Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
On April 3rd, 1968, a movie came out that would forever change the way Science Fiction movies were viewed by the masses. That a movie based on a book by French writer Pierre Boulle, who himself regarded it as one of his minor efforts, and unworthy of being proper cinematic material, became such a Sci-fi landmark, is all the more surprising. It was mainly thanks to the efforts of producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who’d read the novel before it was even published back in 1964, that the movie got any traction at all. Its journey to the big screen however, was a four-year ordeal where Jacobs had to make use of all his publishing skills to turn it into a reality.
Arthur P. Jacobs was a former publicist turned agent and later on producer. His jump into producing movies was encouraged by one of his high-profile clients at the time, Marilyn Monroe, who convinced him it might be a good idea for him to produce his own movies. His first feature as a producer released by his newly formed film production company APJAC, was What a way to go!, released through Twentieth Century Fox. Monroe was going to star in it, but her untimely death forced Jacobs to look for another actress, and with Shirley McClaine as the new lead, the movie was a resounding success. Jacobs was off to a good start, and seemed set to have a brilliant career as a film producer, when he came upon a copy of a French author’s yet unpublished in the US latest novel, Planet of the Apes. Boulle was an up-and-coming French writer who’d already had one of his books adapted to the big screen, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The 1957, Award-winning, David Lean-directed movie had been a massive success, both critically and at the box office, after which the non-English speaking Boulle had experienced his first foray into the Hollywood scene, when he had to receive the Oscar for Best Screenplay for the movie, as the two screenwriters who had worked on the movie, namely Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had to remain uncredited due to have been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. They would posthumously both receive official credit for their work years later, and Wilson would later play an integral part in the scripting process of Planet of the Apes.
Jacobs really liked the concept behind Boulle’s book of a planet on which the higher being in the evolution chain are Apes, while human beings have been rendered to a bestial state. He immediately bought the rights to the novel, and ensured Boulle and his agent that he could get the film made. That was easier said than done. The first thing to do was to find a writer who could adapt the book. He got in contact with TV screenwriter Rod Serling, mostly known for writing episodes for the popular TV show The Twilight Zone, which made the material ideal for him, being used to dealing with Science Fiction themes. Serling wrote a number of drafts, more or less sticking closely to the novel. In the meantime, Jacobs commissioned a series of conceptual drawings by background artist Don Peters, who at the time was working at Disney, to go along with the scrip, and try to shop the idea around to all the major studios. Jacobs used all of his contacts, and employed every trade secret he knew, to try and generate interest for the movie, at one point even sending the script to big name actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, who ultimately passed on it; the idea being that once Jacobs had enlisted a big Hollywood star for the movie, Studios would start showing interest. The closest Jacobs came to finalizing a deal on those early days was when Warner Bros. with director Blake Edwards, who even suggested some changes be made to the script, showed interest in the movie. Sadly, in the end, it was never meant to be.
Planet of the Apes tells the story of journalist and space traveler Ulysee Mérou who, along with Professor Antelle and Physicist Arthur Levain travel on a spaceship to the Betelgeuse system. With a smaller space module, they go down to one of the planets, which seems to be very similar to Earth, to investigate, and discover that a primitive race of human beings who can’t talk, and behave like animals, inhabit the planet. On the second day, without warning, the astronauts are attacked by the savages, their clothes ripped off their bodies, and their ship runsacked. Forced to accompany the savages to their camp, the next day the camp is attacked by a hunting party of talking apes dressed like humans. Levain is killed in the ensuing chaos, Proffesor Antelle gets lost, and Mérou is wounded on the neck, caged, and transported back to the city, where he’s put inside a cage in a medical facility. Though wounded, Mérou tries to make contact with a female chimpanzee psychologist, Dr Zira, who seems to be sympathetic to humans. In this facility is where Ulysee meets Dr Zaius, an orangutan who seems to be in