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These Kids Are American Punks

April 11th, 2010 · 27 Comments

Over the Edge 1979 poster Over the Edge DVD

Over the Edge (1979)
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan
Screenplay by Charlie Haas & Tim Hunter
Produced by George Litto
95 minutes

If Harold and Maude, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Boyz N The Hood all took the pulse of a particular generation’s youth, you’d have to look no further than Over the Edge to get an EKG reading on the 1970s. Maybe it was a sign of things to come that the movie changed its title from On the Edge to OVER the Edge by the time it was finished. By today’s standards, this film could be aired on the ABC Family network; teenage sex is absentee, what drug use we see is portrayed for comic effect and other than a police shooting, the violence is committed against parked cars. But this raucous little flick doesn’t depend on shock value to achieve greatness. Over the Edge rises above its B-movie roots and endures not only as dy-no-mite entertainment, but an invaluable social document of the American suburb. The film reports on where youth culture was in this country in 1978 and in terms of economic and social conditions, still resides in most communities.

Over the Edge is written and cast at a perfect pitch. Instead of herding the characters through some didactic ABC Afterschool Special story, the filmmakers realize that the characters and their environment was the story. The discovery of Matt Dillon was a major coup, but even among the young cast members never heard from again, none of them are caught acting. Even if most of them were simply playing themselves, the filmmakers took a major risk casting 14-year-olds as 14-year-olds. The effect is one of electrifying verisimilitude. Over the Edge also seems to pick up on the dissonant effect sprawling suburban architecture might have on American youth. Sol Kaplan composed a delightfully subtle and eerie musical score, while the songs of Cheap Trick, The Cars and The Ramones seamlessly transport us back to the days of vinyl, headphones and wanting to escape to anywhere else.

Over the Edge 1979

Two teens on a highway overpass open fire on a police car with a BB rifle. Sgt. Doberman (Harry Northup) loses the snipers in a chase and grabs 14-year-old Carl Willat (Michael Kramer) and his friend Richie White (Matt Dillon) walking home. On probation for breaking and entering, Richie refuses to cooperate with cops’ questions. Carl’s record is clean and his Cadillac salesman father (Andy Romano) wants to keep it that way so his son won’t end up in reform school on “The Hill.” All Carl wants to do is to listen to Cheap Trick on his headphones and get out of New Granada, where the kids are older than the buildings and their only social activity revolves around a rec center operated by a counselor (Julia Pomeroy) sympathetic to their alienation. With investors from Texas due to arrive in New Granada for a tour, Doberman stages a raid on the rec center and busts Carl’s friend Claude Zachary (Tom Fergus) for possession.

With nowhere else to go, Carl and Richie cross paths with Cory (Pamela Ludwig), a girl Carl likes who spends her spare time breaking into houses. Carl and Cory bond over their loathing of the town they’ve been uprooted to. A prank Carl pulls on the Texans succeeds in running them out of town and as punishment, his father forbids him from seeing his friends. Carl runs away with Richie, but an encounter with Doberman ends tragically for his pal. Trying to figure out what he should do, Carl hides out in an abandoned townhouse, which Cory visits to keep her new boyfriend from getting lonely. Meanwhile, the Richie White tragedy provokes the concerned parents of New Granada to hold a meeting at the high school “cafetorium” to discuss what’s happening to their children. With the town’s kids in a furor, Carl comes out of hiding and leads a march to the school for an evening the community won’t ever forget.

Over the Edge 1979 Matt Dillon Michael Kramer

“Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree” was an expose on juveniles run amok in Foster City, California that ran in the November 11, 1973 edition of The San Francisco Examiner. Written by James Finefrock and Bruce Koon, the article caught the attention of Tim Hunter, son of blacklisted screenwriter Ian McClellan Hunter. Growing up in New York around the children of other cultural exiles, Hunter graduated Harvard in 1968 — where he served as film critic and arts director for The Crimson — and then the American Film Institute in 1970 before taking a post at University of California Santa Cruz as a film history professor. Hunter brought “Mouse Packs” to a student who’d graduated the year previous. Charlie Haas was a native of New York whose family had relocated to the Golden State when he was sixteen. After graduating UC Santa Cruz with a BA in creative writing, Haas went to work for Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, writing liner notes.

