Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary, The Creators of The Film Classic “Pump Up the Volume” Speak of Its History

Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary, The Creators of The Film Classic “Pump Up the Volume” Speak of Its History


A coming-of-age classic bridging the 80s and 90s, Pump Up the Volume launched the careers of its stars Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis. With a soundtrack that represented much of the best music of the era, the film detailed a pirate radio station helmed by a high schooler (Slater) set in the wilds of an Arizona suburb. Fraught with all the passions of high school romance, teenage angst and identity crises, the feature captured the zeitgeist of the era.

Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary, the film’s creators spoke to a Zoom audience about the film’s creation, its history and cult status.

A roundtable interview took place via Zoom with director and writer Allan Moyle, producer Sandy Stern, and actor Samantha Mathis.  Little did the audience know they were going to entreated to such a detailed exposition.

Q: Allan, what got you interested in creating Pump Up the Volume?

AM: At that time, there were radio stations on abandoned oil platforms offshore England. Does anyone remember that era? There were amateur illegal radio stations reaching the English shores, and I listened to those. They were a bit like today’s Internet: you could just go and listen to anyone saying anything without supervision. So I wanted to write a story about a pirate radio station.

But then the character… God knows where he came from, I still don’t know after 30 years of thinking about it. Really, I don’t know where the idea came from. In fact, the idea was just the drift until I hooked up with Sandy, and then he said this could be a movie.

SS: Our first meeting is actually something that I remember like it was yesterday. It’s so clear and vivid for me. I received a treatment that was called Lean on Me, which had all the basic ideas that were ultimately in the film Pump Up the Volume. It was 45 pages, and I remember I was living in New York City at the time. A colleague of mine said, “You know, this is so your taste. It’s so your thing. Take a look at this treatment.”

I tore through it. I found that the writing and story both completely engaged and intrigued me. I said, “This is so much a story that I want to tell, it’s so my thing.”
Part of it for me was what Allan just talked about, a kid who had a pirate radio station and was broadcasting from his basement. When I was in my teenage years, the radio was my understanding, the voice that [said] there was a world outside the suburban neighborhood that I felt enslaved in at the time.

I remember there was a radio station at the time called WBAI out on Long Island which broadcast for the freaks and geeks of the world. At night, I would close the door — my parents wouldn’t hear — I’d listen to this radio. I would hear this whole other world out there, and I went, “Oh, there is ‘Somewhere over the rainbow.’ There’s a place that I can escape to.”

The radio was such a force for me that when I read this treatment, I was immediately taken by the story and by the conceit of the story. But what was lacking in it was — there was no third act of this movie. And movies are [created] in the three-act structure.

I arranged to have a meeting with Allan at the White Horse Tavern on West 11th Street — Samantha, not far from where you used to live. We sat down, Allan ordered a glass of red wine, he was wearing a white shirt. At this meeting [I said] what I always say to other producers as well, “You’ve got to be prepared to have your creative take on the material that you may be interested in producing.”

At this meeting, I pitched what I thought would be a great third act to this movie. Allan stood up and said, “Oh my god” — and here I’m nervous, I’m pitching to somebody that I don’t know, a movie that I really want to get involved with. Allan stands up, comes to bear-hug me across the table, and, of course, the red wine goes flying off the table all over his [white] shirt, and he said, “We have to do this together. This is the movie I want to make, and I want to make it with you.” That was our first meeting.

Q: What year was this?

SS: I could tell you exactly. We made the movie in 1989 and I believe that when I first met Allan Moyle it was probably 1987. We probably worked on the script for a year, getting Christian, getting the financing, losing the financing, keeping Christian, finding Samantha — it was probably about a two-year period, which in the terms of independent movies, is short. I think it was 1987.

Q: Samantha, how did you first learn about Pump Up the Volume? Was it through an audition or through knowing Sandy?

SM: It was the old fashioned way, through an audition. I had been in Europe backpacking that summer, and came back and was told that I had an audition the next day. I got the script, read it and was so excited about this material. Also I was cross-eyed jet-lagged.

I came to this pre-production space on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. I was waiting outside the audition room and the casting director came out and said, “I think you’re perfect for this. I think you’re tired, you look really tired. Go get some sleep and come back in a day or two.” And that’s what I did. I was immediately taken with the material.

