Tom Schiller Loves to Be an SNL Underdog

Tom Schiller. Photo: Andrew Toth/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Decades before the Lonely Island’s short films expanded Saturday Night Live’s reach online, filmmaker Tom Schiller spent 11 seasons on SNL as a writer and, briefly, as a cast member during the 1979-1980 season. But he is most distinguished for his 50 SNL short films (known as “Schiller’s Reel” or “Schiller Vision”), and their poignant tone represents the show at its most melancholy and bittersweet.

Schiller grew up on the sets of shows like I Love Lucy, where his father was a writer, and knew TV golden-age titans like Lucille Ball, whom he refers to as “a scary person [who] smelled like nail polish and cigarettes.” His initial training as a documentary filmmaker later enabled him to perfectly capture the essence of many of SNL’s most iconic cast members including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Chris Farley. Coupled with his 1975 documentary on the writer Henry Miller, his SNL shorts — the last of which starred Norm Macdonald — today exist as a living tribute to some of the greatest voices over the past century. And since today is the official launch of NBC’s Peacock subscription service, some of Schiller’s best work should (hopefully) soon be rediscovered by comedy fans.

Still, as the director of the infamously shelved 1984 sci-fi comedy Nothing Lasts Forever, Schiller has long enjoyed a status as an “underdog.” He recently spoke with Vulture near his home in Connecticut, and the conversation covered topics like working with so many comedy legends, his filmmaking process, and the legacy of Nothing Lasts Forever.

In 1975, you directed Henry Miller: Asleep & Awake, which features the Tropic of Cancer author in his bathroom. How did you come to know Henry?
When I was still in high school, I was an apprentice to a documentary filmmaker [Academy Award winner Robert Snyder] in the Pacific Palisades. I was learning to edit, cut, and shoot film. I worked on quite a few of his documentaries, including one on Buckminster Fuller. Finally, Henry was riding his bike around the Palisades, and Snyder pounced on him to do a film. By then I was doing sound, and one afternoon we went over and recorded him in the swimming pool. Afterward, we spoke a little together and he says, “You know, you remind me of myself when I was younger. I want you to come over anytime you want. Wake me up.” So for nine years I was pals with him.

Would you say your experiences with Snyder and Miller working on documentaries early in your career helped hone your voice and ability to capture a comic’s essence so precisely, like you did in Don’t Look Back in Anger and La Dolce Gilda?
Oh God, yes. It gave me an appreciation of older mentors, which I was lucky to have. And also: Europe. Henry had lived there and spoke of it all the time. By then I was convinced I was going to be a foreign-film director.

What about Gilda Radner made you think she’d be suited for a Fellini homage?
All you have to do is see their best trait. Belushi was gruff but sentimental, and Gilda was very sweet and had a wistfulness quality about her that I always saw in Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina. That was in her already. That was my secret: Use what’s already there.

We shot La Dolce Gilda at One Fifth Avenue, a restaurant where we often had our parties after the show. The actors, including Gilda, never saw a script. I gave them their lines on index cards. They arrived at the restaurant costumed and in character. There were quite a few New York characters there, including Brian De Palma, whose presence was intimidating. We ended the shoot around 1 or 2 a.m., then Gilda had to wait until dawn to get the right look of sunrise on the West Side Highway. I realized later that I could have shot it at sunset to get the exact look of sunrise and felt like a fool making her wait so long.

For Don’t Look Back in Anger, what was the moment that convinced you to cast Belushi as the elderly last surviving member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players?
It was about the time, I guess during the second or third year, that the show was really peaking and at its height in popularity. I wondered: Who was the most symbolic character of Saturday Night Live? Belushi, the samurai — gruff but accessible and funny at the same time. And I thought about, What would it be like if he were the one to outlive everybody? Because he was the one doing the drugs and drinking, living the hard life. So to reverse that was interesting.

The night before shooting, John had been out late partying. Early on the morning of the shoot we picked him up in a van that had a small bed in the back, and despite swerving and driving fast, I was amazed that he slept like a baby as we drove out to the cemetery location in Queens. I was also amazed that he put in a great performance despite being hungover. In addition, without rehearsal, he hit every mark — every gravestone — perfectly the first take.

What was it like to work with Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks on Love Is a Dream?
I used to go down to the NBC record library, and they had 78s — I was in heaven. No one else would be listening to them on big turntables. I heard this song, sung by Bing Crosby, “Love Is a Dream,” which is a popularization of “The Emperor Waltz.” The short was my first one working with a new cast. Phil and Jan struck me as looking the most like ’30s-’40s movie actors and most suited to appear in a vintage musical. Jan loved the final film and kept bringing it up in meetings to have it shown again. Phil was a superb lip-syncer and did a flawless rendition of Crosby’s vocal. By working fast, we shot it all in one day driving all over Manhattan to cover the various locations.

