Well, this is quite a coup for our little site. On a whim we contacted Todd Holland, director of probably our favourite gaming movie of all time, The Wizard, in the hope that he’d answer many questions we had about the film. And he replied! A whole lot later because he’s an awfully busy man but here they are and to say this is an eye-opener is an understatement. Enjoy.
Please give our readers a run through of how you got the opportunity to work on The Wizard?
I had developed a few great feature projects at Universal – all of which died ignominious deaths. And I was frustrated and wanted to make a film so I read The Wizard on a Thursday, interviewed for the job on Friday, got the job and was prepping the film on Monday. We were shooting FIVE weeks later – which is an incredibly short prep for any feature. The rush was all about Fred Savage’s TV schedule for The Wonder Years – he had just a few weeks off to shoot the film and we had to start on time.
What are your fondest memories of the film?
I loved my cast. We really had fun together. We had one moment in the Woods family home when I had all these really talented adult actors dealing with a scene of family tension – and trying to make sense of writing that was geared for a kids movie (and thus not as dramatically demanding as it might have been) and they all turned to me — Beau, Christine, Christian, Sam, Will — and they said: “Someday we have to do a real movie together.” I knew what they meant: they were enjoying the process together. We all enjoyed each other so much that they just wanted MORE to do, more drama, more acting… more stuff. That was a nice moment.
How much freedom did you get when working on The Wizard and how much groundwork had been put in place before you were hired?
The only actor attached was Fred. So, I hired casting director Mali Finn (later to become very famous for casting all The Matrix films, Titanic, and dozens of brilliant movies…) and she and I cast the film. We found Luke fairly early. I met with Beau and convinced him – and then once I had Beau, I was able to convince Christian (who had just made a splash in Heathers) because he was interested in working with Beau (having done a film with Beau’s brother, Jeff Bridges)
One of my big coups was casting Will Seltzer as the bounty hunter. Will and I were in acting class together – I was taking acting to sharpen my skills directing actors – and I thought Will was hilarious and fresh and really unexpected for the villain. And Mali and I sold Universal on it.
Many people accuse The Wizard of being too heavily influenced by Nintendo. Did the company make any special requests for product placement or request any amendments?
Those were more innocent times. And the irony is… saying that the times were more innocent is to say it was still “news” to have a movie embrace such crassly commercial elements: “Fred Savage and Nintendo – two things kids love. Let’s put them together and make a lot of money.” Today, no one even blinks at Transformers being a wall-to-wall GM commercial. We expect on–screen characters to be drinking Coca-Cola and using Apple computers. We expect Jack Bauer to dial on his Nokia brand phone. That’s just the way everything is done now. But that kind of product placement was news then. So to answer your question… Nintendo was cooperating fully. They had products they wanted to promote: Super Mario 3 and the Power Glove among them. But it wasn’t like we had to say yes – but we weren’t complaining either. These products fit nicely into our script. We were, after all, a video game movie. So, much like those GM cars in Transformers, we were a good fit with Nintendo. And no, they never told us to change the script in any way.
The Power Glove controller wasn’t very well known during the time of The Wizard. Did Nintendo insist that this infamous glove should be given its own scene?
No… But the Power Glove was big news. And it was a no-brainer to put it into the spotlight – especially to empower our slick villain, Lucas, and put over heroes at a disadvantage to his greater skill, knowledge and experience. Nintendo never told us what scene to put the Power Glove. in…. But they did send a “Power Glove” rep to the set to watch over it (it was very top secret then) and to make sure we presented it in a respectful “proper light”.
We are big Christian Slater fans here at Arcade Attack! What was it like working with Christian just before his career exploded?
Christian was terrific. And very, very much 19 years old. He liked to have fun in his time off and slept so late every morning that he had to be shaken awake by a Production Assistant (who had to be given a key to his hotel room) every morning because no clock radio could wake him. But he was hard working and a real team player. Just a good guy. He and Beau really were great together.
Fred Savage was already a huge TV and movie star at the time! What was he like working with?
Fred was really amazing. Everywhere we went while shooting, everyone recognized him. It was a big deal. I mean people lined the streets in Reno as we drove in shooting the scene where they’re in back of the truck — and girls are screaming Fred’s name and hooting and waving. And Fred was 12 years old (he turned 13 while we were shooting) and I was always stunned at the grace with which he handled all of that attention. He was always such a nice, polite kid. But then again, his family was solid and strong and very involved. And I wondered if he was going to grow up and reveal some dark, hidden “true self” – and you know what? Fred is a really nice MAN, now too.