The world has obviously changed so much. I’m just thinking back to when I was a teenager, of 14 or 15. My best friend Ben and I, at the time we had a date to call each other on the phone and listen to Dr. Ruth Westheimer on Sunday nights. We’d listen to her radio show, which was the most provocative, compelling, scintillating, and naughty thing to do. thinking back, it was such a sweet, innocent time. But yeah, the power of radio — it really brought it back to me how powerful it was.

I was very compelled by the material so I came in and read for Sandy and Allan.

SS: Here’s the backstory that you should know about. And we’ll probably get into how Christian Slater got involved in the project. But for the Samantha Mathis part of the conversation, let’s assume Christian is on board, he’s cast, and we need to find our Nora. Nora is so key to the movie working.

We saw every girl in Hollywood — every girl that had a “name,” that was a star — we saw everybody. I remember Drew Barrymore came in dying to play this role, and we were like, “I don’t think so, she’s not our Nora.” We kept getting closer and closer to the date of production and we didn’t have our Nora. Judith Holstra, our casting director, kept saying, “Relax, guys, I’ve got the girl. I’ve got her. She’s traveling, she’ll be here.” We were like, “Oh yeah, right. Okay.” We had seen everybody at this point.

The other really interesting part of the casting of Samantha in this movie was, that we’ve always thought of this role innately as a brunette, as a dark-haired young woman. Yet, Samantha Mathis, as you can see, is a blond, born and raised as a blond. Judith said, “She’s blond.” “Okay, whatever, we’ll deal with that when we meet her.”
Every time we had a girl come in to audition, Allan and I would sit there and they would do the scene, and then we would ask them some questions about their lives. Where did they grow up? What school did they go to? What was it like in high school? We got a sense of their vibe, their essence and being.

We’re now down to the wire, and Samantha Mathis comes back in after her one night of sleep and she literally just blows us away. And we are like, “Who is this girl?” We were speechless. And she left the room. That was it.

Allan and I looked at each other and we were like, “Oh my god.” Then I said, “Allan we didn’t ask her a question. We have no sense of who this girl is, other than the Nora that she presented in the room.” And we were like, “Oh well, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

With the second part of this audition, there were three girls that we were interested in. They were all going to come back and read opposite Christian Slater. We obviously had to get a chemistry read and see what was what.

A week goes by before the final callback. Now as we all know, nobody walks in L.A. You don’t run into people on the street there. I forget the number of times I’ve been to the beach in Los Angeles, but I was going to the beach, crossing the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] in front of Patrick’s Road House and I go, “Oh my god! That’s Samantha Mathis!” I walked over and used a line from the movie.

I don’t remember exactly what the line was, but it was “Are you really as horny as a 10-peckered owl?” or something like that. And Samantha turned around and went, “Who are you?” She didn’t connect the dots that that was a line from the movie or that I was its producer. But here, by complete chance, we run into each other on a street corner in Los Angeles, out at the beach. So I had my moment to talk to Samantha and got a sense of who she was and where she had been and what she was up to. And to finish the story, she comes back in, reads with Christian, and it was a no-brainer. Samantha was then sent to get her hair colored…

SM: And where did we do the screen test, Sandy?

SS: Where…?

SM: The Holiday Inn Hotel, in a hotel room, on Wilshire Boulevard. I remember when my father said, “You went to test for a movie in a hotel?” and I said, “Yes, I know what it sounds like but it was real. there were cameras, Christian Slater was there. Nothing happened, Dad, I swear, it was a real audition.”

SS: And you know how we got hair colorist Don Dwyer — this is so inside — but it was our cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s wife’s hair colorist. Walt Lloyd who had just come off shooting sex, lies and videotape.

Q: Allan, now the script’s done and you’re getting into filming everything. Were Mark and Nora based on anyone in your life, or were they fictional characters to add to the story?

AM: Mostly fictional. The gay kid who killed himself was a person I knew. That reminds me of the story of one of Sandy’s great courageous breakthroughs. Somebody offered to make the movie with us as long as we turned that guy straight.

