Queer Movie Magic

It took a gay man to make the ultimate ’80s kid fantasy. Todd Holland on the magic of ‘The Wizard’

Todd Holland with Fred Savage, Jenny Lewis & Luke Edwards on the set of ‘The Wizard’

Who’d have thought it would take a gay man to make the ultimate ’80s child fantasy?

The man in question is Todd Holland, and the fantasy is the cult movie The Wizard. Though it scored mediocre reviews and died a quick death at the box office in 1989, the movie found a second life on home video and television.

The film stars Fred Savage–the child actor of the moment thanks to his work on The Wonder Years–as Corey, a blue-collar kid with a special needs little brother, Jimmy (Luke Edwards). When their parents resolve to put Jimmy in a mental institution, Corey and Jimmy run away to California. Along the way, they join forces with Haley (Jenny Lewis) who discovers that Jimmy has a knack for video games. The three plot to enter Jimmy in a world video game championship and head to Hollywood…with their parents and a bounty hunter hot on their trail. The Wizard also stars Beau Bridges, Christian Slater, Beth Grant and, in his film debut, Tobey Maguire (sporting a mullet, no less).

Holland, of course, has moved on with life. Since The Wizard, he’s gone on to a successful TV career, directing series like Twin Peaks, The Real O’Neals and Malcolm in the Middle, as well as co-creating the critical darling Wonderfalls. Off-screen, he married his husband, actor Scotch Ellis Loring, in 2008. The couple has 9-year-old triplets together.

With The Wizard celebrating it’s 30th Anniversary, we snagged time to chat with Holland about his career, making the movie, its legacy, and working as gay man in 80s & 90s Hollywood. The Wizard: 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray hits the streets from Shout Factory March 24.

So how does it feel to have a child 30 years old?

My movie baby? It’s amazing. It’s an exciting moment. Honestly, what’s amazing about it is when the movie came out I was told it was a total flop. It was a difficult movie to make, and I was told it made no money and nobody saw it. It took years. When it came out on DVD it was unannounced. I happened to see it on Amazon and bought it. So then I started checking Amazon reviews, and I was like people really like this movie. I had no idea until social media. It was a mind-blower.

They didn’t send you a copy?

They didn’t even tell me it was coming out. Universal has always treated the movie as a stepchild. Shout Factory told me they’d been trying for years to get it. Every year Universal puts out a list of available titles, and Shout Factory jumped at it. And Universal has been great, in retrospect. I used all my connections to call up the head of Post-Production, and we asked to look for the missing hour of footage. 30 years ago? Who the f*ck knows where that sh*t is. And it was in a salt mine. They found it within two hours. That’s organization.

That’s remarkable.

Then to connect with the fan base…there was one guy on Twitter. He hooked me up with all the foreign marketing materials. He’s an international collector of The Wizard foreign marketing materials. I asked him to scan one of the Japanese posters for me. Universal never shared it with me; I had no idea this stuff even existed. And he said, “Nobody should have this more than you.” And he sent me this package with French and Japanese posters…stuff in Bulgarian, all this stuff. I framed it and put it in my office. So that was the start of it. Then I started having meetings…

Meetings?

Like I did Shameless, in Season 1. We were shooting in the morning, and Justin Chatwin comes back after lunch, and clearly he Googled me. He was like you did The Wizard! And my whole stock went up. I had an executive at the head of a studio fawning over me. I gave him a signed poster and framed it in his office.

That’s great.

It’s funny, you meet guys in their mid-30s and 40s, or even younger. The movie at the time connected with kids in the way I wanted it to: on an adventure and emotional level. They remember it. I did not know any of that until social media.

Fantastic. Now, you also did the film quite early in your career—you’d only been working professionally for three or four years.  Was it daunting to accept a project that would rest on the shoulders of such young performers that early on in your career? They carry the movie.

No. I grew up on that stuff, and I was very immature in my 20s. I was very much a kid. So I loved directing kids and I’ve been doing it my whole life. When I met my husband, on our first date, he asked how I felt about kids. I told him I loved kids. Two years later he asked, “What about having those kids?” And I was like “Wait, you want to have kids?!”

[Laughter]

I love kids, I’ve worked with them all my life. Thank God I misunderstood the question, or he wouldn’t have gone out with me a second time. I love kids, I love directing young actors. It’s hard, but if you get a good actor who can handle it—like Fred Savage. He was a good little actor. Jenny Lewis? A good actress. So was Luke, and he was very young. Luke, I’ve credited many times, to have the unique ability to say nothing and be comfortable. Most people can’t do that. He could do it at a young age, and it was essential to that role.

So Shout Factory sent me an advanced copy of the disc, so I watched the movie for the first time in 20 years or so.

I haven’t seen it yet! How is it?

Really good. Great special features with you and Fred and Luke. Watching it for the first time as an adult, it amazed me how charismatic the kids are. They really bring dimensions to their performances. Does the way you approach directing kids differ from directing adults?

Yeah, there are lots of mind games. You can be direct with kids, be very clear. You can tell them what you want to happen, and they just want to do it. Kid actors who are good have trouble being inauthentic. So if you cast the wrong kid, you’re done. If you have the right kid, it’s a great thing. They can make almost anything work. They’re just sincere, and it’s joyful.

The other elephant we should address here is that the movie was very obviously constructed as an advertisement for Nintendo and Universal Studios. Did you have any reluctance about that? What kind of pressure is that: to make a feature that also functions as a commercial?

I’ll be honest: they didn’t want me to direct the movie. They wanted a programmer; they saw it as a sausage. Casey Silver, President of Universal at the time, really tried to dissuade me from wanting the movie. But it was what I wanted. I’d come in with a lot of noise. Steven Spielberg hired me on Amazing Stories in ‘86, so I was getting a lot of attention. I’d developed a couple great movies that did not get greenlit. So I just wanted to get something that would get made. And I got The Wizard. It was the fastest process I’ve ever been through. I read it on a Wednesday. I interviewed on Thursday. I got hired on Friday. And I was prepping on Monday. Then I was shooting five weeks later.

Holy crap.

It was shot out of a gun—a 35-day road movie with kids, shooting six days a week. So it needed somebody young because it was grueling. And I was passionate about it. I told Universal I wanted to do it, and told them I was not a gamer, which is why I was the right man to do it. I was there for the adventure. And I would have to make [the gaming] make sense to people who don’t play. It’s so funny. The video games where so chemically part of the movie, I never thought of it as a commercial. I just thought kids play games, and this is about a gaming competition. Then I loved the emotional story that underpins the whole thing, weirdly dark & complex as it is.

Fantastic., Now maybe you can clear up a bit of lore. Is the film, or at least its title, meant to be an allusion to The Who’s Tommy? As in, the pinball wizard?

I dunno. David Chisholm the writer—who I haven’t talked to in 30 years—he didn’t credit that. Rain Man had just come out, so it was compared as “Rain Boy.” It was compared to Tommy, to so many movies. I just went inside the movie and said it was about a damaged kid. I didn’t worry that we would be compared to other things or derided. It was hurtful when people only saw the Nintendo commercial side of it. So many reviews only saw that. But there’s more there.

The truth is, there is more there. That’s why the film endures, I think.

I was more interested in the adventure. Sneaking into the back end of a Hostess truck, sneaking around under the King Kong ride.

Well, let’s talk about that. Watching it now, I was amazed. A lot of those scenes play without a cut, and they let you shoot the hydraulics of the ride with kids running around. Could that even happen today?

Oh yeah, with the fire and the smoke. I love action, so I had three days of shooting that sequence. Shooting with kids after hours wasn’t easy at Universal.

As a kid, there’s a romanticism to what you’re doing there. Every kid wants to run around in a Twinkie truck and sneak around in Universal Studios and play video games. That’s a child fantasy.

Yeah.

It’s interesting: this came up at a party when I mentioned I would be chatting with you. Everybody there knew the movie, saw it growing up, and loved it. All of them identified with those kids. They’d all seen it on video, which is where the cult starts. I have a theory, but I want to ask: why do you think the movie endures?

