The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai – 35th Anniversary


In 1984, a film was released that was considered to be a flop at the time. It made very little at the box office, however, the film went on to become a cult classic. The reason for this is: nobody really knows exactly what the film is about. You can speculate; you can say what the story beats are,-you can even think that you know what the deeper meaning of the story is. The truth is- this is a film that is completely unique to everyone who watches it. It’s a film that could easily be dismissed as a cheesy product of the 1980’s. You would be so very wrong in your dismissal though. There is more to this film than it’s cheesiness- which there are moments of- there is no denying that. One of the biggest draws of the film is the fact that it dumps the audience into an existing universe and offers very little information about it up front. It tells the audience ‘this is the world, you’ll catch up.’ Treating the audience with respect, and treating them like the intelligent people that they are, was something that is very rare in film in general. It was especially rare in the early 1980’s.

Jeff Goldblum and Director W.D. Richter.

The film was the brainchild of writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter. Mac Rauch has a degree in engineering from MIT and got into writing in the 1970’s. Richter read his novel Dirty Pictures from the Prom in 1974 and got in contact. They corresponded via letters and in one of the letters, Richter invited Mac Rauch to come visit him in Los Angeles. At the time, Richter was interning at Warner Bros. Several years later-after Richter had become a successful screenwriter-Mac Rauch took him up on his offer and stayed with Richter in Los Angeles. It was here that Richter introduced Mac Rauch to Irwin Winkler, a producer and director whose filmography included Rocky, The Right Stuff and- most recently- The Irishman. Winkler was impressed with Mac Rauch and gave him enough money to cover his rent for six months whilst he worked on the screenplay for New York, New York. Over dinner with Richter and his wife, Mac Rauch began to talk about this character he had come up with called Buckaroo Bandy, and Richter was so impressed with what he heard he paid Mac Rauch $1,500 to develop and write a screenplay based on the character. This was the genesis of what would become The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

However, despite being given the job to write and develop his own film based on a character who was already well formed in his head, Mac Rauch struggled to come up with a story he liked and stick with it. Over the next several years, he would write dozens of screenplays about the Buckaroo Bandy character. During the course of one of the screenplays, he would change his surname to Banzai. Every screenplay he wrote, he would get 30-40 pages in and then completely scrap the story and start again fresh. A few of the titles of these screenplays included; Find the Jetcar, Said the President – A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller, The Strange Case of Mr Cigars and Lepers from Saturn. The latter would form the basis for what would eventually become known as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. When Mac Rauch finally had a completed treatment, he and Richter took it to several different studios- all of which turned them down because they didn’t want to take on such a strange project. All but producer Sidney Beckerman; he took the script to Studio Chief David Begelman who greenlit the film. Initially, Begelman was based at MGM Studios, but due to an internal shakeup the project would go to 20th Century Fox, and Fox provided them with a $12 million budget.

Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai.

For the main title role of Buckaroo Banzai, they wanted someone who could convincingly sell the notion of a Physicist/Neurosurgeon/Adventurer; a Crime Fighting, Rock and Rolling Musician-which is a difficult thing to cast for. Richter also wanted an actor who could look heroic whilst he had grease all over his face as well. He saw Peter Weller in the 1982 film Shoot The Moon and was impressed by his performance. After meeting with Weller and discovering he had a musical background (he attended North Texas State University to do a major in music before switching to Theatre), Richter cast Weller as Buckaroo Banzai. Weller drew from various different people for his performance including Jacques Cousteau and Adam Ant. He also loved the Zen Buddist aspect to the character, handling the world with kindness and compassion instead of violence and hatred which he felt a lot of ‘hero’ characters were doing at the time. One line that truly puts across this Zen Buddist aspect to the character is in the nightclub where he says, “No matter where you go, there you are,” -an incredible line which sums up the character of Buckaroo Banzai so perfectly.

When Weller tried to read the script, it took him 3 weeks to fully get through it due to how it was difficult to pin it down to a specific genre and the complexity of the world. The script offered no explanation of this world that was being presented-much like the film- and it was left up to the reader to catch up. Weller loved the intelligence in the script and how it wasn’t going to spoon-feed the audience; he also loved the different ways the film could be interpreted by the audience because to this day, he still doesn’t understand what the film was about. Weller had a great affinity for the notion that the script tapped into both the scientific and religious aspects and accepted them both as mutual parts of society. He always found the idea that religion and science are constantly trying to disprove each other ridiculous. The film also tapped into pop culture zeitgeist referencing the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast.

For the main villain of the piece, Lord John Whorfin/Dr Emilio Lizardo, Mac Rauch had actually written the character with John Lithgow in mind. Lithgow was not sure on the project but he was won over by the sheer enthusiasm that Mac Rauch and Richter showed towards the material. He loved playing the duality of the two characters trapped in the same body, the eccentric Italian physicist and maniacal tyrant mixed together into a really fun character to play. Lithgow noted that with the exception of his role on Third Rock from the Sun, he hadn’t laughed on a set more than the Buckaroo Banzai set. In particular, he found Christopher Lloyd to be hilarious in his portrayal of John Bigboote. In the scene where John Bigboote flipped off Lord John, Lithgow actually broke character and had to cover up him laughing by kissing the helmet he was putting on. Because the flipping off moment was completely improvised and they only had one take of it, the take that is in the film has Lithgow’s subtle character break.

Vincent Schiavelli, John Lithgow, and Christopher Lloyd.