Beau Bridges puts in an amazing performance, especially in the final tear-jerking scene. What was is like working with?
Beau is the consummate pro. He was the movie star in our cast — and really raised the bar for everyone to work hard, play, enjoy and get the job done. Beau always understood how much I wanted the film to work on an emotional level – I mean there was a LOT of complex emotional layers suggested in the script – but the trick was to make it all real and keep it at the right level for a family film about kids and video gaming. No one was smarter than Beau about finding that level…
Jenny Lewis has gone on to carve out a really respectful music career with Rilo Kiley. What was it like working with her and did you fight to get her on board?
The biggest fight with Universal casting was over the role of Haley. Universal had a young girl, a Texas beauty-queen type that they really wanted. She really was not up to the role acting-wise at the time. And I had a fantastic young actress out of New York (whose name I can not recall) that Universal felt wasn’t cute enough. And so we at an impasse – I mean it was a real fight. And out of the blue Mali Finn found this young girl named Jenny Lewis – a miracle – beautiful and talented – and we were golden.
Jenny was terrific, such a gifted actress and such a great kid. I had a really good time working with Jenny and Fred. Jenny had a very natural style – very intuitive. Fred was more cultivated, having had years delivering “emotional truth” day-after-day on Wonder Years. And their blend of styles was very effective. Haley was supposed to rattle Corey’s cool center. And Jenny’s street smarts as an actor – and her loose, natural style really helped capture that energy.
Luke Edwards deserves a lot of credit for his amazing portrayal of the troubled Jimmy. How was it to work with such a young actor, especially in such a complex role?
Luke did a great job. And it was not an easy role. And the back-story of his character was so complex – and frankly, dark. A boy whose twin sister had drowned before his own eyes? Half-brothers with Corey, but separated after his Mom’s second marriage ended in divorce? Yikes. That’s a mess for a 9 year old to process. So I just tried to keep things simple – put the scenes in kid-relatable terms – and help Luke find the end result, without necessarily understanding the entire emotional context of the scene.
We’ve checked and this was Tobey Maguire’s first film! How does it feel that you helped launch the career of such a famous actor?
Lol. I couldn’t be more proud. (Actually, I had no idea he was in the film until YEARS later). I just wish I’d kept his home phone number. I could use a friend like that! (couldn’t we all! – Ed)
The Wizard is very much a road movie. Which key locations were used throughout the filming?
The small town in the film where the Woods family lived was Fallon, Nevada – a very small town. What was hilarious is that in the “prep” stage of the film, we went to Fallon and I wandered over the “general store” of sorts. I’m not kidding. It was like you see in a movie, with these old locals hanging out on the porch. And I smiled and said hi. And they smiled back. And one old guy speaks up and the first words out of his mouth are: “Scouting locations, are ya?” And I did this double take because I realized how film savvy these folks really were. Clearly we were not the first film to roll into Fallon.
From Fallon we travelled to Reno — shooting roadwork all along the way. That was what made the film so exhausting to scout – you couldn’t sleep in the van because EVERY piece of road between one location and the next was another possible location.
All the Casino stuff was in Reno. Then we flew back to LA and started in the desert outside of town – like Acton, California where the little airport was where the kids meet Lucas for the first time. Then Universal Studios, of course, and Video Armageddon interiors were all shot at Cal Arts University in their big “modular” stage/auditorium.
Were there ever any scenes or moments in the movie which proved difficult to film?
Shooting in a casino with kids was a real problem. I think it was like against the law to have minors in a casino or something, so we arranged to have an empty corner made available to us. And we had to bring in all our own equipment to create the video arcade adjacent the casino area. But the morning we arrived to shoot, it was like someone had just dumped off two-dozen video games and walked away – they weren’t arranged in any way. So we took the first few hours just “building” a set to shoot on – and then we still had to make a really difficult day.
Universal Studio wasn’t a picnic either. There is one rule at Universal to this day: NOTHING stops the trams. So if you’re shooting, YOU stop to let the trams through. Major pain. We did get access to King Kong for two entire nights – problem was of course, that the kids couldn’t work all night. So that shooting had to be very carefully planned.
