Over the Edge: An Oral History
(Originally appeared in Vice Magazine, September 2009)
“They were old enough to know better, but too young to care. And now this town is . . . Over the Edge.” – From the trailer
In the spring of 1979, a small-budgeted movie with a somewhat corny-sounding name was released in just a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles, only to be pulled a few days later due to concerns that audiences would riot. Based (loosely) on a true story about suburban youth gone wild in the suburbs of San Francisco in the early 70s, Over the Edge would never receive a wide distribution. In fact, over the next 25 years, the film would be shown in only a few art houses and on cable TV, until its eventual DVD release, in September 2005.
The film, as certain critics like to label it, is a “lost classic,” and yet—unlike the majority of lost or “cult” classics—Over the Edge is actually worth seeking out. Filled with scenes that are difficult to shake, with teen characters played by real-life teenagers (how often does that happen anymore?), and with an authenticity so intense that it appears at times as if the film could very well have been a documentary, Over the Edge remains as thrilling today as it must have appeared three decades ago. While somewhat raw and certainly not without imperfections, it’s easy to understand why Kurt Cobain claimed that the movie “pretty much defined my whole personality,” and why it so heavily influenced Richard Linklater in making his own ode to restless youth, Dazed and Confused.
Starring a 14-year-old Matt Dillon in his first screen role, as well as a cast of mostly young unknowns (discovered, for the most part, while they were ditching school), Over the Edge manages to highlight a problem that has only grown and become more problematic since the 70s: kids, stuck in the suburbs, far from any city center, with nothing much to do beyond the usual Teen Axis of Evil: drugging, drinking, and petty-criminal acts. (That the film was shot in Greeley, Colorado, less than an hour from where the Columbine High School massacre would take place 20 years later, is, at the very least, a sad, if bizarre, coincidence.)
The plot is simple: Carl (played by Michael Kramer), a decent teen who feels estranged from his distracted parents, befriends a miscreant from the poorer section of the community (Richie, played by Matt Dillon). The two, along with friends, including a druggie and a mute, attend parties, fire stolen guns, and drink in abandoned, half-built houses. Harassed by the local policeman Sergeant Doberman and looking for adventure, Carl and Richie attempt to run away in a stolen jeep. They are caught, and Richie is killed when he aims an unloaded gun at Doberman. Carl escapes back to the development, where, later that night, a group of angry teens attack the junior high school while a parents’ meeting on youth violence is taking place. The teens lock the adults inside as they burn cars, fire guns, and cause mayhem in the parking lot. They are subsequently arrested and sent off to “the Hill.”
On this, the movie’s 30th anniversary, Vice spoke with nearly 20 of the film’s cast and crew, including Matt Dillon, to try to piece together the sometimes arduous making of Over the Edge, the frustrations felt upon its initial release, and how the film, all these years later, still manages to influence a new generation of filmmakers.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): The project began in the early 70s, when Tim Hunter [the other co-screenwriter] showed me an article by Bruce Koon from the San Francisco Examiner called “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree.” It was a sort of sensational piece, and was about young kids who were vandalizing property in Foster City, which was a planned community not too far from the San Francisco airport. Tim saw this article and came over to where I was living. He said, “I think this could be a good idea for an exploitation movie we could both write.”
I had met Tim when he was my professor of film history at U.C. Santa Cruz. I had graduated the year before, and we wanted to work on a project together. This seemed like a good one to start with.
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): Foster City was supposed to be an ideal bedroom community. The designers built it with a master plan; it was threaded with little man-made canals and waterways. Outside of some houses were docks that people could use to boat to the grocery store. But there was nothing for the large percentage of teenage kids to do in that town—I think up to 25 percent of the population was below the age of 18. It had the highest percentage of juvenile crime of any comparable city in the country, and it just seemed to me like there might be a movie in that story somewhere.
Excerpt from “Mousepacks: “Kids on a Crime Spree,” San Francisco Examiner, November 11, 1973
Mousepacks. Gangs of youngsters, some as young as nine, on a rampage through a suburban town. One on a bike pours gasoline from a gallon can and sets it afire. Lead pipe bombs explode in park restrooms. Spray paint and obscenities smear a shopping center wall. Two homes are set ablaze. Antennas by the hundreds are snapped off parked cars in a single night. Liquid cement clogs public sinks and water fountains. Street lights are snuffed out with BB guns so often they are no longer replaced. It sounds like the scenario for an underage Clockwork Orange, a futuristic nightmare fantasy. But all the incidents are true. They happened in Foster City where pre-teenage gangs—mousepacks—constitute one of the city’s major crime problems.
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): It took quite a while to write the script. We started in 1973, and the movie was finally shot in ’79. The script was originally called Mousepacks, but that eventually changed.
We spent a long time on research. Both Charles and I went up to Foster City and got a sense of the geographic layout. It was fascinating. All of the houses were built on reclaimed landfill. We visited the community center and started interviewing the kids. They confirmed that all of the incidents described in the Examiner article were true. The kids were bored, so they committed crimes. And they used drugs. And they drank. They told us everything. They were very honest with us.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): These kids were bored out of their minds. There was literally nothing for them to do. It was like a theme park without the fun—you’d have these developments called “Whaler’s Cove” and these fake pilings and these lame rec centers, with ropes and an airplane and a slide and a sculpture of a whale. Everything was new. Nothing was older than the kids themselves. The place made everyone feel a little disposable.