charge of the facility, and it’s not impressed in the least with Ulysee’s apparent efforts to try and make verbal contact to prove that he is much more than he seems, and would be much happier if he was to be lobotomized. After some frustrating first tries, Ulysee finally manages to make contact with Dr Zira, who expresses her desire to help him, and takes it upon herself to teach Ulysee the Ape language, their customs, and culture. After a few months under Dr Zira’s tutelage, Ulysee’s secret identity is ready to be revealed to the world. During a Biology Congress in front of the whole Ape scientific community, Ulysee reveals his true identity, where he comes from, and how on Earth men has evolved from Apes, and not the other way around, as it is believed on their planet, which Ulysee has named Soror on account of its similarity with Earth. Ulysee is now treated as a celebrity, given all kinds of comforts, and paraded around by the Ape authorities. He still goes back to the hospital, to visit both Proffesor Antelle, whom they found living in a cage in the local zoo, and has now been transported to a comfortable cell inside the hospital, and Nova, the first female savage Ulysee and his group encountered when they first landed on the planet, and whom Ulyssee has become infatuated with after sharing the same cage at the hospital for months. Dr Cornelius, an archeologist and scientist, who’s also Dr Zira’s fiancee, tells Ulysee of an archeological dig that his group have been working on in the outskirts of the city. Ulysee agrees to go with him, as the change of scenery will be a welcome change to a stifling social calendar. Once there Cornelius explains to him that his team has uncovered the ruins of a human city, with traces of a civilization equally advanced to that of the Apes. Emboldened by this, Ulyssee confronts Dr Zaius, who’s also at the dig, and tells him that by all accounts, the Apes inherited a culture and a science that is that of the humans, after the latter falling off the evolutionary ladder for some reason. Zaius, and those who follow him, are not the least pleased about this, and try to silence him. On his return to the city, Ulysse is informed that Nova is expecting a child. He’s also informed by Dr Zira that he is prohibited from visiting Nova, but is secretly taken there by her. Zaius and his zealots are afraid that if a child were to be born out of the union of Ulysee and Nova, said child could conceivably speak, and usher in a new turn in the evolution cycle. As both Dr Zira and Dr Cornelius suspect that Zaius wants to do away with Ulysee, Nova, and their newly born child Sirius, and due to Ulysee’s ship module having been trashed by the savages on their arrival, they concoct a plan to hide away all three of them in the inside of a satellite which the Ape authorities were planning on launching to space, manned with human guinea pigs. Once the switch of crew is done, and the satellite reaches orbit, Ulysee can easily reach the orbiting ship, and fly away with his family. The plan goes to perfection, and Ulysee succesfully navigates the ship back home, only to find to his horror that the ruling species on Earth are now Apes.
On this basis, Serling wrote his first three drafts, with some major changes especially between the first and third drafts, the more drastic one being three completely different endings, for each of the drafts. On the first draft, Ulysee and Nova manage to get back to the ship and escape, while on the other two an important twist suggested by Arthur P Jacobs is introduced; the Statue of Liberty twist. When irrefutable evidence is discovered that the human city indeed proves that Men were in fact the dominant species in ancient times, Dr Zaius orders the whole dig to be rigged with explosives and blown up. The geological shifts provoked by the explosion lead it to uncover a distinct piece of architecture that’s been hidden underground all this time; the Statue of Liberty, which makes the protagonist realize that they were on Earth all this time. On the second draft, after discovering this horrifying fact, Thomas, for that is the name given to Ulysee on Serling’s script, decides to go back to the jungle, to join his fellow human beings, and start a new civilization. On the third draft however, Thomas, unable to cope with the truth decides to give up, and he’s shot to death by Zaius’ goons. Other changes implemented to the book were the changing of the names for the first astronauts from Ulysee, Levian, and Antelle to Thomas, Dodge and Lafever. There was also the inclusion of a fourth crew member named Steward who dies after the dome of his sleeping chamber is cracked during the flight. In the book, aside from the three protagonists, there’s also a chimpanzee named Hector, who dies at the hands of Nova shortly after the arrival of the crew on Soror. The change of setting from a distant planet in the book to Earth was one suggested by Jacobs, and introduced in all subsequent drafts thereafter.
When the deal with Warner Bros. fell through, Jacobs went back to Twentieth Century Fox. Richard Zanuck, who’d recently taken over as Head of the Studio from his father, the legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck, was already producing Jacobs latest venture; Doctor Dolittle (Richard Fleischer, 1967). The incredibly costly film, which would end up being a complete box office failure, and costing the Studio millions of dollars ( even though it would later be nominated for 9 Oscars, taking home two), did however provide Jacobs with enough clout to push Planet of the Apes through. Richard Zanuck finally yielded to Jacobs’s mounting correspondence, and constant on-set pestering, as Jacobs too had an office at Fox Studios. He did however, had several conditions. For one, the budget of the movie had to be relatively low, as Zanuck felt that they were spending too much money on Dr Dolittle as it was, the script had to be re-worked, a star had to agree to do the movie, and the most tricky of all the demands; the Ape makeup had to be believable, and not be laughed at by the audience. The first two conditions weren’t difficult to work out, even though some important changes would have to be made. Seeing that it would be too costly to shoot the movie in a modern setting, with cars, skyscrapers, helicopters and Apes dressed as regular day to day citizens, it was decided that the story would be set in a more rustic, almost medieval setting, with some modern day trappings such as firearms. That would surely keep costs down, as it would reduce the number of sets that had to be constructed, and it would also allow for the necessary tweaks to be made to the script, while at the same time staying true to the spirit of the novel. The third condition was arranged by convincing Charlton Heston to star in the movie. At the same time that also solved the problem of finding a director, as Heston recommended they hire Franklin J. Schaffner to helm the picture. They had worked together on The War Lord (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1965), and even though the movie hadn’t turned out exactly the way they wanted, mostly due to Studio interference, they had enjoyed a good working relationship. It’s funny that J. Lee Thompson, one of the first filmmakers to be offered the role of directing the movie in the early days, but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts, would end up directing the last two entries in the saga; Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), respectively. For the last condition; it was arranged by the Studio to have a screen test of one of the scenes from one of Serling’s last drafts, as a way to test out the make-up. The man in charge of make-up for that scene was Ben Nye, who at the time was Head of the Makeup department at Fox Studios. The scene was an enactment of the scene in which Thomas and Dr Zauis have a discussion in Thomas’s tent about the recent findings in the archeological site, with Heston playing the role of Thomas, actors James Brolin and Linda Harrison playing the roles of Dr Cornelius and Dr Zira respectively, and the great Edward G. Robinson playing the role of Dr Zaius. Even though the Ape makeup on both Brolin and Harrison was a very basic one, the one applied to Edward G. Robinson was complex enough to convince Zanuck to green light the movie. Now it was only a matter of finding the right actor for each one of the roles.
Having already cast Heston in the lead role, it was just a matter of surrounding him with the best actors to give the whole thing as much credibility as possible. For the part of Dr Zaius, they went with British stage and screen actor Maurice Evans. Evans came into the role after Edward G. Robinson had to step down due to his age, and the limited tolerance he had for the lengthy makeup process he would have to endure to play the part. Roddy McDowall was offered the role of Dr Cornelius by Jacobs himself when the two of them coincided in the same flight. The actor accepted there and then, as he was very much intrigued by the story, as was equally the case with actress Kim Hunter, who took on the role of Dr Zira. The actress was best known for having won an Academy Award for her performance as Stella Kowalski in A Street Cat named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). The actress was put off at first due to the lengthy process of applying all the makeup prosthetics that could take up to five hours, but was ultimately won over by John Chambers’s makeup team masterful work that allowed her performance to shine through the heavy prosthetics. Robert Gunner as Landon, and Jeff Burton as Dodge completed the cast, with the addition of Linda Harrison in her first ever big screen role as Nova. The actress was somewhat of an imposition by Zanuck, as he was dating the actress as the time. Harrison was well aware of her shortcomings as both an actress, and very limited on-screen experience. The rest of the cast showed her support to her by taking her under their wing, and showing her the ropes.
