Many remember Beetlejuice as a light-hearted blend of macabre and slapstick, but the real story behind Beetlejuice points to a potentially darker what-if. The classic '80s movie is one of the most beloved Tim Burton films and laid the foundation for generations of genre filmmaking. It’s likely that without Beetlejuice, there would be no Nightmare Before Christmas and the path of the Batman franchise could have been completely different.
As great as the movie turned out, it didn’t start out all wine and roses. The secrets of Beetlejuice expose a production that could have gone in any direction. It could have been a disaster, an even more intense spin on The Exorcist, or a subverted reinvention of the haunted house genre.
In an interview with GQ, Alec Baldwin, who plays Adam Maitland, revealed that he was not confident in the film's story. He said, "I had no idea what [Beetlejuice] was about, I thought maybe all of our careers are going to end with the release of this film." Thankfully, Burton's confidence inspired the young actor who described Burton as a sort of "crazy professor."
Further encouraging Baldwin, Beetlejuice himself, Michael Keaton, was like a "comedy Annie Oakley. He just was so self-assured. He just tore it up" which really amazed the inexperienced star. In fact, the line in which Keaton spits into his jacket and tells Maitland, "save that guy for later," was completely improvised and had Baldwin cracking up.
Fans of Beetlejuice know that despite the horror trappings of the film, it's consistently fun. This wasn't the case in earlier drafts of the script by Michael McDowell. The script was written as a straightforward horror film that had more in common with The Exorcist than it did with the fantastical world of Pee Wee Herman, but many of the elements that made it to the final film were still there.
McDowell's early drafts saw Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin's couple, the Maitlands, dying in a much more graphic way than they do in the film. Rather than trying to dodge a dog, the Maitlands are knocked off the road by a truckload of angry hunters and Barbara's arm is crushed by a piece of wood. Fortunately for viewers, a few different writers were brought on board to turn this violent thriller into the film you know today.
As Michael Keaton would later reveal, much of his look in Beetlejuice came from his work with Ve Neill, an Oscar-winning makeup artist who's worked on Mrs. Doubtfire, Galaxy Quest, and more than 80 other projects. What was Betelgeuse originally supposed to look like? In the original version of the script, the character was depicted as a leather-winged demon that also took on the guise of a short Middle Eastern man in his human form.
Keaton told Rolling Stone that once they figured out his look, his approach to the character came together quickly:
I started thinkin' about my hair: I wanted my hair to stand out like I was wired and plugged in, and once I started gettin' that, I actually made myself laugh. And I thought, "Well, this is a good sign, this is kind of funny." Then I got the attitude. And once I got the basic attitude, it really started to roll.
Beetlejuice almost had a very different conclusion. Throughout the film, Lydia Deetz contemplates suicide, and she even begs the Maitlands to help her become a ghost. Her entire character arc is that she's suicidal and grows to realize that she wants to be alive. In one of the rewrites, Lydia actually got her wish.
Winona Ryder's character was going to die in a fire and go on to the afterlife with Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, but producers chose to go with a more upbeat ending.