Excerpt from “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree,” San Francisco Examiner, November 11, 1973
Last summer the Foster City parks department sponsored ‘drop-ins’ at a junior high gymnasium. “Within two months the gym had been destroyed—pool tables ripped, ping-pong tables broken,” said Juvenile Officer Rick Rivera. “The program had to be cancelled.”
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): The only main difference between the film and the article was that our ending was a lot more violent.
When the script was done, I decided to show it to a producer named George Litto. George had originally worked as an agent who specialized in handling blacklisted writers in the 50s, including my father, who had co-written Roman Holiday. George then became a movie producer. He’s an amazing character. As a kid in the early 70s, I would hang around George’s office as sort of his protégé, and just watch him, as he worked the phones.
So when it came time to find a producer, I gave the script to George, who liked it and bought it. George worked his ass off trying to find a film company willing to make it. Orion, which has just been bought by United Artists, must have passed on the film five times before finally saying yes.
George Litto (producer): Nobody wanted to make this film. I took it to a few studios. Orion finally offered to give us some money, but I went to the bank and borrowed over a million dollars. That’s how much I liked the script. I broke the rule; I used my own money. Over the years, maybe I’ve earned back 90 percent of what I spent, but it was never about the money. I thought it was an important story. It was very ahead of its time: the kids who were going to get into trouble weren’t necessarily the ones from the city. They were going to be middle-class kids, suburban kids.
When we finally had everything set up, around 1977, I hired a young director by the name of Jonathan Kaplan. He had one major picture to his name, that had come out in ’75, White Line Fever—sort of a modern Western, but with big trucks—and it was very good. I liked that film a lot. That’s why I hired him.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): I was only 30 when I was hired to do Over the Edge, but I had some unique experience which helped. I had studied with Martin Scorsese when I was younger. And I had been the director of an infamous Sex Pistols movie called Who Killed Bambi?
What I took away from that experience was the spark and the truth that I saw in the punk aesthetic. And I saw that same spark and truth in the Over the Edge script. I thought, These kids are American punks. They’re not as articulate as the English punks, but they’re also in a rage.
With that in mind, I decided to attack Over the Edge from a punk angle: keep it simple. No fancy camera moves, visual effects, nothing fancy. I remember when I first saw Super Fly. There were boom shadows, badly shot scenes, and mistakes. But there was a simplicity and an authenticity to it that I really appreciated.
When it came time to cast Over the Edge, we tried to go for that same authenticity: we wanted real teens, as opposed to professional actors—and kids who were also age-appropriate. No twenty somethings playing 14-year-olds.
Andrew Davis (cinematographer): I was a fan of Frederick Wiseman, the documentary-filmmaker. I was a huge admirer of his work, and I wanted to bring his style—as well as the avant-garde European style from the 60s and 70s—to the film, which would only add to the authenticity and the grittiness.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): The executives wanted to tone down the violent aspects of the story, but, to George’s credit, he held firm. Orion wanted to make a big Romeo-and-Juliet love story, and George would have none of it.
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): Both Charlie and I were heavily involved in the casting process, which is rare for writers. We went searching in Colorado and California for real-looking kids, while Jonathan was back in New York, auditioning a bunch of more-professional kids.
Charlie Haas (co-screenwriter): There was no budget for a professional casting call, so Tim and I visited these schools and we’d ask the principal or drama teachers for students they could recommend. And all of the recommended kids were wrong for the parts. They were too actor-y. We wanted kids who looked and acted realistic, and we usually found them behind the school getting stoned. They were cutting classes and doing drugs. These kids definitely weren’t in the drama club, believe me.
Matt Dillon was discovered this way. The story is kind of infamous, actually.
Jane Bernstein (talent scout who discovered Matt Dillon): I was a friend of Jonathan’s, and I was in graduate school, studying for an M.F.A. Jonathan asked if I would be interested in trying to find non-professional actors. It’s funny, but Matt never mentions me when he talks about being discovered. It’s always a “couple of guys who found me.” But I found Matt at a middle school in Westchester, New York. We were told to look for the new James Dean. Real easy, right? So a friend and I visited different schools. We’d go to the door of a particular classroom, and we’d peer in. If we’d see a kid who looked interesting, we’d ask them a bunch of questions, like “What makes you angry?”
If they had any sort of verve and presence, we’d ask if they were interested in auditioning for the film. We found a lot of cute kids this way, but nobody too special. Then, on our last day in Westchester, we were walking through the crowded halls of this one school, and the bell rang and everyone ran back to class. But there was this one kid—and he really was a kid, like 12 or 13—who was soft and young but who had a toughness about him. He was skipping class, just wandering the hallways. He had this chipped tooth, and he was presenting himself as a tough guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Which was ridiculous. As we later learned, he was from a lovely family in a beautiful section of the suburbs of New York. He was as middle-class as they came.
