There’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years: Sometimes you gotta say, “What the fuck.” Make your move. — Joel Goodson
“Risky Business” has become something between a talisman and a holy grail for teen comedies — proof that a picture can be as smart, edgy, funny, and can make 10 times its budget in domestic release.
It’s a promise often made but rarely kept in the 20 years since the pic was developed in 1981 and released in 1983.
While “Risky” is famous for providing Tom Cruise his first opportunity to prove his charm as a leading man, it also launched David Geffen’s shingle, Geffen Pictures, and the careers of producers Jon Avnet and Steve Tisch as well as actors Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano and Bronson Pinchot.
Most of all, “Risky” announced the arrival of enigmatic filmmaker Paul Brickman, whose previous scripts — the Jonathan Demme-helmed comedy “Handle With Care” and the sequel “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”– gave little indication that his first venture as a writer-director would become a creative and cultural touchstone.
Eighteen years later, Cruise is a major movie star, while the director lives quietly with his wife and youngest daughter in Santa Barbara, venturing into Hollywood to pen the occasional script (most recently, the upcoming NBC Holocaust miniseries “Uprising,” which he wrote with helmer Avnet) or rewrite.
Brickman directed just one film since “Risky,” the 1990 “Men Don’t Leave,” which starred Jessica Lange and served as the feature bow for Chris O’Donnell. Other than that, he’s been content to live what he dryly refers to as “the contemplative life” — one that includes the annoying and all-too-frequent question as to why he doesn’t direct more often.
It’s not for lack of opportunity. Avnet speaks of Brickman’s talent with a sense of awe, while Geffen says, “I would work with Paul again in a second. I think that if Paul makes another picture, it would be with me.”
Truth is, it’s not at all clear that Brickman wants to direct again. Friends say part of his reluctance stems from what Geffen calls a low tolerance for “the actor bullshit” — the nurturing of egos that is part and parcel of the process from development through distribution.
However, another influence may be “Risky Business” itself. It was an experience that contained both the most collaborative and fractious moments of his career.
“Risky” began at Warner Bros. Pictures, where Brickman had a deal to write and direct the pic. However, when he completed the script, Warners promptly put it into turnaround.
“No one knew what kind of tone I was working toward,” he says. “No one thought it was funny enough.”
Indeed, “Risky” bore no resemblance to what studios were then seeking from teen comedies. That would be “Porky’s,” 20th Century Fox’s 1981 raunchy, genre-launching sex romp. And “Risky” was no “Porky’s.”
A dark comedy full of details of growing up as a nice kid from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, “Risky” is the tale of what happens to Joel Goodson when he says “what the fuck.” With his parents out of town, he rolls his dad’s Porsche into Lake Michigan while courting a hooker who then helps him turn his family’s Cape Cod home into a party house so he can pay for the car’s damages.
The script was sensual, funny and sophisticated. It also scared the hell out of studio execs.
“I couldn’t believe no one wanted it,” says Avnet. The producer and his then-partner, Steve Tisch, came on board after Warners rejected the project. Avnet had met Brickman a couple of years earlier, when Avnet brought him a script and asked if he could rewrite it in two weeks. Said Brickman, “I couldn’t fix it in two years.”
“He was right,” says Avnet. “I liked him immediately.”
Now Brickman, Avnet and Tisch were taking meetings all over town and being rejected at every one. Those who didn’t fixate on “Porky’s” objected to “Risky’s” prostitute problem — there had been a recent spate of films that featured brothels, like “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “Night Shift,” which didn’t work.
At first, it seemed Geffen was going to be another dead end. He liked the project more than most, but passed because he didn’t want to make a movie about a 16-year-old strumpet — especially not as the first picture from his new shingle. However, he kept re-reading the script.
He called Brickman: Could they raise the age of Lana, Joel’s call-girl lover, and cast it with someone who was clearly 21? Done and done. Now “Risky” had come full circle: It would be made at Geffen, which was distributed through Warners.
To cast the film, they hired Nancy Koppler. It was only her second big film — she was hired while still working on her first, “Eddie and the Cruisers” — and she spent more than four months combing New York, Chicago and L.A.
She found key actors like Curtis Armstrong to play Joel’s best friend and instigator, Miles; Richard Masur as the Princeton recruiter who could be bought; and Pantoliano as Guido the Killer Pimp. However, she was still without Joel and Lana.