SS: I remember it very well. We had a studio that was going to finance the movie that was ready to go. This began before the days of cellphones, and I remember I was at a pay phone in a movie theater in East Hampton. The financier said to me, “If the guy is gay, we’re not making the movie.” And I remember saying to him, “Well, I guess you’re not making the movie.” And that was the end of that company.

What I think is equally interesting about where the movie was supposed to be — Anywhere, USA. But because we had financing that was going to restrict us to shooting in Los Angeles, we chose a location that would be somewhat not in Los Angeles but could look like it would be in the middle of Arizona.

What I think is oddly timely — today, November 14th — we scouted the movie to be in the zone of Los Angeles, and it was shot at the Saugus High School to double for a school in Arizona. A year ago today was the shooting at that particular high school. A high school shooting was at Saugus High School, which is where we shot Pump Up the Volume. And in today’s L.A. Times, it’s the actual anniversary of that shooting. And just to go back to your original question, I still have my jacket that has the Hubert Humphrey High insignia on it.

Q: Obviously, Pump Up the Volume has music connotations in its title. People still wonder about the music in the film, because when you watch it now, its still relevant with the music and the bands that are in there.

AM: The opening title was written for the Leonard Cohen song because I knew the song very well since my wife had mixed it. So that was just luck. And of course the studio didn’t want to use that song because it was so dark. They asked us — if memory serves me — to re-record it with somebody brighter, more pop and more hip than Leonard, and we did. But speaking for myself, I was disappointed. But we managed to put Leonard back in at the beginning of the movie, and snuck in the other version of the song, since we had already paid for it, somewhere else.

SS: I think it was Concrete Blonde who did it.

AM: Oh, really, Concrete Blonde. Right.

SS: The music in the movie is completely to the credit to our director. All of the music in this movie is so reflective of Allan’s taste. He drove that soundtrack to what it was. It’s his sensibility, his vibe. He spent a lot of time with Kathy finding those songs, finding the right songs.

Of course he’s going to be critical of what he didn’t like, but the music in this movie is spectacular. You know, a lot of people don’t think of directors as really having to have a large music vocabulary. Allan is a music guy and he knows music, and he knows cool music. And he made the music in this movie really work.

Q: Samantha, when you were in the film, were you listening to the Pixies and Soundgarden and Leonard Cohen?

SM: No, I wasn’t. I’m just thinking about how incredibly cool and hip and ahead of its time the soundtrack was. I was definitely listening to alternative music, but I don’t think I knew about the Pixies yet. I was just coming on to that stuff. It’s hard to think about what I was listening to in ’89. But, in every possible way, I wasn’t as cool as Nora was. I think looking back on it now, it’s just incredible how cool that soundtrack is. There was nothing quite like it at that time.

AM: Samantha is as cool as Nora, I have to say.

SS: Yeah, that’s why you got the part.

SM: I didn’t feel that cool.

Q: This is a film that’s very hard to find to see. It’s not available on streaming sites. There’s the DVD and a few people have VHS copies. Is it not widely available because of the music?

SS: The answer is yes, because of all the rights clearances, and it was made by New Line which was absorbed by Warners and now it’s just caught in [those deals]. All of those deals and rights clearances were not set up for the future, which is now — which is streaming. We never got clearances to have the movie stream. There’s a lot of financial decisions that go into that from the Warner brass, though I’m not quite sure how to go about doing that.

Q: Did you think 30 years ago when you were making the film that you would be on a Zoom call talking about this film now?

SS: In the midst of a global pandemic? Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought [laughter]. The answer is absolutely not, no.

Samantha and I have talked about it, Allan and I have talked about it. This is the beauty of what we get to do as filmmakers. You get to tell stories that really touch and move people, and make differences, and can change and inspire.

This movie speak to a lot of people. It was my first movie and it’s what hooked me into the addictive nature of this business. But the impact — thirty years later, still seeing how it moves people, it’s really quite, quite something.

