The Oral History of the Camp Classic 'Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?'
Not long after he smashes Kevin Shane's head in with a toilet tank lid, Billy Jones becomes concerned that his girlfriend Laurel Lewisohn is spending too much time with her college peer group. To resolve this, Billy convinces her to move to an out-of-the-way woodland cabin, where he can tightly control her access to transportation and telephone without her knowledge. He'll be swinging an ax at her face before the end of this movie, but of course, neither of them realize that yet.
"I know I should be more hang loose," says Billy, aiming to soothe Laurel's reservations about co-habitating so early into their relationship. "But if I were to hold back the way I feel about you, I would explode. You don't want me to go climb a tower with a gun, do you?"
Such is the demented world of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, the improbably enduring made-for-TV movie starring Tori Spelling (as Laurel), Ivan Sergei (as Billy), and Lisa Banes (as Laurel's mother). Contemporary reviewers hail the 1996 schlock classic as "Compelling, in a car crash kind of way," "So bad it's awesome," and "Sheer joy to watch" for its ineptitude, but throwing MMISWD? in the same category as Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Room does it a disservice. With its retro kitsch, low-budget charms, and raw silliness delivered with absolute urgency, MMISWD? is the quintessential Lifetime movie, even though it wasn't a Lifetime movie at all. (It originally aired on NBC.)
This weekend, Lifetime pays homage to its longtime rerun staple with a 20th-anniversary reimagination directed by and starring -- who else? -- James Franco. Spelling returns for the new version -- as the worried, suspicious mother whose daughter makes the implicit titular request -- along with no end of campy shenanigans, the ante further being upped by the addition of lesbian vampires into the mix. To get a handle on how and why the 1996 movie came to be, we tracked down the original's cast and crew, plus NBC executives and other major players.
Hugely important questions asked, and answered: what happened during those infamous three weeks of shooting in Vancouver? Why did '90s-era NBC make so many Women in Peril movies, which were later rerun like crazy on Lifetime? Why does this film, as opposed to the hundreds of others like it, warrant an anniversary remake? Most crucially, what is the deal with that title?
PART 1: MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP ON MONDAY NIGHT?
LINDY DEKOVEN, former NBC executive vice president of movies and miniseries: When I came to NBC in 1993, we were in the toilet. We didn't have Friends or ER at that time, and we had to turn things around. We were making the shift from focusing on household ratings to demographics. Traditionally, the TV movie had been about a mom, like, "My daughter's been raped, what do I do?" or "My daughter was killed in a drunk-driving accident." We had to focus on the younger demographic, so we started doing movies from the daughters' perspectives.
BRIAN LOWRY, CNN media critic: The networks were obviously very interested in a particular demographic -- young women, and there was a baked-in audience for what later became thought of as Lifetime movies, where it's, "She's 28, she's beautiful, and she's alone in the house."
PRESTON FISCHER, producer: It was always a woman in jeopardy, that's what the vast majority of television movies were at the time.
JORGE MONTESI, director: Those movies were very popular. There was a company called O'Hara-Horowitz that made lots of them. Their series had a name … What was it called? A Moment of Truth. A producer friend of mine made one or two. She Woke Up Pregnant was the title of one. The titles were just brilliant.
"We weren't looking for Emmys. We were looking for numbers."
TORI SPELLING, "Laurel Lewisohn": TV movies were great for me, because with the timing of filming 90210, I couldn't do another series. Feature films took longer, and we had such little time off because we did summer episodes as well. But the time we did have off was perfect for TV movies, so I did them as often as I could.
DEKOVEN: Tori was a big player for us at "Monday Night at the Movies," which was counter-programming against Monday Night Football. We were competing against an institution that received giant ratings, and believe it or not, on at least two occasions, we beat them. When we had three hit shows -- Friends, Seinfeld, and ER -- we couldn't get those actors [for TV movies] because they were already doing features. So we reached over to stars from the FOX shows. We had Jennie Garth, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, tons of them. We also used people like Ryan Reynolds, Tobey Maguire, Hilary Swank, Michelle Williams, Amy Smart, Portia de Rossi, and Julia Stiles. I think Christian Bale might've been in one of ours. It launched a lot of careers.