John Chambers, a prosthetics specialist who had worked with WWII veterans, and ended up applying his skills in Hollywood, was the man chosen to make the Ape makeup look believable on-screen. It was thanks to his expertise, and constant experimentation that he achieved what everyone thought impossible. One of the major concerns from all the Studios Jacobs tried shopping the project to was the believability of recreating what Pierre Boulle had envisioned in his book. They thought at first that the Ape characters would be basically actors in monkey suits, which would make the whole thing look cheesy and laughable. It also didn’t help the fact that most Studio execs, and many audience members thought Science Fiction stories to be B movie material, and TV fodder for quirky shows such as The Twilight Zone. There wasn’t a great of deal of respect for Sci-fi stories, and movies based on them. John Chambers managed to crack the formula, even beating Stanley Kubrick’s team to the punch at the Oscars the following year, who was using actors in “monkey suits” for the opening scene of his landmark Science Fiction masterpiece, 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968). Chambers and his team started by making molds of the actors faces, and then breaking the makeup down in different pieces that could be applied separately. At one time during the production, Chambers had as many as 80 makeup artists working all together to produce all the necessary prosthetics needed not only for the principal actors, but for all the extras as well. Chambers had the whole crew working non-stop to have enough spares, because the different pieces tended to break up due to intensive heat. Actors were advised to stay inside their air-conditioned trailers when they weren’t required to be on-set, to eat non-solid food, so little pieces of food wouldn’t get stuck in between the jaw piece (which often happened), and to eat in front of a mirror, so they wouldn’t make a mess of their makeup. For those on the crew who had to wear makeup, and were heavy smokers (like it was the case with Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans, for instance), they were given large cigarette holders, to keep both the heat and smoke from the cigarette from ruining the makeup as well. Even though it was an early morning call for all those involved, and the make-up process was still a painstaking and slow one, Chambers’s crew got so good at it that they managed to reduce its application from six to three hours.
To re-write the script, the Studio hired screenwriter Michael Wilson. As mentioned before, Wilson had already been involved in adapting one of Pierre Boulle’s books, The Bridge on the River Kwai. A victim of the Hollywood Blacklist in the 50s, Wilson had been steadily working his way back to artistic recognition, and the Planet of the Apes script was the perfect opportunity for the writer to get back into the limelight. He not only americanised the names of two of the astronauts, changing them from Thomas and Lavefer to Taylor and Landon, he changed the whole setting and aesthetic of the story; now the Ape City, aptly renamed Ape town, was a series of arboreal-like structures connected by aerial passageways, that aesthetically resembled the work of Antoni Gaudí. The Apes still used firearms as weapons, but the rest of their society was a primitive one, with very few technological advances, still making use of horse-drawn carriages, and horses as their main mode of transportation. The first part of Serling’s script in which the ship lands in a valley, and the astronauts use an all-terrain vehicle to explore the planet, but have to abandon after it gets caught in quicksand, and sucked under, was dropped. That’s when the long trek across the desert idea was introduced. The ship crash lands in a lake in Wilson’s script, never to be seen again, and the crew had to abandon it in a hurry. All these changes were implemented to cut down the costs of the production. Wilson also rewrote most of the dialogue, added little touches like turning the fourth astronaut Stewart, from a man into a woman and the scene in which Landon pitches a small American flag on the ground once they reach the shore, and more importantly, rewrote the ending. The Statue of Liberty twist was still there, but he drastically changed Taylor’s fate. Another idea that was included in Wilson’s script, but ultimately dropped in the final cut of the movie was Nova being pregnant. It was decided that this side plot would be too much of a distraction, and the filmmakers wanted to move ahead with the story. He streamlined the script from a heavily-dialogued parabole on the place of man in the universe, and the Class system, into more of a straightout Sci-fi adventure with a political undertone. That political undertone, most notable in the trial scene, was probably a product of Wilson’s own experience during the McCarthy era, and how he was mistreated at that time. It’s fairly obvious, and surprising that he was able to sneak it in without anyone noticing. Further dialogue rewrites and scene re-structuring were done on-set and on location by writer John T. Kelley, with additional input by Charlton Heston who ad-libbed, or re-wrote some of his own dialogue, most notably for the last scene, in which he went back and forth with the producers on whether he could use the word damn on-screen for his last line of dialogue.
