Retrocon 2024

Interview with Director Alan Metter of 'Back to School' & Many More Films

(This interview was originally published January 23, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Mr. Metter passed away in June of 2020 at the age of 77, so this opportunity to interview him is even more special to me.

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Alan Metter. He is the director of several films during the '80s and '90s, most notable being 1986's Back to School starring Rodney Dangerfield. He also directed Dangerfield's 1983 music video for "Rappin' Rodney" as well as the films Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985) and Moving (1988) among others. You will find out some details behind the making of those films and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Alan Metter...

Q: When and how did you discover that you first wanted to be a filmmaker? How did that opportunity finally come your way to do so?

Alan: Mine was a path of least resistance career. It began in advertising at Doyle Dane Bernbach. I took the skills learned there to the music business, creating ad campaigns -- mostly print and radio. Soon I was doing the occasional 30-second television spot for acts like ELO, Olivia Newton-John and Steve Martin (for whom I was also writing comedy material). This soon led to music videos, beginning before the dawn of MTV. I also did a documentary for Olivia's movie, Xanadu, which was produced by Larry Gordon. Larry liked my work and lobbied on my behalf with New World Pictures, for whom I made my first picture, 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun.' For me, overnight success took fifteen years.

Q: How would you describe your directing style and priorities?

Alan: Every decision I make is for the audience, "Where do they want to be at this moment -- what's the next thing they need to see/hear?" It's all about storytelling. I look at directing as a contract with the audience.

Q: You had a big success with Rodney Dangerfield's "Rappin' Rodney" video in 1983. How did you get hooked up with Dangerfield? What were your roles in creating the video? What memories do you have from shooting the video?

Alan: Rodney and I had the same lawyer and he put us together. It's funny, but when Estelle Endler, his manager, took me to meet him she spent most of the car ride "preparing" me, saying things like, "No matter how difficult the talent may be, it's worth it to work with them" and, "When you talk to the press, nothing is off the record." I thought I was meeting Ahmadinejad. I wrote the video and then produced and directed it. At the time it was the highest budget I'd ever had for a video, so we had plenty of time to shoot it, three days I think, maybe four.

Cameraman Tom Ackerman (who later shot 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' and 'Back To School' for me) and I studied the scene in 'Heaven Can Wait' trying to figure out how to do our white-on-white heaven and in the end I think ours looked even better. "Rappin' Rodney" was choreographed by Billy Goodson, who was one of the dancers in "Beat It" [Michael Jackson video]. It was the first film he'd ever done and he was just great to work with. It was a big hit. Rodney started bringing projection equipment on the road and used the video as his opening act. No "Rappin' Rodney," no 'Back To School' for me!

I have always been a huge fan of Rodney, but this song was pushing it a little too far. It includes some of Rodney's best punch lines from his act, but with a chorus and some background singers. Believe it or not, the single broke into the Billboard Hot 100 and reached #89. Watch for cameos in the video from Fr. Guido Sarducci and Pat Benatar. Here is the music video for "Rappin' Rodney" by Rodney Dangerfield...

Q: How did the opportunity to direct 1985's Girls Just Want to Have Fun come your way?

Alan: I had a hit on MTV with "Rappin' Rodney". My music videos were little stories and, thus, suggested me for movie making. In 1983, the studio spotlight swung to wildly successful MTV and I was there. My work with Steve Martin helped too. I had a lot of support from Larry Gordon (whose kids were friends with my son -- nepotism?) and from Bill McEuen, Steve Matin's manager at the time. In Hollywood, you need credentialed believers because studio executives are insecure by nature.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun was the feature film directorial debut for Alan Metter. The film stars Sarah Jessica Parker as "Janey" who is new in town and meets "Lynne" played by Helen Hunt, who shares her passion for dancing in general and the show "Dance TV" in particular. When a competition is announced to find a new Dance TV regular couple, both girls are determined to audition despite the disapproval of Janey's father. The film also stars Jonathan Silverman and Lee Montgomery. Here's the original trailer for Girls Just Want to Have Fun...

