chat room

Keith Coogan, Star of Adventures in Babysitting and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Indulges Our Nostalgia

Keith Coogan as Brad in “Adventures in Babysitting.” Photo: Warner Bros

Jonah Hill’s R-rated babysitting comedy The Sitter came out this weekend, which meant we were feeling nostalgic for the less cocaine-laced classic it pulls from, Adventures in Babysitting. This in turn got us pining for our other kids-on-the-loose favorite Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. To satisfy our inner child — the one who can’t not sing along to this opening sequence — we called up a guy who starred in both films, Keith Coogan. (He plays the doe-eyed Brad in AiB and the glassy-eyed Kenny in DTMtBD.) A super-polite and gracious storyteller, Coogan walked us through some of his favorite memories from both sets. And, no biggie, we got to hear him say, “The dishes are done, man.”

I just rewatched Adventures in Babysitting and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead this weekend. And I also saw The Sitter.
How was The Sitter? I did not get a chance to see it, but I’ve read all reviews, essays, breakdowns, comparisons. How did you like it? What did you think?

I didn’t love it. I had some laughs, but I was bored a lot of the time.
Do you think that making the movie R-rated and targeted towards that Superbad-ish crowd — you know, Your Highness, Pineapple Express — that maybe they’ve cut themselves off at the knees? I’ve seen the box office; I was on Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood, and it says it looks like it’s going to pull in $10 million for the weekend and it’s in 2,750 theaters or something like that. Did you see Adventures in Babysitting in the theater? Or how old were you when you saw it? I don’t mean to ask a lady her age, but  —

I did not see it in the theater. I’m 28, so I was like 5 when it came out.
You’re 28? That’s weird — not weird, but I’m really glad that a younger audience than I expected has seen it.

Yeah, I have an older brother and cousin, so I watched what they watched growing up. Adventures in Babysitting was your first movie, right?
Yes, I did a voice-over for Fox and the Hound, a Disney animated feature, but that’s voice-over — that doesn’t count [laughs]. So Adventures in Babysitting, that was my first feature.

Do you remember your audition?
Yeah, there were several auditions, including two rounds of screen tests. And that’s where I really got nervous: They’re breaking out the Panavision camera and they’ve got it lit and you’re even trading roles. Like, I went up for the other character, Daryl, and Anthony Rapp [who ultimately played Daryl] went up for Brad. And there were a lot of young ingénues: Phoebe Cates and Jami Gertz and Valerie Bertinelli. I have these memories of Valerie Bertinelli doing the scene at the door with the boyfriend — you know, “Oh, my sister’s sick, so I can’t go on our date.”

What scenes were you auditioning with?
We did a subway scene that was a combo of the scene of us walking around by the river that’s in the movie, and some of the real subway scene. The script made a lot of progress. We did two weeks of rehearsals that Christmas season, took a break, then came back after the New Year and started shooting in January, and we’d made a lot of collaborative additions and had fun and would improv our way through scenes. We were able to really find fun stuff that wasn’t necessary plot or story — it was just all character. And I think that’s what’s fun about Adventures in Babysitting: It kind of looks like we’re real people and we have these likes or dislikes or loves or crushes. The audience is able to relate to it. I think that’s the problem with The Sitter — [laughs] the problem — they seem to have made the kids caricatures instead of characters. Instead of obsessing over Thor, the young girl in The Sitter is obsessing over paparazzi and being a young pop star. Another kid is kind of a metrosexual and another kid is kind of a wannabe gang banger. They’re more props in Jonah Hill’s story; perhaps that’s why it’s rated-R and not aimed at 13-year-olds. Also, the babysitter is trying to get cocaine. I don’t know how the audience can be with him. The conflict isn’t driven by going downtown to save a friend who wants to put Drano in her mom’s Pepsi.

In her TaB — she wants to spike her stepmom’s TaB with with Drano.
Oh, that’s right, you’re right.

I remember because the reference was lost on me when I was younger. What’s your favorite scene from the movie?
I really like the frat house scene, when she’s dancing and I’m just looking on. Elisabeth Shue was throwing me all these guilty looks of like, I know you want me, but I’m older and I’m going to be with this guy. And it was just really heartbreaking. The crew was like, “Aw, little puppy dog eyes.” So I call that my puppy dog look — I was really pining for her. For a me-me-me moment, I really enjoyed that little take.

And the song that’s playing — what’s it called? “Future in Your Eyes”? Was that a real band?
The Southside Johnny and Jukes. They were a Chicago-area band. Think, like, Bruce Springsteen. Chris Columbus [the director] wanted to put this band in. They did one cover, “Expressway to Your Heart,” and they wrote one, “Future in Your Eyes.” Chris Columbus said, “Could you write a song for this moment?” And they totally banged it out.

Did you guys manage to turn shooting the frat party into a real party?
Oh, yeah, for two or three nights it was a rolling wrap party with all of the college-age-looking extras in a cold basement underneath this house. And then it was really hot on the actual floor where all the lights were. Everyone would be dancing. And if you look really close at the first shot of the band, as they kind of pan across, you will see a dancer that has a black baseball cap on and a gray college jersey — it’s actually Elisabeth Shue just having fun and dancing, disguising herself. When they walk in [in the movie], she’s looking at herself dancing. It’s one of the first shots when they walk into the frat party.

No way! That’s amazing.
They had everybody — every crew member, family member, or friends that they could get down there involved. It was kind of like a real party. But no real beer.

And the Playboy centerfold was really Elisabeth Shue, right?
It was. And they even took her up to the Playboy mansion in L.A. and shot it before the movie with a real Playboy photographer. They did makeup and stuff to make it look not quite like her so it works with the plot. That was one of the biggest stretches, but it works; it’s fun in the movie.

Did you guys get to keep copies?
No, they had a couple that could be destroyed, a couple they could put wires to, a couple for insert shots. They were real Playboys with a fake cover and a fake centerfold.

So there was real porn on the set?
Perhaps. Or they could have used a Sports Illustrated. My memory could be blown through like Swiss cheese.

Let’s talk about the Babysitting Blues scene, because that’s a fan favorite.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, they took three days to shoot that and used three cameras. They shot about 13,000 feet of film, just doing it over and over. We shot it as many times as you could bear it, had 80 extras. A normal feature could be about 13,000 feet of film. So they shot basically a whole feature-length worth of footage and cut that down into a four-minute sequence.

I was hoping you’d say, “We got it in one take!” Why did it take so much work?
Well, they had talked about how you want to have three really memorable sequences for audiences, whether it’s a train sequence, people getting stabbed, or a frat house party or a hospital sequence; they really tried to load in these mini-events and scenes that stand on their own. And the blues bar was certainly one of those. But there was no song until two days before we shot it. We recorded quickly. And you don’t know how it’s going to play out, but because they had a lot of footage and crowd reactions, it was really cut together well.

Who came up with the dances?
There was actually a choreographer to do our simple and humble choreography. The director’s wife, Monica Devereux, was the choreographer. She also played the young runaway that was trying to spend some time with Daryl.

Isn’t there a Devereux Street mentioned at some point in the movie?
Absolutely: “Next stop, Devereux. You and your boys here are dead meat.”

Yes, the “Don’t fuck with the babysitter” scene.
Yeah, that’s a benchmark line; it kind of pushed that edge because it is a Disney movie, it’s a Touchstone Pictures release, and it was rated PG-13. They fought tooth and nail with the MPAA. The MPAA said, “You can have one F-word, you can say s-h-i-t twice. But any more than one F-word and it’s gotta go rated R.” And they really pushed, they said, “Well, it’s all in one scene, they’re right back-to-back. And we’ll even pronounce it FOCK,” like Meet the Fockers. Like, Don’t fock with the babysitter.