I wanted to go on a ride—to laugh, to cry, to feel something. I love family entertainment because it has all that. I think it endures because Fred is really charming. He never feels false. Jenny Lewis was like a shaft of light in a stormy sky. She had real chops and could hold her own against Fred. She’s never “the girl” or “less than.” And in all the kid movies I watched, the girls were the cool ones. I was a gay kid. It wasn’t dudes that rescued me, it was women. I think it’s the two of them, and then Luke is this touchstone off to the side.

One thing that came up in conversation at the party was that the kids seemed real. I think there’s a tendency to write children as one-dimensional. They’re in distress, they are happy, they’re sad, they’re the cute comic relief. The kids in The Wizard aren’t like that—this is true of all the characters, but the kids have pain. Was that a conscious choice?

Yeah. Corey’s from a broken home. Jimmy watched his sister die before his eyes. There’s a lot of heavy stuff. We did a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse ten years ago. They flew Fred and Luke & I down there. There was a guy who had a special needs brother, and they came together. It was startling. It has real-world meaning to people. There’s a fan I’ve connected with on social media who was a child fan of the movie. As an adult, his son died. He and his wife went on this road trip, the route of The Wizard, and left a photo of their son at the Cabazon Dinosaurs. I was stunned. I was blown away.

Understandably.

That’s the power of movies in general. That this movie would be a resource for a dad at a moment of tremendous loss was more than I could have imagined.

So let’s get personal. You’re married to your husband Scotch and have triplets. Were you out at the time you directed The Wizard?

No. I didn’t know I was gay. I have an older gay brother, who was found out by my parents when I was 19. It was super f*cking ugly.

Good lord.

I’m from a super small town in Pennsylvania: population 18,000. I was also a film nerd. I wasn’t sexual on any level. I was directing by the time I was 26 because I channeled all sexual energy into productivity. I didn’t waste time trying to get laid. I dated girls for 10 years. I sublimated things when my brother came out.

Wow.

Then I was doing The Larry Sanders Show when I had my first experience with a man and went Oh. My. God. I realized I was gay and came out at 32. I just said “That’s who I am.” And that was it.

How did being out affect your career?

I was worried about it, honestly. I didn’t know anybody gay. Coming out, you always feel nervous. I came out at Larry Sanders very slowly. I told Gary [Shandling, the series lead]. One day I was dropping off a cut and mentioned I was going to the March on Washington for Gay Rights. And he did a spit take, as Gary would. Then I heard while I was gone he was constantly looking at the 24-hour coverage on C-Span to see if he could find me.

[Laughter]

I was very welcomed at Larry Sanders. I took a boyfriend to the DGA Awards once. I’d never taken a boyfriend anywhere and was really nervous. And we were sitting next to John Frankenheimer [director of The Manchurian Candidate, known as a “tough-guy”], and I realized at that dinner nobody gives a f*ck. Frankenheimer didn’t bat an eye. It wasn’t a big deal to anybody.

So your kids are nine now, and you & Scotch have triplets. How has becoming a dad affected the kinds of projects you choose?

Such an interesting question. Honestly, The Wizard is a great touchpoint for that. I’ve always enjoyed entertaining kids and family entertainment. I read to my kids every night I’m available. I love sharing with them a love of adventure. My husband is much more into documentaries and game shows. I want harrowing emotional suspense. Big emotions and loss and sacrifice. That defined my existence as a child. Television saved my life in a turbulent childhood. I want to share that love and adventure and confidence in a hero’s journey. There will be dark moments, but you can survive them. I still long for those opportunities. I love inspiring kids to find an inner hero.

What’s next for you? I know you’re on the reboot of Amazing Stories.

I did, and I worked with all kids there. I had a great time. I just did the pilot for Tina Fey’s new series for NBC. Right now, I’m doing a pilot for ABC. I’m reuniting with my Real O’Neals family to do a comedy called Work Wife. So I’m excited about that. And I just want to add that I had no idea this movie was so loved. So thank you for the love! And thank you to Shout Factory for bending over backward to make this happen. Brian Ward has bent over backward to make this a solid Blu-Ray.

The Wizard: 30th Anniversary Edition is available on Shout Factory Blu-Ray March 24.