Q: How was your experience working with young Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt in early starring roles for each of them? Did you anticipate at that point that either was destined for stardom?

Alan: Actually, I did believe that both young Sarah-Jessica and young Helen were destined for big things. Each had already done some high profile work. And they were so talented, skilled and professional. Such nice kids, too. Who was going to stop them?!

Q: Please discuss the challenges involved in directing choreographed dancing scenes. I read that you brought in the same coaches that worked with the gymnasts that did Kevin Bacon's stunts in Footloose. With the dance contest being such a focal point of the film, were you ultimately happy with what ended up on the screen? How much of the dancing is being done by the actors themselves?

Alan: If our coaches worked on 'Footloose', I'm not aware of it. Of course I had watched Footloose many times studying how far I could go with the doubles -- the lighting, the wigs, the size of the shots, rapidity of the cutting, etc. Neither Sarah-Jess nor Helen were trained dancers (how many skills can you acquire at 18?!), so doubles had to be used. When our choreographer presented us with his routines for the final dance contest, the villains were way better than our heroes, so gymnastics were added to make the story believable. Our producer, Chuck Russell, was friends with Chuck Gaylord (Olympic gold medalist Mitch Gaylord's brother) and he was hired to save us. The actors danced in their close-ups. Was I happy with what ended up on the screen? I was happy the audience bought it!

The final dancing scene ranks on my Best Dancing Scenes from '80s Movies list you can find on The Retro Network. Here is that scene...

Q: Despite a natural based on the title and the song's popularity, Cyndi Lauper's version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" was not used in this film due to licensing restrictions. A cover version by a few unknown singers was used instead. Any specific reason why that decision was made?

Alan: Low budget film making.

Q: Were you pleased with the final film that you created? Any other interesting stories you can share with us about filming Girls Just Want to Have Fun?

Alan: Again, so many. As any virgin will tell you, the first time isn't easy and it's not without considerable pressure. This said, I think everyone had a pretty good time. The vibe on the set was good and I've always believed that this gets on the screen somehow. We have all the usual war stories. I remember Robert Downey coming to the set when he was done for the day filming 'Weird Science' with John Hughes. He was Sarah-Jessica's boyfriend and they must have been fighting at the time. She would come to the set to film a fun/funny scene with her mascara running down her face. I would say, "Please Robert, stop making my star cry!"

Next up for Metter was 1986's Back to School starring Rodney Dangerfield as millionaire businessman "Thornton Melon." In a misguided effort to prevent his son from dropping out of college, Dangerfield's character offers to join him at school. Once there, not surprisingly, he prefers partying to studying. After narrowly avoiding being flunked out of school, he even saves the day for his son's diving team by performing the impossible dive. The film also stars Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Sam Kinison, Ned Beatty, Keith Gordon, William Zabka and Robert Downey, Jr. among others. The movie was a huge success and grossed over $100 million. Here is the original trailer for Back to School...

Q: How did the opportunity to direct 1986's Back to School come your way? How far along was the film before you were brought on to direct? How was the experience of working again with and directing Rodney Dangerfield? Does one actually direct Rodney or do you just get out of the way letting him do his thing?

Alan: I had worked with Rodney before. There was a draft of the script when I came on board, but most of it was scrapped when we got Harold Ramis to complete the job. And yes, one directs Rodney -- maybe more than any other actor I ever worked with. The movie required that we deal out "the act" and "the actor" in carefully considered situations and I worked very closely with him on this. Of course he had the act down, "Can I pop my eyes on this line?" Actually his acting instincts were very good, he just needed encouragement. His line readings could be a bit erratic, however. So sometimes we went line-by-line in the close-ups, which took the cut out of the editors' hands, because the only usable performance of a line of dialog happened in a specific shot.

Q: Dangerfield was the king of the one liner. Did he do a lot of improvising or did he stick to the script?

