ďNothing lasts forever. Not even your job.Ē
Thatís what an MGM executive told the cast and crew of Nothing Lasts Forever a few days before shooting was set to begin. They gathered at Trader Vicís Restaurant at the New York Plaza for the pre-shoot party, and the MGM executive stood up to give a short speech. He started by bringing up some of the rules that were to be adhered to on his set. For example, the exec warned that no profanity was to be used on his set. And definitely no spitting.
Actually, it was not an MGM executive giving the speech. Tom Schiller and production associate Laila Nabulsi hired an actor to address their guests posing as an MGM executive. It so happened to be that the actor was an African American dwarf with a speech impediment. He was terribly inarticulate, and each time he tried to say the word film, it came out as flim.
The cast and crew were in stitches, but the supposed MGM executive had a point. Their jobs didnít last forever. Just like on any movie, the cast and crew finish the film and move on. After a few months of dedication and hard work, itís over. With Nothing Lasts Forever, many of them realized that they had been a part of something special. Each day they reported to the set, they were reminded of it by the illustrious set designs and strange conceits that they would have to work with. They didnít necessarily think the film would be successful, let alone turn out to be anything but a disaster, but they knew they wouldnít work on something like this ever again. Maybe the movie didnít last forever. But their memories of making it did, especially since they were among the few who have had the good fortune of seeing the finished film.
Tom Schiller has a unique sense of humor and an unmatched style evident in most of his works, including his film about Henry Miller, his short films at Saturday Night Live and his feature film Nothing Lasts Forever. My goal for this book is to give Schiller the scrutiny and printed analysis that his work deserves, with hopes of raising his achievements to a higher level. Of all of Schillerís friends and former colleagues that I have spoken to, many of them agreed that Schiller would have become the type of director who would have made film after film and would have amassed a critically acclaimed body of influential works by now. His feature directing career looked promising, until it was decided that Nothing Lasts Forever would remain in the vaults. It is the only feature film that Schiller ever directed. Instead of being a veteran director, Schillerís place in Hollywood is among the would-be Woody Allens and faux Fellinis. He deserves much better.
Another reason I took it upon myself to write this book is because the story behind Nothing Lasts Forever is a classic example of the studio system. How Schiller was handled by the executives at MGM is almost paradigmatic of the wheeling and dealing behind the doors of the major studios. Many films are withheld from release each year, but in most cases, those films are dreadful and the studios are within reason to keep them off the screens. Despite being a film that will not appeal to everyone, with Nothing Lasts Forever this clearly was not the case. Even though the film has been seen by few people, the fact that it was called ďa masterpieceĒ (by Pierre-Henri Deleau of the Cannes Film Festival), ďbrilliantly eccentricĒ (by Stephen Saban of Details Magazine), and that it was invited to the Cannes Film Festival two years in a row proves that this was not what MGM had initially made it out to be.
This is not a biography of Tom Schiller. Stories about his background, childhood, family, friends and personal life are presented only when contextually relevant. There is much more to Tom Schiller, and obviously, some of it does tie into his work. But Schiller is a relative unknown and not a public figure. I tried to convey what kind of a person he is through his work. Schiller can save the rest for his memoirs, should he ever choose to write them. Instead, this book is in part my own analysis of his style and the themes that recur throughout his body of work. The other part is a fun, anecdotal behind-the-scenes account of the making of his films, told from the viewpoints of his friends, colleagues, and Tom Schiller himself.
My appreciation for Tom Schiller began in the early 1990s when I was eleven or twelve years old. I had never heard of Tom Schiller, and even though I was very familiar with the many stars it had spun off, I had no idea what Saturday Night Live was. It did not air in the Netherlands, where I lived at the time.
I remember reading about a black-and-white movie from 1984 with Zach Galligan and Bill Murray that was going to be on around midnight on the RTL4 television network. I was intrigued. How could there be a movie with Bill Murray and the guy from Gremlins in black-and-white? Why would such reputable actors lend their names to such a project? I guess I was more than just intriguedÖ I was bewildered.
I stayed up late and was blown away. I didnít know what to make of the movie, but it was something I knew I would never forget. Most evident to me from watching Nothing Lasts Forever that night was that it was made by someone with an undying love for film, which is perhaps why it appealed to me so much.
A few years later, I had a similar experience watching a condensed re-run of Saturday Night Live. After moving to the United States, I had quickly become obsessed with the show and was fascinated by a black-and-white film that looked like it was made fifty years before. Starring John Belushi as an elderly version of himself who visits the graves of his Saturday Night Live cast members, Donít Look Back in Anger is a brilliant short film on its own, but because of the irony that surrounds it, it can put a lump in just about anyoneís throat.
These are but two pieces of Tom Schillerís impressive oeuvre, which spans more than four decades and substantiates that he is an immensely talented director.
Schillerís style and sense of humor stem back to the short films he made as a teenager in Los Angeles and continue through his most recent commercials.
1. The most obvious characteristic of a Schiller film is that it looks like it was made in a different time period. Schiller is a master at recreating the look of a genre or a decade Ė even a specific film. A prime example of this is Java Junkie, a typical 40s or 50s film noir modeled in part after Billy Wilderís The Lost Weekend. Dieterís Dream pokes fun at German pseudo-realism combined with a reference to the opening sequence of Felliniís 8 Ĺ as Mike Myersí Dieter leaps into the sky and is chased by a leather-clad S&M mistress reminiscent of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. And Schillerís four-part Broadway Story is a dead-on replica of the Broadway Melody and Gold Diggers movie franchises of the 1930s, with Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz effectively mimicking the early talkie acting style.
