Fan Fest Exclusive Interview: Celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Adventures in Babysitting” with Keith Coogan
The 1980s was an iconic time for teen movies. Films were finally being released that offered insight into the trials and tribulations of the teenage years without being patronizing. One of these films comes in the form of Adventures in Babysitting. Directed by Chris Columbus, the movie follows a babysitter (Elisabeth Shue) who ventures to downtown Chicago to rescue her friend (Penelope Ann Miller) who has run away from home. Shue brings along the kids she’s babysitting (Keith Coogan, Mia Brewton, and Anthony Rapp) and the group embarks on a life changing adventure involving street gangs, chop shop thieves, and a Blues band. The film, released in 1987, will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and FanFest spoke with Keith Coogan, who played Brad, about the movie and its lasting impact on audiences.
So, 30 years since Adventures in Babysitting. How does that feel?
Makes me feel very old [laughs.] I can’t believe it’s been 30 years – it’s phenomenal. It is amazing to have seen the pilot for the TV show, the Disney Channel Original Movie, the retelling. It’s so great that people love it and I’m so happy with it. It took a while for it to start to get this thing that it was kind of a cult movie in a way. And, that just makes me incredibly happy, I love it. There is something just slightly off-center about it that is very Chris Columbus [director] and his sense of humor.
You mentioned the Disney Channel movie, what did you think when that first was announced that they were remaking it?
Oh, it was great, because we have a much broader sense and way to reach children. There’s so many more channels and networks and online places they can go. So, it was time and really it was the head of programming and he said [he] “loves Adventures in Babysitting, I just couldn’t show it to my six and eight year-old who are really a core member and fan of everything from Descendants and High School Musical, etc.” So he said, “why don’t we redo it with today’s sensibilities and their technologies and their cell phones” and all of that good stuff. And [they] added a lot of great characters and personalities and all of that fun stuff. So, it doesn’t come off as derivative it just comes off like the further adventures of this type of an adventure. Now, I had done Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and that was more the survival at home and not the being trapped out of your element. That [movie] was more about changing and growing up a little bit more. So, Adventures in Babysitting, I love watching it with audiences and I’ve done some tours with Alamo Drafthouse and screening the film and do a Q&A. And, I just love the impression it gave off and I love seeing people it with their next younger generation. I’m like, “really? That 10 year-old?” and they’re like, “it’s okay, language is fine.” Because I read an article that said, “these are the words in Adventures in Babysitting.” And, they were like whoa! I mean, there’s a few that we know and they’re kind of infamous but there’s a lot of, kind of, salty language. Which gave it a little bit an adult edge and I think kids appreciated that it was a peek into adulthood that didn’t talk down to them at all.
With the 30th anniversary are you going to be doing more screenings with that? Are they going to bring it back to theaters that you know of?
I am unaware of a collected effort or pointed effort to go ahead and re-screen it but I do know that there are a lot of independent theaters and theaters that do retro programming already. And, hopefully they do add it to their docket. I would love to go and see it, I will always travel and support it when I can.
Let’s work our way backwards a little bit. What was the casting process for you to get the role of Brad?
It was a series of auditions leading up to a full screen test. And, really, the last round of screen tests was quite elaborate. All of the young men and women that were considered for all of the roles, I got to watch many of the leading actresses of the time. And, we didn’t know, anyone of them could be, but Elisabeth Shue has that charm and is perfect for the role. It was really fun to watch Valerie Bertinelli and Phoebe Cates do the scenes and dialogue. It was elaborate shooting, it had a film camera. It was a camera test, it was a screen test. They even flipped me and Anthony Rapp, they had me read for Daryl and Anthony read for Brad and then swap back again. They really put us all through the paces and see kind of the mixing and matching. And they did the scene where they had all four of us in the car and they just keep rotating in and out “alright, a new Sara. Alright, a new babysitter.” And, that was a really fun part of the process because you’re kind of already working on it and Chris gave everybody great insight on how to approach the roles.
What was your favorite memory from filming the movie?
Oh, gosh. You know, every city we shot in, every major sequence that we finished…and the film just kept kind of rolling forward. I like to call movies on certain budgets “rolling thunder” because of the trucks and the car carriers and the special effects and cranes and lighting and the very large crews needed to make this happen. Just that sense that happens on a lot of movies, but this was my first real live-action feature, not withstanding Fox and the Hound, which was animated and voiceover and I always say that doesn’t count. [There] was a sense of teamwork, a sense of family doing it. I mean the first night stands out because it was one of many where, as a team, we’re taking on the elements and traveling at speed. Like, when we’re in the tow truck with Dawson and shooting and bouncing around and cameras are flying off of the truck. And, we almost went quite over budget by destroying [the camera] on the first night, but we didn’t – it was okay. You know, that was the kind of adventure. It was very controlled chaos. Safety was paramount to everybody. But still, you could find yourself in very wild situations – very funny because there’s very little acting involved when they’re shooting BB guns at you to break glass windows around you. You’re working on heights with lots of safety and pads and safety harnesses and rigs. And, in cases where it was just too dangerous, they would use mockups or go for a front screen production in Los Angeles, we shot about a week’s worth of special effects. I mean, everything, the whole shoot was memorable. That first night, though, was pretty fun.
