Thanks to its wacky blend of comedy and horror, Beetlejuice became an instant cult classic when it was released in 1988. The film helped establish Tim Burton’s kooky style that laid the path for generations of iconic movies like Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman. However, the film didn’t start out so great.
Starring Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Michael Keaton, and Geena Davis, the behind-the-scenes secrets of Beetlejuice show how challenging it was to bring the ghost with the most to the big screen. Try not to say his name three times as we take a look at everything that went down on the set of Beetlejuice.
A Much Darker Script
The greatest thing about Beetlejuice is that it combines whimsical humor with horror without being too scary. However, the original story written by Michael McDowell was much darker than the final script. Screenwriters Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren had to rewrite it to tone down the horror to fit a broader audience.
Originally, McDowell imagined Betelgeuse as a winged demon whose human form was a small Middle Eastern man. He also planned for the Deetzes to be sexually assaulted and murdered while the Maitlands’ car crash would have been far more gruesome. It probably would’ve been rated R instead of PG-13.
An Alternate Ending
Other than the darker tone, McDowell’s screenplay had a much different ending. In his original version, Beetlejuice is destroyed by an exorcism, and the Maitlands’ house shrinks down to the size of Adam’s (Alec Baldwin) model town. They also wouldn’t have shared their home with the Deetz family.
Instead, McDowell imagined the Maitlands moving into the model house and renovating it to look like the full-scale version before the family arrived. Additionally, the Deetz parents were supposed to move back to New York, leaving Lydia (Winona Ryder) to be raised by the Maitlands in Connecticut. It would have been much different.
It Needs More Playfulness
When Skaaren and Wilson were rewriting the script, they included specific music suggestions such as Lydia lip-syncing to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” In the end, they substituted R&B songs for calypso music like Harry Belafonte’s hits “Day-O” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora).”
Director Tim Burton wanted Skaaren to bring some more playfulness and music to the script to complete his vision. The funkier music gave that balanced dose of comedy to offset the gorier factors. Burton knows how to walk the narrow line between creepy and whimsically funny, which made the movie a success.
A Different Choice for Betelgeuse
Before Michael Keaton got the role of Betelgeuse, Burton wanted Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr. to be the star. Davis Jr. was 63 at the time, and they thought he might have been too old for this specific role. Producer David Geffen had a different actor in mind.
Geffen suggested Keaton, who was half Davis Jr.’s age. Keaton was ultimately chosen over the veteran actor, and he went on to appear in other Burton films like Batman and Batman returns. While Keaton was perfect, it would have been interesting to see Davis Jr. as Betelgeuse.
Alec Baldwin Wasn’t Sure
Baldwin, who plays Adam Maitland, told GQ that he was not confident with the film. He had no idea what Beetlejuice was about and thought it would end his career upon its release. However, Burton’s confidence gave Baldwin hope. He thought of Burton as a “crazy professor.”
Keaton also encouraged Baldwin because he was so self-assured. It amazed Baldwin, who was an inexperienced actor at the time. He loved Keaton’s method and improvisations that made the film better than Baldwin could have imagined.
They Didn’t Need Convincing
After speaking with Burton, Geena Davis, who plays Barbara Maitland, and Keaton immediately signed on for the film. They loved the idea and knew it would be a great career opportunity. They also liked Burton’s vision and energy when they met him.
Unlike Davis and Keaton, Burton had to beg Sylvia Sidney to play the afterlife detective, Juno. Like Baldwin, Sidney wasn’t convinced about the film’s story and didn’t think it would be a success. However, she finally agreed and worked with Burton again for Mars Attacks!
Many Actors Rejected the Role of Lydia
When casting the role of Lydia, many Hollywood starlets rejected the part. The movie had such a wacky concept; it was so different from the other films of its time. Many actresses couldn’t see themselves playing a role like Lydia because she was strange.
Actresses including Lori Loughlin, Diane Lane, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Justine Bateman, Molly Ringwald, and Jennifer Connelly are among those who turned down the part. Juliette Lewis also auditioned, but Ryder won the part after Burton saw her performance in Lucas.