The film was shot mainly in Utah, Arizona, at the Fox Ranch, located in Malibu Creek State Park, and in soundstages 20 and 22 at Fox Studios. The first location proved to be the more agonizing for both the cast and crew. The high temperatures, and remote location, where all the shooting equipment had to be transported via helicopter and mules, took its toll, with many actors and crew members fainting because of the heat. Right before shooting started, Fox cut down the filming schedule from the already agreed 55 days, down to 45. It also didn’t help that Schaffner was taking a very long time to film the scenes of the trek along the desert. The brass back at Fox Studios, who were screening dailies of the shot material every night, were getting restless, and started inquiring Schaffner as to the purpose of taking such a long time in setting up, and filming those shots. Schaffner was adamant that these were very important scenes in the movie that would help set up the tone of the story for the rest of the movie. On location accidents, like some boulders suddenly crashing downhill, destroying equipment, and almost causing serious injury or death to some of the cast and crew, made it all the more important that Schaffner wrap up shooting there. In the end, Associate Producer Mort Abrahams, Arthur P. Jacobs’s man on the ground, had to renegociate the shooting schedule in order to have more days to finish the movie, in case they ultimately went over the allotted time. Another point of contention that was fortunately quickly resolved was Schaffner’s choice of DP for the movie. The Award winning Leon Shamroy had clashed with Heston when they had worked together in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstassy (1965), due to how long the Cinematographer took to set up and light his shots. Heston felt that too much time had been wasted waiting for Shamroy on that production, and with the reduced filming schedule imposed by Fox on Apes, he didn’t want to repeat the experience. He spoke up against the Studio hiring him, but was ultimately overridden. The age of Shamroy coupled with his way of working, and the often unbearable weather conditions in the Arizona location, was a cause for concern for most of the crew but, against all odds, Shamroy turned out to be the consummate professional, surrounding himself with a group of assistants that would take light measurements, and set up shots when either the weather conditions, or the terrain made it impossible for him to do it himself.
The whole of Ape town was built out at the Fox Ranch, in Malibu Creek State Park. It was made to resemble the architecture of famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. The base structure was made out of metal pencil rods around which there were placed a malleable form of cardboard that could be bent and made into any shape the set designers wanted. The interior of those would then be filled with a rapidly expandable form of foam that would harden quickly, after which the cardboard outer structure could be removed, and you had a fully-funtioning, sturdy structure. To give the impression that Ape Town was actually bigger than it appeared, cardboard cutouts of the buildings were strategically placed around the surrounding hills to give the set more depth, achieving the illusion by using forced perspective. William Creber was the set designer in charge of building Ape town, and also a life size mock-up of the conically-shaped spaceship that was anchored to the bottom of Lake Powell, Arizona, for the scenes in which the astronauts are trying to escape the sinking spaceship. The final shots of the ship sinking to the bottom of the lake were achieved using a mixture of models and matte paintings to enlarge the mountainous background. For the shots of the spaceship crash landing, the filmmakers decided not to show the ship physically crashing into the lake, but resorted to a more traditional method, by showing tilting camera angles of an airborne object coming nearer and nearer to the ground, as though from the ship’s main cabin window POV. To achieve this effect, the crew strapped a camera to the nose of an airplane, but due to the dreadful weather conditions, the resulting footage was unusable. In the end, the editor had to cobble together whatever footage they could find to make up the shot. But the more complex shot of the whole movie was that of Taylor and Nova finding the rusted Statue of Liberty half-buried in the beach. It was achieved by building mock-ups of both the torch and the crown and placing them on top of a scaffold structure for the reverse, high angle crane shot of Taylor looking up at the statue from down on the beach. Both the torch and crown were made out of a very light material that made them easy to move around, and the crew painted and aged both models to make them look ancient and rusted. The whole sequence, as were those that take place in the beachside archeological dig, were shot at Zuma Beach, Malibu, California. The last iconic shot of the half-buried Statue of Liberty is actually a matte painting by matte artist Emil Kosa Jr, made to match with a cliffside at the end of the beach whose rock face had some moss that resembled rusted metal.
The sound mixing for the movie was another example of the Studio trying to cut as much financial corners as they could. They decided that they would use the Sound Library at Fox Studios, which is why some of the sounds heard in the movie sound so familiar, as they had used them before in hundreds of movies and TV shows. Whatever shortcomings the sound mix might have, (I never found it to be an issue, by the way), Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificently inventive score more than made up for them. Dealing with the theme of an upside down world in which the predominant species is the Ape, Goldsmith did lots of experimentation with instrumentalization to bring across the weirdness of the movie’s subject matter. Especially notable are his track for the trek along the desert titled The Searchers, The Hunt, The Revelation, and those for The Forbidden Zone.