EDMOND STEVENS, screenwriter: TV movies were really a staple of ABC, NBC, and CBS. I had done a number of features, but with television movies, from the time you were hired until the time it was on the air, it was a comparatively rapid process.
DEKOVEN: We weren't looking for Emmys. We were looking for numbers.
LOWRY: This was at the point where television was starting to feel cluttered and more competitive. There were more networks, cable was maturing, and it was becoming more difficult to get your movie to stand out. You did that by being provocative with the subject matter or the casting -- or, in this case, the title.
PART 2: MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP IN DEVELOPMENT?
STEVENS: My agent called me up, and the first thing she did was read me the title. We both laughed our asses off. And she said, "No, this is a real offer from TriStar Television and NBC." So they sent me the novel [by Claire Rainwater Jacobs, who we were sadly unable to track down for this story], which had not been published yet. It made me think of the Ingrid Bergman movie Gaslight. I liked the idea of telling that story -- a manipulative male preys upon women during an emotionally fragile transition in their lives.
DEKOVEN: We did 45 movies a year. When a script was developed, they always had working titles. When one of my executives presented me with this script, she said, "It's called Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?. I don't know. Do you want to go with it?"
STEVENS: We all laughed about it. We all talked about sequels: Mother, May I Bathe with Danger?, Mother, May I Dine with Danger?. My agent and I, even the producers, we all kind of mocked the title. I tried to change it, and the network said, "Are you out of your mind?" I think it was why they bought the book.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, please let this be good, because based on the title alone, I have to do this movie.'" -- Tori Spelling
SPELLING: At that time I was lucky enough to be getting offered a lot of TV movies. I remember coming home, and I had a stack of TV movie scripts to read. It was late, I was tired, so I was kind of rifling through them. I came upon Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? and I was like, "Oh my gosh, please let this be good, because based on the title alone, I have to do this movie."
LOWRY: It was sort of the Sharknado of its day. The title really did all the heavy lifting.
SPELLING: The title was so bad it was good. I thought, probably, the title of this movie will haunt me for the rest of my career. And it has.
MONTESI: [During a script rewrite] the only instruction I got from the executives was to make sure that the first hour ended with the mother saying, "He's a killer and he's got my daughter." I said, "Who is she supposed to say this to?" They said, "We don't care. That's your problem. Just make sure that the hour ends with her saying that line." I asked, "Why?" And they said, "Well, that's the promo line. That's how we're going to promote the movie."
DEKOVEN: We certainly kept the promos in mind while we developed movies. When I brought a movie or an idea to marketing and scheduling, sometimes they'd encourage us to find something in the script they could use in the promos.
FISCHER: In the '80s, I did a miniseries called Lace, and there was a line by the actress Phoebe Cates, "Which one of you bitches is my mother?!" which became the most incredible selling point. I think it did an over-50 share, which of course doesn't happen anymore. But with Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, we slipped in, "He's a killer and he's got my daughter."
LISA BANES, "Jessica Lewisohn": It's not a ridiculous line. It was true. He was a killer, and he had my daughter. It's that simple.
PART 3: MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP IN VANCOUVER?
BANES: It was very last minute. They just sent the offer, and I flew up to Vancouver the next day. I took my golf clubs, because there are good golf courses in Vancouver.
FISCHER: When we sent dailies from Vancouver to LA to be developed, we were concerned that they'd be stopped in customs, because somebody might've thought it was porn or something.
In the opening scene, Billy Jones watches from afar as the original Kevin Shane (Lochlyn Munro) smooches Jones' girlfriend Erin Meadows (Bryn Erin) after driving her home in a fancy Jeep. Billy waits until Kevin leaves, knocks on Erin's door, begs for sex, is rebuffed, then goes ballistic. "If you don't love me, why did you make love to me?!" he whines, whilst shouting and breaking things. Erin threatens to inform the authorities unless he moves his tantrum elsewhere, so he bludgeons her to death with a wooden cutting board.
