It took balls for Beyond Fest to screen Howard the Duck at their 2017 film festival. The film was the biggest bomb of 1986 and a punchline for bad movies, whether it deserved it to be or not. It took even more courage for Lea Thompson to attend Howard the Duck for a Q&A afterwards.
I was sitting across the row from Thompson so couldn’t help looking over at her during the movie. She was rapt, and gave a very frank, open and lovely Q&A after the film.
Q: What was your feeling watching Howard the Duck with us?
LT: I really enjoyed it. Thank you guys for coming out. We have taken a lot of guff for this movie.
Q: They’re wrong.
LT: I know they’re wrong. If people enjoyed it then we accomplished our task. I did actually really enjoy the movie.
Q: Coming off Back to the Future did Howard the Duck seem like a step up, a lead in a George Lucas movie?
LT: I remember I went to the director and his wife Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, I went to their house for the screen test. There were only three or four girls there. I had been doing Spacecamp so I was scowering Huntsville, Alabama for rock gear because I wanted to look like Madonna. That was hard. It was really hard to find things, I don’t know why. I went all dressed up with crazy hair and a crazy outfit. They appreciated that but the whole singing thing was a real big deal. I had to audition almost the whole time I was making the movie, because they kept threatening that they would have somebody else sing the songs. So I worked on weekends all the time to learn all the chords and to learn the singing and everything like that. Even after I got the part, I was auditioning.
Q: So you didn’t have a day off for six months?
LT: Yes, six months. This was the ice age or bronze age of special effects. You can tell, just those weird eyes. That monster looks kind of…
LT: Amazing! Amazing, but it took a lot longer to do this stuff. All those explosions were real, all of that. We spent the whole month in the sushi place, a whole month. It was a month of telling the same puns over and over. The Dark Overlord sequence took another month. I had pneumonia and it was freezing and I was strapped to that table for two whole weeks. Between takes they’d come and throw a blanket over me. These movies were the wild west of effects.
Q: How quickly did you realize you were in trouble with the duck not working?
LT: The first day. It was bad news bears. They couldn’t get the duck to work. They couldn’t find the right little person to put in the costume. They had a seven-year-old and it was very painful and hard for him. They loved the way he looked in the duck uniform. Then came that love scene and I was like, “Mm mm.” Ed Gale was there. He was backup but it felt like torturing a little child. Ed was much cheerier in costume.
LT: You skipped the part where I had love scenes with my own son. No, I enjoyed that. I loved the script of Howard the Duck. I loved that iconoclast or weird sensibility about it, the weird puns and everything. I love that about Back to the Future too. I was really proud to be part of those characters and be the kind of innocent in the middle of it.
Q: Were there times when the duck was a puppet?
LT: Well, they had a puppeteer doing the voice and the puppeteer was lovely, but the acting wasn’t so great so the comedy ball kept getting dropped all the time. It was hard because that’s how comedy works. Later, when Zemeckis was doing Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, I was like, “Get an actor there because it really helps to keep our spirits up, to have someone really good doing it.” But also the puppet would glitch all the time. If someone used a garage door opener, I’m not kidding, or a plane went overhead. I’d be in the middle of a scene, “Oh, duckie.” Ee-er [mimicking duck glitching]. I had such troubles with it that my nickname was Dawn because I had my closeup at Dawn because they would do the duck first. The duck’s closeups were always first and I’m still bitter.
Q: You’d already been through troubles on Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz getting replaced and Sid Sheinberg trying to change the title. Did you have a sense that Howard the Duck was in trouble?
LT: Ummmm. Welllll. I think maybe when the duck wasn’t working, you could feel how they were panicking about it. They couldn’t even get it to look good and they couldn’t get the character to work. The character in the comic books is really floppy, is earthy but his duck got real prissy because of the costume. I could just tell the character wasn’t quite working. Then the whole ultralight sequence, as far as I remember, wasn’t in the script. They just added it because the movie kept getting longer and longer. So I knew that they were throwing money at it trying to make this big exciting long, long sequences at the end of the movie. I think we were just supposed to leave and not go to the nuclear place and all that stuff. So they added that huge sequence while we were shooting.
Q: When Howard the Duck came out, what did the negative reception do to you psychologically?
LT: Well, it was all in the same year. It was really, really, really, really hard. I think I was shivering in my corner. It was a really hard thing to take. It was so brutally received. I just immediately took Some Kind of Wonderful which I had turned down. It was so vicious. The movie is so sweet hearted. It just didn’t really feel like it deserved that, but you’re here!
Q: Why does the duck planet have everything Earth has except for pizza?
LT: [Laughs] Literally the best question I have ever been asked in my career of 38 years. Thank you very much. I have no idea.
Q: Was there anything approaching a science advisor on the film?
LT: Oh my God. I don’t think so.
Jake Fogelnest: I’m sorry. I saw this movie opening weekend in New York City, probably on 70mm when I was a kid and I’ve never understood why people were like, “Howard the Duck sucks.” I just want to say I am sorry you had to go through that. Everyone is wrong. This movie rules. I don’t like Star Wars.
Q: I told you you’d be glad you came. All the way up in the back.
Q: What was the hairspray budget of this film?
LT: Oh my God. What was the stuff they used on me? I can’t remember. It was so vicious. It would come off in white pasty stuff. I don’t even think they sell it anymore. Every morning it was like this: [SPRAY NOISES]. I don’t know why they didn’t give me a wig. That was all my hair. It was crazy. Went through a lot of hairspray. I can’t remember the stuff.
Q: Do you still have any of the costumes from Howard the Duck?
LT: I still have all the costumes, but I can’t fit in them.
Q: Did you ever consider a singing career?
LT: Thank you for asking me that. I did sing for like a year in Cabaret on Broadway, but this kind of put a damper on my singing career. I enjoyed it. I had been a dancer so it was fun to do the performing.
Q: Thomas Dolby produced the song, right? What was it like working with him?
LT: It was fun. We worked a lot together to do the recordings. He was really nice about that. We worked really hard on those songs and trying to teach me how to sing them and all that. He’s in the movie just a little bit in the grunge bar.
Q: How involved was George Lucas?
LT: He was on set just when I was singing. It made me nervous. We didn’t see him a lot but we always thought that he would catch us. I was like, “Well, if it doesn’t Lucas, George Lucas will fix it.”
Q: When Howard The Duck came out and bombed, George Lucas told Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, “Don’t worry, in 30 years people will appreciate this movie.” Here we are.
LT: Really? That’s so sweet.