On the Trail with Dean Cameron

Last night I attended the 25th anniversary celebration and screening of Ski School with the film's iconic star Dean Cameron. I don't think Dean ever thought that twenty-five years after making the party cult classic he'd be standing in the lobby of the Mission District's Alamo Drafthouse Theater, chatting with his fans, and signing VHS copies of a movie that spent most of its life on cable reruns. But the outpour of support for the evening's festivities was a testament to the quirkiness of the script and the talent of Dean himself. There's no denying it: more than two decades after its initial release, Ski School is a bonafide phenomenon. Having grown up with the film on constant repeat during my formative years, I can quote just about every line from the movie and do so with perhaps an alarming frequency. But it was my dedication to Dave Marshak and his merry pranksters that led to my invitation. Dean invited me personally to join him at the event and to sit with him during the film. I decided that was the perfect opportunity to dig a little deeper into one of the great drinking films in cinema's storied history, as well as Dean's recent Ski School-themed appearance on the hit TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Since the Alamo Drafthouse allows you to sip on an adult beverage while enjoying the flick, the atmosphere couldn't have been more perfect.

David: This is such a special interview for me. I didn’t realize what a huge influence you had been on me until we started emailing and I discovered you joke around in exactly the same manner that I do. I’m not sure if that’s because we’re similar, or if we’re only similar because I spent so much time watching your movies over the course of my life!

Dean: (laughs) Well, that’s good, or I’m sorry. Whichever is in order. Hopefully you’ll figure that out someday.

David: How did the recent Ski School-themed episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia come about? How far in advance did they reach out to you about doing that?

Dean: I actually had to read for it last year.

David: What?! You mean this whole Dean Cameron homage wasn’t a done deal from the start?

Dean: They said, “Make sure you shave”—I wear a beard now—“because we want to see you without the beard.” Then I didn’t hear back for a few weeks and I was really bummed and pissed off. I thought, “If I can’t get this part, I really don’t belong in show business.” Then a couple days later they made the offer. So I went up to Mammoth and they were so nice to me. Charlie knew a lot of my work, and it was really flattering. The show Psych had also written an episode for me, sort of picking at the remains of my youth. It’s always flattering and I was very happy to be a part of it.

David: Did you know that they were going to go that far with their Ski School reconnaissance—to actually track down and use some of the old music from the film?

Dean: No, it was really amazing. Did you see the preview video they did for it?

David: No, I didn’t.

Dean: You should see it because they cut it so that it looks as if it was taped over on a VHS tape, and even the old VHS aspect ratio. The sound is all wobbly as well. I’ll send it to you. As far as the actual episode goes, I think it was great how they captured what actually could’ve happened to Dave Marshak. Dave Marshak could have gone one of two ways: he could have ended up owning the mountain and becoming this millionaire bon vivant, or he could have ended living up with guys like Roach and Turkey, exactly like what happened in the show. I thought it was perfect.

David: That was actually one of my questions for you: how do you think Marshak ended up later down the road? Were you actually playing the role in the show as an older Dave Marshak?

Dean: I was just trying to fill out the genius of the script. That script was so funny and tight. Trying to keep up with those guys is pretty daunting—they’re really fast and they’re really good at what they do. The second day of the shoot was the scene at the counter where they’re checking out the skis, and since they’re all producers and involved with the production of the show, they were saying to me: “Now try this! Now do this! Now say it like this!” It was intense and exhilarating.

Dean and David enjoy a beer and talk Ski School trivia before the show

Dean and David enjoy a beer and talk Ski School trivia before the show

David: That’s impressive to hear because the whole situation seems like exactly your thing. When I think of Dean Cameron’s sense of humor I think of quick-wittedness. No matter what anyone says to him, he’s got a snappy return and something clever to say in response.

Dean: I’m a huge fan of theirs.

David: Have the party-monster characters you’ve played in your career—let’s say Dave Marshak and Chainsaw from Summer School—been influenced from your own actual personality? Or are they just one of your on-screen personas?

Dean: You know it’s funny—I stopped drinking when I was eighteen and I only started again last year.

David: Oh, you were being serious when we were emailing? I thought you were kidding!

Dean: Doing that episode of It’s Always Sunny was instrumental in getting me drinking again. I was having dinner with the group up in Mammoth and they were all having a beer, like grown-ups do, and I ordered a Diet Coke. Charlie said to me, “Oh, are you in the program?” and I told him, “No, I just don’t drink. I actually think AA is stupid.” He asked me if I had a problem in the past, and I said no I just stopped when I was young. I grew up in Oklahoma in the 70s and there was nothing there to do but drink, so that’s all I did. I realized when I was eighteen that I should probably stop because it wasn’t going to help me in life. I tried to explain that to them, but Charlie said, “Well…you’ve had a fine life so far and you’re fifty-something years old now.” And I felt like he was thinking “What’s your problem?” So on the plane ride back to LA I ordered a beer, and that was the first beer I drank since …I don’t know…maybe 1980—and nothing happened. I didn’t even get a buzz. My reasoning was at the time, “If I go crazy then a plane is the best place for it because they’ll just strap me down and haul me off.” But nothing happened, and in fact it was so uneventful that I forgot to tell my wife about it for a few days after.

