The 1986 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” began life as a zero-budget monster comedy that Roger Corman legendary shot in two days and a single night. Rehearsals were only held for the three days before, and it was filmed on sets that had been left over for the production of “A Bucket of Blood”, which had just finished filming. A young Jack Nicholson appears in the film as a masochistic dental patient. The 1960 film is a prime example of low-budget persistence at work – all you need is gumption, a part of an idea and a few actors willing to read lines.
The film is about a nebbish named Seymour (Jonathan Haze) who discovers a talking alien plant (Charles B. Griffith) that thirsts for human flesh. To appease his boss and impress his girlfriend-to-be Audrey (Jackie Joseph), he feeds the plant with his own blood and, when that became impossible, random drifters. The film ends with the plant, nicknamed Audrey. Jr., eats up most of the lead role.
After Nicholson achieved a greater level of fame about a decade later, Corman’s 72-minute opus began making the midnight movie circuit, later gaining notoriety in the then-nascent VHS market. By 1982, the film had gained enough notoriety to warrant a twinkly ironic Off-Broadway musical adaptation with music by the legendary Alan Menken and a book by Howard Ashman. The Audrey plant, renamed Audrey II, was achieved in most productions with amazing advances in puppetry.
In 1986, the musical was then adapted back to cinema by director Frank Oz who, in keeping with the stage production, employed some of the best puppetry ever seen in a feature film. The reported budget to realize the screen version of Audrey II was $25 million.
Warner Bros., naturally, failed.
The $25 million price tag
According to a 2021 “Little Shop of Horrors” retrospective from The Hollywood Reporter written to celebrate the film’s 35th anniversary, Frank Oz revealed some of the studio deals — made with producer David Geffen — that took place during production. In particular, Oz was asked to make a relatively low-budget film, perhaps to fall in line with its Cormanian zero-money origins. Geffen’s proposed budget was only $9 million. Oz had only co-directed two films before “Little Shop” (“The Dark Crystal” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan”), each with Jim Henson. This was to be his first feature as a solo director, and he had no thoughts about budgets. He said as much:
“I said, ‘David, I don’t work that way, I don’t know how to write that way.’ I’m not a budget person and no one has ever budgeted a film like this with a facility like this. It went way over budget as a result.”
Way, way over budget. Which is almost triple the $9 million Geffen wanted. “Little Shop” was losing money so quickly that Oz started betting on calls from Geffen’s head. Apparently, Terry Semel, co-SEO for Warner Bros. the director a call to find out what happened. It was not a pleasant conversation, as Oz recalls:
“He would say, ‘Frank, what the hell are you doing with that much money?’ And I kept saying, ‘We’re doing the best we can’ because I’d never done that before. Finally Terry said, ‘I’m coming to London.’ And I said, ‘Terry, don’t do it because we want to buffalo you. You don’t know enough about it. Send your best production budget guy over instead.’
As a negotiation, Oz could show what he had done.
“They are doing the best they can.”
The WB “production budget guy”, unnamed in the retrospective, actually came to London where Frank Oz was filming to oversee the production. It seems that the studio visitor found “Little Shop of Horrors” to be a case of intricate special effects, and not an example of wasted wontons or a neophyte director being foolish. Everything, it seems, was put to good use. The budget man returned to the United States to repeat what had already been said. Memories of Oz:
“And that’s what he did. The guy came over for about a week, went through every single department, and at the end he said the same thing: ‘They’re doing the best they can’.”
An example of the budget running amok was, as fans of the film know, the unused ending. During “Little Shop of Horrors”, Seymour (Rick Moranis) gained fame and affection from Audrey (Ellen Green) by feeding blood, then bodies, to Audrey II (voiced by Levi Stubbs). In the final theatrical clip, Audrey II had grown to enormous size and announced a plan for world domination, prompting Seymour to attack and electrocute the plant to death. In the original cut of the film, Audrey II ate Seymour and Audrey, burst out of the building and into the streets, and effectively took over the world in an expensive, 23-minute kaiju sequence.
The ending was rewritten when test audiences found it too depressing.
But otherwise Oz really did his best. The film’s special effects are still impressive to this day, and Oz would go on – now more savvy – to direct a number of other comedy hits, including “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, “What About Bob?”, “In & Out” and “Bowfinger” . “