Alan: As you'd expect, Rodney put a lot of jokes in the movie. I encouraged him to improvise during blocking rehearsals and we added what worked, setting it in stone before we began to shoot the scene. I often sent him off to the make-up trailer, asking him for an additional joke for this or for that spot in a scene where none had been written. He never let me down.

Q: How much creative control were you given?

Alan: Orion Pictures was unique. I was given complete creative control. I chose the cast, reading the key players with Rodney, who introduced me to Sam [Kinison] the night I got the job (Rodney was in awe of Sam).

My biggest hurdle was getting Rodney to trust me. When I was done in the editing room, he made me send a cassette of the movie to his cousin Leonard in Florida for final approval. I believe Leonard is the first dentist in history to have final cut on a major motion picture!

Q: You have to have some funny stories you can share about filming with Rodney.

Alan: Once again, so many. Only some of them I can repeat. Like when we rehearsed the "Twist and Shout" scene and the dancer swung her leg up over his head, giving him quite a view of her crotch. When the playback stopped, he turned to me in front of everyone and asked, "What if I fall in love in the middle of the kick?!" As you can imagine there were a lot of these.

Q: This cast was filled with some great characters. There are two that I want to ask you about in particular. First, the best '80s bully there is, William Zabka. He is perfect as "Chas"; what do you have to say about working with Zabka? Second, what do you have to say about working with Robert Downey, Jr.? Could you tell he had the makings of an outstanding actor back then?

Alan: William Zabka is a talented, nice guy. Very easy to work with. I felt that casting him in essentially the same role he played in 'The Karate Kid' was a bit of a cop-out on my part, however. But I played it safe.

I met Downey through Sara-Jessica. They used to come over my house and take my eleven year old son, Julian, on outings to Melrose Ave. I don't think Robert had enough to do in his small buddy role in Back To School. It was pretty one dimensional, beneath him in many ways. To tell you the truth I probably wouldn't have cast him as Chaplin based on his performance in my movie. Shows you how little I know!

Q: Oingo Boingo makes an appearance in the film and performs their outstanding song "Dead Man's Party". How were they chosen to be in that scene and how was that particular song chosen to be part of the soundtrack?

Alan: Ha! Producer Chuck Russell (a worrier) was horrified when I picked that song to appear in the movie. I think he was afraid Rodney might die before the movie came out! Danny [Elfman] had done the score (his first) for 'Pee-Wee's Big Adventure,' which was produced by a friend of mine who sent me a tape. I signed Danny for 'Back to School' immediately. No one had heard his music yet. Unlike most studios, Orion simply took my word for it.

In addition to doing the score for the film, Danny Elfman appears with his band Oingo Boingo. Here is the scene from the film featuring Oingo Boingo...

Q: I have to ask about the "Triple Lindy" dive. Who came up with the actual silly dive itself? How long did it take to film and were there any challenges?

Alan: The Triple Lindy was the vision of writer Michael Elias, who I met on a television special for Steve Martin. He was talking with Rodney about the diving horse act on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in the '40s. Suddenly he said, "Hey, why don't you do an impossible dive... The Triple Lindy..." I knew immediately I had struck gold. What an idea! Rodney's sport had been swimming before this, which gave me pause. I knew diving was an event even out-of-shape Rodney could finish! Because of the tight schedule, I made the shots with Rodney and our editor, David Rollins, shot the double in one day with a second unit (thus the inconsistency in the light, if you look at it again). When I showed it to Rodney, we shook our heads in agreement that this might be the dumbest joke ever put on film. He loved it!

Here is "Thornton Melon" performing the Triple Lindy dive...

You can find out a little more about Back to School in my interview with one of the film's other stars, Keith Gordon.

Q: What are your feelings regarding the final film that you created? Can you share any other interesting stories about filming Back to School?

Alan: Well, I didn't realize it at the time, but it turned out to be the highlight of my career (which is over by the way). Right now, I'm writing a book with lots of anecdotal lunacy in it. So if you want more you'll have to shell out!