David: What was her response?

Dean: She was shocked. She looked at me and said, “It’s about fucking time.”

David: So she drinks?

Dean: Yeah, but not a lot. She’ll have wine every now and then, but now we drink a little more. I have beer in the refrigerator and she has her wine. I have a show I do now called The Nigerian Spam Scam and we did a performance in Vegas. Victor Isaac, the guy I do the show with said: “I want to see you drunk!” So he got me drunk in Las Vegas. Which is the perfect place to get drunk for the first time in thirty-something years. He bought me shots of tequila and beer and it was fun. It was delightful. I hadn’t felt like that in a long time.

David: Drugs never did it for you either?

Dean: I’ve done some drugs over the years, but marijuana consumes my head too much. We did mushrooms when I was younger, but you can’t really function on those. Vicodin is so enjoyable it's scary, so no on that. I like eating Indian food, so I now enjoy a beer with Indian food.

David: So it really was just an on-screen persona for you? That’s incredible.

Dean: Yes. It was always funny because I was this sober guy who didn’t drink, but was sort of a hero to the drinking party people.

David: That always seems to be the case, right? The actors who play tough guys in movies are really pacifists in real life, or something ironic like that. Here again is another example.

Dean: Yeah, people would always come up to me and say, “Hey man, let me buy you a beer,” or “Let’s go out together and party!” but I always just wanted to go home.

Dean speaks to the packed San Francisco theater about his Ski School experience before the movie begins

Dean speaks to the packed San Francisco theater about his Ski School experience before the movie begins

David: So how many times has that happened to you in your life, where you encountered fans of yours who love Dave Marshak and want to live out that party fantasy with you in person?

Dean: A lot. An uncomfortable amount of times, and I feel like I ended up disappointing a lot of people in a certain way. Even though I’ve started drinking again now, I still don’t want to go out and get shit-faced with my fans, or what’s left of them anyway.

David: I get people who want to take me out for drinks every single night. I’m getting to the point now, however, where I have to say no more than I say yes. I understand how you feel, don’t worry.

Dean: The other side of that, however, is that I’m always really flattered that people think that’s me—that I’m actually like that in real life. That’s acting, you know? I suppose that means I’m doing my job well.

David: I’m obsessed with few things these days as I get older, but I find I’m still totally obsessed with your movie Ski School. I just never get tired of watching it. For my own obsessive Ski School curiosity, can you tell me how the movie actually came about? How did you end up playing party hero Dave Marshak?

Dean: The movie came about because they sold the title at a film sales convention, so they had something like five months to make the movie in order to get the financing. Making independent films is this weird thing where you go to these conventions and you trick rich people into giving you millions of dollars, and that’s what they did with Ski School. They mocked up a poster, they had no actors, they didn’t even have a script. They just had a title. Buyers thought, “Ski School—that’ll play forever on cable and video!” So they wrote this script and it wasn’t great, but there was really some subversive, weird stuff in it. Now, my career didn’t really turn out the way I had originally hoped. The writing was getting written on the wall in terms of where my career was headed at that time. David Lee Roth said this great thing: “I don’t get all the women I want, I get all the women who want me.” That’s how it was for TV and movies with me, hence Rockula and Ski School.

David: But you thought the script was compelling here for some reason?

Dean: Yes, the script had some cool, weird, subversive stuff, but also at that time for young actors—which I was—so many movies were really annoying to me. They were all trying to have messages and to all be something better than they really were. There were a lot of great movies being made, but a lot of independent movies…man, I just hated them. The scripts were pretentious and stupid, but then here comes this movie about people who were drinking, fucking and having a great time, and I thought: “That’s cool.”

David: You’ve just echoed my feelings about the booze industry at the moment.

Dean: So they made the offer to me and I said yes. I played Dave Marshak as Bugs Bunny. So we went up to Whistler in British Columbia and the guy who played the lead role Johnny ended up breaking his ankle while skiing or something, so he was out of commission in a way. The movie was supposed to be more about him, but the producer realized that me, Stuart Fratkin, and Patrick Labyorteaux—our stuff was playing really well. They had us start coming up with scenes to film in the meantime and that’s when we came up the helium theater, and “whose underwear is this?”, the Godzilla scene, all the Lambada stuff, etc. They shot all the scenes we came up with and then they came back to LA, assembled the footage, wrote another script that included all of those extra scenes, then had us shoot some additional pick-up scenes in LA about a year later and put *that* all together…

David: And that became the movie?

