The Improbable Genesis (and Unlikely Return) of Meet the Applegates

To coincide with a revival screening in Brooklyn, Michael Lehmann writes about the strange trajectory of his overlooked second feature.

The more things change … the old cliché comes to mind when asked to talk about Meet the Applegates, an odd little movie we made back in 1988. The world has definitely moved on in 30 years, but much of what we satirized in that film still applies today, and though the style, pace and tone of humor are hardly up to date, the themes of global environmental disaster, consumerism, drug abuse, workplace sexuality, date rape and gender identification are all still very much in the mix.

The idea for this film, concocted by me and my writing partner, Redbeard Simmons, came about when New World Pictures challenged us to come up with a pitch. It was 1986. Redbeard and I had just finished at USC film school, where we made a short called The Beaver Gets a Boner (don’t ask), written by Redbeard and directed by me. I had been introduced to Redbeard by our school friend Larry Karaszewski, who to this day continues to do service as a writer and as an assembler of people with common filmmaking interests. Thanks to Larry’s efforts, we put together a great crew to make The Beaver Gets a Boner, which had a successful screening at a film school event and landed us agents and meetings around Hollywood. That’s how it was done in those days.

Bobbi Thompson, a young agent at William Morris, who already represented Tim Burton and Jim Cameron, signed us up and put us together with producer Denise DiNovi, who had a good relationship with New World Pictures, a company that was started by Roger Corman but by this time had been sold to a group of investors hoping to make money in the burgeoning home video market. New World eventually made Heathers with us, but before that, they asked Redbeard and me to come pitch some ideas. We’d been working on an idea about … big bugs … which also satirized the absurdly nostalgic concept of “normal American values” that floated around during the Reagan era. Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure this dreadful period is the “Again” in “Make America Great Again.”

Hard to imagine today, but we sold the idea of Meet the Applegates on a pitch. Our pitch went something like this: imagine the typical American family, white, wholesome, statistically normal, modeled after the family from the Dick and Jane primers from the 1940s. Now imagine that this family is not what they appear to be. In fact, they are a quartet of highly evolved, intelligent, as yet undiscovered chameleonic insects from the Amazon rainforest. Forced from their native habitat by the destruction of the rainforest, they’ve come to the United States to infiltrate a nuclear power plant, melt it down, destroy humanity and leave the world safe for insects, who everyone knows would be the sole survivors of nuclear holocaust. That’s what we pitched, that’s what they bought, that’s what we wrote, and that’s pretty much what we shot.

Redbeard and I never thought the movie would ever get made. If it were to get made, we imagined, it would be for a budget of 2 cents, with actors in silly costumes and cheesy special effects. Still, one could hope …

While Redbeard and I were still writing Meet the Applegates, Denise DiNovi and I brought Dan Waters’ script for Heathers to New World, and they gave us the go-ahead to make the film. So the Applegates were put on hold for a while, but since the shooting of Heathers went well, New World gave the nod to make the Applegates while we were still in post-production on Heathers.

Chris Webster, a Brit with international financing connections, had provided funding for Heathers, and he said he would put up the dollars for the Applegates if we shot it in Wisconsin, on a wooded boy-scout camp he’d purchased. His idea was to turn the camp into a studio for horror films. So, we set up shop in (ironically) Appleton, Wisconsin, and made the film, using much of the creative team from Heathers. We had a fabulous cast, got great performances from Stockard Channing and Ed Begley Jr., and had appropriately low-rent giant insects designed and built by Kevin Yagher of Chucky fame.

Alas, Meet the Applegates never made much of a dent. New World Pictures was out of business by the time the movie was completed. The film was sold to an upstart independent distribution company called Triton Pictures and received a very limited release in 1991. Nobody paid much attention, and those who did weren’t taken by the combination of silly and dark in the movie. Themes of environmental disaster and gender identity and anti-consumerism were of little interest to viewers or reviewers in the context of this particular movie. To make things worse, the movie was released on January 18, 1991. The third week of January is never a good release date. When it also happens to be the start of the bombing of Iraq, it’s neither shocking nor awesome that the movie failed to perform.

In the last couple of years, there have been a few screenings of Meet the Applegates, which has been great for me, as the movie hasn’t been available on video for a long time. Having had the chance to take a step back and watch the film again, to see it with contemporary audiences, and to get a taste of how it’s aged has been a true pleasure. Like Heathers, you probably couldn’t get this movie financed and made today.

As a filmmaker, it’s been gratifying to hear comments such as “This movie feels completely current” or, “How come I’ve never heard of this before?” at screenings. But it’s also just plain fun to sit in a theater and watch date-raped, teen-pregnant Sally Applegate give birth to a giant, gelatinous egg on her living room floor. That’s why I became a director in the first place, and I’m still fiercely proud to have put that on screen.


Meet the Applegates plays at Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn tonight at 9pm, with Michael Lehmann in attendance; more info here.

Michael Lehmann has been a director and producer in film and television for over 30 years. After getting his start as receptionist for Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, Lehmann went on to direct nine feature films and over 90 episodes of television. His films include Heathers, Meet The Applegates, Airheads and The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and in television he’s directed, among others, episodes of The West Wing, Homicide, The Larry Sanders Show, Californication, Dexter, True Blood, American Horror Story, and, most recently Snowfall and Deception.