How much of it was actually filmed in Chicago?
I want to say we spent several weeks in Chicago. There are obviously night exteriors where you do see the city behind us, whether on the expressway, driving into town or running around – that had to be in Chicago. Also the insistence that the blues bar, the frat house, and the L train sequence, those kind of had to be shot in Chicago. We really shot a big bulk of the movie, about two months, we spent in Toronto first. And, by around late February/March we rolled into Chicago. It was very cold. Then finally back to Los Angeles for a week of special effects shooting. Chicago really does give it that flavor, that essence, that John Hughes feel that the teenage movies had at the time.
What’s your personal favorite scene from the movie?
I do love the French restaurant scene where Brad stands up for the babysitter and he’s kind of the nice little hero. And, getting to work with Bradley Whitford. Everybody’s character kind of shines through in that scene. Sara gets her hands chocolatey-dirty and runs away. Anthony Rapp gets to kick the bad guy in the bum. It’s funny and everyone gets confronted with their realities, their biggest fears. Elisabeth Shue is worried that she’s not loved by him [Whitford’s character] and that he’s cheating around on her. And she gets her own strength in that scene. So, I do, I love the French restaurant scene.
I’ve always thought that there’s such a resonance with this movie. Even like you said, there aren’t any cell phones or that technology but it still kind of feels like a current story. So, what do you think that it is [about the film] that it’s had this lasting effect of entertaining audiences all these years later?
There’s a lot of zaniness and classic, or more steadfast, comedy elements where I’m not dealing with a supernatural element or a zebra, we’re dealing with something that everyone can kind of relate to. Teenagers fighting with their parents and quote ‘running away from home,’ and needing to be rescued by their friend – that friendship, that loyalty, the forming of new friendships and bonds, going through the trials and tribulations. It hits all of the right buttons, it feels good at the end, it doesn’t cop out. Brad doesn’t get the girl, it has that bittersweet moment. And, she has the night of her life, the babysitter – all of the kids have the night of their lives. It’s a very sweet and honest film and it has a lot fun in it, a lot of zany, crazy, kind of out of their minds characters. I think that label of being “crazy” can be put on anybody we run into in town – they’re off their rocker…perhaps from living in the city! [laughs]
When people come up to you and they talk about the movie, what is it that they reference most often?
They’ll usually share how old they were. I get a lot of people who say this was their first movie they saw alone as teenagers. For a teen on the horizon it was something that was geared towards them. It wasn’t too fantastical. It was like, “wow, this was a movie I could relate to and I could get involved in these adventures.” I’m not ever going to take Goonies down a notch, but the chances of finding a pirate ship for me here in Burbank are slim. So, it’s things that are relatable. Instead of Falkor, we’re riding in a station wagon. And, instead of climbing the Mountains of Mordor, we are climbing our parents’ executive office building. I think those elements keep it grounded. And, people will come up and they’ll have their favorites and they’ll love the L train scenes, or they’ll love Babysitter Blues. “Do you remember what it was like filming Babysitter Blues? What was it like filming Babysitter Blues? I love Babysitter Blues.” They’ll sing it to me, and say quotes from the film. And, I love it. I love that experience, I love that it brought good memories to people and that they have fun sharing it with other people who maybe haven’t seen it.
So, what was it like filming Babysitter Blues, now that you mention it?
Oh, it was amazing. We knew that it was going to be a bit of a risky bit. This was a contrivance. The gang fight, that was something pretty realistic. But, what are the odds that someone is going to tell you that you need to sing the blues to move forward in the night? So, that’s fun, they’re caught off guard and they have a little catch-up where they can state where they’re at now mid-adventure. And, we get just a little breathing room for the main bad guys coming down on them for that little comedy element at the end. And, it was amazing working with Albert Collins and the Icebreakers. We recorded on a Sunday – the audio part of it. They put together the track for us to shoot the next Monday and Tuesday at Fitzgerald’s, which is in The Color of Money where Paul Newman gives Tom Cruise the babushka pool cue. That bar has a certain character to it and it looks amazing on screen. Chris Columbus is a really big fan of filmmaking, and specifically certain directors, and he’ll often times honor them or tribute by stealing a shot or a bit of dialogue or using a location. And, it was neat for me as a young man, 16/17 years old when I was filming it, to be quote ‘turned onto’ certain texts or movies by David Simkins [writer], Chris Columbus, Elisabeth Shue, Anthony Rapp – they all had great suggestions for films. And, in the lobby of the hotel was a little room with a big screen TV and we had an actual VHS player so I would watch all the suggestions of everybody and we would have little viewing nights for some of the films that may have influenced Adventures in Babysitting.
Being under 18 in this movie and having been a child actor, what was that like? Because I think people understand some of it, such as you can only work up to certain hours each day and you have to be tutored on set, but what was that environment like? Not just with Adventures in Babysitting, but just in general?