Overall, the biggest problem was that the script was way too long. I argued with my producers and finally with the studio that we were shooting way too much movie, more than we could ever use (I was under contract to deliver a 90 minute final movie) and that just makes everything harder and costs more and is incredibly wasteful. But I was a young nobody, and I lost the argument and was told flat out by Universal to shoot the entire script. Well, I had the last (sour) laugh. The first assembly of all the footage was 2.5 hours long. I ended up cutting an hour out of the film for my director’s cut just to reach a length suitable for a family film.
There were these kids who played Corey’s friends in the hometown scenes – and they had all these scenes together – and WHACK – they were just cut out of the film entirely. I wrote them all letters and told them before the film came out that they were cut — and that it had nothing to do with their work. The script was just too long.
Did you alter the script at all, and if so, can you explain any big changes you made?
I liked the script when I first read it. But I always want more. More emotion. More Action. More Character. More Comedy. So yes, I pushed for a lot of changes.
The single biggest rewrite I pushed for (and won) involved Jimmy’s whole story of wandering aimlessly and tied directly to the emotional catharsis of the film’s ending.
In the original script, Jimmy wanders for no reason. He never says anything to anyone. And the whole notion of travelling to California is Corey’s idea (Corey was a kind of dreamer always pondering exotic places he would never really go to – very much like George in It’s a Wonderful Life).
My rewrite was all about emotion. I wanted Jimmy to be wandering with a secret purpose that meant nothing to anyone for the most of the movie. I suggested that Jimmy say “California”. And that no one would know what it meant. But when Corey hears “California”, Jimmy actually gives Corey the idea of going there. And this mysterious emotional agenda sets the whole story in motion.
In the original script, Jimmy wins the competition and get to go home with Sam, Nick and Corey – and somehow, I suppose just by virtue of having won the championship – POOF – his grief and trauma was supposed to be all cured and everything. There was actually a line of description that explained that on the road home, Jimmy heaves his lunch pail (holding all his dead twin sister’s memorabilia) out the truck window and it lands in a river and floats away. I was OUTRAGED. I mean, REALLY? A RIVER??? The whole story is about a boy who is so deeply traumatized from watching his twin sister drown in a river that he becomes a semi-vegetable – and this is how it ends??? He throws her “remains” into a RIVER???
Okay, I knew that HAD to change. So, connecting the dots of the “California” mysterious agenda that I’d started – I pitched that maybe Jimmy knew EXACTLY where he wanted to go all along. And that what he really wanted was to take his sister’s remains – that lunchbox full of her stuff that was most important to him — back to the last place he could remember them all being happy together. And I pitched that that place be those dinosaurs on the 10 freeway outside Palm Springs. (I had always loved them and thought kids would too – I mean, come on, they’re DINOSAURS along a freeway!) And within that dinosaur, the family would learn the truth, and come to a new understanding and appreciation of Jimmy – not as a deranged semi-vegetable – but as a deeply wounded boy desperately needing to do one last sweet thing for his dead sister in order to find closure for his grief. And from THIS emotional catharsis, all their wounds as a broken family could begin to be rebuilt.
Well, I won that argument. The writer bought the pitch – and we ‘sold’ the rewrite to Universal. But along the shoot (it was difficult), my relationship with the producers and Universal fell apart. I’d argued loudly that the script had to be cut – and I’d lost. And from there our relationships all went downhill. It was one fight after another. And the whole film really broke down into “us” (meaning me, the cast, and the crew members that I had hired) and “them” (the studio, writer, and my producer and whatever crew he had hired – or convinced me to hire.) It got ugly. And there was enormous mistrust all around.
On one of my most stressful days of shooting – on the Universal backlot while the kids are leaping onto the trams and crawling car to car to get away from the bounty hunter – my producer comes to me and says “The studio doesn’t want to shoot the Dinosaur ending – and they want to cut all the ‘California’ references out of the film”. Now mind you, I’m shooting STUNTS WITH KIDS, and the sun is setting, and I have this crazy schedule to keep, and I’m as stressed out as possible. And I just about had a stroke. I just said NO. I said that’s crazy. We’ve shot ¾ of the film shot with all these references to “California” – and if we don’t shoot the ending, then ALL of that is going to mean SHIT – and it’s got to HAVE be cut out. SO, I said…. let’s shoot the dinosaur ending and if it doesn’t work, fine, we’ll cut it ALL out of the movie at one time. But it’s CRAZY – just fucking CRAZY – not to finish what we started at this point.
