The 1987 film River's Edge was a film that shocked audiences and critics alike with its depiction of aimless teenagers in a dead-end town. Roger Ebert called the film "an exercise in despair" and "the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood." "Bleak" is the word that sums up Tim Hunter's groundbreaking film.
River's Edge is a fictionalized account of a 1981 murder case in Milpitas, California, in which 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard strangled 14-year-old Marcy Conrad and dumped her body near the foothills outside of town. For two days, Conrad's murder went unreported, as Broussard brought classmates from Milpitas High School to view Conrad's dead body. The story received widespread media attention as parents grappled with tough questions: Were America's children completely amoral? What did they believe in? Did they believe in anything?
Working from a script by Neal Jimenez, Hunter's film offered a dark, intense portrait of troubled teenagers. The kids in River's Edge stood in direct contrast to the shiny, plastic teenagers that movie audiences were accustomed to seeing in the mid-to-late 1980s. These young people were the anti-Brat Pack: They drank, smoked weed, popped pills, and seemingly had no moral compass and no role models.
The film's characters also looked different than the polished mallrats of other 80s films; they perfected the "grunge" look years before the American mainstream had even heard of the term. The film's soundtrack also strayed from most contemporary films, featuring metal and punk bands such as Slayer, Hallow's Eve, Agent Orange, and the Wipers—the perfect soundtrack for a story about alienated young people with no hope and no direction. The cast featured a combination of young, dynamic actors, and one legendary Hollywood hellraiser in the midst of a monumental comeback after a public downfall with booze and drugs.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of River's Edge, I spoke with six people involved in making the film to get their thoughts, stories, and opinions about its backstory and legacy.
BEFORE River's Edge
Daniel Roebuck (Actor): My career before River's Edge was the black void of space—not unlike what was here before the Big Bang. I got the lead role in a movie called Cavegirl, and that [was it].
Tim Hunter (Director): My father was a screen and TV writer, so I was a movie brat. I always knew I wanted to [make movies] from an early age. I made a bunch of woeful student films, and I was included in the first class at the American Film Institute in 1970.
Ione Skye (Actor): I grew up in LA and my brother [Donovan Leitch] was auditioning for things, but I didn't want to be an actor. I had modeled for friends, and that was the extent of my involvement in the industry because I was in high school.
Midge Sanford (Producer): My partner Sarah Pillsbury won an Academy Award for a short film she produced but she couldn't get a job in the business. She decided to start a production company. We met, and she told me about her company. I felt ready to jump into it. Sarah was able to raise $450,000 to get us started, so we had money to option scripts and books. if we didn't have that development fund, it would've been difficult for anybody to pay attention to us. Having a little bit of money helped us option material that we really liked.
Neal Jimenez (Screenwriter): There was a news story about a kid who dumped a body and took his friends to see it. I was in a screenplay class at UCLA, and I wrote it for the class. Most of the characters were based on people I had gone to high school with. I thought it spoke to a mood that young people were feeling at the time—feeling detached from things and wanting to zone out. I entered a screenplay contest that was judged by fellow students. One of them was doing an internship with a production company that [producer] Amy Pascal was involved with. He gave it to her and she gave it to the person who became my agent, who gave it to Midge and Sarah.
Sanford: We thought the script was really good. If somebody had pitched us this idea in our office or at a lunch, I don't think either one of us would have responded so positively to it because it was so dark. But it was already written, so we could see it on the page and imagine it as a movie. We were fans of Tim's, so we sent him the script.
Hunter: I was dubious. I didn't want to do another teen picture. But the script was so incredibly good. I called them back instantly and told them I had to do it.
Sanford: Tim said, "My agent's gonna kill me, but I want to do it."
Hunter: There was another director in the running, and I really lobbied hard for it. Midge and Sarah had been showing the script to studios in the $5 million range—nobody would touch it because it was so dark.
Sanford: I remember somebody saying, "I read the script and I think it's really good, but it's very disturbing and I couldn't get it out of my mind." My thought was, that's why you make a movie.
Hunter: As part of my lobbying campaign, I said I'd make it for a million dollars. All of the sudden, it was possible to submit it to a number of young indie companies that were popping up at the time.
