Edged Out


O is hardly the first film about youth unrest to be waylaid by terrible timing and nervous studio executives with political profiles to maintain. Jonathan Kaplan’s cult classic Over the Edge, completed in 1978 for the newly formed Orion Pictures, also gathered dust for two years, finally receiving limited art-house runs. Based on real events that transpired in Foster City, California, Over the Edge documents druggy boredom and car-trashing frenzy among neglected kids in a prefab suburban no-man’s-land. Funny, bleak, and startlingly realistic, it was Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie. Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Kaplan revisited the scene of the teenage riot.

We mostly shot in Aurora, Colorado, which is not too far from Littleton, actually. The kids in the non-lead parts were local, from foster homes or teen centers. [Cowriters] Tim Hunter and Charlie Haas had spent about three months in Foster City with real kids, and they both have wonderful ears, but by the time we got to shooting, the lingo in the script was totally outdated. So they were very open to letting the kids change it. Much of the dialogue in the final film is improvised.

Over the Edge was slated as Orion’s second release. 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. That was the first exposure that Over the Edge got, but then it was called On the Edge. The Warriors was a huge hit, but there was violence in the theaters; two people got killed, and they pulled [the advertisements for] the picture because it was such bad publicity for the studio.

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. They did a test campaign in a couple of cities, with this kind of Children of the Damned marketing campaign—the kids had empty eye sockets with fire shooting out. And they changed the title because they said, This movie is over the edge! 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.

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!

Joseph Papp decided to do a series called “Off the Shelf”; somehow they knew about Over the Edge, and got a print. And suddenly this film was on the schedule, it was shown to critics, it showed up on all these 10-best lists, it got a rave in The New York Times, it sold out at [the Public Theater], and suddenly [Orion’s distributor] Warner Bros. says, Hey, we got something here. But instead of releasing it to the suburbs, to the kids, they think it’s an art picture, so they put it in a theater at the Plaza Hotel. There’s no walk-in audience anywhere near it; only the most upscale New York kids could even find it.

The fact that it was so highly visible in these New York circles was good for me; it was good for Tim Hunter, who cowrote Over the Edge and then got financing for River’s Edge, which he directed and cowrote; 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.

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