Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice has, on two different occasions, been close to getting a sequel movie – and here’s the story of what happened when.
If Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was the film that first brought a young director by the name of Tim Burton to the attention of the world, it was very much his surprise fantasy comedy hit Beetlejuice that opened Hollywood’s eyes to his talent. The 1988 film was made for a budget of $15m – not cheap, but hardly expensive for the time – and was a surprise hit and a half, returning over $70m at the box office, fast becoming a video favourite too.
Burton made Beetlejuice when he was trying to get a movie of Batman off the ground. But with Warner Bros still unsure about handing him the Dark Knight project, he was given the screenplay for Beetlejuice, with the first version penned by Michael McDowell. Producer David Geffen was keen to back the project, and the story goes that Geffen in turn suggested Michael Keaton for the title role.
The film was released in 1988, and its success would remove reservations about Burton being the man for the Batman job, and Keaton being the right choice for the Caped Crusader. But also, it quickly kickstarted conversations about a possible sequel. And twice, a Beetlejuice 2 has come close to fruition.
The first occasion was in 1990. With Batman in cinemas, and Burton now hard at work on Edward Scissorhands, Jonathan Gems – who would collaborate with the director on Mars Attacks! a few years forward – was hired to write a script. The concept and working title was Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, and Gems would recall to Fangoria magazine in March of 1997 that “Tim thought it would be funny to match the surfing backdrop of a beach movie with some sort of German expressionism”.
As such the story would have taken the family of Jeffrey Jones’ character to a resort development, that they discover is being built on an old burial ground. Cue the arrival of spirits from the afterlife, and in turn, the name ‘Betelgeuse’ is uttered three times, bringing the return of the title character.
As Gems explained, “in order to engage Betelgeuse’s services, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara have to more or less sell their daughter Winona Ryder to him, and then all sorts of crazy stuff happens, including a surfing tournament Betelgeuse has to win by using magic”.
You can read the full interview with Gems, here.
The project, then, was slowly getting somewhere. Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder both agreed to return for a follow-up, but conditional on the fact that Tim Burton would direct the film. Burton hired Daniel Waters to do a rewrite of the script in early 1991. Warner Bros thus offered Burton a choice of which follow-up he wanted to make: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian or Batman Returns. He opted for the latter, tempted by the greater degree of creative control the studio promised him on the film. He would hire Waters, as it turned out, for the Batman sequel instead.
When he came out of that film, exhausted, Burton opted to pursue The Nightmare Before Christmas and Ed Wood, and it seemed the momentum that Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian had was curtailed. David Geffen would still be pursuing the film around this time, and in 1993 Variety broke the news that Pamela Norris had been hired by the producer to take a stab at the screenplay. Furthermore, Kevin Smith was approached a few years later to see if he was interested, but he opted to pass on the project. During these later 90s years, there was no indication that Burton would have directed the movie anyway, even if the script passed muster.
And that appeared to be that. Well, until the early 2010s at least.
With Hollywood then going through a phase of bringing belated sequels to the screen, the idea of a new Beetlejuice movie raised its head again. This time, Seth Grahame-Smith was hired to put a script together for a new film, after working with Burton on the movie Dark Shadows. This was very much starting from scratch, and was put together with the intention that Burton would direct and Keaton would return.
Keaton, as it happened, got involved in the development of this one too. Grahame-Smith revealed to Shock Till You Drop in February 2012 that he’d met with Keaton, and that the project had momentum. “We talked for a couple of hours and talked about big picture stuff. It’s a priority for Warner Bros. It’s a priority for Tim”.
Grahame-Smith also revealed that Keaton was very keen to make the movie, describing his excitement level over the project as “huge”.
“He’s been wanting to do it for 20 years, and he’ll talk to anybody about it who will listen”.
It all looked promising, and the plan would have been for a true sequel that picked matters up over 25 years later from the original film. It was enough too to lure in Winona Ryder for a return, again on the condition that Burton was in the director’s chair, and for a few years, it looked like it might actually go forward. Whenever Burton released a new movie, he was inevitably asked about it, and it wasn’t until he did the junket circuit for Dumbo last year that he suggested its moment might have passed.
Warner Bros seems to still have enthusiasm, though. In 2017, it was confident enough – in spite of no deals being signed with Keaton or Burton – to hire Mike Vukadinovich to rewrite the script for the movie. At that point, it was still being reported that both Burton and Keaton were “excited at the thought of collaborating on a sequel”. As you’d expect, they set their standards high, and neither was keen to make the film if it couldn’t match the first. But slow progress seemed to be being made.
Yet in 2019, it all seemed to come to a stop. Burton openly expressed his doubts the movie would go forward, and in spite of plans for a Beetlejuice musical, Warner Bros commented that the film was no longer in active development. It seemed to bring to an end a second, near-decade long attempt to assemble a sequel. And over 30 years since the release of the first film, both waves of momentum behind getting a Beetlejuice 2 now seem to have dissipated.
Never say never, of course, and a story still spikes every now and then that the project may yet be alive (in fact, one just has). But in the current climate, with Warner Bros nursing its wounds after a series of underperforming movies even before the pandemic hit, it might just be that we won’t be hearing the name of Betelgeuse uttered three times on the big screen again…
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