Well, really up until that point I had to have a guardian on set, usually a parent. I would have to have schooling, any minor has to have three hours a day. You can quote ‘bank them’ and do four or five hours a day, as long as you do one a day and you have some bank they will kind of let you get away with that on busy productions. So, on days you’re not really working a lot, you’d go to school and bank up some of that time. You cannot do a school-free day. And, there’s also a recreation time, good lunch period, all that other stuff. Now, for Adventures in Babysitting, I had not yet become emancipated but I had taken a high school proficiency examination allowing me to work as an adult in the entertainment industry at just 16 years old. So, for this I actually flew to Toronto at 16, alone, and had no parental guidance on the set and did not have to go to school on the set, I was already graduated from high school. I had already started college courses at that point but dropped quickly out of college, Santa Monica City College, to go on and shoot and very luckily work on a succession of movies. Which did not allow me to return to my schooling until a little later in life at Los Angeles City College. So, for me, I was able to work as an adult. Anthony Rapp and Mia Brewton had the schooling requisites. It was great, I got to hang around the set a little bit more and learn the process from Chris Columbus and be as involved as I could. It was great. I felt I needed it, it was my first feature, it was a step up to committing further to a character and helping tell a story. So, I appreciated being able to work as an adult for Adventures in Babysitting.
I’m sure that you learned a lot about the filmmaking process and working as an adult, is there anything specifically that you remember taking away from that process that you were like, “wow, this is what I love to do, I’m really glad I learned this, I’m never going to forget this,”?
Oh, of course. Two things: preparation and trust. With good preparation, how to prepare – on a feature you’re often shooting time out of order, out of sequence – so you have to kind of prepare, knowing what you scene you just came out of for something since you hadn’t shot the other scenes yet. That, and being on the same page as everybody. And, working as a team together, developing that trust. That sniffer for each other to look in each other’s eyes and go, “I buy it…I don’t buy it.” Chris Columbus was very concerned about us going quote ‘over the top.’ He wanted it to be believable in some way, it could be broad, but it can’t be comical or a caricature. It could be a character that’s going through heavy stakes, there’s an urgency. However, he wanted it to be how kids would really react. And, we like that even, through a night, after a while, you’re like, “we’ve been through so much, we’ve matured quite a bit in just a few hours.” So, it took a lot of preparation and everybody had that preparation. We had the great fortune to do two weeks of rehearsal prior to filming. And that is a luxury that very few films are afforded, even today. I’m very grateful to have had that not only on Adventures in Babysitting, but on Cousins, on Toy Soldiers – that rehearsal time is so needed because, while you’re filming, you really do get one shot at it. There’s very little time to go back and reshoot something, you certainly can’t do a lot of that. So, it’s great to have worked it out, to work on it, and of course have a very strong director when you started rolling the cameras.
Do you keep in touch with anybody from the film?
Everyday. We have secret babysitter’s club meetings. [laughs] No, I’m kidding. I see Anthony Rapp quite a bit, especially when he’s touring. Anytime he comes through Los Angeles for a show, I’ll try to get out and see him. He’s great – a great performer, a great friend. There’s a few organizers that want to try and get together the cast, the main cast and even a lot of the supporting players that are quite recognizable now. So many people in that film continued working and some have not. So, I am definitely supportive of a reunion, the movie means a lot to me. Of course it’s helped me and has done a lot for my career and I love to celebrate it. So, hopefully we get to get together more this year as we celebrate the 30th anniversary.
What have you been working on recently? Is there anything our readers can look forward to from Mr. Keith Coogan?
Always. I have a website up that is a great way to watch some of the latest footage I’ve done and find out some of the other things I’m working on, behind the camera as well. One of the first autograph shows I ever did, someone came by with a dish and said, “could you sign this plate?” [from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead] So, I started selling dishes at fan conventions. I love going to conventions, I’m always trying to keep people up to date on appearances that I’ll be doing. They can come and there’s the backdrop for Adventures in Babysitting, you can take a picture with it Batman-style, and you can turn the picture later and it looks like you’re crawling up the building. People have a lot of fun with that. I’m working on a television series that actually involves a lot of my former child star friends. And, you’ll see me on some cool cable shows coming up, network and non-network. I can’t say the company that produces them, but they’re not one of the TV networks but they’re good for streaming and downloading content. And, just hard at it – always. A couple of features coming out where I play some slightly different characters – a methamphetamine cook, and a talent agent that takes terrible advantage of their clients, and other various murders and ne’er-do-wells. So, that’s fun. I love playing bad guys, too.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?
Just the website is keithcooganonline.com Also, I’m celebrating over three years of marriage with my wife Kristen ‘Pinky’ Coogan. And, just having fun, traveling around. Going to go out to San Bernardino and do some stand-up comedy at a college out there. And, just continue doing everything I can. I love each new challenge that comes in the entertainment industry – new formats, new ways of telling stories, and I just love jumping into all that.