It was clear from the very beginning that Matt was trying his hardest to play the role of a tough guy. Maybe Rocky Balboa. Or the Fonz, from Happy Days. Or maybe just a punk kid.
Matt Dillon (Richie): I remember Jane well, actually. She was really nice, which was strange. I wasn’t used to adults being so nice to me, especially those that confronted me in the hallway. They weren’t usually so friendly.
George Litto (producer): I was shown a tape of Matt’s audition, and I said, “He’s kind of interesting.” I just saw electricity. He was raw, but he was very distinctive.
Jane Bernstein (talent scout who discovered Matt Dillon): I remember that someone with the casting department told me that Matt had “good instincts.” It was both praise and a conveyed insult. In other words: Is he bright? Is he intelligent? Or is he all instinct, like a jungle animal?
Matt Dillon (Richie): When I look at that film now, I see myself as a little kid—I was 14. Of course, I didn’t think of myself as a kid when it was all happening. I just believed in that film and in my role from the beginning. Maybe I was naïve or whatever, but I always thought there was something great in the movie. It really resonated. I wasn’t a child actor—I didn’t come up that way. If I had gone in and auditioned for a Disney family movie, I wouldn’t have connected with that in any way, shape or form. But this role came very naturally for me.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): When I finally met Matt at the audition, I asked what his parents did for a living. He said, “My father is a fucking stockbroker and my mom, she don’t do shit.” It struck me as funny and ballsy. I liked that. He was definitely raw, but it eventually became clear that he was perfect for the role of the tough kid Richie. Once I decided on him, I then had to fight with the studio to get Matt the job, because he had zero experience.
There were actors who were more experienced than Matt—such as Vinny Spano [who played the bully character, Mark] and Pamela Ludwig [who played Carl’s girlfriend, Cory]—but I liked the fact that Matt was completely anonymous. The movie could only work if that was the case.
Pamela Ludwig (Cory): Matt didn’t even know what acting was, but it didn’t matter. He was a natural.
Matt Dillon (Richie): I wanted to do everything real. So Jonathan would call me Marlon—as in Marlon Brando. I was a Method actor, and I didn’t even know what that meant. And I didn’t even know who Marlon Brando was, truthfully. I mean, I only knew him as the old guy from The Godfather.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): To direct kids with no experience was exciting, but also kind of scary. Would they be able to handle it? I was pretty confident that they could.
Charlie Haas (co-screenwriter): Once the cast was in place, we decided to shoot the movie out in Colorado, and not in California, because of child-labor laws. In California, the kids’ hours would have been cut very short and the budget would have been much more expensive. Shooting began in 1978 in two locations in Colorado—Greeley and Aurora. Everything pretty much looked exactly the same: brown, sparse, really drab.
In a sense, it was perfect.
Andrew Davis (cinematographer): It was an interesting place to shoot. The locations were gritty and desolate and real—ugly and sterile, but with some beauty. I had grown up in a tract-housing development built on slag heaps next to the steel mills in Chicago. They were built for G.I.’s to live in after the war. I suppose I was kind of used to finding the beauty in such places.
They were literally building this sprawling suburb around us as we shot Over the Edge. Houses were going up right next to where we were shooting.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): We named the town in the movie “New Grenada.” Jim Newport, who was the production designer, and I put the location together. We wanted it to seem like a real place.
We created details that would reward those who watched the movie carefully. For instance, we made a sign that read: STRAWBERRY FIELDS. It was a made-up name for an area of a development. And after STRAWBERRY FIELDS we added some graffiti which read: “Never.” It read: STRAWBERRY FIELDS NEVER. This was far from paradise, and we wanted to make that clear.
We also wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t going to be your typical teen movie. The film begins with two teens, one in a coonskin hat, shooting a BB gun at a police car from an overpass. This wasn’t going to be a nostalgic look back on what it was like to be a teenager. This was going to be authentic and potentially scary.
Vincent Spano (Mark): The coonskin hat was my idea. I had found the hat right before the shoot started, and I thought it was great. It represented a time in American when people were living off the land. Fast-forward to the present, and these kids were plopped into a fabricated community and not really tied to the land at all. There was no place to go and nothing to do. It was bringing a symbol from the past into the present, and making it really perverted.
Matt Dillon (Richie): Everything was just so new to me. I mean, I had never even been on an airplane before. And here I am, suddenly on a film set in Colorado, which was like another planet. I had grown up in the suburbs of New York, which were entirely different than the Colorado suburbs. I might as well have stepped onto Mars. Even the juvenile delinquents were different. They all had blond hair. And they were really into drugs.
Michael Kramer (Carl): I was 15 at the time. It was a difficult shoot. It all felt very grown-up. In one scene, I slept with my girlfriend [played by Pamela Ludwig]. It was not easy for me to feel comfortable. She was older, and I had a crush on her. I had to take off my shirt on camera, which I wasn’t happy with. But it could have been worse. Originally, I was supposed to go completely nude! My mom said, “Nope! You’re not doing that!”
Pamela Ludwig (Cory): I was a little older, 18 or so. I just felt as if I was the experienced one. It wasn’t uncomfortable for me, but I do think that maybe Michael was a little embarrassed. And I can understand why.
