Larry Wilson, who cowrote Beetlejuice along with Michael McDowell, was recently interviewed by comedians Rick Ramos and Mike Black on the radio program Watch This With Rick Ramos.
Here's a transcript of what I think are the highlights of the interview. Wilson mentions some interesting things about the early stages of Beetlejuice and working with McDowell. For continuity purposes I left out any interruptions by the radio hosts while Wilson was speaking. He also goes on to talk about The Addams Family and his newest project Cindy. A link to the radio show is below.
RAMOS/BLACK: I don't know if you guys were looking to write something that was geared towards kids? if it was supposed to be scarier? did it transform when Burton got ahold of it? What was the initial idea?
WILSON: Well, the initial idea, and I'm going to love answering your question about “was it for kids?” or “wasn't it for kids?” because it's worth answering for several reasons. The initial idea, I had a brand new writing partner, the late great Michael McDowell. We were trying to figure out what we were going to write together, and he was living in Boston at the time, I was here in LA, and as I remember it I called him, it was over a weekend, over a three day period, so we'll say I called him on a Friday and I said “okay, how about a psychedelic ghost comedy.” And we had no idea what it meant but it sounded, it kind of resonated for us. I said that to Michael and the next day he called me and he said “okay, this is what I know: it's the humans haunting the ghosts.” And that was such an epiphany and terrific idea. And my next step in that was.... Okay quick digression, Michael and I always had, it was in good sport if you will, we had a sort of class war that went on between us. Michael was extremely well educated, very well-turned out upper-class. I grew up in a trailer park and I barely got through high school and I was from a very middle-class background as it compared to him. It kinda became a joke between us sometimes. So I said to Michael “I really love that. The humans are haunting the ghosts, and the humans are you, they're these hideous, snobbish...New Yorkers. And Barbara and Adam, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis's character, who evolved into that, they were too nice. They were too nice to get rid of these humans. To use the old-fashioned expression “Norman Rockwell.” So one day it's the humans haunting the ghosts, the second day it's the humans are too nice, or should I say the ghosts are too nice to scare the humans so they hire a gunfighter because they need someone who can scare the humans out of the house. And that became the Betelgeuse character. So it was over a weekend that the essence of the idea was in place.
RAMOS/BLACK: This is a question only you could answer: what was Beetlejuice when he was alive?
WILSON: He was some sort of person wandering in a cart selling phony remedies for the black plague or something. The original, and I don't know if this is in the original first draft of the script or if this is just what Michael and I told each other about it, but our very first description of him was “Groucho Marx from Hell,” and that he had that huckster persona, that he could basically extract every dime that you had through his wit and his charm, or pseudo-charm, and then you know Betelgeuse, you had that whole demonic thing working for him too.
RAMOS/BLACK: And at one point Sammy Davis Jr. was attached, or thought of...
WILSON: Thought of, you know, no offense Mr. Davis, wherever you are in Vegas Heaven, but thank God it didn't happen...because...it's hard to imagine anyone but Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice now.
WILSON: A couple of other things that you said earlier on here about “did we know this was for kids?” No. When Michael and I sat down to write it we had not a thought in our head about who was it going to be for, what's the demographic, any of that often nonsense. We wanted to write what we thought was funny, what we thought was cool, what we thought was interesting. It was one of those amazing experiences that you----, that it starts writing you, actually. We got in such a flow together and about halfway through we really started to feel like we're on to something here, there's something happening. It's a movie where, it's a PG movie where “fuck” is used. That's the only PG movie I know where that word is allowed. The plot jeopardy in it is that there's this demonic pervert who wants to marry a fifteen year old girl. And all of those things, that had someone really been watching, I suppose, it could have been found very objectionable. I don't know what would have happened.