Sanford: Hemdale were a small company that made some very good movies, like Salvador and Hoosiers. They really responded to the script and said they would finance it with Tim as the director.
Hunter: It was in pre-production four months later. We were trying to make it as inexpensively as possible. The final budget, I think, was $1.7 million.
Carrie Frazier (Casting Director): They had to hire someone like me who needed the job but wasn't looking for a big paycheck. The first time I read the script, I loved it. I thought it was powerful and weirdly funny, and it had a darkness that was rooted in reality in a way that I hadn't seen before.
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
Hunter: We set up shop in an old film production building on Victory Boulevard in the Valley. We didn't have money to offer it to any of John Hughes' Brat Pack crowd, so we auditioned dozens of young actors.
Skye: Every teenager in town who was acting was excited about [auditioning]. My mom's friend took a picture of me for LA Weekly, and the casting director saw it. My brother came home from school and said, "You want to audition for this movie? The casting director asked about you." I read the scenes they had us audition for, and I was like, "Wow, this is good." I thought it was dark—I admired it. I never did well in school—I was in Hollywood High, I was ditching classes. I didn't want to go [audition] because I was terrified, but I pushed myself to audition and I got it.
Roebuck: I put on a costume, and KY jelly in my hair to make it look greasy. On the way to the audition, I stopped by a 7-11 by my house in Hollywood, bought two beers, and put them in my coat pocket. When I walked into the room, I sat in the corner and popped open the beer, and Tim grabbed his camera and started shooting. I think he was seeing something in that moment that was unique, different, and real.
Frazier: When [Keanu Reeves] came in, he hadn't done anything and wasn't being represented by anybody. He was what's called a hip-pocket client, meaning they didn't know if they wanted to sign him—they were just testing him out. He walked in the door, and I went, "Oh my god, this is my guy!" It was just because of the way he held his body—his shoes were untied, and what he was wearing looked like a young person growing into being a man. I was over the moon about him.
Sanford: For Dennis Hopper's role ['Feck'], we sent the script to Harry Dean Stanton, who passed. Apparently, Harry Dean Stanton passed on a lot of scripts and gave them to Dennis.
Hunter: I initially hoped that John Lithgow would play it, but it was too dark for John—he wanted no part of it. We had some reluctance that it might be typecasting for Dennis, but ultimately we wanted him very badly and we needed Hemdale to come up with a little extra money for him. I threatened to cast Timothy Carey, who was in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. He was brilliant, but also a well-known wild man who never stuck to a script—he'd ad lib and be quite disruptive. The thought of having Timothy Carey in the picture finally convinced Hemdale to come up with that small amount of money to pay Dennis to do it.
Roebuck: When they said it was Dennis Hopper, I almost shit myself.
Sanford: I think Crispin Glover came in [to audition] with a wig and an outrageous take on the part. He was so out there that Sarah and I were a little nervous about what he was doing. But we trusted him and felt like it would work out in the end.
Frazier: There was one part that was surprisingly tricky to cast: the dead body, Jamie. [We were like,] "Oh shit, who's gonna play that part?" I started to meet people who were young and could be comfortable naked. We had this wonderful young actress come in, Danyi Deats. She had to lie there cold and naked for days and really look dead, with all this makeup all over her. She's an unsung hero.
Hunter: We originally cast Corey Haim, but he got sick after the first day of production—pneumonia or something—and we had to let him go.
Hunter: The big challenge was nature. Neal Jimenez grew up in Sacramento, so we went there to shoot on the American River. There was a huge storm and flood when we started shooting, so the company that was bonding the picture didn't want us anywhere near Sacramento.
Sanford: We tried to find a river in LA. The LA River was pretty dry. There were creeks in Malibu—nothing that looked like a river.
Hunter: At the very last minute, before we were scheduled to go up to Sacramento, the waters ebbed and everybody made it up there. Coming off the heels of the storm and flood, the water had that wild, raging, marvelous quality that it didn't have before.
Hunter: I settled on Tujunga for the major locations—a community up in the foothills above Burbank that was originally settled in the first part of the century. It was an area where people with tuberculosis could come to sanatoriums for the clean air. By the time we shot River's Edge, it had become a smog pocket—but it was full of river rock houses that gave it a "land that time forgot" feeling.