Q: Your '80s films included some good music choices. Can you discuss your thoughts on the importance of music in your films, how you choose the songs and the challenges of getting/affording the rights?

Alan: As I mentioned before, I came up in the music business, so I had an advantage in this area. My cousin Linda Goldner, a very gifted music publisher, helped me get the songs together for Back to School. She supervised the recordings, too. I think that Danny Elfman's main title theme music sets up the audience -- gives the movie an authority I could only have dreamed of. Music is very important.

Q: How did the opportunity to direct 1988's Moving come your way? Were you a fan of Richard Pryor going into the project?

Alan: I was in demand after 'Back to School.' 'Moving' came to me with Steve Martin attached and I expressed interest. While my agent at CAA was making the deal with Warner Bros., Steve dropped out to do 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' and I ended up making it with Richard [Pryor]. Of course I was a huge fan of Pryor, but his health was failing by this time, so it was a tough mountain to climb. I think it has its moments, though.

Moving stars Richard Pryor as "Arlo Pear" who has to move his family from New Jersey to Idaho after losing his job. This creates many amusing moments in this film written by Andy Breckman. Here is the original trailer for Moving...

Q: How was it working with the great Richard Pryor? To me, he was certainly one of the funniest people I have ever seen in my lifetime.

Alan: Richard was one of the funniest people who ever lived. Stand-ups can be difficult to direct, because their hard won persona is always being evaluated by them against their character in the film. But he was sweet and tried to give me everything I asked for.

Q: There were some other interesting cast members in Moving, too. What can you say about working with Randy Quaid? How about Dana Carvey? Anything you particularly remember about Morris Day and King Kong Bundy?

Alan: I did two films with Randy. He's a monumentally talented actor, very deep. A couple of times I was so mesmerized watching him, I'd forget to say "cut" after the take was over. Regarding Dana Carvey, there was simply no one better for "the guy with eight personalities." We threw away the script for his scenes and just let him improvise. It was so much fun! I remember Morris Day surprised me with his considerable acting skills and King Kong Bundy (producer Stuart Cornfeld's suggestion) should have won an Academy Award...for his looks alone!
Q: It was not an '80s film per se, but Police Academy sure started in the '80s. You directed the 7th installment in 1994's Mission to Moscow. It did not have Steve Guttenberg or a few others, but it did still have the hilarious group of Michael Winslow, David Graf, Leslie Easterbrook, George Gaynes and G.W. Bailey. How was your experience working with that group of very funny people? Were you a fan of the original or the earlier '80s sequels?

Alan: The cast was great to work with, especially the consummate actor (and all around great guy), G.W. Bailey. I was a fan of the first one only (and that includes my #7).

Q: On 1998's Billboard Dad, you worked with the Olsen twins who are best remembered from the '80s TV series Full House. How was your experience working with Mary-Kate and Ashley?

Alan: They are the sweetest girls. They learned to walk and talk in front of cameras, so they're probably the most experienced actors I ever worked with. The way they deliver lines always reminded me of John Wayne --LOL -- how's that for a comparison?!

Q: You directed the made-for-TV The Growing Pains Movie in 2000. This was catching up with the Seaver family from the popular '80s sitcom. How was this experience? Did you feel any special responsibility telling the tale of these beloved TV characters?

Alan: Well, I wasn't about to tell the cast of this iconic sitcom how to play their characters. I was pretty much a mechanic on this picture.

Q: That Growing Pains movie is the last project you officially directed. What has Alan Metter been up to more recently? Filmmaking or otherwise?

Alan: I'm happily retired, traveling and enjoying new grand-fatherhood. I'm also writing a book about my Hollywood experiences and the wilder side of film making. It will be primarily aimed at film students.

I am very grateful that Alan took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I will certainly be anxious to read his book when that gets published. Back to School is an underrated comedy and certainly a much-loved film for many from that decade. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Alan Metter for his contributions to '80s pop culture and, even more, for sharing his recollections with us here as well.

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