Whenever he does an accent that is not his own, Lithgow will find someone who has the right voice for the character and have them record his lines so he can mimic them later. For the character of Lord John he found his voice in the form of a tailor who worked on what is now the studio lot for Sony. The tailor was a man called Roberto Terminelli; he had a very exuberant Italian accent and when he agreed to record the lines for Lithgow to listen back and mimic in his performance, Lithgow got Terminelli a credit as his dialect coach. In a retrospective Q&A session with Peter Weller, Weller had no idea that was where Lithgow’s accent had come from and had even been looking for Terminelli in other films due to his fascination with where the accent Lithgow used had come from. On top of the accent from Terminelli , Lithgow also studied Mussolini’s mannerisms for the war cry speech which only added to the comedy of the scene. Lithgow really got deep into the character and came up with an idea that due to the merging of the two people in one body, Lizardo’s metabolism had got messed up to such a degree that he was cold all the time. He worked with costume designer Maggie Rogers to show this. They decided that the character would wear two of everything; two pairs of gloves, two very thick coats, two scarves and even two pairs of trousers. Whilst it was a great idea for the character, they were also shooting some days in 105 degree heat which meant with the added layers, the shoot would get very uncomfortable for Lithgow.

Whilst David Begelman was very supportive of the project, he did make some decisions that caused the production problems. The first of which was about half way through the shoot, he decided that the cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, was not right for the film. Cronenweth was a veteran cinematographer whose credits included Blade Runner. The footage that was shot by him had more depth to it than that of his replacement, Fred J. Koenkamp. The most notable sequence that was shot by Cronenweth is the nightclub scene. Richter and Mac Rauch fought against the replacement because they felt that Cronenweth had a much better grasp on how the film should look, whereas Koenkamp’s work played up the campness of the film more. Peter Weller was particularly disappointed with the replacement as he felt that Cronenweth provided the film with a unique look that was endemic of other worlds. One of the other issues that Begelman had was with the decision to give Banzai a pair of red glasses to wear in certain sequences. He was so against them that at one point into the production he nearly pulled the plug on the whole film because of them. He had told them that they can have Banzai wear the glasses three times but when he saw them a third time he pulled Richter into his office and said that he will shut down the film if he didn’t stop defying him. He mis-remembered how many times he said they could have him wear the glasses as two times. Thankfully, Sidney Beckerman was in the meeting at the time and told him that he said three times. As the meeting ended, Begelman said to Richter that if he saw the glasses again, he would shut down the whole film and fire everyone.

Earl Mac Rauch.

Throughout the entire shoot Richter kept a 300 page book to hand that was called Essential Buckaroo. Within the book was notes, uncompleted scripts and other bits and pieces that Mac Rauch had written over the years. This book would become invaluable to Richter throughout the shoot as he had access to character background that would not normally be available to other directors. A lot of the uncompleted scripts of Mac Rauch’s formed back story that was in the original cut of the film including the allusions to Hanoi Xan, the head of the World Crime League. A lot of the members of Banzai’s team, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, represented the different characteristics that humans can have. Clancy Brown saw Rawhide as an everyman and his character was the one who had been with Banzai the longest. For Perfect Tommy, Richter and Mac Rauch envisioned the character having blonde hair, so Lewis Smith dyed his hair blonde for the whole shoot- the first day it took eight hours to fully dye his hair blonde. Throughout the shoot the hair would go different shades of blonde; more orange sometimes and more white others- by the end Smith’s hair was actually falling out due to the chemicals in the dye.

In order to be as accurate as possible, the Lectoids appearance was based on an anthropologist’s idea of what the dinosaurs would have looked like if they had not been wiped out and had evolved over several million years. The Jet Car in the film was built on a Ford F-150 truck with a real functional turbine jet engine, the vehicle was built by Thrust Racing. When you see the jet engine fire in the film that was a real practical jet powered vehicle, no models or effects were used apart from when it enters the mountain.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension was a film that was so original and groundbreaking, people who were making the film were expecting the film to be the next Star Wars. Richter was so confident the film would be a success that he even put a message at the end of the film saying that Buckaroo Banzai would return in Buckaroo Banzai Vs The World Crime League. Unfortunately, due to a poor box office performance (partially due to 20th Century Fox not knowing how to market the film), the sequel was never green lit. Executives at 20th Century Fox even asked Peter Weller how he felt the film should be marketed because they didn’t know what they had.

It’s a film that has inspired and entertained for 35 years and it is still being spoken of despite it’s box office failure- which goes to show you that box office performance doesn’t mean anything. When a film is mentioned in a Steven Spielberg production in a loving way, can that film be considered a failure? Kevin Smith is a huge fan of the film and has even been linked to a potential TV series, but unfortunately due to legal issues he walked away. He has said if the legal issues were ironed out he would happily return to the project.

I love The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension– it’s a film that I blind bought purely based on the title and the cover art on the Arrow Video Blu-ray. I am so glad that I did because not only is it an entertaining film, it’s also a film that has jumped into my top ten films of all time because of how many times you can watch it and get something different out of it. It’s funny, exciting, poignant, scary, heart-wrenching, quirky, surreal, weird- but above all else it’s just a great film with a great premise and even greater characters. It created it’s own world and reveled in it and allowed the audience to work stuff out for themselves and didn’t treat them like idiots. That is why so many creative people cite it as a major influence on their lives because it was one of the first films they saw that treated them as an adult that could think. I hope that the film continues to inspire and entertain for many more years to come, I know that it will definitely inspire and entertain me for decades to come.

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