It Was Almost Called Scared Sheetless
Initially, Warner Bros. executives didn’t like the title Beetlejuice. They brainstormed other names like House Ghosts, but it didn’t seem like the right fit. Burton jokingly suggested Scared Sheetless but didn’t think anyone would take his idea seriously. He was wrong.
Burton was baffled when Warner Bros. actually considered it. But they ended up going with Beetlejuice in the end, which is a much better title than House Ghosts (yawn!) and Scared Sheetless. The name Beetlejuice came from a star called Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation.
Lydia Almost Had a Sister
Many changes were made to the script before the final version was complete. In one of the early versions, Lydia wasn’t an only child. She was supposed to have a strait-laced younger sister named Cathy, who wanted to crush Lydia’s goth vibes.
It is strange to read older versions of the story and have Lydia interacting with this character that didn’t make it to the big screen. In one of the removed scenes, the sisters go to see a “death rocker” in New York City before being splattered with blood.
She Was Bullied
Ryder wasn’t the most normal teenager. Her classmates bullied her, and she hoped appearing in Beetlejuice would make her more popular. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect on her reputation at school. Her peers bullied her more, calling her a witch because of her character.
Beetlejuice was a box-office hit, but Ryder’s classmates didn’t care that she was a big movie star. They kept picking on her even though she was rubbing elbows with some of the greatest actors in Hollywood. Luckily, Ryder got the last laugh.
No Post-Production Effects
Burton had a specific vision for Beetlejuice, which didn’t include post-production effects if he didn’t have to. In many scenes where a special effect was needed, Burton told the crew to figure out how to do it live. That’s a pretty tall task for a movie like this.
Art director Tom Duffield shared that they were able to make one of the actors look decapitated using some lighting equipment. When Davis is standing holding Baldwin’s head, he is just kneeling behind a black card cut around his neck.
Michael Keaton Didn’t Get It
When Burton pitched Beetlejuice to Keaton, he didn’t understand the concept. However, Keaton signed on regardless because he liked Burton. He initially turned down the role before meeting with Burton because he wasn’t looking to work. Keaton almost missed out on a career-changing role.
However, Keaton told Rolling Stone that his breakthrough came when Burton mentioned that Betelgeuse, like the star in Orion, existed across time and space. Keaton used that detail as the entry point to create his performance. He was then 100 percent on board.
They Had to Build a Bridge
Scouting locations to find the perfect covered bridge for the beginning of the film wasn’t an easy task. The crew drove all over Vermont to find the right town but ultimately decided to build a bridge of their own. They also had to build a dam to keep the set from washing away.
Duffield said the bridge was a pain for the production team. He shared that “Physically, the hardest project was the bridge. We kept having thunderstorms. We had to build a dam, and a thunderstorm would blow it all away.”
Michael Keaton Wasn’t Around Much
Although the film is called Beetlejuice, Keaton’s character only has about 17 minutes of screen time. Therefore, Keaton only had to be on set for a few weeks to complete his part in the movie. It might have been a short role, but Keaton dedicated himself to the character.
Keaton said, “At some point, you show up on the set and just go f**king nuts. It was rage acting. You rage for 12 or 14 hours; then you go home tired, beat, and exhausted. It was pretty damned cathartic. It was rave and purge acting.”
The Audience Wanted a Different Ending
There were many ideas about how Beetlejuice would end before the writers and director settled on a final script. When they showed the film to test audiences, the people wanted the film to have a happier ending for Betelgeuse because they loved the character.
Burton and his team went back to add an upbeat epilogue that showed Betelgeuse hassling a sawed-in-half woman before being hexed by a witch doctor. The version the test audience saw had Betelgeuse stuck in the Maitlands’ model town and plagued by sandworms.
Lydia’s Alternate Fate
One of Beetlejuice’s many possible conclusions saw Lydia dying in a fire. Lydia talks about suicide throughout the film and asks the Maitlands to help her become a ghost. Her whole storyline is that she’s suicidal but grows to realize she doesn’t want to die.
In one version of the script, Lydia got her wish. Ryder’s character was supposed to die in a fire and live in the afterlife with the Maitlands. The producers decided to have a happier ending to keep the film PG-13 and not too heavy for the audience.