IVAN SERGEI, "Billy Jones/Kevin Shane": To play a character like that, the last thing I want to be thinking is, "I've got to play him crazy." I tried to figure out what is making him crazy. Is he in love? Is he hurt? It's a build-your-own backstory. I don't remember specifically what was going through my head, but I always tried to have something that makes the killer's actions justified to himself, that makes him feel like a normal person, although anyone from the outside looking in can go, "That guy's a psycho."
FISCHER: In the opening scene when he kills the other blonde, I didn't count how many times he hit her in the head, but we originally had it more. Then the network called and said, "You can only have four or five hits," or whatever it turned out to be. [It was four.]
SPELLING: I saw Laurel as kind of an anti-Donna. Although she was naive, she was very outspoken about what she wanted and didn't want. And obviously, during the end half of the movie, she takes matters into her own hands and is the heroine who kicks butt and saves the day. I had always wanted to star in a horror film, and be the girl who survives and gets away. To me at the time, this was my closest version of that.
LOWRY: When Tori Spelling's career took off, you couldn't escape the feelings of nepotism around it. I hadn't given a lot of thought to Tori Spelling as an actress, other than the fact that everybody sort of assumed she wouldn't be where she was if she hadn't been Aaron Spelling's daughter.
SPELLING: I worked as much as I could because I loved working, but of course, there was also that built-in drive behind it -- naysayers saying, "She's only got that show because of her father." So I said, "OK, these TV movies are great, because he didn't make any of them." Yet that rap still stayed with me, and hung over my head. But people believe what they want to believe. It was a tough thing to get away from, and definitely what drove me to take on role after role.
MONTESI: Tori was wonderful to work with. Both kids were, actually. She was a real trooper.
Late in the film, one of Laurel's failed attempts to escape from Billy's violently needy clutches involves commandeering a very poorly secured rowboat off a dock, and paddling across a lake. Her pursuer swiftly swims out and capsizes his reluctant sweetie's boat with ease. It's a tiny scene, but for the cast, it was memorable.
FISCHER: The water is really cold in Vancouver, because it's all glacial overflow melting.
MONTESI: We shot the movie in late winter or early spring, and the temperature was still below zero [Celsius] in the water, so we built a hot tub on the shore. At first, my intention was to double her and double him, and she said, "No way, I'm going to do it myself."
SPELLING: I never wanted anyone to think, "Ooooh she's from Beverly Hills." So I was like, "I'll do my own stunts!" It was really important to me. Also, I learned early on, if you do your own stunts, it always looks better. They don't have to show you from the back.
MONTESI: Me and the production were not too keen on her doing it. But she insisted. When she was committed, Ivan had no choice but to say, "Sure, I'll do my own stunt stuff, too."
SERGEI: Freezing cold, horrible, freezing. Hated doing that. I had never worn a wetsuit before, and I didn't realize the concept of a wetsuit is the water goes in there first, and then your body temperature heats up the water. So when I jumped in, it literally felt like a heart attack.
SPELLING: I was bummed because during the last half of the movie, I had to wear this big sweater and baggy jeans, so I was thinking, "Um, that's not so flattering." But the whole intention behind it was to hide the wetsuit I had to wear for the end.
MONTESI: We could only shoot for short periods of time so they wouldn't risk hypothermia. Then we got them into the hot tub, clothes and everything, so they could get their temperatures up. Then it was back into the water again.
"The most blood in the entire movie was from something that happened off-camera."
A handful of scenes earlier in MMISWD?, Billy roofies Laurel's wine to prevent her from moving out of the cabin. Getting the shot of Billy bringing an unconscious Laurel back indoors proved more perilous than anticipated.
FISCHER: During a rehearsal, our lead lady was being carried through the doorway of a small cabin by the lead actor. As he swung her through the door, she hit her head on the doorframe.
SPELLING: That wouldn't have been a big deal, except there was a nail right there which punctured my head. It wasn't a terrible wound, but there was so much blood. I had the short blonde hair, and my entire head was covered with blood. It looked like a scene from a horror film. The most blood in the entire movie was from something that happened off-camera.
SERGEI: I don't remember that at all.
FISCHER: It was strictly an accident, and Tori was sensational about it. She got scared at first, because cuts on the head cause a lot of bleeding. So she bled a lot, but was absolutely fine. The paramedics showed up. She loved hamburgers, so I sent out for like five or six hamburgers for her to relax and eat while we waited to go back to work again, 'cause we had to redo her hair completely.
SPELLING: I had to wash my hair a lot. It's not easy to get blood out of bleached blonde hair.
MMISWD? ends with Jessica catching up to Billy and Laurel, and encouraging the ax-wielding Billy to give himself up to the cops. Then, Laurel waylays him with a rowboat paddle, knocking him off the pier and into the lake, from whence he does not emerge. Relieved and victorious, Laurel and Jessica embrace. A bitchin' grunge-pop guitar riff chimes in on the soundtrack, and we cut to a new campus, where Billy, now going by "Preston," has apparently taken up with yet another overly trusting blonde co-ed.
MONTESI: The ending that's in the movie, with him still alive and doing this thing again, was an optional ending. I don't think that was in the original material at all.
SERGEI: I took it as a huge compliment that they decided to keep me alive at the end. I don't think that was in the original script. In those movies, generally she would end up killing him and that would be that. It was fun to put on curly hair or whatever it was and be at the end of the movie with my new girl under my arm, who I was going to harass and maybe kill.
MONTESI: It could've ended with mother and daughter coming together, their relationship renewed and the bad guy dead and blah blah blah. But with that ending where the guy's still alive, still doing his thing -- a lot of horror movies end like that, right? There's nothing new with it. We stole it from other people.
ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT: "During the filming of the original movie, Tori was reportedly bitten by a pangolin -- kind of a cross between an anteater and an armadillo. She had to get rabies shots, and you can see the bruises in some of the scenes. You can't make this stuff up!"
SPELLING: I was not bit by an animal. I have no idea where that story came from. No idea.
PART 4: MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH INFAMY?
STEVENS: The movie wasn't that well received when it was originally released. I think the reviews were tepid. A lot of those movies immediately got a bad rap with the critics because of who got cast. Unfairly, the critics would tend to devalue the movie immediately because of the actor. I didn't know a lot about Tori Spelling, but I thought she did a really good job.
VARIETY, 1996: "If one is willing to accept the premise, and pretend that a character played by Spelling may not live to the end of her movie, Mother May I Sleep with Danger? is mildly suspenseful."
PEOPLE MAGAZINE, 1996: "The first truly hopeless made-for-TV film of the new season, Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is most memorable because in Sergei, the producers have somehow managed to find someone less talented than Tori Spelling."
STEVENS: I didn't particularly love the end product, but I'm happy that it's reached such a large audience. I wrote a lot of other movies that never got made that I felt had more to say, but authors rarely have a solid take on the work that they've done. There's a story going around that Robert Towne believes Roman Polanski ruined Chinatown, so, y'know?
SPELLING: Looking back, on some level, you want to ask, "Why were they so critical? These were just light, fun TV-movie romps." It's not like anyone went out of their way to give a campy performance. At the same time, no one was filming these scripts with these actors thinking, "I'm going to get an Emmy for this." We all got that these were Women in Peril TV movies. In the end, the heroine always won, and the bad person got killed. There was a method to them, and it worked, so why change it? But I think if people reviewed those movies now, they would not review them as harshly, and maybe "get it" more in the way we "got it" then.
SERGEI: I think I overdid it at certain points, but [Montesi] allowed me to be human with the role.