2. Schiller likes to manipulate time in general. Take one of his most endearing works: Donít Look Back in Anger is set in the future, when John Belushi, playing himself at age ninety, visits the graves of his Saturday Night Live cast members. The film was made in 1977, when Belushi was twenty-nine years of age. This means that the setting of the film is supposed to be 2038. Instead, the film looks like it was made in the 1930s or 40s. Everything from the music and Belushiís clothing to the scratches on the banged-up film print indicate that the film was produced before Schiller and Belushi were even born, making the film a patchwork of past, present and future.
He applies this to many of his films. Schillerís feature film Nothing Lasts Forever includes a scene that takes place in a 1980s new age espresso bar, references to the So-Ho art scene of the early 80s, and in the second half, a trip to the moon. Yet the set and costume design, in addition to the cinematography modeled after a film from 1939, indicates that the film takes place between 1930 and 1950. Like many of Schillerís works, Nothing Lasts Forever is an amalgamation of various different time periods.
3. Schiller also frequently edits stock footage into his films. Nothing Lasts Forever has transition shots that were taken from silent films. Schiller was unable to shoot exterior street scenes in New York with people walking around and going about their business like they did a half a century before because 1982 New York didnít look like the old New York that he wanted to present in his film. Since his film was in black-and-white anyway, he fused his own footage with old public domain documentary or newsreel footage from decades before, in effect creating a montage that furthers the storyline. Schiller uses stock footage in most of his films and is a master at blending old and new into a pastiche of different eras.
4. Schillerís sense of humor is ingenuous and inoffensive Ė but never bland or cornball Ė and sophisticated and erudite Ė but not exaggeratedly highbrow. Schiller sketches and films are rarely serious, as they tend to deal with light subject matters. On the rare occasion of a weighty topic, such as death in Life After Death or cloning in Clones Exist Now, the subjects are still approached with a light sense of humor.
Schiller is able to seamlessly merge the sophisticated and the unsophisticated. Traces of a childlike sense of humor can be found in films dealing with cultured topics. An example is the sophomoric concept of chimpanzees dressed in human clothing. Schiller makes extensive use of elegantly-clothed primates in a short film about the historically accurate and well-documented correspondence between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh.
On the other hand, Schiller rarely falls into the frowned-upon pit of bathroom humor, the key exception literally being his very first film The Door. Schillerís humor is consistently clean and inoffensive. While it is arguable that Schiller was daring and took risks, his works have never been dangerous. From Schiller one can expect mischief, not mayhem.
It is no surprise that Schiller himself has a childlike innocence to him. He is well-cultured, well-traveled and knows a lot about the worlds of film, art and philosophy. But he is also the eternal child. His chin is always up and he is rarely seen without a smile on his face Ė an enthusiasm not often found in adults. It is evident from the retrospective nature of his work that he yearns for the simpler days of his childhood. This might explain the aforementioned manipulation of time, as well as nostalgia, another common theme in Schillerís works.
5. Nostalgia is particularly prevalent in Schillerís later short films at Saturday Night Live. Produced between 1988 and 1994, these films are more referential to classic films than the Schillerís Reel films he produced between 1977 and 1980. Love is a Dream, Falling in Love, The Violin and Laura, to name just a few, all capture the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. More specifically, they capture a longing for the way movies used to be made; the movies Schiller grew up watching on television.
But most nostalgic of all are the two SchillerVision Theatre mini-specials that he made for the show during that time. Schillervision Theatre was a take-off on the television variety specials of the 1950s, complete with inappropriate corporate sponsors, an odious host (played by Schiller himself) and a variety of special guests. By condensing these specials, which would ordinarily run one or two hours long when they aired in the 1950s, into just three minutes, Schiller made them even more obnoxious than they already were.
6. Like the films of Woody Allen or (albeit alluding mostly to obscure popular culture) Quentin Tarantino, Schillerís works also incorporate many references and in-jokes, often relating to his substantial knowledge of art, philosophy and film history. There are jokes or comments about artistic, literary and philosophical movements that are hysterical to those who are in the know, but will fly right over the heads of the majority. For example, Art Is Ficial and Nothing Lasts Forever have jokes concerning Dadaism. The jokes are guaranteed to amuse those who are familiar with that art movement, but will leave anyone else left in the dark.
7. The acting in Schillerís films is noteworthy. Schiller rarely goes for realism, so the performances in his works are no exception. They are exaggerated and melodramatic, just like in the classic films that Schiller often aims to recreate. The acting is very old-fashioned, although the performances never appear antiquated or stoop to scenery-chewing. The most notable example of this is Zach Galligan in Nothing Lasts Forever. Galligan plays the part with the same charm of Andy Hardy. It is outdated by todayís standards, but works because Galligan is accurately channeling a different time period with his old-fashioned charisma and naivetť.
8. Finally, another characteristic of a Schiller film is its music. Few of his films have modern or popular music. There is plenty of classical music (preferably from a scratchy record player) and old crooner music like Eddie Fisherís ĎOh! My Pa-Paí in Nothing Lasts Forever. The short films Love is a Dream and Falling in Love were completely built around classic songs. Schiller was able to immerse himself into the time periods he was trying to recreate, carefully selecting his music from a vast collection.
Evident from his ability to recreate dead genres, his time capsule humor, his obscure references, the old-fashioned performances he is able to get out of his actors, and his use of music, Schiller can be considered an auteur filmmaker. His distinct style and humor weave throughout his entire body of work.