It Inspired an Animated Series
While you wouldn’t think of Beetlejuice as being kid-friendly, the film inspired an animated series that ran for 94 episodes. The show reimagined the dynamic between Lydia and Betelgeuse. In the show, he takes her on wild adventures in “Neitherworld.”
The Maitlands were cut out of the animated series, but Lydia gets a cast of classmates and ghoulish friends such as a skeleton bodybuilder and a tap-dancing spider. The producers had to make the plot much more kid-appropriate than the film. The show was cute, nonetheless.
A Different Delia Deetz
Anjelica Huston, known for playing Morticia Addams, was originally cast as Delia Deetz. Sadly, she had to back out due to illness. When Catherine O’Hara was offered the role, she turned down Burton’s first offer. But he wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Burton flew out to meet with O’Hara and convince her to take the role. She agreed to take the role, which was a wise decision. While working on the movie, O’Hara met and eventually married production designer Bo Welch. The film also helped her career.
There were many award-worthy factors about Beetlejuice, but the makeup stood out to the Academy. Makeup artist Ve Neill said she copied a sketch Burton drew of Betelgeuse to create the concept for Keaton’s makeup. She completely transformed Keaton into a different person.
Neill, Steve LaPorte, and Robert Short made it look like he had moss growing on him and gave him fake, rotting teeth. They also used prosthetic lips to make his nose look broken. As a result of their hard work, the three artists won an Oscar in 1989 for Best Makeup.
A Red Wedding
In the dramatic wedding scene, Lydia is seen wearing a red wedding dress. While traditional wedding dresses are white, Burton wanted to go in a different direction. He was inspired by the rhyme that says, “married in red, better off dead.”
As we know, Lydia wanted to die throughout the movie, so the red dress is only fitting. Her goth appearance would have looked strange with a white wedding dress. Burton always has a unique vision and never does anything traditional, so it was on-brand for him.
United Flight 409
The film is filled with many small, unique details that viewers often miss. For example, when Adam and Barbara are in the office, a voice on the PA system announces, “Flight 409 is arriving at Gate 3.” The announcement has a dark meaning behind it.
United Airlines flight 409 crashed into a mountain in Wyoming on October 6, 1955, killing everyone on board. It was one of the worst plane crashes in history at the time. It is still unknown why it crashed. Burton added this because everyone on the flight was arriving in the afterlife.
Winona Ryder Has Come a Long Way
When Ryder filmed Beetlejuice, she was 17, and her career was just getting started. She starred in both Beetlejuice and Heather in 1988, which put her on a path to stardom. Although she spent much of the 2000s out of the spotlight, Ryder rebounded in a big way.
Ryder made her big comeback playing Joyce Byers in the Netflix hit series Stranger Things. In 2017, she won a SAG award for best outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series with the rest of her castmates. The show is returning for Season 4.
Michael Keaton Is an Icon
After transforming into the devious ghost Betelgeuse, Keaton opened many doors in his career. He went on to star in Batman and Batman Returns, also directed by Burton. Keaton has taken on various roles that showcase his versatile acting skills.
Keaton got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Birdman and recently joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He also played a reporter in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. Keaton has done well for himself over the years and has become one of Hollywood’s best actors.
Alec Baldwin Was a Newbie
When Baldwin filmed Beetlejuice, he was still fresh in the acting world. He didn’t have much experience, but the film boosted his career. Although he looks back on it as one of his worst performances, Baldwin has come a long way.
Baldwin has had a successful career since the ‘80s. When he wasn’t stopping by Saturday Night Live to impersonate a former president, Baldwin worked hard on films like Mission: Impossible-Fallout and The Boss Baby 2. He also had a short-lived talk show in 2018 called The Alec Baldwin Show.
Geena Davis Is on Fire
Who could forget the iconic scene where Davis’s character has flames emerge from her fingertips? Davis was easily convinced to do the film, and her career has only done well since then. In 1991, she starred alongside Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, cementing her as a Hollywood A-lister.
In recent years, Davis has dabbled in different realms of entertainment. She had a recurring role in Grey’s Anatomy and joined the cast of Netflix’s Glow as Sandy Devereaux St. Clair. Davis has no plans to slow down, with many projects in the works.