After interviewing residents of Foster City, Hunter presented their script to his father’s literary agent George Litto, who agreed to produce. Haas was friends with a film director he suggested for the job. Jonathan Kaplan was the son of film composer Sol Kaplan and actress Frances Heflin. Trained as an actor in his childhood, Kaplan ended up at NYU Film School, where as an undergrad, Martin Scorsese was one of his professors. With Scorsese as a personal reference, Kaplan pitched New World Pictures founder Roger Corman a movie titled Night Call Nurses. Corman would hire Kaplan to direct The Slams and Truck Turner next. Orion Pictures agreed to finance Mouse Packs, later Over the Edge, but fears of gang activity in theaters prompted the studio to shelve the film. Its honest depiction of teenage wasteland in the suburbs began winning it fans on HBO in the 1980s and is today regarded as one of the most realistic movies ever made about teenagers.

Over the Edge 1979 Pamela Ludwig Michael Kramer

In a 30-year retrospective published in the September 2009 issue of Vice Magazine, Tim Hunter recalled the community that inspired the events portrayed in Over the Edge. “Foster City was supposed to be an ideal bedroom community. The designers built it with a master plan; it was threaded with little man-made canals and waterways. Outside of some houses were docks that people could use to boat to the grocery store. But there was nothing for the large percentage of teenage kids to do in that town — I think up to 25 percent of the population was below the age of 18. It had the highest percentage of juvenile crime of any comparable city in the country, and it just seemed to me like there might be a movie in that story somewhere.” Haas & Hunter spent three years exploring the geography of Foster City — which had been built on a reclaimed landfill — and talking to residents, particularly the kids, who confirmed that the article had been true.

Charlie Haas recalled, “These kids were bored out of their minds. There was literally nothing for them to do. It was like a theme park without the fun — you’d have these developments called ‘Whaler’s Cove’ and these fake pilings and these lame rec centers, with ropes and an airplane and a slide and a sculpture of a whale. Everything was new. Nothing was older than the kids themselves. The place made everyone feel a little disposable.” The research Haas & Hunter began in 1973 inspired a script that Hunter would pass to his father’s literary agent, George Litto. A veteran of the William Morris Agency in New York, Litto had formed his own agency in 1965, representing screenwriters and directors as well as negotiating distribution deals for Melvin van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), Robert Altman (Images) and Brian DePalma (Sisters). Litto then became a film producer on DePalma’s Obsession and the comedy Drive-In.

Over the Edge 1979 Tiger Thompson Michael Kramer Tom Fergus

Despite the studio’s preference for less violence and more of a young love story, Litto talked the newly formed Orion Pictures into financing Mouse Packs, with a director Haas & Hunter had suggested named Jonathan Kaplan on board. Kaplan recalled, “I was only 30 when I was hired to do Over the Edge, but I had some unique experience which helped. I had studied with Martin Scorsese when I was younger. And I had been the director of an infamous Sex Pistols movie called Who Killed Bambi? What I took away from that experience was the spark and the truth that I saw in the punk aesthetic. And I saw that same spark and truth in the Over the Edge script. I thought, ‘These kids are American punks. They’re not as articulate as the English punks, but they’re also in a rage.’ With that in mind, I decided to attack Over the Edge from a punk angle: keep it simple. No fancy camera moves, visual effects, nothing fancy. I remember when I first saw Super Fly. There were boom shadows, badly shot scenes, and mistakes. But there was a simplicity and an authenticity to it that I really appreciated.”