And somehow – I have no idea how — I won that argument and we ended up shooting the Dinosaur ending.
Correct us if we’re wrong but there are rumours the final scene was written on the spot and wasn’t really planned! Is this true??
As weird as it sounds, yeah, it’s true. (what! – Ed)
Well, if you read the answer above, you’ll be able to imagine the whole political geography of the film by the time we reached those dinosaurs. It wasn’t pretty. And I had lost all support with the writer and producer and studio. I was alone. I mean the writer’s version of my emotional ending in the Dinosaur was included in the shooting script – I’d won that fight weeks before — but it was all too fast and emotionally unsatisfying. None of the emotional BEATS to make it really build and pay off for an audience were written yet. And NONE of my entreaties to improve that ending were answered. I mean, the writer and producer and me – we were just were not talking anymore. And so I wrote that scene inside the dinosaur the night before the shoot. I added all the emotional beats I felt we needed. But the writer and producer wouldn’t publish the changes in the script for the actors – because (I suppose) their instinct was that the Dinosaur shoot was all about serving MY ego (I mean, the studio had already said they did not want the Dinosaur ending and, per them, all the “California” references were going to be cut out anyway…). So no one except me was paying much attention to the Dinosaur scene. I don’t ever recall the writer or producer coming inside the Brontosaurus (we shot the interior inside the actual Dinosaur – that wasn’t a set!)
So we moved into the brontosaurus to rehearse and I had the only copy of the revised text – because I had written it the night before – and so I just told each of the actors what to say in rehearsal. And that is what we shot. And that is the ending of the film as it exists today. (wow – Ed)
The “California” run worked brilliantly with test audiences – and the whole Dinosaur scene was the highest scoring scene in the film. And Universal, they didn’t care, it’s a business, as long as the film worked, great. There was never another attack on that storyline after my first director’s cut preview of the film.
That is quite the tale, thank you for sharing that with us! Moving on to the film’s performance, we’re struggling to get precise figures, how successful was it at the box office?
Huge bomb. It cost $6M in its day to make – low budget even then. And it made $13M at the box office. But everyone was expecting that “Fred Savage/Nintendo – how can we lose?” equation to pay off big – so $13M was a huge disappointment. I couldn’t get a job for seven months after that…
That’s a real shame, given the movie’s Nintendo link you’d have thought it would have done so mcuh better. Speaking of Nintendo and our wonderful hobby, are you a fan of video games, and if so, which games do you love?
I said when I was “selling” myself to Universal to direct the film – “I don’t play video games. So I’m the perfect director for it. If I can make videogame interesting to ME – I can make them interesting to anyone”. And in many ways, I still believe in the logic of that argument.
In the original script, there was sort of a general descriptive of “They enter the Video Championship” – in the classic Hollywood: “and then they fight” shorthand kind of way. And that was never enough for me. I was a huge fan of Aliens at the time – and I concocted the whole VIDEO ARMAGEDDON concept with a production design as close to Aliens as I could muster on my puny budget… I just felt that video games were not a great “spectator sport” – and so they needed as much help adding drama as they could. I still love the image of the that last giant door opening and little Jimmy appearing when you thought all hope was lost…
As for today, I finally bought an Xbox 360 for my kids a few Christmases ago – I was determined they would play Star Wars games with me. They’re triplets – two girls a and a boy – and they were five years old when we started. I rarely have time to play – but it’s still “our thing” and man, they are sooooo much better at it than I am now. And they’re SEVEN!
We know you’re a busy man, a final question before you go – how do you reflect back on your role in creating such a loved cult film?
I never knew the film had fans until it came out on DVD (Universal never bothered to tell me it was coming out – I found out by accident on Amazon) – and then the internet got a hold of it and I started to hear on social media how beloved it was. Honestly, it’s super satisfying. I bled for this movie, the way any director has to bleed for their film. But I also went to war with my creative partners – who wanted to settle for so much less than I did. And I suffered for fighting that fight. All my bridges at Universal were burned. I couldn’t get a job for seven months once the movie bombed. And my reputation was that I was “difficult.” So “waking up” to realize that a whole gamer generation “got” what I wanted them to get, it was huge.