Q: Some of the dialogue in this film is incredible. Even the opening line of this movie is: “Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?” If you just think about that for a second, I think there are so many people that would say that it is —

AM: See the poster behind Sandy’s head? He has written, “He’s there, but not as the writer.” Or the co-writer. Because the [Writers] Union wouldn’t allow me to share writing credit. In those days, that union was angry at how many directors — and producers — were asking to piggy-back onto writers’ credits. So they were very hard that year on “The original writer is the original writer.” Sandy in fact wrote half the movie, and all the witticisms are his. Now maybe I wrote that first line; I think so. But anything funny and weird can only be…

SS: Okay, wrong. This is how I remember it. Two things: first of all, this is the original poster and it is signed by Allan Moyle, Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater. Number two is — and Allan has heard me say this to him — his writing is spectacular, his dialogue and way with words. I’ve worked with writers for 30 years, and I have never had the experience I had working with Allan. He is truly gifted and brilliant, and can write a line that wows you on a page as strong as it is when it’s in Nora’s eyes and body. Yes, we worked together on the screenplay, but the brilliance of the screenplay and the dialogue is Allan Moyle.

AM: Sandy, you’re the one with all the witticisms, you and your brother. Okay, will you at least admit that while we were working on the script — and we worked on it together for a year, right?

SS: Yes, we did.

AM: That deserves some recognition, you already said it?

SS: Yes. We had a great time. The bigger thing that this brings up for me is the experience of making this movie, from its inception to its development to shooting to post, was a charmed and amazing experience, for all of us. It’s a testament that Samantha Mathis, who is sitting there — if she were in Los Angeles, we’d be celebrating Thanksgiving together. How many Thanksgiving dinners have we had together over the years.

SM: My God, so many.

SS: We have such a friendship and such a history and we’re still all enjoying being with each other, and Allan and I are still working on something — not the sequel, but something else. But it was just a — for me it was my first, and I am still looking to repeat that experience. It was as good as it gets in movie-making.

Q: Samantha, you have a long list of credits that includes some really well-known titles. Where does this film rank in terms of what people recognize you for?

SM: It’s in the top tier. I would say it’s the top one or two. The character was so vivid and dynamic and unique that she made an indelible impression upon people. So I’ve got a lot of fans that that would be the film that they would remember me for. I’m very proud of it.

Q: This was the first of three films you did with Christian Slater. One of them, was an animated film, Ferngully. You guys reappeared in John Woo‘s Broken Arrow. Talk about acting with Christian from Pump Up the Volume to Broken Arrow. How much have you changed as an actress?

SM: Oh, my goodness! So much had changed between the time of doing Pump Up the Volume which was, for all intents and purposes, my first film. So I was green, green, green — thrilled and terrified. Christian and I became involved during that movie, so there was quite a lot of chemistry and I think you see that. We were young and passionate and excited, so that was all going on.
When we did Broken Arrow, at that point we were friends and I felt like I was making a movie with my brother. I felt like it was in a very safe working relationship with someone I trusted who had also gone through some personal changes at that point, had gotten sober. Christian was a different person, I had a few more films under my belt, and it was a different kind of relationship. We were buddies; he was like my brother.

Q: Samantha, how did this movie assist in your career?

SM: It launched my career. This movie put me on the map. I had been doing television up until that point, but this movie made quite a loud splash in Hollywood. We had a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater; I remember the red dress that I bought for that premiere. And I remember that premiere post-party and the agents swarming around me. It put me on the map. It changed my life — absolutely 100%. So thank you Allan and Sandy.

Q: What was everyone’s favorite line from the film.

SS: “You’re really as horny as a ten-peckered owl” has always stayed with me.

AM: “Cock ring” is mine, I think.

Q: Samantha?

SM: It’s part of the poem “Jack Me Jack”, but now I’m not remembering it. “Push me pull me, talk hard.

AM: “Kiss me kill me talk hard.”

SM: “Kiss me kill me” — oh, so good, Allan.

Q: Why was there never a followup or any type of sequel or spin-off, given its cult status — what would this film look like in 2020?

SS: Well, just to go back to a moment, every one of those lines, Jim, that you excerpt from the movie were all Allan Moyle-isms. So going back to our sharing of the credit of the movie, Allan Moyle: every one of those lines. I could say to him,, “No, make this one better” or “can you shade this a little bit more gray” and then he would take that direction and he would come back with a line that would be like, “Are you really as horny as a ten-peckered owl?” I couldn’t write that.

