“This is a historic moment for me because in this very theater years ago, I saw ‘Ben Hur’ and was scared to death when they went into the leper thing in the cave,” said Tom Schiller at a rare screening of his lone feature “Nothing Lasts Forever” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. “So this is my revenge by showing my feature film that has been suppressed for 27 years.”
Teased recently in Karina Longworth’s L.A. Weekly piece as “the Bill Murray film you’ve never seen,” Schiller’s 1984 quasi-comedy about “a guy who wants to be an artist, but he doesn’t know what kind” has been getting a revival of late, first rediscovered in 2004 when Murray insisted the rare film be included in a retrospective of his work at the BAMcinématek in New York, and subsequently serving as the Opening Night Film at last year’s Olympia Film Festival and a recent play at the 92YTribeca “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” series in March in addition to Michael Streeter’s book “Nothing Lost Forever.” The Olympia Film Fest date is particularly ironic, given that it was a bad test screening in the Pacific Northwest that doomed “Nothing Lasts Forever” to a release directly to the airwaves of late night television in Europe when MGM, still reeling from “Heaven’s Gate” and other debacles of the early ’80s, decided against releasing the film theatrically.
As the American Cinematheque moderator Grant Moninger noted during the film’s post-screening Q&A, Schiller’s film resembles the work of Guy Maddin, heavily using stock footage to imagine a New York run like a police state by the Port Authority with an underground sanctum where ticker tape falls from the sky representing the souls living above. (The worlds are differentiated by black-and-white for the Big Apple and color for the rest.) A pre-“Gremlins” Zach Galligan is caught between the two worlds when after being revealed as a fraudulent pianist in Europe, he is called upon by the New York underground to travel to the moon for some “spiritual work” and to find his soulmate (Lauren Tom). Although “Nothing Lasts Forever” isn’t traditional in any sense, Murray plays what would be described as the film’s villain, the testy lunar bus attendant whose job it is to serve Lunartinis and encourage the largely senior citizen passengers to shop freely at the “Moon-O-Rama Carousel of Consumer Values” on a moon that resembles Hawaii far more than the one Neil Armstrong landed on. (Fellow “SNL”-er Dan Aykroyd pops up in a cameo and Schiller revealed John Belushi had been originally tapped to play one of the underground dweller gods before he died in 1982.)
When asked at the Egyptian screening how the film got made, Schiller responded, “I don’t exactly know” before explaining how Lorne Michaels had a development deal at MGM and out of several projects Michaels considered, he picked the one from Schiller, who had been directing idiosyncratic shorts like “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Java Junkie” for the NBC show during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “I think they thought it was low budget or something to get off the hook of their contract, but I had total freedom. No one was watching hardly and I got to make a personal film with a studio crew.” As it turned out, two members of that studio crew would later become Oscar winners — Howard Shore, who composed just his second score for the film, and “Alice in Wonderland” costume designer Colleen Atwood, who is credited as a production designer on “Nothing.”
Clearly, MGM didn’t know what to do with “Nothing Lasts Forever,” which derives its self-reflective humor from a bewildered Eddie Fisher (as himself) asking, “How the hell did I wind up singing on a bus to the moon?” and one of Galligan’s art groupie sexual conquests squealing “Oh my God… it’s ‘Potempkin!'” upon climaxing as she sees the Eisenstein film in the background. According to Schiller, the film was accepted not once, but twice into the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight after Schiller smuggled a print of the film to the powers that be, but MGM passed.
“I got a phone call and they said, [in a French accent] “you have created a masterpiece! You will be a sensation at Cannes!” So I met [the Cannes director] at the Algonquin Hotel, where he gets me champagne and my head is swimming because all I wanted to do was be a great foreign-appreciated American filmmaker,” Schiller recalled half-jokingly. “So I immediately call the president of MGM and say, ‘They want us at Cannes.’ And he said, “Baby, you could get killed at Cannes.” I said, give me the name of a film that was killed at Cannes. He said, “Baby, I could give the names of 50 that were killed on your desk by tomorrow.’ I never got the names of 50 and I never got to Cannes.”
Though Schiller insisted he likes the film’s cult status, he also alluded to the “murmurs” of an eventual DVD release, possibly through the Warner Archives label, and when asked if he’ll ever make another film, said, “I’m reading stuff. Yeah, maybe. Why not?”
[Photo: “Nothing Lasts Forever,” MGM, 1984]