Dean: Yeah, and the weekend the movie came out it was a limited release in two cities, one of them was Buffalo, New York or somewhere, and it was the weekend of something like the biggest blizzard in years. So I think the movie made like sixty dollars and it never made any money beyond that, but it ended up on cable forever. It ended up being a happy accident. We just had a great time filming that movie and I think it shows.

David: Is it purely coincidence that Patrick ended up working with you on that, or did you guys go in together after working on Summer School?

Dean: I think it was a coincidence that they were counting on happening so they could say the actors from Summer School are in the movie. Stuart Fratkin and I, when we got back to LA, ended up going in together on a series we did called They Came From Outer Space which no one ever saw. We had both had our auditions scheduled separately, but we became best friends in Canada, so we asked our agents if we could go in together and we ended up changing all the dialogue. And they hired us! They cancelled everyone else’s auditions after that. I just remembered as well that when I went to network with Stuart the other person I read with was Courtney Gains, who was one of the other guys living with me in It’s Always Sunny.

David: Right, the guy who asks if you tampered with his burrito.

Dean: Exactly. Everything comes back around.

David: How much of Ski School is ad-libbed, by the way? One of the iconic aspects of the movie is how everyone is constantly pulling out beers in the most absurd situations—like they’ve got bottomless pockets of beer that no one ever seems to notice. Were those moments all part of the original script?

Dean: Most of the beer stuff was actually in the script, but I can tell you that the scenes I mentioned above—we just made all that up. We had outlined the scenes the night before, but that was it.

David: So you’re telling me that written in the script was the scene with you sitting down with Paulette, talking about having an out of body experience involving a Native American headdress?

Dean: Yes, that was in the script. And that was one of the parts that made me love the script. I thought, “This is cool. This is not the way to pick up a woman successfully unless you’re Bugs Bunny.”

David: When I was watching Ski School for the 500th time a few months back, I remember drawing similar parallels with the booze business and realizing how universal this plot line really is in various other aspects of life. I remember thinking: the entire boutique alcohol scene is becoming like Reid Janssens.

Dean: Wow, really?

David: What I mean by that is: you’ve got this growing number of alcohol critics and enthusiasts who are looking to prove how seriously they take their wine and spirits, and are somehow hoping that their knowledge and perceived experience will make them cool or interesting in some way. That’s exactly how Reid and his first section ski pros behave in Ski School. They’re always talking about how well they can ski, or how much they’ve been training, or how they’re going to win the next race, but they’re never actually having fun. They never seem to be enjoying themselves. They’re always focused on the details, which ultimately get in the way of enjoyment in their case, and they’re perceived as the villains because of it! The exact same thing is happening with wine and spirits right now, but none of these characteristics are seen as negative. If anything, they’re mimicked and copied ad nauseam. I decided about two years ago that I wasn’t going to be a part of that game anymore. This interview that you’re doing right now is the result of that decision, and I think that decision ultimately came from watching Ski School. There’s a scene in the film where you say, “How could we let this happen? The mountain. It’s in desperate trouble.” That jolted me into action, I think. I’ve actually told some of my customers to watch Ski School because of that! What would happen to Dave Marshak today if he were presented with today’s generation of kids, do you think? What would that be like?

Dean: I think he would be dealing with the same stuff I’m dealing with. I know that there’s a subculture. It’s not interested in my anymore because I’m too old. In a perfect world, Dave Marshak ends up owning the mountain and creates a safe space for people who want to be able to fuck up. At the same time, I’m sure he also caters to the uptight people who want to buy the $2000 snow suit. And I’m sure he has a cadre of folks who are just having a great time and getting shit-faced on the weekends.

David: That sounds like my ideal version of K&L as a store. I want everyone who loves booze to be a part of it, but I want to make it fun most of all. If you’re uptight, I might rib you a little bit, but only because I want to make it a laid-back environment. That quest will end up being my own personal version of Ski School 3.

Dean: What’s funny is that a few years ago on April Fools Day, I announced on Facebook that I was off to direct and star in Ski School 3 and Facebook just exploded.

David: I believe it. Ski School is a HUGE cult hit at this point. Did you ever see that coming?

Dean: No, and honestly I don’t think I’d be part of doing a sequel. I just want to sort of leave that behind me.

David: I’ve rarely seen anything resurrected that ended up being on par with the original. Getting that one episode of It’s Always Sunny was perfect. It was more than I ever thought I would actually get.

Dean: I think ultimately that’s the sequel. I think it’s the perfect Ski School 3. They did it perfectly. I was very happy.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll