The movies I saw between ages ten and twenty-five seemed to have the most influence on me. In my case, I turned ten in 1982, and it began with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, and peaked in 1994 with Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Sure, there are some additional films here and there such as Boogie Nights and The Sixth Sense, but I already developed my taste in movies and it was more difficult for a film to influence me as I grew older. The movies I watched during these years are the types of movies I continue to enjoy, and more importantly, the types of movies I tend to write.
Where are the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films? Of course they influenced me, but they are too obvious for this list, so I left them out. This is not a list of my favorite films. That list would be too long. These are the ones you can find traces of in my scripts.
A Clockwork Orange - One film forever changed the way I looked at filmmaking. It happened after high school when I accidentally discovered A Clockwork Orange. I say "accidentally" because I can't even remember why I watched it in the first place. All I know is that I ended up with my own VHS copy and tried to get anyone I could to watch it. I was completely overwhelmed by the film. All the installments of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street couldn't prepare me for this. Nothing could. Director Stanley Kubrick took so long to make movies that he was completely off my radar at the time. Maybe it was Kubrick's use of visual imagery or his twisted use of classical music and the song “Singin' in the Rain.” Regardless, A Clockwork Orange affected me in a way that no other film ever did, and its imprint is all over my second script, Safely Home.
Twin Peaks - I know this is not a movie, but I was never more obsessed with a television show, and nothing has ever compared to it. My first introduction to David Lynch was the movie Dune in 1984. Since it was marketed as another Star Wars, I had high expectations as a twelve-year-old and remember being very disappointed and confused by the movie. Little did I know that six years later, David Lynch would become one of my favorite directors and I quickly became a huge fan of his films Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. David Lynch’s influence can be seen throughout my short films and scripts. Starting with my high school project Stonehenge, I found myself trying to imitate him. The biggest example can be found in my first feature film The Good Life, particularly in the experimental editing. Twin Peaks is still my favorite show of all time. I would even pick up a dozen donuts or a cherry pie when it was on. If you watch the show, you'll understand. I could easily re-watch the entire series at any time and always try to turn the show on to potential new fans. I was extremely disappointed when it was canceled and even more upset after the final episode. It left so many unresolved cliffhangers, especially the final scene with Agent Cooper. I was determined to write a fan fiction script called Return to Twin Peaks, but literally as I was working on this book, David Lynch and Mark Frost announced a third season of Twin Peaks to debut in 2016. Can’t wait!
The Silence of the Lambs - Without spoiling the film for those who haven't seen it, all I can say is an ambulance ride and the ringing of a doorbell made me rethink the possibilities of storytelling. Some friends and family members will remember my brief obsession with the FBI, clearly a result of Twin Peaks and Silence of the Lambs. My scripts for Safely Home and Capital Punishment are loaded with FBI agents.
Risky Business - I had to sneak-watch this when I was a kid. Most of the story went over my head, but this was one of my favorite eighties films. The opening dream sequence influenced several scripts, particularly The Last Pilgrimage. It was also my first introduction to Curtis Armstrong, who would later have a connection to my film A Halfway House Christmas. In 2004, director Luke Greenfield released a film called The Girl Next Door, which paid tribute to Risky Business in a way that I always wanted to do. For some reason, I hoped for a sequel to Risky Business and Luke’s film was the next best thing.
Superman 2 - I was lucky enough to see this in a movie theater when I was ten-years-old. While Gene Hackman is always good as Lex Luthor, the definitive Superman villain for me is General Zod, and every bad guy I’ve ever written has some kind of Zod influence. I wrote a script called The Breathing Sequel which was inspired by General Zod and the actor who portrayed him, Terence Stamp.
The NeverEnding Story - When I first saw this film, I was close in age to the two main characters, Bastian and Atreyu. While I was never really into fantasy films, there was something about this film that connected with me. It was also scary and upsetting at parts, even though it was aimed at kids. Who could forget Gmork the wolf? Or The Nothing, the antagonist without a face? In the end, it managed to be uplifting and was one of those movies I watched countless times.
The Goonies - I like to describe The Goonies as Indiana Jones with kids. You would think there would be countless imitations over the years, but I can’t recall other treasure hunt movies with kids. I always wanted to try to write something like this. The Goonies was another influence on my unfinished script for Younger & Younger.
Midnight Madness - And if I ever finish that script for Younger & Younger, it will feature a scavenger hunt similar to the one in Midnight Madness, but with kiddie cars and bicycles. This was also Michael J. Fox’s film debut. There’s nothing deep here, but it’s a whole lot of fun. This is the only film on my list that was given the BOMB rating from film critic Leonard Maltin.
Stand By Me - This is the definitive coming of age movie for me. When this came out, I was the same age as the four main characters. I don't think the studio marketed it right and it should have been a bigger hit in theaters. It did catch on with home video though, which is how I discovered it. I remember the original artwork for the videocassette didn't appeal to me either, but I’m glad I gave it a chance.
Sixteen Candles/The Breakfast Club/Weird Science - I call this the John Hughes trilogy. It’s hard to pick a favorite, as I quoted lines from all three of them, but The Breakfast Club comes out on top. It’s amazing what writer/director John Hughes was able to do with one location and such a small cast. Normally the attention span of a kid would resist something like this, but I watched it repeatedly. There’s something for everyone in all three movies.
Clue - I was always obsessed with endings and this movie was released in theaters with three of them. Not to mention, I was a huge fan of the board game the movie is based on. Clue was written and directed by Jonathan Lynn, who wrote a letter in support of my film School Spirits.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High - This was another movie I wasn’t allowed to see, but found a way to watch anyway. Sean Penn is billed as the star, but this is Robert Romanus’ movie all the way. Along with The Breakfast Club, this is one of the best high school comedies ever made, and has its fair share of drama too.
Clerks - A black-and-white independent film shot for $27,000 by a first time director with unknown actors that made over 3 million in theaters? Inspiration doesn’t come much better than that.
Poltergeist - The clown and that tree! If you saw this movie, you know what I’m talking about. This is the first movie that really frightened me as a kid. While the clown and tree scenes were scary, there is another one that stands out, filmed in one take. The camera shows the mother straightening the kitchen chairs and follows her as she opens a cabinet. When we return to the chairs, they are impossibly stacked on the table. Sometimes the scariest things are what we don’t see, something I tried to do in my script for School Spirits.
Dreamscape - I was always fascinated with dreams, so dream sequences appear in many of my scripts. I even wrote a term paper about dreams as a teenager. The movie Dreamscape was one of the first movies to be rated PG-13. It was about the ability to enter another person's dream, a plot device that was similarly used in the recent film Inception. There are also elements of Dreamscape in my script for School Spirits.
WarGames - I saw this in theaters when it came out and it was my first real introduction to suspense. I thought I was going to see a movie about video games and got so much more than that. The game of Tic-Tac-Toe would never be the same for me.
Commando - I was introduced to Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, but I think I watched this Mark Lester film more and there are so many great one liners. I wrote my script Capital Punishment as an homage to Commando and the Arnold films of the eighties. I always wished there was a sequel and eventually learned there were originally plans for one. When Arnold couldn’t commit, the script was rewritten and became Die Hard starring Bruce Willis.
Total Recall - This is another Schwarzenegger influence, but mainly for the plot twist, and is closely related to the film Shattered. The idea of a character not being who they thought they were was a new concept to me and is something I used in one of my own scripts.
Shattered - Similar to Total Recall, this film pulled a jaw-dropping switch with the identity of the main character. Shattered was not a box office hit and wasn’t liked by critics, but many discovered it on video like I did. The multiple twists in the story changed the way I planned out my endings, which shows in my script for Capital Punishment.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation - If you watch the opening credits to A Halfway House Christmas, you might notice some similarities in the animation to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In my script, the tree even caught on fire in another homage to the film. However, burning a Christmas tree in my house had logistical problems, so I removed that scene.
A Christmas Story - I remember watching this back in 1983 before it was ever considered a Christmas classic. Who would have thought at the time that they would run a 24-hour marathon of it every year? I always wanted to make my own Christmas movie, and I did, with A Halfway House Christmas. The antlers worn in my film is a very subtle nod to A Christmas Story and a certain 1985 film starring John Cusack.