Did you hesitate to do a second movie with babysitting as part of the title?
They snuck that one in on me, because the original script for Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead was called The Real World, and it had a big old clown dog on the front of the script, the Clown Dog logo. And it was more focused on her [Sue Ellen, the character played by Christina Applegate]; it was a Working Girl–type story — working at GAW, “the bowels of the fashion industry.” So it was called The Real World, and we’re weeks into shooting, and they said, “You know, MTV has a new reality show coming out. It’s called The Real World.” They didn’t want to confuse people; they said, “We polled 8-year-olds and your new title is: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.” We went, What? You’re kidding, right? We were like, First of all, it’s way too long; there’s an apostrophe in it, there’s no way anybody’s gonna get that. We thought it was kind of silly. We were calling it Home Alone Times Five on the set. What a hoot. It really was a summer vacation. In this big, hot, smelly house — because the kitchen was just rotting away. They let that kitchen build up over time so it just kept getting grosser and grosser.

With real food?
Oh, it stunk. We had leftovers and craft service. The art department, they were like Method actors. Oh, the kitchen reeked. When we cleaned it up for the party at the end, finally it didn’t smell anymore.

Was Kenny’s long hair real?
Uh-uh. It was probably real hair, but it was a wig.

What about the pot, was that real?
That was catnip. And it’s totally gross. They tested all sorts of stuff — how do we get the right kind of smoke that won’t kill people? In this case, it was catnip. It had the whitest looking smoke, it would read on-camera. They were like, “It might get you a little light-headed, it might give you a headache, try not to inhale.” You gotta inhale; you gotta make it look good, though I don’t think Kenny is actually seen onscreen smoking. Maybe one time he pulled his face up from a bong. And they smoke out the dog! Elvis gets high.

On catnip, which is ironic.
Elvis got high on catnip; it did nothing for him. We had two Elvis dogs: One would be more active and move around and get up; the other would just lie there dead.

Was Kenny inspired by Bill and Ted, since Stephen Herek had directed that movie too?
I’d seen it; I was a huge fan. He was using the same director of photography that he used on Bill and Ted, so he had his little team. We knew his tone. His direction to me was, “More caveman, hunch over, swing when you walk, let your hair go, let your arms hang.”

What about Kenny’s clothes: Were those your Metallica shirts?
Nah, I didn’t have any of those. The jeans, they wanted them to fall apart. As it got further and further into the movie, there’s less of the ass, there’s no knees left — barely threads hanging on. I still have an original pair of Kenny’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead dead jeans. My one piece of wardrobe I kept.

Does the Clown Dog truck still exist anywhere?
No, but they made these plastic mugs for the cast and crew screenings — they were yellow plastic mugs with the red Clown Dog logo on them. So those are floating around. I have a cup or two left; one of them, the logo’s totally scratched off.

The scene where you’re shooting the dishes — “The dishes are done, man” — were you guys really on a roof?
Yes. They didn’t make Walter climb up onto a real roof [for the scene where he falls off the roof and breaks his leg], they built a lower one under a tree and just made it look the same. For us, they had us go up on the roof. We were back a few feet from the edge. We used a little air rifle. We threw in the head-butt. And I love just after Kenny says, “The dishes are done, man,” there’s the line, “Cleans ‘em down to the shine.” All the guys who played my stoner friends were great at adding to the scene.

Did you have more fun playing Kenny or Brad?
Kenny, are you kidding me? Sleep and be a bastard. It’s always more fun to play the bad guy or the selfish guy.

Do you ever watch the movies when they’re on?
Sure, why not? Sometimes people will ambush me at a party or whatever and they’ll just put it on and force me to watch through it. But they’re totally fun, and if I spot it coming up on cable or something, I’ll certainly tweet it out.

Which of the two movies do you get quoted more?
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
. The number of times people have said, “The dishes are done, man” — you’ll see a Facebook update about finishing the dishes, and people quote it. Luckily the line was in the trailer, so even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know the line. That’s gonna be the epitaph on my headstone: “The dishes are done, man.”

Keith Coogan, Star of Adventures in Babysitting and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Indulges Our Nostalgia