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An Interview with Tom Schiller

An Interview with Tom Schiller

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Feature by: Jenny Jediny

Posted on: 17 March 2010

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92YTribeca Film Series: Not Coming to a Theater Near You

NotComing.com will be hosting a screening of Nothing Lasts Forever (1984) on Saturday, March 20th as part of our monthly series at 92Y Tribeca in New York City. Writer/director Tom Schiller will be present at the screening to introduce the film and several of his short films from Saturday Night Live.

As a prelude to the event, we spoke with Tom Schiller via phone from his Manhattan apartment to discuss his comedic background, his love of foreign films and bad sci-fi, and the shooting – and subsequent shelving – of his only feature film.


NotComing.com:

Nothing Lasts Forever screened last November at the Olympia Film Festival; it was also shown twice in New York five or six years ago, both at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. How did those screenings came about and what was the reception to the film like?

Tom Schiller:

It was screened at BAM as part of a Bill Murray festival; Murray actually asked for it to be included. The Olympia screening was arranged by Shade Rupe (Festival Programmer) and I got to open the whole festival with my film opening night. That was neat. Olympia is a small festival but it’s… neat. It’s friendly. It had a good reception. In fact, people laughed more there than ever before at any screening.

NCDC:

You had arranged an inspection of two prints of Nothing Lasts Forever at the 92Ytribeca a few weeks ago. I saw Cristina Cacioppo (92Ytribeca’s Film Programmer) shortly beforehand, and we agreed that it was surprising to have not just one print of your rare film at the Y, but two at the same time.

TS:

I know, for me too!

NCDC:

You had mentioned in a previous email exchange that you were aiming to remove a duplicate scene in one of the prints, and combine the two to make one complete print. How did the film end up that way? What happened to it over the years?

TS:

Well, when it was finished—I don’t think it was ever finished properly. It was sort of left hanging. Then there were a couple of versions made by MGM/UA that went directly to video, and then shown in foreign countries on television; they cut out nudity, and also any references to Jesus Christ. So there were a lot of weird prints floating around, and since it was never really shown theatrically, there was always one print sent out and it had a double scene and was also missing a scene. So I had to suffer through it for years, until I called the DGA and asked them to help me as an intermediary between myself and Warner Bros., who now distributes it. So they shipped 2 prints to the 92Y, and between the two of them, I could kind of make a print thatís really the whole movie. And I hope it’s gonna work, because I haven’t screened it totally. But it should be interesting.

NCDC:

And you’re also showing some of your short films from “Saturday Night Live.” Are any of the selected shorts a particular favorite of yours?

TS:

I like so many of them—you know, La Dolce Gilda one of my favorites. I showed it to Fellini in Rome, and he said it had the atmosphere of his work, and that was a huge compliment for me, because he’s my idol. And then,let’s see—of course the Belushi in the cemetery one, Don’t Look Back In Anger. That’s sort of a sad one, made famous because he died, the first cast member to die.

NCDC:

How did you initially become involved with “Saturday Night Live”?

TS:

Well, I was introduced to the producer by my father, who worked in the same business.

NCDC:

Your father worked on “I Love Lucy,” is that right?

TS:

Yeah, and Lorne Michaels was a junior writer on one of his shows at that time. We became pals, and so I was with him when he first started the show.

NCDC:

Have you watched the show recently?

TS:

Yeah, I watched it the other day when Zach Galifianakis – or however you say his name – when he was on, and I thought it was actually pretty good.

NCDC:

They’ve started bringing back short films, with SNL Digital Shorts. How do you feel about the latest incarnation?

TS:

It’s a whole different genre, so to speak. And also, it’s very topical, so I think video is good for that. But it’s different than what I was trying to do, which was mock real films; I was inspired by Fellini and Truffaut. I’m not sure these guys were inspired—well, they do make fun of certain film genres though. It’s a different kind of reference point. But I think they’re very popular, and it’s good for the audience now. Mine were good for the audience then because we came out of seeing foreign films, like The 400 Blows, and could relate to that.

NCDC:

And even with a short like Java Junkie, that’s more of a Billy Wilder/classic noir reference?

TS:

Exactly.

NCDC:

In Michael Streeter’s biography about you, he mentions that when Lorne Michael signed the movie deal with MGM, you were ready; you had your script and storyboards entirely planned out. When exactly did you begin working on Nothing Lasts Forever, before it came to fruition?

TS:

I think from the time Lorne said, “go ahead, write your own film,” maybe… three months?

NCDC:

Did it come to you within those three months or had the idea been percolating?

TS:

I had this idea before, and it was percolating, because you always keep idea books when writing. And I wanted to write the story of a guy who wants to be an artist, but he doesn’t know what kind, and I incorporated a lot of those ideas into it. But I didn’t have any idea of structure, how you write a film. And you’ll notice the film doesn’t have a story arc… it’s simply willy-nilly, all kinds of potpourri put together.

