In 1982, Tom Schiller was given the opportunity to make his first feature film. Schiller—an original member of the Saturday Night Live writing staff, best known for his “Schiller’s Reel” and “Schillervision” short films—went about translating the warm, nostalgic, and lightly surreal vibe of those shorts to the big screen. His cast included Hollywood veterans (Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, Eddie Fisher, Rosemary De Angelis), former members of SNL’s “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd), and, in the lead role of “a young man who wants to be an artist ends up going on a bus to the moon,” future Gremlins star Zach Galligan.
The film, titled Nothing Lasts Forever, took place in a bizarre, retro-futuristic vision of New York City, a dystopia under the iron thumb of the port authority. It had adventure. It had romance. It had music. It had a society of bums who controlled the fate of the world from underground tunnels. It was, in the parlance of an earlier time, a “major motion picture event”—until it received one disastrous test screening in Seattle, and was shelved by the suits at MGM. For years, Nothing Lasts Forever existed in the realm of “lost films”—a myth to all but those who had come across bootlegs made from European television screenings.
Then, in 2004, Murray requested a screening of the film as part of a career retrospective at New York’s BAMcinématek. A revived interest began to grow around this strange, out-of-time comedy—enough so that the film’s current owners, Warner Bros., allowed Schiller to take the film to theaters across the country. He’ll screen Nothing Lasts Forever—along with a selection of the “top 10” SNL shorts at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown tonight, Dec. 22. In anticipation of the screening, The A.V. Club spoke to Schiller about why he enjoys Nothing Lasts Forever’s lost-film status, the eerie quality of one of the best-known “Schiller’s Reel” films, and his subsequent transition into directing commercials.
The A.V. Club: There are conflicting reports about how MGM handled Nothing Lasts Forever, and whether it received a full theatrical release. What’s the true story there?
Tom Schiller: Yes, there was a test screening in Seattle. Also, when I finished it, the studio said it was an “art film,” and that wasn’t so great. [Laughs.] And it was also asked to go to the Cannes Film Festival two years in a row, but MGM wouldn’t let it. It was eventually licensed to European television: France, Germany, Andorra—weird countries. But actually, I like that.
AVC: Because it adds to the mystique of the film?
TS: Yeah, exactly. And I admired the European film sensibility more than the American [sensibility] at the time, so that was the perfect audience to see it: insomniac Europeans.
AVC: Do you think you would’ve had better luck if you made the film in Europe?
TS: Maybe—but I don’t think that a European studio would take me. It’s a fluke even that MGM took me. It was a mistake that slipped through the cracks, but I ended up getting to make a personal film at a giant studio.
AVC: With Nothing Lasts Forever being such a personal film, did the way MGM handled it sour you to the thought of making a follow-up?
TS: [Laughs.] It was very disappointing. However, in retrospect, I don’t mind that that was my only opus, one, number one. It was the weird movie I’d always wanted to make, and I don’t think I was the Hollywood type to churn out movies like a Steven Spielberg or John Landis or Harold Ramis. Those were the other kind of Saturday Night Live comedy, director-type people. I was in my own world.
AVC: When you tour the film, do you stick around with the audience during the screenings, or do you duck out until the Q&A?
TS: No, I’m fascinated to see, first of all, where they laugh, where they don’t laugh. There’s excruciating spots that I wish I could change—which are always horrible. But then there’s parts which I love. And since it’s my only film, it’s like it’s my first born—you love it with all its flaws.
AVC: So you definitely value that opportunity to finally watch it with an audience.
TS: Oh, God yes. And every audience is different. There are references in that film that I don’t even think I get, so it’s always surprising when an audience member gets it. So that’s funny. And then there are some deadly quiet screenings—but mostly people think it’s neat.
AVC: What do you wish you could change?
TS: I wish it went to Cannes. [Laughs.] I don’t know—at this stage, it’s almost over 20 years old. So I don’t have at the top of my mind what I wish I could change. I think just leave it as it is, with all its mistakes and flaws.
AVC: How crucial to the film was it to cast the older stars like Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, and Eddie Fisher?
TS: Very—I tried to show that our culture shunts away older people. And so they send them to the moon, and they have to shop. I like using these old actors—I’m afraid however, that 30 years down the line, there’s a lot of people who don’t know who these actors are. But to me, I grew up with these people, and it was exciting to work with them.
AVC: And casting those older stars preserves the vintage feel of the film as well.
TS: Absolutely. You see characters who have been in Hollywood for years, and it added to the whole texture of it.
AVC: What other aspects of the film’s “lost” status do you enjoy?
TS: Instead of it being put out and closing in a week in the mid ’80s, it instead had this underground life that moves along silently. I would rather it be a cultish film that’s revived now and then than something that just died and got buried. Although I’m not against the idea of having a DVD release—which Warner Bros. is always threatening—I’m delighted that there’s a select audience that seeks it out and really knows about it.
AVC: With regard to your “Schiller’s Reel” films from SNL, do you look back on the films that starred cast members who later died—“Don’t Look Back In Anger” with John Belushi, “La Dolce Gilda” with Gilda Radner, “Love Is A Dream” with Phil Hartman—with any sort of wistfulness?
TS: God, yes. These were people who—I loved them, and worked right along with them, and hung out, was on TV with them and stuff. So, yes, they’re like the “lost” Saturday Night Live friends that I have. But I’m happy that I made these portraits of them. Without being too pretentious: You have a window of opportunity where you’re working with people, and collaborating with them—and those people were the most talented people to collaborate with, and I was lucky to have a camera in my hand and given the opportunity to shoot those films for the show. They’re little gems I think of, and I’m very proud of them.
AVC: “La Dolce Gilda” derives a lot of its humor from recreating the feel of La Dolce Vita and other films by Federico Fellini—but it holds up a lot better than latter day parodies that simply recreate their source material for laughs. Is that because “La Dolce Gilda” is more homage than spoof? How do you think that approach has changed over the last three decades?
TS: There are ways of pastiching certain films, where it’s like a gag—like these kind of weird, Adam Sandler kind of stuff. [Laughs.] Or, there’s what I tried to do—really, I loved Fellini. And I made a pastiche of his work to try and capture it. And it went on SNL because, usually, that show was color, comedy. But my short films were like black and white, grainy, well-edited little shorts. So it stood away from it—it was a perfect place to put it. And it’s hard to pastiche great masters like that. In fact, I went to Rome, and I sought Fellini out and I said, “I have made a great homage to you.” [Laughs.] And he said, “We must arrange a screening.” And he said it was sweet, and that it has the atmosphere of some of his films. So I was in heaven. He was my great hero—and still is, kind of.
AVC: After having a personal showcase for your films on SNL, do you enjoy the relative anonymity of directing commercials?
TS: Yes. It’s like a two-week project where, if you want coffee, they go out and get coffee for you. [Laughs.] Also, if you don’t like anyone on the job, you’re off the job in two weeks. But each one can be a little gemstone. I’ve made about 300 commercials, which is wild. I though I’d never do that. I was one of those hippies who scorned commercials. But, you know what: They’re sort of fun.