Better Off Dead - This is still one of my favorite comedies of all time. I still can’t believe that John Cusack hates this film and stormed out of the premiere twenty minutes in. What movie was he watching? There are so many quotable lines, starting with, “I want my two dollars.” Directed by Savage Steve Holland, Better Off Dead felt like a dark variation of a John Hughes film.
Boyz N the Hood - This inner city drama came out the year I graduated from high school and a year after New Jack City. I often describe my script Cracking Heads as a cross between The Outsiders and Boyz N the Hood.
La Bamba - This was the first time that I wanted to see a biographical film in the theater, most likely because the title song performed by Los Lobos was a number one hit. Regardless, it helped me develop an appreciation for these types of movies, particularly about rock stars, which led to my obsession with writing a script about Layne Staley from Alice in Chains.
Streets of Fire - The film declared itself “A Rock & Roll Fable.” The opening scenes where fictional rock star Ellen Aim is kidnapped while performing on stage helped me develop my own music video sequences in my student film projects and in The Good Life. This is a very underrated film by director Walter Hill that I strongly recommend. It even stars Willem Dafoe and Rick Moranis in supporting roles.
Twilight Zone: The Movie - When I saw this as a kid, I didn't know about the tragic helicopter crash that took Vic Morrow's life. I was always partial to the third segment about the little boy who gets anything he wishes for, but the Steven Spielberg portion called Kick the Can became the inspiration for my script Younger & Younger.
Strange Brew - I’ll never forget when one of the McKenzie brothers jumped in a vat of beer, drank it, then had to pee so bad, he was able to put out a fire. Did you know that you can get a free case of beer if you find a mouse in a bottle? This movie clearly inspired my script for Beer Goggles.
Pulp Fiction - Back in 1994, I took a girl out on a date to the movies. I already saw Pulp Fiction and was raving to her about how good it was and how she had to see it. I remember not being sure if Pulp Fiction would be a good movie for a first date, but the other choice was The Brady Bunch Movie, and I was afraid that could backfire as well. I chose Pulp Fiction, and she sat completely silent through the entire thing. It was a quiet ride home and that was the end of our potential relationship. I later wondered what would have happened if I chose The Brady Bunch Movie instead. An interesting side note to this story is that many years later, she admitted to me that she was very turned off by the movie, but after she watched it a second time, and a third, and many more, it somehow became one of her favorite movies. Go figure. But back to the actual film, Pulp Fiction showed me that a story could be told out of order in a non-linear fashion and still make sense. I have not used that technique in any of my scripts yet, but Tarantino’s films definitely had an influence.
And then there is…
Back to the Future - It was the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, NJ. My brother and I were at the shore for the week with our grandmother, Eileen Moyer, and Back to the Future was playing at The Strand movie theater on the boardwalk. We walked past that marquee every night and constantly reminded our grandmother that we wanted to see it. She finally broke down and took us.
The movie was everything I expected and more. As we walked out of the movie theater, I tried to engage my grandmother in conversation about the film, but something seemed wrong. She couldn’t answer any of my questions. Finally, she confessed that she fell asleep. I couldn’t believe it. I told her we had to go back, that she had to see the movie, but she had no interest.
When the movie was released on home video, I was able to watch it whenever I wanted, and it quickly became my favorite movie of all time. I saw both of the sequels in the movie theater and even spoiled the second installment for myself by reading the novelization that came out weeks before the movie’s release.
There are diehard fans out there who have much more memorabilia, but I have the basics, starting with the 30th anniversary DVD box set. There’s a movie poster in my office along with three different miniature replicas of the DeLorean. I have a tattoo of the flux capacitor on my arm and I gave a speech at my brother’s wedding that referenced Back to the Future while the DJ played “The Power of Love.”
The time travel in Back to the Future clearly influenced my scripts The Last Pilgrimage and Capital Punishment, but more importantly, played a part in my decision to write films. I look forward to the day when I can watch Back to the Future with my daughter, and I can tell her, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Hopefully she will enjoy the film as much as I did.