Sanford: We were doing a table read and Dennis Hopper walks in wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. It was such a funny image, because you think of Dennis Hopper as this kind of outlaw. When we were making the movie, the only thing that he hadn't quit was smoking, and he was trying to stop.
Hunter: Hopper was wonderful. He'd just cleaned up his act and was very proud of it. He made himself available to all of those kids—who idolized him—and he rehearsed with them extensively. It was a really good experience.
Roebuck: We'd be sitting in a school gymnasium where we were having dinner late, and [the Apocalypse Now documentary] Hearts of Darkness hadn't come out yet, so he'd enlighten me with great stories about that. He'd take his shots at me, too. I'd miss a mark and he'd say, "A better actor could hit his mark," and he'd miss his mark and I'd say, "A younger actor could hit his mark." We laughed a lot. Anything Dennis Hopper said was about 10,000 times more interesting than anything I could have ever conceived of. He'd lived such an extraordinary life.
Skye: We were all fascinated with Crispin Glover. I was so impressed with his boldness, because I was very interested in not being a fool. Over the years, I've loosened up, and I was very influenced by Crispin. He's just one of those great actors who seemed very real but also could be just completely out there. I'll be honest with you, I love Crispin Glover. I think he is one of the most unique and interesting people I've ever met in my life.
Roebuck: I had this private screening at a screening room on Sunset Boulevard one night. I invited my closest friends to see it. I met this guy Duane Whitaker when we were extras on General Hospital—he went on to be in Pulp Fiction—and he was the only one who said, "This is a great movie, and they're gonna be talking about it in 30 years." And he was 100% right.
Skye: The first time I saw it was a small screening, and it was very surreal—like I was on acid or something. I saw it later with a bigger screening with the whole cast. We saw a lot of dark humor in it, and had a good time. The audience didn't know how to take it—they were just shocked by the whole thing.
Jimenez: I remember being surprised by Crispin Glover's performance, which took me a while to warm up to. But as years went by, I really grew to like it.
Sanford: Some executives from a small distribution company wouldn't look at us [after a festival screening]. People either embraced it or were very put off by it. It didn't get picked up right away.
Hunter: I went to every goddamn festival screening I could. The reactions were good, but it didn't really take off until Sundance.
Sanford: The head of marketing at Island Pictures, Russell Schwartz, loved the movie and said, "I don't know how I'm gonna sell this movie, but I'm gonna figure it out." He was relentless.
Hunter: The screening I remember most before the film opened was in San Jose, near Milpitas, where the actual murder had taken place. A lot of the audience was up in arms, saying, "Why are you raking us over the coals again? Why are you bringing this all back? We've had enough notoriety with this murder case." But the principal of the local high school and people from the police department came up to us afterward and said that we'd really gotten it right—that's what those kids were like.
Sanford: It's held up. Teenagers take themselves very seriously, and this movie was a morality play. What would you do? And it's not just about kids. What if you found out your husband had killed somebody? What's your moral stance? People are still murdered, and people still don't tell. Kids can still feel alienated from society, too. If having a legacy means will it continue to have meaning to people years later, then it feels to me like it will.
Roebuck: It was so evocative of that moment in time. There were other movies about teenage angst, but because [River's Edge] was based on something real, it immediately shocked people.
Skye: It had a certain quality to it that was above and beyond certain indies. It was the beginning of my career, too. I thought it would be a one-off thing—"I was once in a movie"— but when I was approached by agents at a screening, I thought, "I can do this."
Frazier: I saw the movie recently and I was impressed by how well it held up. It's a cautionary tale. I don't think it's far away from where a lot of kids function these days.
Hunter: The fact that the film is still shown and that people still come up to me and say that it meant something to them means a lot to me. My legacy is that I made one film that made a difference to some people. It's not necessarily an auteur's career, but I'm not so unhappy about it, either. After River's Edge, I turned a lot of stuff down that I probably shouldn't have turned down. The features that I made weren't successful, and I went largely into television, as many directors do. The main thing for me is that I just love directing, so I've enjoyed [working in television] more than I would've if I'd had to wait four years between features. For me, the legacy of River's Edge is that I got to make it. I had such admiration for Neal's script that I remember thinking, "Please God, just one more in my career as good as this one." It hasn't happened yet, but gee, it was a good script.
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