“We had a rare luxury,” Koppler says. “Geffen said to us, ‘You have your start date when you find your leads.’ ”
While nearly every young actor had auditioned for the role of Joel, including Sean Penn, Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon and John Cusack, none quite fit the bill. The producers went so far as to shoot a screen test with Kevin Anderson opposite “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally, but no one was convinced that they’d met the match.
Finally, Cruise came in –with greased-back hair and a jagged tooth. He had a day off from shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” and was in Los Angeles for one day of looping. He used his lunch hour to test for “Risky.”
“He was the most polite kid you would ever meet in your life and he remains that,” says Koppler. “He called me ‘ma’am,’ which I hated, because it made me feel old.” He nailed the audition, tooth and all.
That left Lana. While actors were chomping at the bit for the role of Joel, actresses were a little more reluctant about playing a call girl who seduces a high school senior. Michelle Pfeiffer, fresh off “Grease 2,” was offered the role and turned it down. “She would have been great,” says Geffen. “She’s always regretted it.”
Then Koppler got a call from the manager of an actress whom she knew as Harry Dean Stanton’s girlfriend, Rebecca De Mornay. “She came in to read and was all over the place,” says Koppler. “I worked with her for two days and brought her in again to meet Paul, Jon and Steve. We thought she had great promise.”
That turned into a 5:30 a.m. screen test shot with a handheld camera at Tisch’s house, a scenario dictated by Cruise’s tight schedule. By 7 a.m., Cruise was back on a plane and the film had its leads — despite a competing offer from Coppola for Cruise to take a role in his next pic, “Rumble Fish.”
With a budget of $6.2 million, production on “Risky Business” began in and around Highland Park, Ill., Brickman’s hometown.
While all first-timers have on-set horror stories, Brickman’s crew says his were kept to a minimum because he truly knew exactly what he wanted.
“He has such a singular vision, (yet) he was very open to discovering the potential of what we had,” said editor Richard Chew, who came up with the idea of step-printing the footage of Joel and Lana making love on the L train — an effect that caused many viewers to swear that De Mornay was nude in the scene. (She’s not.)
“Shooting was quite good until post, when I had a difference of opinion on the ending,” says Brickman.
That was an understatement. In the original script, Joel doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t go Princeton and breaks his mom’s precious crystal egg. The film ends with a bittersweet scene of Joel trying to comfort Lana about her future, which he knows will be very different than his own.
Test audiences didn’t seem to like it and neither did Geffen. He wanted Joel to have it all: get into Princeton, have a future with Lana that was happily ambiguous and leave his parents none the wiser about his adventures — save for a tiny crack in the crystal egg.
Finally, Brickman relented to the point that he shot the alternate ending with the agreement that they would test the two versions.
“The happy ending tested a couple of points higher,” says Brickman.
“It was wildly higher for my ending of the movie,” recalls Geffen. Brickman’s ending was shelved. The director considered ditching the project.
Says Brickman: “I felt the whole film was compromised by this cheesy happy ending. I came very close to walking off the film. Some critics picked up on what they saw there (in the ending) as phony, and what can you say? You’re a smart critic.”
“It was extremely painful,” says Avnet. “There was no possible way to see eye-to-eye and I was in the middle of it. I disagree with David about this to this day.”
Warner Home Video ignored the opportunity to present Brickman’s ending when the film was released on DVD in 1997. The only extra the DVD offers is a theatrical trailer: none of the film’s principals were contacted for commentary and Brickman never even received a courtesy copy.
Geffen rejects the idea of re-releasing the film for its 20th anniversary with Brickman’s ending. “It wasn’t a better ending,” he says. “It sells a great deal every year on video and DVD. There’s no reason to re-release it.”
At the end, Geffen and Brickman had spilled enough bad blood that there was no premiere for “Risky Business” — not even a cast and crew screening.
Even after the film was made, Warners still didn’t get it, forcing Geffen to go into what Brickman calls “his aggressive mode” to get the studio’s attention. Warners agreed to a relatively modest release of some 700 screens for “Risky,” but preferred to focus their attentions on another August bow, “Cujo.”
“Risky Business” went on to gross $68 million in its domestic release.
The “Risky Business” team remains close. Avnet and Chew count Brickman among their close friends, while Avnet hosted a “Risky Business” reunion where he handed out sunglasses and T-shirts that said “What the fuck.” Everyone was there except for Cruise; he was working.
Even the enmity toward Geffen has dissolved.
“Only a David Geffen could do that movie,” says Avnet.
Brickman says he’s often approached with ideas (including the notion of turning “Risky Business” into a musical), but so far nothing’s caught his fancy.
Maybe nothing can.