like it doesn’t have any authenticity. And I think that the movie ultimately straddles that line pretty well, mainly because the performances are so good and Michael did a great job. But I think in the marketing materials, it was hard to strike that balance. And the marketing materials may have been pushing comedy more than the filmmakers were comfortable with.
JACOBSON: My memory is that when we went to preview the movie, it didn’t preview that well. The audience was a little ho-hum about it.
WILKES: I ran into the producer at the premiere, who told me what the tracking was. They were gauging audience interest on the movie and how much it was going to make on its opening weekend. And so right before we went to the premiere, the producer told me, “Yeah, it’s going to bomb next weekend when it opens.” And once they found that out, they’re cutting down on advertising. They’re trying to save money on advertising, so they’re not going to run TV ads on it, which just made it worse. So my joy for the movie was short-lived because that was such a bummer of a message to get right before the premiere.
Despite the marketing, the film was released on August 5th, 1994, and walked away with a measly $5.8 million domestically.
WILKES: It really did poorly when it was first released. I think they pulled it out of theaters and it had made less than five million at the box office, which was not great. It just did not catch on. I don’t know quite what the reason was.
MCKEAN: I think the movie’s got a lot of fun in it. A lot of comedy that works. A friend of mine said they didn’t like it because it seemed like it was trashing the kind of people that it should be trying to attract. And I guess what she meant was this was sort of a negative view of these idiot kids and their rock and roll music. Very kind of traditionally. And I don’t think it was intended that way, but maybe an unforeseen thing.
FRASER: I loved it. When it came out, I was in New York at a bank and a woman walked up to me in line and said, “I saw your movie and it was terrible. Why did you make that movie after you did School Ties which was so good?” I was like, “I haven’t even seen it yet.” “Oh it was just awful. Why are they putting you in those films?” And I remember thinking, Who’s they? I chose to. I thought it was an awesome script.
BAKER: When it didn’t open, one of the executives at Fox, and even higher ups at Island, were like “Well. Adam Sandler’s not a movie star. Chris Farley’s not a movie star.” Because that was the Monday morning reaction.
LEHMANN: Honestly, when you make a movie called Airheads, you expect that a lot of people are going to jump to a bad review just based on the title. It’s an easy target.
WILKES: We were never super happy with Airheads as a title because it just made it seem dismissible.
LEHMANN: I wasn’t bothered by the fact that Airheads didn’t get great reviews. I kind of expected that. I was more concerned that Fox didn’t figure out a way to get people into the theaters. Because I felt like that movie should have been a hit in the theaters.
In the years that followed, people finally started to get it.
LEHMANN: I was living with the idea that the movie was not a commercial success in theaters. In my mind, this is just the way I am, I sort of thought, Aw I failed on that movie, and felt sort of bad about that. And then one day I was doing press on another movie and one of the interviewers on the press junket only wanted to talk to me about Airheads. And I said “Why are you talking to me about that? You know that movie is not a success at all.” And she said, “Are you kidding me? Everybody loves that movie. That’s got a huge following.” And I was not aware of that, but she said it to me with such earnest that I thought, Maybe she’s right. Maybe there’s a group of people that like this film. Who followed it.” And then I started to hear that more and more often.
LONDON: It does seem like in the last several years that younger generations have fondness for the movie. That doesn’t usually happen.
HURST: When Airheads came out, no big deal. Everybody said, “Eh.” And then it took about two years for it to become a quote-unquote “cult classic.” Like everybody watched it the first time it came on TV. And then all of a sudden, I’d be some place and I’d have young men go, “I know you… Why do I know you?? (Gasps). You are from Airheads!”
MCKEAN: It’s usually along those lines of, “Oh, that movie should have done better. It was really funny.” And a lot of times people will name other movies that came out the same year that were rubbish. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s what makes horse racing, guys. We all have different opinions and stuff.”
WILKES: I had no inkling. You called this a cult film in your email [asking Rich to do this interview]. I had zero awareness of any kind of audience for Airheads. Every once in a while I’ll work with somebody who says, “Oh yeah, I grew up with that movie. It was on cable while I was in junior high school.” So I’ll get a nice compliment, but as far as I know, nobody’s watched the thing since it came out.
FRASER: To everyone in the rock world, it means a lot more to them. It’s got its beloved niche audience. Because it was treated with such, I don’t want to say respect, but the fight-the-man attitude that Michael Lehmann has but did it in such a classy way.
BELL: If I go to sign pictures anywhere, there’ll be people who wander up. I can see them 50 feet away coming over and I know that’s what they want. And sometimes I don’t have a picture from that and they go ,“Where’s Airheads?”
MANTEGNA: To this day, if a guy in a crowd is going to come up to me and say, “Hey man, I loved you in…” I know what the next word’s going to be depending on what they look like. So if I see an old rocker come up to me, with this kind of glassy-eyed look and this scraggly hair where they look like an old rocker, nine times out of 10 they’re going to say, “Hey man. Ian the Shark. Airheads!”
In June, Lehmann got to see the film screened for the first time in 35mm since 1994 in Chicago.
LEHMANN: I was curious as to how the audience would respond. There are certain aspects of the movie that are a little out of date. It’s old now. It’s 25 years old. So rock and roll has changed, popular music has changed, the way people listen to music has changed completely, the music industry has changed absolutely entirely. And so much of the premise of the film was based on the structures of the music industry at the time.
And so I felt like the audience reaction was good and really strong. That people were laughing and people were with it. So that was, to me, very satisfying, and that was a rare opportunity. I figured that most of the people in that theater, I’ve got to imagine 99 percent of the people in that theater, had not seen the movie except for on television.
Artwork by Noelle Garcia.