Nothing Lasts Forever

NCDC:

I love the opening of Nothing Lasts Forever, the font and title card, and the inclusion of stock footage to transform Manhattan into a future that resembles the 1930/40s. Were there specific MGM or Universal studio films that you’re a fan of that inspired the look and feel of the film?

TS:

It’s not one film, it’s all the films I saw growing up watching late night television when I was 11 or 12. Trip to the Moon movies, every Fellini movie I ever saw, and the spirit of all of those bad sci-fi movies from the 50s, and also American studio films from the 40s and 50s.

NCDC:

Some of the sets were actually from old science fiction movies, weren’t they? And you also allude to The Time Machine with the character of Eloy?

TS:

That was one of my favorite movies, And then there’s—we got a backdrop for the moon from Forbidden Planet, with Walter Pigeon and Robbie the Robot.

Zach Galligan in Nothing Lasts Forever

NCDC:

What drew you to actor Zach Galligan? I’ve read that other young actors up for the role of Adam Beckett included Matthew Broderick & Matthew Modine. What made Zach stand out?

TS:

Two reasons: first, it was a snobbery I had about not hiring someone who was famous already. Although in hindsight, maybe it would have helped the film get distributed. But I liked Zach because he seemed to be sort of egotistical and self-centered, and a little preppy from a haughty New York family, and I liked that conceitedness of him.

NCDC:

What was the shoot like? There’s so much commentary in Streeter’s book from cast and crew members who talk about having such a great time—what was it like for you?

TS:

Well, it’s like Orson Welles said when he walked into RKO and said “What a neat electric train set to play with.” For me, it’s like that. I got handed exactly what I’d always wanted since I was 15 years old, and got to be the writer and director of my complete imagination with a huge, real, MGM film crew and actors and everything, and to design it and work on it everyday, when I was 33 years old, that was a dream come true. Delightful and wonderful, the crew was great and the actors were wonderful and it was just a lot of fun.

Nothing Lasts Forever

NCDC:

Something that stands out to me about Nothing Lasts Forever is representation of older generations. Many of the people Adam encounters are over fifty; the guests at his aunt and uncle’s party, the inhabitants beneath the city, the shoppers on the bus to the moon. Can you talk about the nostalgia in the film and this connection to older generations? What attracts you to that?

TS:

I think you can learn more from older people, I think they’re shunted aside in our society, which is one of the points I make in the film, that they send them to the moon to go shopping. I loved Imogene Coca when I was little, my parents used to awaken me at night to watch a good sketch on “Your Show of Shows.” She was on it.

NCDC:

Did you feel the same way in regard to casting Sam Jaffe or Eddie Fisher?

TS:

Sam Jaffe was a sweetheart. I wrote him a letter and he responded immediately. He was totally professional and sweet, and great. I think it turned out to be his last film. I think it turned out to be a lot of people’s last film, including me. But anyway, Eddie Fisher was fine. I had met him through Carrie Fisher, who was a friend, and he’s a good guy. He just… he was nervous, but he did a good job and sang “Oh My Pa-Pa,” which is one of his signature songs.

Nothing Lasts Forever

NCDC:

There are scenes in Nothing Lasts Forever that poke fun at the Soho art scene in the 80s, and there’s also the Orwellian control the Port Authority has over Manhattan. Was that a reflection of your experience living in New York in the 70s and 80s?

TS:

First of all, only when I came to New York did I hear those words, “The Port Authority.” I never knew what that was, and it seemed rather weird, like who is the Port Authority? So to me, that was the funny way of using that. And then the art scene in the 80s in New York, and still, and even before, is kind of silly. I think.

NCDC:

Can we talk about the shelving of the film? It was only released for two weeks in Seattle in 1984, and received two invitations to Cannes that MGM declined.

TS:

No one has ever given me a straight answer; sometimes they say we can’t clear all of the archival footage, we’re having trouble with Movietone. Then they say they’ re having trouble with music licensing for the songs. I’m really not quite sure, but I think basically they don’t think it’s commercial and it would have cost too much to advertise and bring out.

NCDC:

Has anyone expressed interest in releasing it on DVD?

TS:

Yes; Warner Archives. They’ve said many times that they want to release it. However it would ruin [its] status as a buried classic, which I like. I like that it’s hidden and shown in Europe on late night television, dubbed into a 20 different languages.

NCDC:

There’s a line early in the film where a stranger tells Adam on the train that he’ll “get everything he wants in his lifetime, only not in the way he expects.” In Streeter’s book he mentions that someone once said this to you. How did that story make its way into the script?

TS:

I was living in Europe at the time, and I really thought I was the suffering artist at the age of 20. I was on a train and I must have looked so distraught this guy sitting across from me who announced himself as a Swedish architect, actually did say that to me. And it’s come true!

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