Harry Northup (Sergeant Doberman): Pam was just an incredible actress. My favorite scene in the whole film is when she’s dancing to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” and she has a gun in her hand and she’s twirling and playing the thing like a guitar. That was improvised, and it was brilliant. She just radiated.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): Pamela was very warm and was very good with Michael. After they sleep together, when they wake up the next morning, they stand in front of a sliding-glass door and kiss. We wanted to capture the sunrise. We got there at the right time of day, and we were lucky. In the background, about 10 miles way, there was a fire and there was smoke in the sky. And that fire really accentuated the sunrise; it made it look beautiful. Very red and deep. It was almost like something from out of a Western.
Andrew Davis (cinematographer): I was very influenced by Westerns, particularly The Magnificent Seven. In Over the Edge, when the two characters kissed, we were just lucky and happened to catch the beautiful light of dawn breaking. It was important for the film to have such moments, because the landscape for these kids was so bleak. All of them are trapped, but they needed some light and hope.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): The film was shot in less than a month—about 20 days. It was difficult for most everyone involved. We were always scrambling from one scene to the next. We were acting on very little sleep, and we had a lot to accomplish.
The first part of the movie was mostly shot at night, which made it even more difficult. I wanted the young actors to feel in their bones where they were headed with such a movie. I thought that this experience would affect their performances—which I think it did. We shot all night and slept all day, and it really produced a camaraderie among us.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): There was a tremendous amount of stress among all of us. As so often happens with movies like that, the schedule was too short, the budget was too low, and everyone was under a lot of pressure. Tim and I were on the set every day, doing rewrites whenever necessary.
Frank Mugavero (party host): I played the role of a drunk kid who threw the party in his parents’ house. The kid wanted to be cool, but he was kind of an idiot. Sort of like me in my own life.
The scene takes place at night, and we shot it from sundown to sunrise the next day. It was all very weird for me. Jonathan just sat in his director’s chair and didn’t say much. I remember he wore sunglasses the entire time. Kind of strange.
My character is the one who walks out of the house and welcomes Matt Dillon and Michael Kramer’s characters to the party. I had never acted in a movie before, and, after the first few takes, I thought I was doing a good job. But Jonathan kept yelling “Cut.” I saw Tim Hunter talking to Jonathan, and Tim came over and gave me some direction. Jonathan still hadn’t said a word.
This went on for about three or four takes, and then Tim came over and said, “Okay, everybody! Time for a break!” The cast took a five-minute break. Meanwhile, Tim took me over to his car, opened the trunk, and pulled out a bottle of vodka and a Styrofoam cup. He poured the vodka to the very top. Keep in mind I was 14 and a total lightweight. I was not a big drinker. I downed the cup, just gulped it right down. Then he poured another cup, a second one, and I gulped that one down. Tim then got me a beer from the crew and said, “Drink this as fast as you can.”
We started the scene again, and by this point I am really, really drunk. The rest of the actors could sort of sense a difference. They were like, Boy, you have really loosened up!
When I look at the film now, I see just how over the top I am and how loud and how big my performance was. I was completely out of my mind. Unfortunately, I have to live with that. It would have probably been a better performance if they would have just let me act normal.
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds possible. It’s usually not a reliable way to get a performance out of anybody, but it might have been a good way to calm the poor kid’s nerves.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): You had to be creative with how you directed these kids. It was great in a way, because there was no baggage. But I had to invent ways of directing that weren’t by-the-book.
In Matt Dillon’s case, he would often look in the wrong direction. I would tell him that on the screen he would be looking in the right direction, even though it felt wrong when he was shooting it. Trying to explain this to a 14-year-old kid who was already suspicious about the whole thing wasn’t easy. So I’d put a $20 bill on my forehead, and I’d say, “Matt, if you look at this $20 bill, it’s yours when the shot is finished.” Over the course of the movie he made about $200.
Matt Dillon (Richie): Jonathan was great. He was like a big kid; we just loved him, we really did. He was the perfect guy to direct that movie. He was fun. Whenever you were around him your mood just elevated. There was always a lift with him. He had a great energy, and a great personality. We were very direct with each other. He’d say, “Get the fuck out of here!” And I’d go, “No! Fuck you!” That’s the way we related to each other.
In the scene that takes place at the police station—I’ve just been arrested—Jonathan gave me the type of direction which was perfect for a 14-year-old kid. He told me to knock the typewriter off the desk. But one of the writers came running in and said, “You can’t do that! I have to actually use that typewriter to write tomorrow’s scene!”
I was like, “C’mon, Jonathan. You said I get to knock the typewriter off.” Jonathan said, “All right, listen, I’m sorry, but you can’t knock over the typewriter. But here’s what we can do. In the party scene that’s coming up, instead of walking into the party with just one girl, I’ll let you walk into the party with your arms around two girls.” I thought, That’s good. That’s a good deal.
Ellen Geer (Sandra, Carl’s mother): I loved to watch Matt. He was thrown into a new situation, and a lot of attention was paid to him, but he didn’t let it go to his head. His concentration was wonderful throughout the whole process.