We’ve talked about a sequel on and off over the years. Allan and I just recently reconnected about doing a possible TV series inspired by Pump Up the Volume, which never really took flight. Christian has talked about it, Samantha has always lobbied for one. But sometimes we just couldn’t quite find what that is and how that would live and where it would live. But that being said, the story will live on.

The movie — as Allan and Samantha knows — is something that I’ve been working on as a musical that we hope is bound for Broadway, once the world figures itself out. We were just about to have our premiere at the Pittsburgh Playhouse for the musical, which is very true to the movie without the brilliant music that we had in the movie. But this will be a theatrical telling of the story for the theater. But I’m very excited about it. and can really say another reason “why don’t you guys start a sequel?” I don’t have the answer to that, other than it’s not ruled out, but it’s not happening at the moment.

I’m very excited about the musical, and I think that it’s very true to the movie, and the original musical that has been written to go with the pieces is spectacular. So I’m very excited about it. And it’s just a funny thing to be still having conversations about Nora and Mark and how the scene could work, how the scene could work better and what do we want from them. Just living back in a weird time warp and yet feeling that I’m still in that movie.

Q: Samantha, Allan and Sandy envisioned a brunette for the role and you are blond. Did you care that they wanted you to dye your hair or was it no worries?

SM: It wasn’t a question that we were making me brunette. I completely agreed. That’s my recollection. I feel like I had the same idea but you came to me and said that she’s got to be brunette and wear black hair, and I said, “Of course, she has to be.” So what ended up happening in my career for a long time is that after Pump Up the Volume, I went back to blond and I’d walk into rooms to audition for people and they’d go, “Look at your hair! Why is it blond?” They always wanted me dark-haired. That’s just the impression that they had of me. Even if Nora had been naturally blond, she would have dyed her hair that color. It’s just part of her rebellious streak.

Q: Was the Principal always considered the villain?

SS: Annie Ross, may she rest in peace.

AM: She was elbowed into the movie by my manager and your friend. She wasn’t perfect — I would say it was a compromise. She was really a famous jazz singer, not an actress.

Q: Was she always the bad guy?

SS: Yes, the Principal was clearly our antagonist, and we needed that resistance.
AM: Annie added that to the story. I liked that other character, the science teacher. What was his name? What a trip he was. He is a total Sandy invention.

Q: This is very much a product of the time and it would be nearly impossible to be made now how is the landscape of the film is different from 1990?”

SS: I would say the fundamental difference in the landscape would be the following: this movie was made in 1989 and we made it for approximately $6 million. The movie could get made now because I made two high school movies subsequent to Pump Up the Volume, but the single biggest difference right now is this movie would have to be made for $600,000. The budget would be a fraction of what we got to make it for, and it would have to be equally cast with a Christian Slater and a Samantha Mathis.
But high school movies are getting made that are edgy, that are about relevant things. It’s just made on different scales.

SM: I think, looking at that question in a different way, Jim, the landscape of media is entirely different. And then it comes back to the conversation we were having at the beginning and when Sandy was recounting his experiences of being in his room alone and listening to a radio show and how profound that was to hear that person in the night coming out of the radio and deeply affecting you. What would be that version of someone who could be so dangerous as to affect people in that way in a time when, as Allan said, anyone can put anything out now. You can say anything. So the ability for someone to really capture people’s imagination in that way — we live in a very different landscape.

Q: in 1990, the Internet didn’t exist, people still had land line telephones. We didn’t have cellphones. We got entertainment from the few channels that we had on TV and the radio. So to try to modernize this. What’s the pitch in order to make something that would stand out in today’s times versus 30 years ago.

SM: I don’t know what the answer is there, and believe me, I’ve thought about this a lot because I have had so many fans come to me and say “We want a sequel”, and I’ve thought about what could a sequel look like. What would a sequel be? Well now, in 2020 they want to know who Mark grew up to become. How did Mark evolve? What aspects of his character and his ethos did he stay true to, or did he compromise? And the same for Nora. You could go in so many different ways. What would it look like for someone to start a revolution?

