Interview : Jonathan Betuel, writer/director of My Science Project

If you’re a hipster music fan you never prefer the huge, popular song by a great band. You like the small, cool indie work they did before they hit it big, or the subsequent less commercial material your less informed friends don’t know about.

There’s something similar at play among fans of sci-fi adventure “My Science Project”, which was first released in the US 35 years ago and across the world over the next few months.

Writer/director Jonathan Betuel was known to genre fans as the scriptwriter behind 1984’s “The Last Starfighter”, the tale of a teenager with a dead end life who gets to fight in an intergalactic war that helped usher in the modern CGI age and is now a well deserved cult favourite.

The following year belonged to movies in the genre “My Science Project” was firmly part of, but it was easy to miss among much bigger fare. “Back to the Future” and “The Goonies” were among the top ten highest grossing films of 1985, and even if you discount them there was “Weird Science”, “Real Genius” and several other teen special effects adventure extravaganzas with themes of amazing science and technology.

Vince (Fisher Stevens) and Mike (John Stockwell) aren’t sure what to do with the gizmo once they hook it up.

With “The Last Starfighter” considered a commercial failure at the time, there might not have seemed much to recommend Betuel’s follow up. But he effortlessly combined elements that would become icons of the 80s; old school special effects, teenagers facing extraordinary circumstances in a suburban setting (to what else do we owe the success of “Stranger Things”?), a comic sidekick in Fisher Stevens as the smart-mouthed Vince Latello and the hero who’d been in John Carpenter’s “Christine” a few years before (John Stockwell).

Sure, the superimposed animation effects are showing their age, but have you watched Raiders of the Lost Ark lately? What My Science Project lacks in technique it makes up for in charm, a sense of swashbuckling romance that’s completely at odds with the grease monkey heroes at its centre but which stands up beautifully. spoke to Betuel at his LA home where he’s in lockdown and working with writer Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) on the long-gestating “Last Starfighter” Sequel.

“The Last Starfighter” is so beloved today many people mistakenly believe it was a big hit on release and “My Science Project” was therefore an easy sell. What struggles did you have getting it off the ground, if any?

As struggles go it wasn’t that difficult. I’d been in Los Angeles for about two years at that time and “Starfighter” had been made. I was lucky enough to work with Nick Castle [“The Last Starfighter”‘s director], and during those meetings I learned how things are put together by watching him.

We were halfway through postproduction on “Starfighter” and the rushes started getting a very warm reception. The buzz on the picture was very positive, and it was during that time I started writing “My Science Project” so I was able to circulate it through the agency I was with and we were granted some meetings.

My agent at the time, Jim Berkus of UTA, said ‘you know, I think you should think about directing this one’. It was riding a wave of right time, right place, so we met with several studios and the one where there was a really nice chemistry was Disney.

{Disney execs] Kim Lemaster and Kate Miller really opened up the doors and said they’d help us. It’s such a roll of the dice to get an opportunity like that, you just dive in and hope for the best. So that’s how it came about. The screenplay really broke the ice.

Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck), Sherman (Raph Sbarge) and Mike (John Stockwell).

So transitioning from writer to writer/director felt pretty natural?

I think writing is the key to directing for a lot of directors, like Jim Cameron and other people. If you start out as a writer it’s a difficult path but it’s cleaner in certain ways.

You know your point of view and it’s a bit like ‘if you take a chance on me I’ll take a chance on you. You can help me hire the best people and I recognise that I’m the most expendable part of the equation.’

It was in theatres a little over a year after “The Last Starfighter”. How did you turn it around so fast?

Disney was very supportive but it was a tumultuous time because the regimes were changing. I basically started with one team up on the grid and finished with another moving into position.

But it wasn’t as reliant on visual effects at “Starfighter” was. It was more about acting and story and the high school and things like that. Had it been as heavily laden with effects as “Starfighter” it would have taken a lot longer.

Your original script for “The Last Starfighter” was located in what’s been described as ‘Spielberg’s suburbia’, but it subsequently changed to the rural trailer park. Were you happier this time to set a film where you’d originally intended?

Nick Castle was most mindful of not wanting to tread on Spielberg’s domain of suburban kids in “Starfighter”. His films were and still are iconic in that respect, so we spent awhile trying to figure out the alternative that became the trailer park.

But the common thread was that they’re about extraordinary things happening to someone who’s least prepared and not savvy about aliens and other dimensions. It’s as if it happened to the least likely guy in your class, the guy sitting at the back of the classroom with the motor heads and the outcasts. That was the most fun problem from that point of view.

It very successfully blends the everyday and mundane with a real magical quality like so many films of the 80s did. Can you talk about touchstones you were trying to hit or inspirations?

Maybe it was a sign of the times back then. Everyone was looking for a little something magical, something where the curtain between two worlds of races or species breaks down for a moment and nothing is ever the same. The world was also more naive back then, [we were] more readily susceptible to the wonder of it all.

When you were making it did it feel like it was working, that it’d be something that would have a diehard fanbase 30 years later?

I’d like to say yes, but there are so many moving parts to these endeavours. You dare to hope so but it’s really like alchemy, you hope you turn the lead into gold.

I’m always amazed when I read interviews where directors act like somehow or other they had the keys to the kingdom and knew it. I think if you’re in the process of doing it, you realise how many things are inadvertent accidents.

I remember reading an interview from – I think – Orson Welles where he said directors preside over accidents. It’s not to say that they don’t influence a lot of it, but one of the things you can’t plan for is that actors give life to your lines, when you wrote them you didn’t hear them like that, but with the actors it comes alive.

But on each level you hope it’s enhancing what you laid the basic foundation for and aimed towards. You just kind of look up at the sky and cross your fingers a lot at the time.

Vince (Fisher Stevens) and Mike (John Stockwell) wondering what the gizmo is for and where it came from.

Having said that, you had a lot of the elements that made movies of that era successful; teenagers, special effects, otherworldly adventure, high school. You even had a composer named ‘Bernstein’ [Peter, son of legendary Hollywood composer Elmer]. It almost feels like you were trying to make something very specific that hit very particular markers.

I just think you try to work with kindred spirits. You meet the actors, you meet the producers. You kind of get a feeling of support and a sense of whether the whole is going to be a sum bigger than the parts.

It’s such an instinctive game. It’s like closing your eyes, pulling back on the bowstring and hoping it all winds up where you aim.

The effects are very cool but also very confident for a debut director. Were you comfortable with effects work going in?

It was a lot of fun. I mean, the guys I worked with made it a privilege. They had wonderful credits, and just talking to them you felt like you were dealing with Wizards and magicians.

Puppeteer Mark Bryan Wilson ( created the T-Rex for the gymnasium sequence.

John Stockwell (Michael Harlan) was popular at the time after 1983’s “Christine” and he looked like he’d be at home in an indie drama. What made him so suited?

He’s was a bit like Marlon Brando, a bit like Steve McQueen, a very minimalist actor that could convey a lot with a little, he could do a lot with his looks and glances. That’s what was intriguing about John. He kind of drew you in.

Did you pick him particularly because that sensibility was a contrast to the usual trappings of the genre?

Again I was just trying to get the least likely guy to wind up against extraordinary events. The usual phrase is ‘ordinary people against so extraordinary events’.

What if there was a guy who never knew any science fiction, never knew anything about aliens and was perfectly happy going to trade school and being an auto mechanic?

Motorhead Mike’s 1968 Pontiac GTO.

Dennis Hopper was also more than a bit crazy. Talk about wrangling him for the role of science teacher Bob Roberts.

Dennis was a great guy. It was a tribute to [producer] Jonathan Taplin whose roots go into all areas of rock and roll, literature, even finance I believe. John knew Dennis very well from these days of Bob Dylan and his band and all that stuff, so he was a key point in getting Dennis.