Andy Romano (Fred, Carl’s father): I always knew that he was gonna make it. He was good-looking and he had a presence about him, sort of like a young Brando or James Dean. He had a swaggering type of freeness. Matt was just himself. He wasn’t acting. And he didn’t need to be told how to do it. The cameras were turned on, and he just came across. He was cookin’.
Harry Northup (Sergeant Doberman): Matt just had this charisma. Sometimes he was so good he was spooky.
Julia Pomeroy (Julia, the rec counselor): I remember this one time someone on the crew had a cigar, and Matt pretended that he knew how to smoke it. He went completely green and threw up. He was always just like a cocky little 14-year-old. Not obnoxious and bad-cocky, but full of life.
He had a lot of sex appeal for a kid. People were like, Whoa! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid like that; someone who was such a natural in front of the camera.
Frank Mugavero (party host): The actor that really impressed me—I just thought he was amazing—was Vinny Spano. He was from a theater background in New York, and he could play any part. I really thought he was going to be the breakout star, and I was surprised when he wasn’t.
As far as Matt goes, my feeling was that he was a bit of an asshole at the time. Of course, that could do with the fact that all of the girls were hanging around him on the set. They were all after Matt Dillon. As a kid, I was like, I just don’t get it. What’s the big deal? He just seemed to be acting like himself; I could not see what the fuss was all about. It was almost like he didn’t even want to be on the set—he didn’t give a shit.
Michael Kramer (Carl): The shoot was difficult, yes, but it was also a lot of fun; for the kids, anyway. In some ways, it was like summer camp. My parents stayed behind in New York, and my parental guardian in Colorado was the actress Julia Pomeroy [who played the rec-center counselor]. She was a really good guardian to have! [Laughs] She was about 10 years older, in her 20s, and very attractive.
It was all very entertaining. The main teen characters—myself, Matt, Vinny, and Pam—would all go out together. We had a hotel room, and a lot of kids were sleeping on our floor. There was a great deal of camaraderie, and we all got along exceptionally well.
I remember at one point, Matt and Vinny and I had bicycles, and we decided to leave the set for the day. We were riding around, and we stumbled upon a porno theater. We walked into this porn theater—I’m sure it wasn’t my idea, because I was a big chicken—and the three of us watched some crappy, grainy, old porn movie.
Vinny Spano (Mark): I remember that movie very clearly. We were riding around on our bikes, and we came across this tiny movie theater in the middle of nowhere. Matt was the ringleader. He was younger than I was, but he was much more street-savvy; he was already hanging around a tougher crowd than I was used to. We walked into the theater, and there was this old guy behind the popcorn stand—he was the only guy there. He said, “What do you kids want?” And Matt said, “We want to check out the movie.” The guy said, “Sorry, you can’t, you’re too young.” Matt was like, “C’mon, man! Just let us into the movie.”
All three of us just casually walked in and took a seat; the old guy, strangely enough, didn’t say a word. Looking back, it was just a horrific experience. The movie was called Long Jean Silver, and it was about a woman who had lost a foot and, in its place, only had a stump. And let’s just say that she had that stump inside an awful, awful place. We got the hell out of there, fast.
Matt Dillon (Richie): I remember the guy who ran the theater. He kind of looked like James Dean, except he had a necklace of a marijuana leaf. The guy was finally like, “All right, just put your bikes in the back and go on in.” It was indicative of the times. I don’t think that would happen today.
We couldn’t distinguish what was going on on-screen at first. But then it pulled back and it was as shocking as anything I’ve ever seen to this day.
Julia Pomeroy (rec-center counselor): I was kind of the den mother for all these young actors. I mean, you can only imagine that there were a few wild moments.
Pamela Ludwig (Cory): My strongest memory was trying to act like a rock star by trashing my hotel room with Michael Kramer. We turned the furniture over and pulled the bed apart. We might have smashed a lamp. I feel terrible about it now, but it was all my idea. And poor Michael followed along.
Michael Kramer (Carl): Ah, it’s all coming back. It was all pretty pathetic, but yes, I do remember that. We were hardly badasses. No televisions were thrown out of windows into the pool.
Vincent Spano (Mark): All of us kids had our own wing of the hotel. It was a total mess. Room-service trays everywhere. Food scattered about. It was just bad. Out of control.
Harry Northup (Sergeant Doberman): The kids were fun. I remember one time I was sitting in a semi trailer, and I could feel the trailer next to me rocking. [Laughs] I don’t know what they were doing in there, but they had a tremendous amount of energy. Working on Over the Edge was the most fun I had since I was in Taxi Driver [as the character Dough Boy].
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): As for the ending, we wanted something big. Where would all of the kids’ aggression go? After Matt Dillon’s character is shot by the cop, the kids band together and go to the junior high school, where the parents are meeting to discuss the violence in their community. The kids lock the parents in the school with bicycle chains and then go crazy in the parking lot.