Catherine O’Hara Revived Her Star Power
Although O’Hara was reluctant to play Delia Deetz, her portrayal was incredible. Shortly after Beetlejuice, O’Hara joined the cast of Home Alone, which became a blockbuster hit. She worked with Ryder and Burton again in 2012, voicing Mrs. Frankenstein in Frankenweenie.
However, most people know O’Hara today for playing the iconic Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek. She made everyone laugh with her outlandish outfits and hilarious quotes. Since Schitt’s Creek, O’Hara has been in The Last Kids on Earth and Central Park. She also has a TV series and movie coming out this year.
Jeffrey Jones Struggled
Known for playing the former real estate developer and husband of O’Hara’s character, Jeffrey Jones also played the uptight principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Since the ‘80s, Jones’s career has struggled as he dealt with a few legal issues over the years.
In 2010, Jones was sentenced to 250 hours of community service for failing to update his information on the sex offender’s registry. Jones pleaded no contest in 2003 after being accused of making an underaged boy pose for explicit pictures. It definitely hurt his career.
There’s a Beetlejuice Sequel
Beetlejuice was such a huge success that it inspired the 1990 sequel, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. At the time, Burton was focused on making Batman Returns, so the sequel was postponed. The idea went cold until 2011 when Warner Bros hired Seth Grahame-Smith.
Grahame-Smith was brought in to give new life to Beetlejuice 2, with Keaton, Ryder, and Burton all in talks to be involved in the sequel. Unfortunately, years went by, and the project wasn’t discussed again until 2014. Burton restarted the rumor mill when he said there was a script.
So, What Happened?
In 2014, Burton told IGN, “I would love to work with Michael Keaton again. I think there is now a better chance than ever. I miss that character. There’s something that’s cathartic and amazing about it. I think it’s closer than ever.” However, the sequel wasn’t close at all.
Then, in 2014, Ryder told Seth Meyers, “I think I can confirm it [the sequel].” While fans were excited to see Ryder bring Lydia back to life, there hasn’t been much movement. As of now, it is supposed to be released in 2025, starring Keaton, Ryder, and Johnny Depp.
Glenn Shadix Was Honored
Although his role wasn’t big in Beetlejuice, Glenn Shadix played an interior designer who accidentally caused Adam and Barbara to decay and die. Shadix went on to work with Burton again, voicing the mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He was mainly a voice actor.
Shadix was the voice behind characters in Teen Titans and the Kingdom Hearts video games. Sadly, he passed away in 2010 at age 58. When he died, the last song performed at his memorial service was “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” which was used in the dinner party scene.
Various Ways to Die
When Adam and Barbara die in their car crash, they go to a waiting room with other ghosts. Interestingly, Burton filled the waiting room with ghosts who died oddly. There is a camper who died from a rattlesnake bite and a magician’s assistant who was sawed in half.
There was also a surfer who was attacked by a shark. Depending on how the person died, they have different journeys in the afterlife. At the dinner party, Otho says those who committed suicide end up as civil servants in the afterlife.
Keaton Was Inspired
When Keaton got the role of Betelgeuse, he used the character Chop Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as the basis for his performance. He wanted to have the creepy factor without going too far. Additionally, the crew pumped him up for the performance.
The crew chanted “Juice! Juice! Juice!” when Keaton showed up to the set. The cheers inspired him to do a lot of improvisation while filming. According to some reports, Keaton ad-libbed 90 percent of his lines. Whatever he did, it worked well.
A Small Budget
Beetlejuice only had a small budget of $15 million. Therefore, Burton decided to rely on cheap B-movie-style effects. For example, the space scenes and the sandworms were the only visual effects added in post-production. The visual effects budget was a slim $1 million.
Burton leaned into the tacky, cheap-looking effects as an intentional aesthetic. It ended up working with his wacky style. It also added some lightness to balance out the horror in the storyline. In the end, the film grossed over $74 million, so the hard work paid off.
He Solved a Special Effects Problem
In the dinner party scene where the shrimp jump off the plates and attack the guests, Burton struggled to get it just right. He tried using stagehands under the table to throw the shrimp, but it didn’t look right. One of the actors actually helped solve the problem.
Dick Cavett, who played Bernard, came up with the idea to place the shrimp down on their faces, shooting their fall and playing the film in reverse. The simple editing solution worked like a charm, and Burton was impressed with Cavett’s concept.
Lydia Had a Unique Inspiration
When Larry Wilson was rewriting the script, he gathered inspiration for Lydia through an interesting experience. Wilson told CBC Radio that he was inspired while attending The Cure’s concert. However, it wasn’t the band’s goth look that gave him the idea of Lydia.
When Wilson looked around at the crowd, it was mostly young women with rebellious attitudes and a sense of style that spoke to him. He loved this vibe and used it to mold Lydia into the goth and dark character brought to life by Ryder.
The Afterlife Suggestion
When Wilson shared the oral history of Beetlejuice with CBC Radio, he shared how they came up with the unique depiction of the afterlife. He shared that Keaton contributed to the idea, saying the afterlife should look like an unemployment office.
Keaton said that there should be “endless bureaucracy from which you’ll never get what you need.” That seems like the worst punishment in the afterlife, and the dreary setting was something that resonated with everyone because it just seemed awful. Keaton must have been speaking from personal experience.
In many films from the ‘80s, directors broke the fourth wall. Burton creatively included a moment in Beetlejuice where the dead are shown watching the same movie as the audience. During the scene in Juno’s office, there is a movie theater filled with dead characters.
The idea was that the deceased were watching the ongoing events as they would in real-life while attending a movie theater. Burton added a red and green skeleton, which he later used in the film Mars Attacks! There was also a nod to the Blues Brothers.
Burton is a fan of putting easter eggs in his films. Besides the skeleton from Mars Attacks! there was also a special skull on top of Betelgeuse’s merry-go-round. The skull resembled Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton had been drawing the character since 1982.
Burton loved the design and always wanted to put the character in one of his movies. He eventually used his beloved drawing as the main character in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Most viewers missed this small detail because the two films were made many years apart.
When viewers are introduced to the Deetz family, it’s natural to think that Delia and Chuck are an awful couple. In true Burton fashion, the two were attracted to each other because they are polar opposites. Burton shows this throughout the film in memorable ways.
The funniest incident is when Chuck wears a red sweater in a normal fashion, and Delia wears the same sweater as pants with suspenders. The two express themselves in unique ways. Delia wears black gloves as a headband, and her sculptures are just as bizarre as her style.
Not a Fan
No one denies that Burton is a true visionary. However, famed critic Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of Beetlejuice. He gave the film two out of four stars, saying the romance between the Maitlands should have been expanded on rather than the “slapstick” dark humor.
Ebert also didn’t like Keaton’s performance. He claimed the actor was “unrecognizable behind pounds of makeup” and “his scenes didn’t fit with the other action.” Whatever Ebert had to say didn’t matter. Many movies use makeup and special effects to transform actors.
The Snake Was Changed
Before Burton had a full cast, he started shooting what he could with the actors he had. Keaton signed on a little later than others, but one of the first scenes Burton shot was the snake incident. Initially, the snake looked nothing like Keaton, so it had to be re-shot.
Keaton’s character had wild hair and distinct makeup, so the snake had to be remade. Still, it looked nothing like Betelgeuse. There were also a few mistakes in the scene. For example, Betelgeuse turns into a snake from the railing, but the railing returns a few moments later.
All Things Come in Threes
Burton references the number three throughout Beetlejuice. When people say Betelgeuse’s name three times, it activates a curse or removes it. When Barbara says home three times, it gets her and Adam out of his model home. They also had to knock three times on the door.
Delia also throws a fit when she sees there are only three sculptures instead of four. The Maitlands’ house also has three floors. In the world of Betelgeuse, three is the unluckiest number. Burton never explained why he chose the number three.
There’s a Curse Word
Despite its dark theme, Beetlejuice is rated PG. The ‘80s were a different time regarding censorship and rating, meaning if directors were creative, they could get away with many things. Burton was a master of this and managed to slip a curse word into Beetlejuice.
In the scene where Betelgeuse is mad at the Maitlands, he takes his anger out on Adam’s model of the town. He says, “Nice f**kin’ model,” as he kicks over a tree and then grabs himself to the sound of a clown horn. The moment has the desired shock effect.