MTV’s Teen Wolf premieres on Sunday, but the sexed-up reboot has more in common with Twilight than the effervescent eighties cult classic from which it takes its name. So, out of respect to the sanctity of the original, Vulture called up its co-writer Jeph Loeb and went in depth on the one true teenage werewolf. Loeb, who wrote Teen Wolf right out of film school, went on to have a lengthy, varied, and successful career, with credits on Smallville, Lost, Heroes (created by Tim Kring, who wrote Teen Wolf Too!), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s also a prolific comics writer and currently holds the title of executive vice president, head of television for Marvel Entertainment. And, still, he was nice enough to indulge our nostalgia.
Where did the original idea come from?
The production company was looking for a small high-school-driven story. Teen comedies were certainly something that were successful and didn’t require a large budget, and they had done very well with Valley Girl with a then-unknown Nic Cage. And we came up with this admittedly unusual idea: that by becoming a werewolf an ordinary teenager could play better basketball.
And this was your first screenplay.
I went to Columbia film school, that’s where I met Matthew Weisman. We then became writing partners, graduated, and moved out to Los Angeles. I didn’t know a soul. I was working as a bartender at T.G.I. Friday’s and Matthew worked at a video-game arcade, and we knew that we had to have a writing sample in order to try to get work. The first thing we wrote was actually the original screenplay for Commando. At the same time, we pitched Teen Wolf. We sold Commando as a spec script to Joel Silver at Fox, and then we also got the writing assignment on Teen Wolf. And even weirder, both movies got made at the same time, and then, this was October of 1985, they were both in the movie theaters at the same time. I was so young, it didn’t really occur to me how wild it was. I had left film school to come out and become a screenwriter and that’s what we were doing.
How did the pitch meeting go?
They asked us to come in, we told the story in about ten or fifteen minutes, and it pretty much was the movie. All of this happened incredibly quickly. The studio already had Michael J. Fox in mind. He seemed like the kind of young up-and-coming actor that could, like Nicolas Cage, carry one of these teenage comedies. So we quit our jobs, ‘cause we could always get two more shitty jobs. The problem was we needed to have the script in a certain amount of time because there was this window when Michael J. Fox was available. Meredith Baxter-Birney was having twins and they shut down production of Family Ties during her maternity leave. We were told we could have him for what turned out to be about three weeks. And we wrote the script in three weeks, we turned it in, they sent it to Michael, Michael read it over the weekend, he committed, the studio committed, and we made the movie for a million dollars.
You also got to pick your director, which is kind of crazy, seeing as you were the screenwriters.
We were the de facto producers. The feeling was, nobody really knew the material better than we did. We went to this empty office building on a Sunday, and it was one of those things where you have a meeting at noon, then at one o’clock, then at two. Everyone came in, I remember this so distinctly, and they were saying, “the werewolf is a metaphor, and it has to be dark, and should we consider making it more violent?” Then Rod Daniel, who had not directed a feature before, came in he really summed it up. He said, “This isn’t a movie about being a werewolf. It’s a movie about a boy and his relationship with his father.” And at that point, we were done. We probably talked for an hour, but he said that in the first five minutes, and we knew that he was the guy.
How’d you feel about Michael?
Family Ties was the No. 17 show in the country at the time, and I remember telling people that Michael J. Fox was gonna be in the movie, and them saying, “Oh, is he the guy on the guy on Silver Spoons?” And we would go, “No, that’s Ricky Schroeder. This is the guy on Family Ties.” And people would look at us blankly. And then as we were shooting the movie, which was that fall, the show got moved behind the Cosby Show, and suddenly Family Ties becomes the No. 2 show on TV. And this was at a time when 30, 40 million people watched television. So Michael, during the course of our movie, became a superstar. There’s a moment at the beginning of the movie where Michael’s coming out of the school and there’s a big high crane shot that you can see the school bus and the kids milling around. It was one of the few times we had more than $11 for a shot. And at that point he had become Michael J. Fox, and so when he stepped out of the school, the girls that were extras would start screaming, like it was one of the Beatles. We had to ask them to wait to scream until after the shot
Teen Wolf goes van surfing in the movie. Where did that come from?
I was stupid enough to do that in college. Urban surfing, is what we called it. And I’m not gonna say alcohol was involved. A friend of ours in college had a van, and at about two o’clock in the morning, when it wasn’t as busy on the streets, we would go out urban surfing. It was basically climbing up the top of this van, and then going down Broadway. The street lights at the time, they were strung across the street on a cable, and so as we were coming up on a light, we would bang on the roof of the van for the guy who was driving to slow down so that we could all lie down and duck under the street lights. We never did the dancing; it was enough to stand up for a few blocks without going tumbling off. And it was incredibly stupid and don’t try that at home.
What about Stiles’s famous “What are you looking at, dicknose?” T-shirt?
Rod came to us and said that he wanted Stiles to have these ridiculous T-shirts. He said, “Can you come up with some things?” And “What are you looking at, dicknose?” was one of them. It surprised us … well, the whole movie was a surprise. But the fact that to this day you can still get that T-shirt is pretty remarkable.
There’s also the scene where Michael J. Fox is trying to tell Stiles about being a werewolf, and Stiles cuts him off by saying, “You’re not gonna tell me you’re a fag, are you?” How do you feel about that now?
Well, I think it’s unfortunate. We made a joke, and it was just meant to be a joke. It wasn’t a commentary; it wasn’t about coming out. We were just two young guys, and we were making jokes. There’s a couple of things that, when you go back and look at, you think that’s unfortunate. Yeah, it really wasn’t something that we would have done again. On television, they cut that part. Also, in the longer version, one of the reasons that Stiles accepts him as a werewolf is because he manages to sniff out Stile’s brother’s stash of pot. And then — I don’t know whether or not we actually shot this scene — they get high together. We we just thought it’d be funny if a werewolf got high. I think there was a whole gag about the munchies that we never did. He’s a wolf, so he could eat more than anyone else. That’s probably best on the cutting-room floor.
Before the movie was released, was there any apprehension about the subject matter being too bizarre?
You have to remember, it was a very, very little movie at a very, very little studio that could barely get any screens at all. The luck of the movie was that, when it looked like Back to the Future was going to be this monster hit, they moved us behind it. Me, Matthew, and Rod went to a theater on opening night, the five o’clock show, and there were four people in the theater. We thought, Okay, this is the greatest disaster ever. We went out to dinner, and it was this terrible dinner. No one talked. We had worked so hard on this little movie. And so we decided to go see the 7:30 p.m. showing at Westwood, which was a college town. When we got there they told us that the movie was sold out, so I said, “We wrote the movie, can we sneak in and watch?” So they let us stand in the back, and for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie it was kind of quiet. Then, when Michael opened the door and sees his father as the werewolf, the place erupted. And from that point on, people were laughing and applauding and popcorn was flying in the air. And suddenly it was this completely different experience. And it ended up as this wonderful evening.
So the movie was an immediate financial success?
Yeah, and the studio was the one that benefited from that. We didn’t benefit form that. What we did get was we become the guys who wrote Teen Wolf and Commando, and from that point our careers started.
What exactly was your involvement in Teen Wolf Too?
We were hardly involved at all. We were in the middle of a huge fight with the studio; they were telling us that the movie, which made $70 million around the world, hadn’t turned a profit. So they wanted to make a sequel and came to us with absolutely no time. They had already gotten Jason Bateman, who I feel terrible for because it really wasn’t Jason’s fault at all. We said we’d supervise somebody, and a friend of ours recommended a young writer named Tim Kring. And the world would absolutely come back around, because he would end up creating Heroes. So Tim would come in at the morning and we would sort of talk through scenes; we didn’t do any writing at all. And Tim would tape record the conversation, and then go home and write twenty pages every night, and then come in and we’d go over it again. And at the end of the week, they had a script to start production on.
The best thing I can say about Teen Wolf Too is that it’s the only time anyone ever referred to me as Preston Sturges. Leonard Maltin wrote that Teen Wolf Too made Teen Wolf look like Preston Sturges. I’ve always prided myself on that.
The movie has really developed this cult obsession over the years. When did you first realize that about it?
It’s really come and gone. First it became a trope for how the horror genre and the comedy genre could be mixed together. People were pitching Teen Wolf with a witch, Teen Wolf with a cat … It really wasn’t until the last few years that it resurfaced again, and probably what happened was a lot of the teenagers that went to go see the movie were now people making movies and television. And so it’s referenced on Saturday Night Live, on How I Met Your Mother. Jerry Levine [who played Stiles and now directs television], he looks like he does in the movie. He somehow maintained his boyish good looks. Somewhere, there’s a picture of Stiles in an attic that’s growing old. He tells me stories [about being recognized], it doesn’t matter where he is. He was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem of all places, and some guy suddenly turns to him and goes, “Hey, Stiles!”
Bill Simmons from ESPN is a big promoter of Teen Wolf references. Are you a fan of his?
I am, and ESPN has been very good to us. That was another thing, added to the lore: They did a series of ads about the legends of basketball. And you see Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, these incredible athletes. And then there’s a shot of Teen Wolf dunking. He’s part of the legends of basketball? Sure, why not.
I have no idea how many times I’ve seen the movie myself.
The fact of the matter is, the company that made the movie went bankrupt and the rights to the film were picked up by MGM and because in these situations you can make huge library deals, what it meant was you could play Teen Wolf on TV all the time without huge costs. Another reason why I’m not living in a house that Teen Wolf paid for.
Do you stop and watch if it’s on?
Every now and then I’ll flip and stop, and smile. When it’s your first script, your first produced thing, and this is your dream … It’s like an old friend. And it’s good. We all have things in our lives that are terrible: you apologize for them, you wish you never had you name on it. But Teen Wolf is something that I’m very proud of. It really set out to be the movie that you saw, and I don’t know how many people are lucky enough to say that in this business. Well, it’s not like our vision when we started was to make a movie about a teenage werewolf who plays basketball. We maybe had The Godfather more in mind. But it’s certainly something to be proud of.
You’ve gone on to have a very long career. Does it feel strange that you got your start with Teen Wolf?
The duality of human life is something that is in a lot of the things that I work on, and the easiest to understand is boy and werewolf. In the original draft of Commando, Arnold’s character was actually someone who had not been in the special services for a long time; he had left in order to have a wife and child, and didn’t know whether or not he could save his daughter when she was kidnapped because he had left that world behind. But once they cast Arnold, it went from a guy who was a little bit older, and maybe had a little paunch — more Nick Nolte in 48 Hours — to a movie starting with Arnold carrying a tree down a hill. It wasn’t about whether he could save Jenny, it was about when he would save Jenny. But if you look at my comic-book work — Batman, Spider-Man, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker — and then also with Buffy and Smallville, those are all about the same kind of things, in my mind. These would eventually be the things that interested me. You can see a through line.