Priced out of shooting in California due to the state’s rigid child labor laws, Kaplan found eerily similar architecture in Aurora, Colorado, 10 miles from Columbine. Recording an audio commentary for the long awaited release of Over the Edge on DVD, the director recalled, “What had happened in Colorado is they’d gone into this big investment in architecturally cutting edge schools and the one in Greeley, Colorado had this great sort of pre-Frank Gehry, sort of waves and roof that was lower than the sides of the building, which presented a problem in a place where there’s a lot of snow and the roof had collapsed the first year. So the Greeley, Colorado school district was in desperate need of funds to repair their schools, and they’d not just designed one, I think they designed five on this principle, so they’d had five schools with collapsed roofs, so that’s why we were given permission.”

Over the Edge 1979 Tom Fergus Matt Dillon Michael Kramer

While Kaplan and casting director Vic Ramos auditioned the five leads in New York, casting scout Jane Bernstein was visiting a junior high school in Larchmont where she discovered a student named Matt Dillon. Various accounts have Dillon either being kicked out of school for smoking in the boys’ room or being discovered while ditching class. In any event, he would be offered his first professional acting job. Over 30 years later, Dillon mused, “When I look at that film now, I see myself as a little kid — I was 14. Of course, I didn’t think of myself as a kid when it was all happening. I just believed in that film and in my role from the beginning. Maybe I was naïve or whatever, but I always thought there was something great in the movie. It really resonated. I wasn’t a child actor — I didn’t come up that way. If I had gone in and auditioned for a Disney family movie, I wouldn’t have connected with that in any way, shape or form. But this role came very naturally for me.”

Meanwhile, the screenwriters had been given the rare privilege of actually helping cast the film they’d written. Haas & Hunter were tasked with searching Colorado for an ensemble of 40 additional kids to supplement the leads. Haas recalled, “It was a similar experience in terms of, just as Jonathan was sort of being shown commercial actors who were wrong for the thing, we would go around to junior high schools in Denver and Boulder and Aurora itself I think and these places and we’d explain ourselves, what we were doing there — looking for kids to be in a movie — and of course the schools always wanted to show us the kids who had been in Bye Bye Birdie the year before, their sort of actor kids, and we would politely excuse ourselves and go interview the kids getting stoned out on the hill behind the school. And those were the kids we ended up with.”

Over the Edge 1979

According to Kaplan, Over the Edge was shot in under a month, with most of the film’s night scenes hurriedly going before cameras first, forcing the young cast to sleep days and bond over long hours at night. Haas remembered, “There was a tremendous amount of stress among all of us. As so often happens with movies like that, the schedule was too short, the budget was too low, and everyone was under a lot of pressure. Tim and I were on the set every day, doing rewrites whenever necessary.” Matt Dillon recalled, “Jonathan was great. He was like a big kid; we just loved him, we really did. He was the perfect guy to direct that movie. He was fun. Whenever you were around him your mood just elevated. There was always a lift with him. He had a great energy, and a great personality. We were very direct with each other. He’d say, ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ And I’d go, ‘No! Fuck you!’ That’s the way we related to each other.”

Orion Pictures was born in March 1978 when five top executives of United Artists resigned in a dispute with parent company Transamerica. They took a constellation with five main stars as the namesake of their new film finance and production company, Orion. Director George Roy Hill’s adolescent lark A Little Romance was slated to be the studio’s first release, Over the Edge its second. Then Orion got a look at Kaplan’s film. In an August 2001 interview with The Village Voice, the director revealed, “Two of the executives, Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow, were big fundraisers for the Democratic Party. These guys were very conscious of their image. I don’t know if they ever read the script. It was budgeted at just a million dollars, and I think they thought they were going to get some kind of teenage high-jinks movie. While we were shooting, The L.A. Times did this article that said that the coming trend was gang movies. The movie got lumped in with The Warriors, The Wanderers, Boulevard Nights.”

Over the Edge 1979

The Warriors had been a surprise box office hit in February 1979, but was also blamed for a shooting death at a Palm Springs, California drive-in and a fatal stabbing the same night in a theater less than 200 miles away in Oxnard. Three nights later, another teen was stabbed to death — in Boston — by youths who’d come out of a screening of The Warriors. Pundits were busy debating whether the movie had been responsible for the violence. Kaplan continued, “So that was the environment in which the executives at Orion sat down to watch the first cut of Over the Edge. In the movie, one kid gets beat up, and one kid gets killed by a cop. That’s really it — most of the violence is done to cars. But the guys were scared.” He added, “They wanted this embarrassment to go away. It was one thing to have kids knifing each other in the cities, but they didn’t want to have their image soiled by this thing that might incite teenagers to go berserk in the suburbs and kill each other.”