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): In the original situation in Foster City, there was some kind of parent-teacher community meeting to address the problem of violence. A bunch of kids showed up uninvited to make their feelings known. They just wanted to be heard, but there was nothing more to it. So we added the fiery ending to the movie.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): That was an intense scene to shoot, and we shot it over five nights. Matt’s character had died by this point, so he was standing off to the side watching all the other kids fire guns and light fires and smash cars. I remember him saying, “When do I get to do some fucking smashing?” And I said, “You can’t, Matt. Your character is dead, remember?” He was really pissed off; really upset. So I thought, Screw it. We dressed Matt up in a getup and sort of hid his face, and then we let him into the scene. If you look closely, he’s in there somewhere, beating the shit out of a car with a bat or something.
All of the kids completely got it and just went crazy with that scene. They had no trouble with the violent scenes. It was always the softer, more romantic scenes that they had difficulty with.
Vincent Spano (Mark): What I remember most about that scene was jumping up and down on a cop car and smashing the window with a car battery, which was a hell of a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be. I also remember how great the music was in that scene.
George Litto (producer): The movie had a fantastic soundtrack that really added to the texture of the movie, especially towards the end of the film.
Cameron Crowe, Sunday Mail, February 12, 2006:
There’s an movie called Over the Edge . . . and it was the first time I’d seen contemporary rock used in this way. It was a precursor to a lot of so-called teen movies that happened. It was suburban and crazy and great.
George Litto (producer): Cameron once told me that Over the Edge had the best rock soundtrack of any film ever made. That’s what he said.
Pamela Ludwig (Cory): One of my favorite memories from the movie is taking a van from the hotel to the set every day. We would bring a boom box with us and just rock out to whatever music we were listening to: Van Halen, Joe Walsh, the Cars. Also, Cheap Trick, who weren’t that well known yet. We would blast “Surrender” and all sing, “Surrender! Surrender!”
I had a boyfriend at the time who worked as a roadie for a few different bands, and he introduced me to all of the music around that time. He took me to see Cheap Trick, and I fell in love with them.
Bun E. Carlos (drummer for Cheap Trick): When the movie came out, we were still up-and-coming and not yet rock stars. This was our first major soundtrack; we hadn’t had a hit single yet. We were just glad to be asked to participate.
There were two scenes in particular that really worked well with our music. The first scene was when the kid [Mark] shoots the cop car with a BB gun. That song was “Downed,” and it was brand-new. The guitar had a kind of helter-skelter sound, and it was very effective. The second scene was when the other kid [Carl] lies on his bed, listening to headphones with “Surrender” playing. I just thought it was great.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): Pamela was practically the music supervisor for the movie. I just listened to what she played me and paid attention. The movie is better for it. I think the soundtrack was ahead of its time. Not many movies used rock scores then. Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets had done it, but not too many others. To this day, the soundtrack to Over the Edge is worth a lot of money on vinyl—if you can even find it.
The film ends with the kids on a bus going to prison. Originally, we were going to end with the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” [Teenage Wasteland] playing, which would have been fantastic. It was such an appropriate song. The line “They’re all wasted,” had two meanings. The kids were drunk and stoned, on the one hand. On the other hand, all of their talents and attributes were being ignored and wasted. But, at the last minute, the song was replaced with another song. It really affected the mood and tone of the ending. The producer couldn’t afford the Who’s song, which is a shame. I was very upset, but if you can’t deal with that type of thing, you don’t belong in the business.
George Litto (producer): It wasn’t just the money issue. I have a disease called optimism, and it was my view that these kids did wrong, yes, but at the same time they would pay the price for their mistakes and learn from them. I wanted hope at the end of the movie, instead of it ending on a depressing, dark note.
The song that we used instead was called “Ooh Child,” and it was by Valerie Carter. There was a line in the song that went “Ooh, child, things are going to get better.” To me, that’s the theme of the movie. I was really rooting for these kids, and I hoped the audience was rooting for them, too.
After all of the madness, things would soon be looking up.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): We finished the film, but there was trouble right from the get-go. Initially, Orion decided to present the film as a horror movie. The original poster was an illustration of a few scary-looking, pale kids with wide eyes. It looked like something for Children of the Damned.
Richard Linklater (director, Dazed and Confused): I once talked to Matt Dillon about it, and he said how excited he was about the film, because it was his first, but how weird it felt when he saw the poster for the movie and all the kids had their eyes rolled back in their heads like it was some kind of horror movie. Welcome to the wonderful world of film marketing.
Matt Dillon (Richie): When Over the Edge was released, I was on the set for My Bodyguard, in Chicago. The production manager threw the paper at me and said, “Hey, you got a good review.” And there was a review by Roger Ebert, and it was very positive. But there was also an ad for Over the Edge, and it showed an illustration of five kids with their eyes whitened out, and there was an institution in the background—like a mental hospital. It looked like an ad for a teenage zombie movie.
It was really frustrating. We all made a great film, and it was just buried. Of course, it happens all the time, but at that age, I just thought, Why would this movie not be released on a big scale? We already made the movie! And it’s good!
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): What had happened was that around this time a few movies had recently been released—Boulevard Nights, The Warriors, The Wanderers—that were all about gangs. And there had been some violence in one or two movie theaters. Orion didn’t want this movie to have that gang affiliation, so they marketed it as a horror film. And then they just dropped it. It wasn’t shown anywhere. They were afraid of copycat violence. It was hugely disappointing.
George Litto (producer): The real problem with the film was that it dealt with suburban white kids who cause a bit of violence—never against people, mind you, but against objects. If these kids had been urban and black, I think it would have scared Orion less.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): I think another problem—perhaps the biggest problem—was that these were kids playing kids. They looked 12 and 13 and 14. And that scared the hell out of the studio.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): I can’t tell you how frustrating it was for all of us. I remember reading a review in Variety that was just horrendous. They hated it. Years later, when the DVD came out, Variety actually wrote a glowing review. But, back then, they really hated it. I think the movie only played in a drive-in somewhere outside of L.A. That was the only place you could go see it. Orion just dumped the movie.
Frank Mugavero (party host): The movie did actually play for a very short time in Denver. I went there on the first day with my parents. I swear, there were maybe four people in the theater. At the most.
Michael Kramer (Carl): There was a screening in New York for the East Coast actors. When I first saw it, I was horrified. I don’t know how anyone can look at themselves onscreen. I don’t get it. I don’t understand how anyone can be an objective observer of their own performance. I just looked up and saw every flaw that I had and every flaw that I feared I have.
It was very hard. It’s still very hard.
George Litto (producer): And that was it. The movie disappeared for years, until late 1981, when it was re-discovered. There was a film series in New York devoted to good films that were not that well known. It was shown and—wouldn’t you know it—it received great reviews.
Andy Holtzman (former film curator): I ran something called “Film at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.” There was a program called “Word of Mouth,” which was for films that were very worthy but—for whatever reason—hadn’t received good distribution. They were either thrown away by the studios or were poorly marketed.
I had a friend who worked for a studio, and he screened Over the Edge for me—a 16-mm print. I thought it was a really well-made film, really well cut. It was a little bit ahead of its time. It really was a cut above the type of film that I had seen many times before. It was approached in a different way, though. There was a level of honesty that was missing from other films. I thought it was very worthy of being rediscovered.
We invited a number of big-name critics to the screening, and Matt Dillon and Jonathan Kaplan also showed up to answer questions. It was a big success. The film started showing up on Top 10 lists, and then Vincent Canby at The New York Times gave it a rave review.
From The New York Times; Vincent Canby; December 15, 1981:
The movie cannot help romanticizing its mostly mindless teenagers, their inarticulate longings and fears, their demoralization and, finally, their furious rebellion. . . . Unlike other such films, though, Over the Edge dramatizes the boredom and pointlessness of [the teens’] world with extraordinary conviction. . . . As you watch it, you are frequently caught halfway between a giggle and a gasp.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): From there, we showed the film in California. There were about 100 seats and it was packed. I attended with Matt Dillon, and I could see that Al Pacino, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in the audience. It was like, Holy shit! I talked to Pacino about it later, and he loved it.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): The fact that Joseph Papp, a big New York theatrical producer, and a classy one—he also ran Shakespeare in the Park—was willing to screen this movie in his theater was a big deal.
The movie disappeared quickly again. But because it had received such good reviews upon its re-release, it started to show up on a lot of cable in the 80s, particularly HBO.
Jonathan Kaplan (director): It played nonstop on cable, and it acquired a whole new generation of fans. I think one of the reasons people like Over the Edge so much is because they have a rooting interest. They root for the kids, even though you know how fucked up they are.
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): The movie played for years on cable, but what really brought it to national attention was the fact that Kurt Cobain from Nirvana would go on and on about how much he loved this movie. He would talk about it all the time.
“That movie pretty much defined my whole personality. It was really cool. Total anarchy.”—Kurt Cobain, from Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, by Michael Azerrad
Jonathan Kaplan (director): Cobain had talked about the movie and had recommended it to his fans. I remember getting a call at the time from Nirvana—I thought it was some sort of village. I didn’t know what Nirvana was. My assistant just told me that Nirvana had called and that they wanted information about Over the Edge. So I sent them whatever stuff I had for the movie.
I’ve still never seen the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but I’ve heard that it’s an homage to our movie.
“Kurt worked up a treatment for the [Teen Spirit] video, which originally included vignettes resembling something out of the Ramones movie Rock and Roll High School, or perhaps more like Over the Edge, an excellent 1979 movie about a band of crazed juvenile delinquents who smoke pot, drink, and vandalize a suburb. In the finale, their parents hold a meeting at the junior high school, but soon the local kids lock them inside, smash their cars, and set the building on fire. . . . The Nirvana video was shot for a modest thirty-three thousand dollars on a Culver City, California, sound stage made up to look like a high school gym, or . . . a ‘pep rally from hell.’”—From Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, by Michael Azerrad
Richard Linklater (director Dazed and Confused): Like for most people, Over the Edge hadn’t hit my radar when it first came out. But it’s just a great teenage movie. I was only a couple years out of my teens [when I saw it], and I had some exposure to these planned, suburban communities that had been springing up throughout the 70s. The movie is a perfect mix of all the conformity and boredom that goes along with the local geography of these places, and the natural restlessness, anger, and antagonisms of the teenage years.