Do you have a particular favorite of your SNL films?
Well, there’s about 50 of them. The Belushi and Gilda ones are perhaps the most memorable. I did a Chris Farley one where he drinks coffee and goes berserk. I had no idea that’s become quite popular as a meme! It’s a great compliment!

How’d you come up with “Hidden Camera Commercials”?
Again, it’s the character — the personality of Farley. He’s great to go wild and go berserk, break down everything. I’d always remembered that commercial where they switched the coffee crystals on somebody. I thought, Didn’t they ever get angry that they were being hoodwinked? Farley’s perfect for that, to go from being normal to being a raving lunatic.

And you’re the Swedish host in that one, Knorben Knussen! What made you cast yourself?
It was getting up there in my years at [SNL], and it was sort of a last ditch at insinuating myself in the show. [Laughs.]

Was there any particular cast member that you felt really gelled with your aesthetic as a filmmaker?
Not as a filmmaker, but as a comedian, Bill Murray. He is in the pantheon, the A-plus actor that came out of Saturday Night Live. We hung out together before he was famous, walking around New York, and I used to say to him, jokingly, “These are the last days of anonymity.” And it’s true! Within a few months, he was a superstar.

You’re probably the first filmmaker who really tapped into his dramatic side. His Honker character reciting Shakespeare really captured the “crying clown” aspect of his onscreen persona.
That’s right. I always liked to put the actors into a black-and-white, foreign-looking, gritty kind of movie. It stood out from the show, which was video color. In those days, people still had a connection with foreign films and older films. Now it’s all kind of video-ish, not film anymore. When “Dick in a Box” came around, I knew my time had passed. [Laughs.]

It always feels like you’re at the forefront of a lot of things. You contributed to “Update,” and later wrote for Not Necessarily the News before practically everything on cable followed that satirical news template. How did those two experiences compare?
I worked at Saturday Night during two stints. It was after the first time I went back to L.A., where I’m from. They were doing Not Necessarily the News there, in some studio basement, in a dank, windowless area. All those guys were terrific, funny people, but it was not like working in 30 Rockefeller Plaza on the 17th Floor where everybody is smoking pot, running around, going into different offices. It was a little more one-note. Not as much fun, though I thought it was a good show.

You left SNL in 1993. What made you decide it was time to go?
What made me decide was when I came to work for the new season and they were putting my things in cardboard boxes. In a way, I should’ve left two or three years earlier. Because I was like this old professor at a college in his dark room with cobwebs, with young students milling around. So I was losing the edge of what was happening.

Was it mutually decided?
It was mutual on the part of management. [Laughs.] No, I was fired along with a lot of other people. And they should’ve let me go; I was no longer relevant to it.

It’s been 35 years since your film, Nothing Lasts Forever. We live in a moment where almost anything is instantly accessible or streamable. How does it feel to have made one of the last truly “lost” or underground films? You really have to show a passion or interest to discover it.
It’s heartbreaking, and very gratifying. Some people say it’s a cult film. I love that. I love that it’s hard to find. And I love only a certain audience has seen it.

It’s very European, almost.
Thank you. That’s all I wanted to do — be a European film director. There’s a Swedish architect on the train, who says to the character, Adam Beckett, “You will get everything you want in life, but you won’t get it in a way you expect.” And I got that, with that film. It may not have been widely released, although it’s on late-night TV in Europe, been shown at many different festivals and invited twice to Cannes. But I got enough renown and enough people who appreciate it. It’s almost better to be the underdog than being the asshole success. [Laughs.]

Had you already lined up Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in the cast by this point?
That was a fait accompli. But I also wanted old-timers: Imogene Coca, Eddie Fisher.

Before returning to SNL, did you ever have any other projects in the works? A follow-up to Nothing Lasts Forever?
Actually, no. I made that film, and I know a lot of writers and directors who are ready to go with the next one. I’m not that type. That was it. I had offers. I went to Steven Spielberg’s house one night to watch a movie and he said, “If you don’t let me produce your next movie I’ll break both your legs.” But I didn’t want to be this Hollywood film director. I admired their work, but it wasn’t my style. I wanted to do weird underground French films.

Any post-SNL projects you want to highlight?
I did about 500 commercials, some of which people may have seen. There’s one where a park ranger put Metamucil in Old Faithful that made it explode.

So what do you see as the biggest difference between what you were doing and today’s world of online comedy content?
I was lucky to be one of the few short filmmakers at that time whose work was shown on TV. Short films were not as widespread. Thanks to the iPhone, TikTok, and YouTube, people can make short videos, which can instantaneously be seen by millions of viewers. Anybody can be a director or writer. It lends itself to timely comedy short pieces by people like Vic Berger, Sarah Cooper, and Joe Pera, all of whom crack me up.

Tom Schiller Loves to Be an SNL Underdog