Dennis was someone you’d start talking to at lunch and an hour was gone. He said something like ‘you know I used to do this with Jimmy,’ and you realise he’s talking about James Dean!

He was such a great, warm, big hearted gentleman you just wanted to talk to. When the cameras rolled he could turn it on and off with such professional precision it was awesome.

And just plain good fun. He bought such a sense of style and life to whatever he did. He was the guy in your high school that you get into trouble with but somehow or other it would be the most fun you’d ever had.

Dennis Hopper as Mike and Vince’s science teacher Bob Roberts.

“My Science Project” was released in territories as varied as Peru, Japan, Italy, the Soviet Union, Iran, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, Argentina and Mexico. Was it a financial success overall?

The budget was somewhere around 12 to 14 million and it was a moderate success. There was a release issue because another picture called “Weird Science” [from Universal and director John Hughes] was released on the same weekend, so when test screenings were held and people were asked about it those two movies were confused.

It’s one of those strange things that happens in the business sometimes where each picture is aware of the other during production but everyone says ‘well, we’re not going to change our release date, you change yours.’ Consequently nobody did, and I think we burned off each other’s chances at more lush box office.

Bob (Dennis Hopper), Mike (John Stockwell), Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) and Vince (Fisher Stevens) observe the gizmo’s power.

Did you think of changing the title at any stage to combat any confusion?

I think they brought in title experts to come up with alternate titles, but the other titles didn’t test as well as the one I’d given it, so they kind of backed off that. That was the studio machinery – once they get started on that you don’t have as much say as you think you do.

Your next film was Theodore Rex, an infamously troubled production 10 years later, and you haven’t directed a movie since. How come?

Theodore Rex was a long journey and raising independent money, almost $40m, took a very long time. I went into television after “My Science Project” and had a really good time at it, I liked the immediacy of television. You write it, shoot it, make it, do it. It was so nice and refreshing by comparison so I didn’t do anything further in features.

I also founded a visual effects company called Luma Pictures with a partner that’s a big success today and for a long time that took up my creative output.

Is Luma still taking a lot of your energy?

It’s still my baby, but it doesn’t take as much as it did and I’ve gone back to writing and have some things that may go forward, but what with the plague happening now, it’s kind of difficult.

What stage is the “Last Starfighter” sequel at with co-writer Gary Whitta?

It looks like we’ll be making the deal to get it going. Gary’s a gifted collaborator, we’ll be writing the script together but it’s taken a long time. I had to go through a process that took years to recapture the rights, but that was recently completed and although nothing is ever clear sailing, it looks like we have a really good opportunity now. So I’m really looking forward to taking it up.

And it’s definitely a movie, because there was a news item awhile back it was going to be a TV show.

I didn’t generate that, that was a misfire from a wishful TV producer at the time. This is a movie with all the bells and whistles, and it won’t presuppose that you’ve seen the original film. There’ll be references here and there, but it’ll carry the saga forward.

Bob (Dennis Hopper) falls under the gizmo’s spell.

Any tidbits about the story?

The leads are now parents and time has passed. It’s not a remake, it’s going to continue the story. What’s changed is time itself, certainly as the video world and the alien world have continued to tick away. It’s not a time capsule of the 80s by any means, we’re taking it to the next level. Passing the torch… or the joystick.

So it won’t be hard to recapture that innocent magic in a time of such cynicism?

People still dream. People still long to be a hero in their own life and to those they love, whether their methodology is the same or different. The material everyone has in terms of wanting to do more in life and do more for others, I think is the story that fuels many movies. It has from the beginning.

Bob Roberts (Dennis Hopper), Mike Harlan (John Stockwell), Vince latello (Fisher Stevens) and Ellie Sawyer (Dannielle von Zerneck) and ‘the gizmo’.

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