Back in 1990, Rik Mayall starred in his first and last Hollywood movie, the firstly misunderstood but now iconic cult film Drop Dead Fred, released in 1991. In typical manic Rik mode, he played an imaginary friend who comes to the aid of Phoebe Cates in her hour of need. Mad orange hair and clad in green, Rik was every kid's dream play buddy. It's been a favourite of mine since I was a kid, so I was thrilled to ask its director, Ate De Jong, all about the making of that wonderful movie, and his memories of Rik...
How did you ends up on board as the director for Drop Dead Fred?
A very typical Hollywood story. I moved to LA in 1986 with nothing but one suitcase full of (bad) clothes and one suitcase full of video tapes of my Dutch features. I rented houses of people in LA who were on location for two or three months (because that was cheap). The owner of the first house in Santa Monica had a dinner party after he came back and I was also invited. Amongst the guests were a couple of writers. I gave them tapes of my films (as I did to anyone who wanted to accept them)... Didn’t think about it anymore. Half a year later they called: they were the writers of Drop Dead Fred (Carlos Davis and Tony Fingleton). They had actually looked at the tapes.
Whose idea was it to cast Rik Mayall?
To my knowledge the casting of Rik is totally thanks to Carlos and Tony. They had met Rik and written the part for him.
Do you remember first meeting Rik? What were your initial thoughts?
I had to fly to London from LA to audition with Rik. I knew who he was, but had no great knowledge of the Young Ones or his other work. I remember meeting him in the offices of his agent Aude Powell, and I was very impressed by the building and the fact it all looked like the old British imperium. I probably made some bad jokes about that, which may have endeared Rik. But – if I did — it was innocent and certainly not calculated.
Did you, the writers and Rik get to collaborate on themes of the character of was the script pretty much fixed in place?
The writers told me –later—they had talked to Rik a lot about the character. Rik wanted it to be an anarchistic person who knew no rules apart from emotional impulsiveness. Drop Dead Fred as an imaginary friend came from the original story, but Drop Dead Fred as a character came – in my opinion — fully from Rik.
What was Rik like on set? I know how focused he was with work, so I imagine he was intensely into the role.
Rik was one of those rare actors who could concentrate on the drop of a penny; from zero to a hundred in seconds. To be able to do that he had to feel comfortable with his character. So, once a take was done, he could immediately pay attention to anything else – but in a way he remained the same; always cheerful, energetic, social, kind, making jokes. To some degree the part of Drop Dead Fred and Rik’s own character overlapped. So I never experienced him as intense, but certainly as very involved.
What are some of your stand out memories from filming?
Most specific memories I have to making the film, are not related to Rik. They are trivial, such as the enormous amounts of cars that had to be parked, or the Paisley Park (the studio of Prince where we had several sets built). Or parties the crew held on their night off. Or the fact that we had to switch cameraman after a week.
How did you find initial reaction to the film?
Since my first film I never read reviews anymore: good or bad. But people tell you. I knew that reviews were not raving in general. On the other hand the audience response was heart-warming. Kids adored the film, and many adults found a time back where they had been without worries. Psychologists (in California) used the film in therapy sessions – rightly so, as the film carries a hidden message of child abuse – not picked up by many but certainly intentional. I have always been very fond of the film myself... not true for some other films I made.
It has grown a big cult following down the years hasn't it? How does that feel?
It’s a blessing. The writers always say the film is not a cult film, it’s a classic. A classic is loved by many and not only film buffs. There is a slow shift in the reasons why the film has longevity. At first it was hands-down all on Rik’s credit. Drop Dead Fred is; 1, Rik; 2, The premise; 3, The film. Now, slowly, the hidden message becomes more important, the anarchistic mayhem. But young audiences don’t relate that solely to Rik anymore. The pecking order changes. To me it’ll always be Rik first though.
What do you think of Rik's work in that film now?
Directors are not very objective. I adore Rik – also because I liked him very much as a person. As an actor he never tried to be something he couldn’t be. He knew his strengths and weaknesses. I still see that when I see the movie, and I still admire that in him.
Did you stay in touch with Rik at all?
Strangely enough when I still lived in LA I was more in touch with Rik then when I lived in London. I came to live in London as of 1994 for some 12 years. We saw each other on occasion, usually during social events, as Rik after his accident didn’t really see a lot of people in private.
How did you feel when you heard of his death?
It didn’t come unexpected to me, though it was still a surprise. The spirit in him was contained through his accident (and the medication since). He wasn’t broken, but he couldn’t express himself with the energy locked up in him. That wasn’t his life. His untimely death was sad of course, and I felt sad when I heard.
Drop Dead Fred is up there with his best-remembered work. It must be great to have been a part of that project...
When we made the film it was 1990, I was in my thirties and my ambition ruled my behaviour. Now, so many years later, I acknowledge the great fortune that fell upon me, mostly because of Rik. Through his brilliance a spot in (film) history has been given to me, riding on his coattails and that is both exhilarating and humbling.
READ THE FULL RIK SPECIAL HERE: