How Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice Was Almost a Very Different Movie – Film Stories


1988 beetle juice turned out to be a cult classic that supercharged Tim Burton’s career – but it was almost a completely different movie altogether.

When you think of Tim Burton beetle juice, I’m sure there are a lot of memorable elements that come to mind. From Michael Keaton’s unforgettably chilling performance as the bio-exorcist Betelgeuse, to the scene where the Deetz family are forced to dance around the dinner table to Harry Belafonte. The concept of a fantasy comedy was certainly not new to blockbuster cinema, with ghost hunters having been released four years previously, but beetle juice should not be a success. In fact, it went through so many changes during development that the finished film barely resembles what the writers and producers originally intended.

In Burton’s film, Barbara and Adam Maitland are an ordinary couple living in a pretty house in Connecticut. Played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, the two decide to spend their vacation decorating, but everything goes wrong when their car crashes into the river. When they get home, a strange book – The Handbook for the Recently Deceased – awaits them, and they realize that they did not survive the accident. As soon as a strange new family, the Deetzes, moves into their home with their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), who can see and hear them unexpectedly, the Maitlands enlist the help of Bio-Exorcist Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) to get help. get rid of them, with disastrous results.

You might think that a movie about a ghostly couple who have to suffer in the afterlife (which turns out to be hellish bureaucracy) is pretty dark subject matter. Believe it or not, though, it was originally meant to be more. Screenwriter Michael McDowell had a penchant for writing horror, with his other credits including episodes of Tales from the Dark Side, as well as working briefly on Tales from the Crypt. His original script for beetle juice, co-written for Universal alongside producer Larry Wilson, was serious, dark, and not very well received.

First of all, the Maitlands’ death was meant to be much more graphic. Instead of the car simply sinking into the river, the duo allegedly screamed for help as they slowly drowned, and Barbara was also believed to have crushed her arm in the accident. Interestingly, a hint of this remains in the final film, with the character saying his arm “feels frozen” when they first arrive home. The couple’s ghostly diversions were also originally written to be much more malevolent. In place of the famous dance scene, there was a moment when the Maitlands brought a vine-patterned rug to life, using the plants to tie the Deetze to their chairs.

However, perhaps the biggest difference is in the main character himself. McDowell envisioned Betelgeuse as a demonic figure with wings that took the form of a short Middle Eastern man (yes, really). He was also decidedly deadlier than in the released film, in which the character is rewritten as a troublesome pervert. Some of that personality remains, however, as McDowell and Wilson’s Betelgeuse script initially wanted teenage Lydia’s sex instead of marriage.

In short, Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson had written something closer to a true horror movie, and Universal apparently wouldn’t have been happy. Wilson, who has producer and story credits for the final film, spoke in an interview about the backlash the script received from an executive at the studio. After giving them the script on a Friday, Wilson was called into the office on Monday morning, only to be told “what are you doing with your life?” As the bad reactions go, it looks like it was pretty bad.

Shortly after, beetle juice was sold to producer David Geffen’s company. After that, it was given to Tim Burton (now considered a promising young director after Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and things started to move forward. McDowell and Wilson began rewrites, but Burton eventually handed the rest of the work over to Warren Skaaren after creative differences emerged. Curiously, Skaaren will also contribute to Burton’s script Batman. The writer is responsible for the change in tone beetle juice undergone before filming, to become the fantasy comedy we all know and love. One notable difference, however, was the fact that Skaaren intended the soundtrack to be R&B, not Harry Belafonte. A bit of a drastic change, but one that obviously worked for the best.

The script may have been tweaked, but there were still a lot of stumbling blocks during development.

First, it was the casting. Sammy Davis Jr. was Burton’s first choice for the role, and producers were considering comedic actor Dudley Moore as well as stand-up comedian Samuel Kinison. It was David Geffen who suggested Michael Keaton for the role, and luckily Burton accepted.

Keaton is one of many longtime collaborators the director reportedly picked up while making Beetle juice. Others include Catherine O’Hara (who would go on to voice Sally in the Burton-produced film The Nightmare Before Christmas), Winona Ryder (whom he cast as Kim Boggs in Edward Scissorhands) and set designer Bo Welch, who worked on Edward Scissorhands and Batman returns. Glenn Shadix, who plays Otho, would also lend his voice to The nightmare before Christmas. You almost feel like if beetle juice didn’t turn out the way it did, Burton’s job would also be very different.

The final hurdle Burton faced was Warner Bros., who didn’t like the film’s name. They wanted to call the blandest comedy house ghosts, to which Burton responded with a joke about calling him Scared Sheetless In place. He would have been horrified when they actually considered it, but obviously beetle juice came out on top at the end.

There you have it, a movie that transitioned from horror to comedy, turned a murderous antagonist into a sexual plague, and replaced an R&B soundtrack with Harry Belafonte. He introduced Burton, quite by chance, to multiple collaborators who appear in his films throughout his career. Winona Ryder is even attached to reprise her role as Lydia in the long-awaited sequel to beetle juice, which was announced (again) in February of this year.

The film’s troubled development certainly benefited Burton, helping to shape his career for years to come. It also worked for the best for beetle juice himself. Without those changes to the script and casting decisions, it might not have been the enduring success it is today.

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