I’d like to think that Over the Edge influenced Dazed and Confused, especially along the lines of its honest depiction of the teens themselves—flawed, romantic, angry, bored. Over the Edge not only has the courage of its own convictions, but it provides the ultimate in teenage revenge fantasies—what so many of us would like to do at that age: firebombing the school and the P.T.A. inside. I’ve always said, half jokingly, that that’s the truest ending to any real teenage movie I’ve ever seen.
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): If anything, maybe, Over the Edge influenced the Stephen Spielberg notion of setting films in these kind of new, man-made suburbs. You can see that in E.T. and Poltergeist. I think we had some sort of presence in seeing this kind of new suburban development which had so little character and so little history. It was a good place to work out modern themes of alienation.
Frank Mugavero (party host): I can see why the movie remains popular. It represents a kind of anti-authoritarian film from people’s childhoods. It’s daring in ways that are obvious now. I mean, we have gotten so ridiculously P.C. about teenagers that’s it’s kind of nice to see this view of them.
Harry Northup (Sergeant Doberman): After Over the Edge was shot, I read an interview with Jodie Foster, who said that of all the teen films out there, ours was the only one that made any sense. And that’s why she wanted to work with Jonathan when he later directed The Accused. I guess I’m biased, but I think Over the Edge is the best teen movie since Rebel Without a Cause.
Tom Fergus (Claude): As I’ve grown, the movie’s changed for me. I initially focused on the kids, but as I’ve become an adult I’ve started to focus on the parents. And I find them just hilarious. They’re just larger than life, in a very funny way. But I still identify with the kids and their struggles. These were struggles that we had growing up in the late 70s.
Michael Kramer (Carl): A friend of mine said to me, “You have to go on IMDB and see what these kids are saying about Over the Edge.” I knew that the movie had a cult following, but I was just blown away by the intensity of their love for the movie. It was very moving, and it made me proud to be a part of the project.
“It’s really hard to put into words how I felt when I saw this movie the first time at the tender young age of 14. In fact, it’s hard to describe how I feel today just thinking about it. One of those rare films in life that, for some reason or another, make a deep emotional connection.”—IMDB User Comment
“To this day, I am drawn to and repulsed by this movie.”—IMDB User Comment
Jonathan Kaplan (director): I think the movie has aged very well. We cared very much about credibility—with clothes, music, slang. If I heard any of the kids snickering about something, I’d ask, “Is this stupid? Should we change it?” When you compare it to a John Hughes movie—which are very funny and well made—ours might seem more real, because a lot of the dialogue was created by the teens.
My attitude was to treat these kids as equals. I didn’t want to be an authority figure, necessarily. I wanted to be one of them; I wanted to hear the truth in them. Matt would say to me, “Hey, so how many takes are we doing on this scene, Mr. Genius?” There was permission for that. Everyone knew they could be themselves, that they could be safe. Of course, when the kids would pour beer down the heating system at the hotel, then I had to say, “Um, guys, please don’t do this.”
George Litto (producer): This movie never dies—it just keeps coming back. No matter how anyone has tried, they can’t kill this movie.
Matt Dillon (Richie): Over the Edge really resonated with people. Right after I shot it, I was back at my high school and some girl drove up from Atlantic City in her sports car just to see me. She was about a year older than I was, maybe 16—just beautiful. I had no idea that I could do something like that, that I could affect anyone like that. She told me that my character reminded her of a friend who had overdosed.
And that’s something that I’ve never forgotten—just how powerful it can all be.
Excerpt from “Mousepacks: Kids on a Crime Spree,” San Francisco Examiner, November 11, 1973:
The solutions to pre-teen crime are not obvious, nor are they easy. In Foster City, police have retreated to the hard line. Last year they tried all sorts of different ways to deal with the problem—short of arrest. This year it’s handcuffs.
Ironically, if the Mousepacks are the tip of a trend, it may be the current pre-teen generation which is forced to come up with the answers when it grows to maturity.” – End of Newspaper Article
Whatever Happened To . . .
Jane Bernstein (talent scout who discovered Matt Dillon): Creative-writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University
Andrew Davis (cinematographer): Director (Above the Law, Under Siege, The Fugitive)
Matt Dillon (Richie): Actor and director (My Bodyguard, Tex, The Outsiders, The Flamingo Kid, Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, City of Ghosts)
Tom Fergus (Claude): Manhattan attorney.
Ellen Geer (Sandra, Carl’s mother): Actress (Falcon Crest, Patriot Games, Desperate Housewives)
Charles Haas (co-screenwriter): Screenwriter (Tex, Gremlins 2)
Andy Holtzman (former film curator): Discovery Channel marketing department
Tim Hunter (co-screenwriter): Director (Tex, River’s Edge, Mad Men)
Jonathan Kaplan (director): Director (Project X, The Accused, Unlawful Entry, E.R.)
Michael Kramer (Carl): Clinical psychologist
Pamela Ludwig (Cory): Freelance writer
Frank Mugavero (party host): Screenwriter
Harry Northup (Sergeant Doberman): Actor (Taxi Driver, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate)
Andy Romano (Fred, Carl’s father): Actor (Hill Street Blues, Pump Up the Volume, Bugsy, The Fugitive)
Vincent Spano (Mark): Actor (City of Hope, Good Morning, Babylon, Law & Order)