With posters that made Over the Edge look like a child zombie movie of some sort, Orion gave the film the quietest U.S. theatrical release they could in the spring of 1979. George Litto had held private screenings of Over the Edge in New York and Los Angeles for friends and colleagues. He later recalled, “I had had two successful movies before, you know, and so they said, ‘Over the Edge is great! It’s gonna be a big hit, you’re gonna have three in a row, George.’ So for me it was a huge letdown, from like a three in a row to almost nobody saw the picture! But I think it was a series of unfortunate circumstances — even for the distributor — because the distributor always gets lots of pressure from the exhibitors that they don’t want another theater where they’re gonna rip up the seats and gangs creating hell and havoc, so there was vandalism in the film and that’s what they were afraid of. The distributor found it difficult to take the plunge.”

Over the Edge 1979 Michael Kramer Pamela Ludwig

For a couple of years, Over the Edge didn’t exist. Then in December 1981, Joseph Papp — founder of The Public Theater in New York — booked the film for a two-week engagement as part of a series called “Off the Shelf.” Getting a look at the picture for the first time, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote, “Except for Carl and Richie, the teen-agers aren’t characters but a chorus of attitudes. Unlike other such films, though, Over the Edge dramatizes the boredom and pointlessness of their world with extraordinary conviction. New Granada is a nearly perfect visual representation of the built-in obsolescence that is supposed to keep the American economy going, but which creates junk faster than the junk can be recycled. If New Granada’s kids are zonked-out zombies, they are simply a little more rude and less self-satisfied than their zombielike parents.” Several more New York theaters ran the film in February 1982, but the largest audience for Over the Edge came when HBO started airing it that year.

Speaking to the Village Voice in 2001, Jonathan Kaplan lamented, “What’s so odd is that horror movies are readily distributed but something like Over the Edge is buried. It’s OK to kill two dozen teenagers and a couple of camp counselors, but smash up a couple of Cadillacs, no, no. No vandalism!” He added, “The fact that it was so highly visible in these New York circles was good for me; it was good for Tim Hunter, who co-wrote Over the Edge and then got financing for River’s Edge, which he directed and co-wrote; and of course it launched Matt Dillon’s career. But it never got the audience it was intended for. It was heartbreaking because I knew we’d captured something, and when it got that little burst of life there, it was thrilling, because people actually got it. It’s had a life of its own because of cable, though it’s not readily available at the Blockbusters and it’s not out on DVD and it was never out on laserdisc. They still don’t really know what they’ve got.” In 2005, Over the Edge was finally issued on DVD.

Over the Edge 1979 Andy Romano Ellen Geer

Tags: Coming of age · Cult favorite · Drunk scene · Famous line · Father/son relationship · High school · Interrogation

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Dec 10, 2008 at 8:32 am

    Great post.

    One of the best films of the 1970’s.

    The only problem, now I’m going to once again have “Surrender” stuck in my head all day!

  • 2 Piper // Dec 18, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    How frickin’ creepy is that first poster?

  • 3 Erich Kuersten // Apr 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

    God bless you Sir Valdez for your detailed commentary on one of my favorite films. Claude was my band’s unofficial mascot/hero and is listed in my 10 favorite character meme. I went looking for images to rip and found your site. I shall add this to my links at once!

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Apr 27, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Jim: This was the beginning of an era when being sent to your room was not punishment, but fun! Headphones made it all possible. Thanks for commenting!

    Pat: This was in the days before ad campaigns for movies were focus grouped. In prior times, marketing material was hashed over a few beers and drawn on a napkin.