But I will say that while the power of a voice on the radio and seeing it in that traditional way is hard to imagine, I think of the kids down in Florida and the young woman, Emma Gonzales, and what the youth has been able to do in terms of speaking out truth to power. And that’s been really radical. And they’ve used social media in a way to get their voices out. So if I’m just realizing it as I say this: it’s a different version of speaking truth to power. But I think we see really powerful movements among young people — Greta Thunberg and how she’s spoken truth to the patriarchy and the establishment and saying “Enough.”

So yeah, I bet both those young women would appreciate Pump Up the Volume.

SS: Allan, start writing that sequel.

AM: Maybe, when we have our first meeting in that gay bar.

Q: Any outtakes stories to share?

AM: I had control over the edit, so I don’t think there are any scenes that we were forced to remove. Sandy, do you recall?

SS: The only interesting story that I can share is because Allan had referenced it earlier. There was one actor that we flew from New York to play our gay character in the movie, who kills himself. And when we actually went to test the completed version of the movie, we found that that scene did not work. It was so key and pivotal to the movie working that when we tested the movie — we were somewhere way out in the [San Fernando] Valley doing a test screening, and we were asking questions about this scene. The comments that we were getting were basically in favor of us re-shooting that scene.

It was not working, re-editing or whatever it was. Allan and I were on the stage doing a Q&A after the test screening of the movie. There was a kid in the audience who was commenting about that particular scene and why it didn’t work. I whispered to Allan, up on the stage, “Allan, that’s our guy. That’s the kid we should re-shoot the scene with.” He is the gay kid that is now in Pump Up the Volume. From a test screening in the Valley, a nonprofessional actor — we did re-shoot that key, pivotal scene in the movie.

And when I tell people that story, it’s because the kid in the movie [Anthony Lucero] is so beautiful in that scene and it so works. I remember Allan said to me, “I just wasn’t on it that day. Something was not right.” And then we re-shot it and it worked, and the whole movie fell into place.
I know that’s not the answer to the question, but I thought it was a pretty good pivot and an interesting story about how movies change and what doesn’t get in the movie.

Q: At the end of the film you and Mark get taken away by the police, and the whole community is changed by Mark’s and your actions. Do you think you two stay together, in the fictional Pump Up the Volume world?SM: It’d be nice to think that they do, wouldn’t it?

Q: Do any of you have any thoughts on what happens to these characters after the movie ends?

AM: I don’t like the idea of thinking of them in the future. Even though, as Samantha said, it would be fascinating to contrive a story where we meet up with them 40 or 50 years later, that would be freakish. But I think the ending of the story is satisfying to me. And you know the last minute in the movie where all the little voices are coming out, that’s very pre-Internet, analogously, is it not?  It’s also pretty trippy that we hear these voices.

Q: More people are breaking out and getting their voices heard. That’s the point of the movie.

AM: That’s the point of the Internet.

Q: What’s everyone up to now during this pandemic? Samantha, you’re on Billions. What’s next for all of you?

AM: My big problem these days is I’ve discovered marijuana. I get high nearly every day. It cuts into your writing. But I couldn’t be happier, actually. I’ve got a great wife, I got four animals, I live here in a nice neighborhood, so that’s what I’m doing: living. Writing as slowly as humanly possible. Sandy?

SS: I’m working on many different things which are at all different points in their development, from a TV show to two features and to my Pump Up the Volume: The Musical. I’m also on the faculty at the AFI Conservatory where I teach producing.
SM: I’ll just add, as a COVID story, that I was meant to be doing a play, a musical with the music written by Duncan Sheik in New York City. We were closed down the first night of our performances on March 12th. The theater was shut down when we were about to do our first preview. So that was the last thing that I was working on.
I just got asked to do a reading of a book that Michael Almereyda was going to direct, if we don’t get shut down, for the 92nd Street Y, which will be an interesting combination of theater meets film.

SS: Samantha, where did you meet that director Michael Almereyda?

SM: I met that director, interestingly enough, when I was at the Deauville Film Festival with Sandy Stern and Pump Up the Volume.

SS: It’s a small, small world, that’s what I always say about Hollywood. It’s all about your relationships. I always go back to this being my first movie and is such a part of me, and the people that I got to work with and know and love, and be with today, it’s all in time for a good Thanksgiving.


Comment (0)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here