BANES: You play it for keeps! No matter what you're doing. You don't judge it. You take it very, very seriously. You just say, "OK, I'm the mother of this girl," and you just go from there. You don't question it. You just go.
MONTESI: I was pleased with the finished movie. I mean, the story has a lot of holes, right? And you hope that the audience won't notice, because they don't have the privilege of reading the script, they just see the thing. If you add some bells and whistles, you hope they'll ignore some of the holes in the plot. The way the mother comes to terms with the information is a bit forced, right? [For instance, she finds a picture of Billy's first victim while searching his apartment, and instinctively recognizes the photo's significance for no reason.] I think the struggle with MMISWD? was to make everything coherent. But him killing all those people and then just getting away with it?... It's a bit... OK, y'know, it's a convention for certain kinds of movies, and you move along, right? Y'know -- "Can't you just make it work?" Do you have any idea how many times I've heard that in my career?
PART 5: MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH MY LEGACY?
FISCHER: I'm not sure why it's a cult classic now, apart from the title.
BANES: The title. It's the title, honey. The title is as good as it gets. Absurd, but great.
DEKOVEN: It's interesting. To this day, women in their late 20s and 30s come up to me and literally recite dialogue from some of those movies that I don't even remember, and the one that always comes up is Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?. And it wasn't one of the higher-rated movies in that franchise. We had others that did much better. I think it's the title.
SPELLING: It has a lot to do with the name. But I think it's a really fun, campy movie. I used to watch it with my friends and forget I was in it, and it still holds up. Some of those TV movies, you look back on them, and they wouldn't work now. On some levels, this one still works.
SERGEI: I was getting my feet wet in Hollywood, and I had started working with a great agency and manager and they started putting a lot of zeros after my salaries. That always makes you feel good about work. For me, it was an exciting time. I have nothing but good memories.
TODD CALDECOTT, "Jackson," a rival for Laurel's affections: I don't remember anything about Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?. I never saw it, either, and haven't mentioned it to anyone, except in jest, in part due to the ridiculous title.
STEVENS: It's just such a campy title. Obviously, it's had a life of its own. It's been a cash cow for me, personally, because they play it so much on Lifetime, and their Lifetime offspring channels. I'm still getting money from residuals.
SERGEI: It's pretty catchy. I think Tori had a huge following, and at the time she had sort of a love/hate relationship with the people. It was just the perfect timing, and it's a fun little movie. Even on Twitter, compared to things I've done, like Charmed -- it's just interesting what stays alive after 20 years.
MONTESI: Some time ago, somebody called me and told me, "They're remaking the movie you made so long ago." And I read the Variety piece, and I saw that they called it a "cult classic." I had no idea that it was a "cult classic," as they call it, or that they ever had the intention of releasing it theatrically [as Wikipedia erroneously indicates]. But I think we elevated the material. I saw bits and pieces of it the other day. Some of it holds up, some of it doesn't.
JAMES FRANCO via Behind the Velvet Rope: [Lifetime] had a great experience working with Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig on A Deadly Adoption, and they wanted to do something similar. So they emailed me and asked if I wanted to remake one of their most famous movies -- Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?. I watched it and thought, "This is really interesting. I like the structure, but if I did it, I'd love to revamp it." So we went straight to script. We handed it in to Lifetime and said, "This is what we want to do: a lesbian vampire movie." They said, "We love it!"
DEKOVEN: A lot of people call them Women in Jeopardy movies. But it really didn't feel like it was about that so much. It was about young women overcoming the odds. I think those movies were empowering. They were emotionally accessible to a particular audience. They offered "Oh my God, that could be me" or "What would I do if that happened to me?" storylines.
BANES: During that time, those movies were very pro-feminism. It was the beginning of that whole idea of girl power. Because the guys -- they don't get away with it. And maybe girls saw that and said, "Why the fuck should I get involved with some asshole? Maybe I just won't get involved with him. Maybe I won't sleep with danger."
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