Interview – Thom Eberhardt

Night of the Comet fan, Charlie Mason, has given us permission to publish the following personal interview he did with Night of the Comet writer/director, Thom Eberhardt circa 2004.

A Night To Remember: Thom Eberhardt Tells The Tale Of The Comet

Night of the Comet isn’t a smash and never really was. But to those of us who saw the post-apocalyptic comedy-thriller as kids in 1984, it will always be not a cult classic, but a classic, period. It made us laugh, it made us gasp, it made us look away and go “Eww.” Today, when we catch it on cable or see a dusty VHS copy at Blockbuster, we can’t help ourselves, we start quoting our favorite lines:”You were born with an a**hole, Doris, you don’t need Chuck!”; “It’s Saturday morning, where are the goddamn kids?”; “The legal drinking age is now 10. But you will need I.D. Let’s be real.” Of course, no one’s memories of the popcorn flick are fonder or more vivid than those of Thom Eberhardt, its writer-director. Since Night had its day, he’s made a bunch of other movies, with A-list names ranging from Michael Caine to Keanu Reeves. Yet this particular feature retains as warm a place in his heart as it does ours. He even cast Comet star Kelli Maroney, the plucky cheerleader Samantha Belmont, as the femme fatale in his 1997 film noir Face Down. Here, the auteur traces the picture’s steps to the cineplex and offers a glimmer of hope that somewhere down the road he may give us a sequel…. By Charlie Mason

Charlie Mason: Does It Surprise You That Even After All These Years Night Of The Comet Is So Widely Beloved?

Thom Eberhardt: The short answer is yes. It kind of went into a black hole in the late ’80s, and I assumed it was forgotten. And because I suspect the negative is lost, I didn’t see it reemerging. But the demand for product for specialized cable channels like Sci Fi changed all that. We were all surprised by how well the thing was accepted by audiences when it was first released. While not a smash like Halloween had been, it found a core audience among young teens and, surprisingly, among their parents. The kids bought it as straight-up adventure, the parents noticed the tongue-in-cheek aspect. The fact that the kids didn’t notice that made it even funnier to their parents. An example of this is Kelli’s monologue about the boy she hoped was going to ask her out, but had been sadly turned to dust by the passing comet, resulting in teenage heartbreak. I don’t know if that speech is still in the cut-down version running on TV. Anyway, Kelli threw herself into the speech even though it was totally preposterous. I kind of felt bad for her because the speech was so loony-tunes, it always got snickers and even laughs when we screened for various adults, including critics. However, when I sat with my wife at the mall, watching it with a bunch of kids, I was stunned to hear weeping. I looked behind me and saw these two 12-year-old girls wiping away tears. Dead boyfriends? It’s an aspect of the end of the world they had not considered. About 10 years later, my wife and I had hired a new baby-sitter who didn’t know us. As I was showing her about the house, she spotted the one-sheet [poster] from Comet. She exclaimed that she had seen the movie, and it was soooooo scary. I told her that it was also kind of funny, too. She agreed that it was in some parts. But the thing that made it soooooo scary, in her opinion, was that something like that could really happen! I started to laugh, and my wife kicked me.

Mason: Why Do You Think The Movie Has Remained So Popular?

Eberhardt: Your guess is as good as mine. I know people don’t watch it as a straight-up movie anymore. Maybe a seven-year-old could get into it that way. Maybe people watch it for the camp value. There are always the hardcore movie-trivia freaks, the guys that keep Ed Wood on the shelf at Blockbuster. It would be nice to think that the sweetness of the movie is engaging, because at its heart, it is a very sincere, sweet little movie. It was certainly sincerely acted by the likes of the great Mary Woronov. I know a lot of people watch it because they remember it from when they were kids. A lot of 11-year-old boys got their first hard-on over the thought of being alone in the world with one or both of those two babes. And a lot of pissed-off 12-year-old girls fell for the notion of a world where their mothers had turned to dust and they were now in charge.