    Erich: It would surprise me if Over the Edge hasn’t inspired the names or images of several bands. I haven’t heard from anyone yet who doesn’t like the movie, just a lot of people who’ve never heard of it. Thanks for sharing your comment, and giving ole Claude and the gang a link!

  • 5 Deb Lantrip // Jul 14, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    This movie reminds me of the good old 70’s. I still love these old songs. Brings back some good memories. Michael Kramer was the favorite in the movie. Valerie Carter’s unforgetable song “Ooh Child” still moves me.


  • 6 Ken // Sep 17, 2009 at 7:25 am

    As a child of that exact era – I was 13 in 1979 – I can’t begin to describe the visceral feeling this movie gave me back then, and even today as I approach middle age.

    As perfect as everything was… from the casting to the dialogue to the soundtrack… I think that the first proposed song to play over the ending, “Baba O’Reilly (Teenage Wasteland)” by The Who, could well have worked even better than “Ooh Child”. “Ooh Child” gave it a fairly uplifting ending. Sure Carl, et. al. were going up to “The Hill” for a few weeks, but, between the song, the uncomfortable hug between the cuffed Carl and his parents, and the final shot of Claude, Johnny and Cory waving good bye, you got the feeling that the ugliness was all over and everybody had learned their lesson. The kids were going to go back to being kids and the parents would be parents again and everything was “goin’ to get easier”.

    “Baba O’Reilly” on the other hand, could have made the whole ending a lot more menacing and lot more in line with tone of the rest of the movie. Not only was it a song of that generation – I listened to it on a loop as a kid, right along with Van Halen, Cheap Trick and The Ramones – but it was eerily fitting, too. The whole idea of the “Teenage Wasteland” and the shouted “They’re all wasted!” obviously would have had a dual meaning, referring both to the rampant drug use (let’s face it, for much of the movie, these kids WERE wasted) as well as the larger and more important idea that the potential of these kids was being wasted, not because of drug use or violence or petty crime (all of which were symptoms rather than the disease), but because their parents were too self-absorbed to notice or care about the hellishness of their surroundings and the angst it was causing.

  • 7 rodney fosteer // Dec 21, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I loved this movie saw it when I was like 7 or 8 and never forgot the song ohh child that played at the end. I found the song, Then the name of the movie and now im going to buy it. Im 28 now and I love looking back at the past, and it relating to how kids are so diff. from the present.

  • 8 jason // Jan 2, 2010 at 5:43 am

    great movie…

    anyone know where to find the original score music by Sol Kaplan?

  • 9 Bruce Koon // Mar 17, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    I just learned about this. One factual correction. Charles Haas was the co-screen writer but he didn’t write the San Francisco Examiner article. It was written by James Finefrock and me, Bruce Koon, a 23-year-old rookie reporter. I did most of the leg work on what was happening in Foster City.

  • 10 Pat Evans // Apr 12, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Not just in this film, but in a number of his early roles, the young Matt Dillon was magnetic. It breaks my heart to watch him trying to recapture his early magic in his more recent outings.

  • 11 Joe Valdez // Apr 12, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Ken: I agree completely that “Baba O’Reilly” would have been sublime over the opening credits. It’s ironic that Litto wanted a much more upbeat ending and no one ended up being able to pay to see Over the Edge in theaters anyway! The film still stands as a monumental time capsule. Thanks for commenting!

    Jason: No but I’ve heard that the rock soundtrack LP is quite a find on vinyl. Good luck!

    Bruce: Thank you for the factual clarification. Much of the early production info on this movie had Charlie Haas writing the article that inspired this movie, not James Finerock and you. I’ve also spotted more than one fan online wanting to know where they can read your story.

    Patricia: Are you sure you aren’t talking about John Cusack? Matt Dillon seems to just be a working actor these days but you’re right, the period he was doing My Bodyguard, The Outsiders, Tex and Rumble Fish were powerful. Thanks for commenting!

  • 12 christian // Apr 16, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Good lord that first poster! THE CHILDREN!!!!