Mason: What’s Your Inspiration To Do A Sequel?

Eberhardt: Money. It’s great for inspiration. Of course, Comet is special for me, like it is for a lot of people who were involved. It was my first theatrical movie after making lots of walkie-talkie documentaries for PBS. We made it for about $700,000, which means that a very small crew had to be very clever and work very hard. If you make it through something like that, it creates its own little place in your heart. The movie had that effect on lots of us. Even the producers, who told me they thought it sucked and had another director waiting to take my place when, as they hoped, the production company fired my ass Even those guys , I think, ended up with fond memories. From the very first, there was sequel talk, but then there usually is on any movie like that. There was also an attempt to develop a TV series and, I think, a cartoon show. Comet was pretty cartoony, after all. The most recent flare-up [of interest] came from Fox Family Channel, of all places. This was [a few] years ago. They were big on disaster movies at the time, having decided that volcanoes blowing up, avalanches crashing down and earthquakes rumbling through were excellent family fare. But, after several of these, they were running out of disasters. My partner and I were in pitching them one of the only disasters they hadn’t yet done. We thought we were in pretty good shape because there was nothing left, catastrophe-wise. But they had an even better idea. They were going to remake this kooky teen movie from a few years back called Night of the Comet. They asked me if I had ever heard of it. I said I had. They wondered if I might be interested in doing a remake. They assured me that they could get the rights for practically nothing. In fact, they might even own the rights and not know it. Fox did the original video release, after all. I asked if the original writer-director might have some sort of deal concerning sequels and remakes. They said whoever he was, they were sure they could buy him off and get rid of him. I exposed myself for the kooky teen movie writer-director that I was. They were embarrassed. However, I assured them that I most certainly could be bought off.

Mason: So What’s The Holdup With The Sequel?

Eberhardt: Rights, interest, money, but mostly rights. Nobody is quite sure who has them.

Mason: How Frustrating Has It Been To Be Ready To Do A Sequel And Have This Obstacle Standing In Your Way?

Eberhardt: Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m “ready.” In fact, I don’t know if I should. Part of the charm of Comet is its funkiness and tackiness. I can’t conceive of anyone pumping big bucks into something like Comet II. But even TV-movie bucks would be way more than we originally had. Comet’s low-budget, B-movie roots are center stage with no apologies, and they make the movie work as much as anything else. My original producers never got that. Luckily, nobody had any money for reshoots, so they were stuck with what I gave them. I remember one of them screaming at me while we were filming the ‘shoot-out’ in the department store. “These girls look like they’ve having fun! They should be terrified!” Like I said, there was no time or money to stop and argue concept, so I won by default. With a bigger budget, that might not be the case. It’s not just a matter of meddlesome producers, either. I could be a hindrance as well. I knew zip about making features when I did that [picture]. I violated a lot of time-tested rules, not because I was bold, but simply because I didn’t know any better. To begin with, Comet is a mixed-genre piece. Comedy and sci-fi and horror and fantasy. Mixing sci-fi and horror usually dooms a project. Comedy, too? Forget it. Not only that, the movie was light. It was released at exactly the same time Terminator and, in fact, played on double bills with Terminator at drive-ins. Guess which picture was on the bottom half of the bill. Though Terminator had roughly five times the money we had, it was still considered a low-budget movie. But Terminator is intense lots of action, lots of shoot-outs, etc. In Comet, you wondered if the characters weren’t going to talk each other to death. Mostly, that’s what they did, they sat around and talked. Terminator is manly. Comet was very girlie. And speaking of that two girls in the lead? In a drive-in movie? No way! These are all things that I’ve learned since 1983 when we shot it. I’m not sure that they wouldn’t get in the way. Self-doubt is like poison to something like Night of the Comet. You really have to be completely, utterly clueless about the realities of commercial filmmaking. My only hope in this regard is that many studios consider me to be clueless to this very day…