  • 13 margaret // Mar 26, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Our family moved to Foster City, CA and it was a great place for a 8, 10 year old – parks, canals, and the San Francisco Bay.

  • 14 Mike // Jun 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Great article, though I’m certain it appeared on HBO before 1982. It was 1980 or ’81 at the latest. N ot that it matters much.

  • 15 richardwbristow // Aug 13, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    I have HBO guides from the 70s 80s Over The Edge Played HOB on march 1 1980 3:00 pm.

  • 16 richardwbristow // Aug 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Here is a nice scan of the LP soundtrack cover.

  • 17 dan ackerman // Oct 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    this is one of my favorite films.

  • 18 Greg // Jan 2, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    I was15 or 16 living in a suburban development when I saw “Over The Edge” in the theater. We saw ourselves as the kids in the movie, that it was about us. That night, after the movie, we went out and looked for trouble. Looking back later, and now, it really captured the emptiness in our lives. We didn’t have anything to believe in. I think the movie “Dazed and Confused” captures some of that as well, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen that film.

  • 19 LeeAnna // Mar 19, 2012 at 9:55 am

    That movie is accurate as to teenage life in the seventies. I felt like I knew those kids, and the oblivious parents and cops…on the money.

  • 20 Joe T. Cutietta // Sep 24, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I grew up in Foster City in the early ’70’s. I was in the first graduating class at Bowditch Middle School, June of 1970. I belonged to a group of friends that called themselves; “The Bros.” We hung out at Marlin Park. We attended The Rec at Bowditch Gym on Saturday Nights. We hung outside, drank booze and smoked pot. Some guys (but not me), would sneak out at night and break car antennas, and do minor damage, but no graffiti. We would go into houses that were under construction, but would not damage them. I enjoy watching “Over The Edge,” as it brings me back to my youth. It is over the top, but it was made that way to sell tickets. Also I was never arrested and forced to go to; “The Hill,” Hillcrest Juvenile Detention Center.

  • 21 James // Jul 19, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    This Movie is All I wanted toi live ………I wanted to be 14 yrs. old and Carl Willat This is My Fav movie………..too bad theses piece of shit ganga had to wreck the movie in the Theater
    I Wanted to be …….Carl Willat sooooooooooooooo Bad This Movie is Perfect In every way !!!

  • 22 MarkF // Aug 5, 2013 at 5:06 am

    haha yeah. i wanted to be Claude or Johnnie!! -stuffed peppers for dinner, don’t wanna miss out on that now, do we.” especially loved Claude’s constantly slurred voice.

    “I wanted to be 14 yrs. old and Carl Willat sooooooooooooooo Bad”

  • 23 Kate // Oct 8, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Just got redirected here from Wikipedia (as this is the second hit online if you search for the film) – the producer Youree Henley in the “behind the scenes” commentary for the 2013 film The Bling Ring (called Making The Bling Ring) directly credits this film as reminding him of what he grew up with and loved.

  • 24 Luke // Jul 19, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I wore overalls like Claude.
    Too bad he never made many
    more movies.

  • 25 Bob C. // Aug 31, 2014 at 9:55 am

    I watched this movie in 1980 on HBO.

    It turned me and my middle class friends into a walking crime wave.

  • 26 gary b. // Jan 3, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    I remember watching this movie back in 1980 on HBO I was seven at the time it left
    An impression on me. I love all the music on the soundtrack especially cheap trick.
    Over the edge is one of my favorite movies
    I suggest watching this movie you will not regret it

  • 27 Walter // Dec 27, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    I can’t believe there are peeps that say this movie is unrealistic or exaggerated. I came of age at tr same time as the movie depicted, and I swear I knew EVERY KID in this movie – I bet every school had their Claude, their Carl, and their Cory. Mine sure did.

    Although my community lacked the overt violence from the film, the thing that most resonated with me was just how completely out of touch parents were with the kids. That part was certainly right on. Parents worrying about beer when kids are sneaking out at night, scoring pot, acid, and more.

    No movie reminds me so vividly of my childhood than this one. And somehow I mean that in a very positive way.

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