The movie was a massive success. It made $33,4 million on a budget of $5,8 in North American territories alone, garnering very good reviews in the process. People just flocked to see the movie, which immediately got the attention of the producers at Fox who wanted to monetize the phenomenon for all its worth. So, how did that work out?
The movie not only spawned four sequels ( Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1970, Escape from the Planet of the Apes,1971, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, 1972, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 1973), of varying quality, and box office success, and for which they even managed to convince Charlton Heston to come back for the first one, but it also spawned two TV series, one live action which run for 14 episodes in 1974, in which Roddy McDowall came back to play the role of Dr Galen (he also starred in three out of the four sequels, being unable to return for Beneath due to scheduling conflicts), a cartoon series which run from 1975-1976, and produced 13 episodes, a remake directed by Tim Burton in 2001, and a franchise reboot that started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017). Marvel Comics also licensed a long-running comic book series, action figures and diverse Apes-related merchandise was produced, and lastly on August 28, 2018, Rod Serling was finally given his due when his original, unproduced script was adapted into graphic novel form by BOOM! Studios with the title Planet of the Apes: Visionaries, with writer Dana Gould, and graphic artist Chad Lewis as the creative minds behind it. I’ve had the chance to read it, as well as some of the script drafts he wrote, and I can’t help but wonder whether Serling’s version would’ve been a better movie on the long run, or not. Maybe as an intellectual exercise it would have endured longer, and got more praise from the critics than Wilson’s version did. I guess it’s just a matter of preference. I find myself enjoying both takes on the story for completely different reasons, and think that Serling’s script, which I think is brilliant, and more faithful to the novel, would’ve made an equally interesting and powerful movie, and don’t find writer Dana Gould’s assertion that Paul Newman would’ve made an interesting Thomas all that far-fetched. As it has been proven over the years with the multiple sequels, remakes and reboots, there’s plenty to be enjoyed in the Planet of the Apes universe. That’s the brilliance of Pierre Boulle’s book; it created, without the author suspecting it, a whole universe of its own, open to multiple interpretations. So, what do I think about the book and its big screen counterpart?
I think the concept is brilliant in either form. The book is more of a parabole about the frailty of the human condition, the consequences of our self-destructive nature, and the ever-present class divide system that’s inherit to every species, especially Men, who think are on top of the food chain. As for the movie adaptation, even though at its core, it definitely retains its social and political themes, it’s more of a crowd pleaser, there to, first and foremost, entertain you, while sneaking in a message or two. Does it work? It definitely does. Both book and film do, each in their own special way. The main plot is there, and so are the great characters, brilliantly brought to life by Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, and Maurice Evans. Each of the writers who worked on the different drafts over the years, trying to adapt Boulle’s book, brought their unique perspective and personality to it. As I said, the material lends itself to it. Even some of the writers who would years later come to work on the sequels, remakes and reboots like Paul Dehn, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback, would still draw inspiration from the original novel, and original movies, some even given them brilliant twists like Paul Dehn on Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Planet of the Apes is not only a top-notch piece of cinematic entertainment, it also left us a legacy that still to this day, goes on. Every aspect of this movie seemed to come together at the perfect time, perfect place, and with the absolute best creative minds to bring forth the world created by Pierre Boulle. It is possibly one of the most challenging, and interesting characters ever played by Heston too. Being used at the time to being seen as the perfect cinematic hero, this role was quite a turn-around for him. Not only is Taylor fallible, arrogant and a downright cinic, he’s also a realist; he has no illusions as to the ultimate condition of mankind; men as a social experiment is a failure. Not to mention anything about what Heston went through while shooting the movie. He went through Hell. Make no mistake about it. He put his heart and soul into this one role, and for an actor cursed, as he was, with a very limited dramatic range, he sure as hell gave it his all. Picked up a chest cold from being constantly hosed down with cold water, and running around semi-naked, not to say anything about the high temperatures he and his fellow cast and crew members suffered while shooting on location in the Arizona desert. It was the role of a lifetime, and he knew it. It didn’t hurt that Franklin J. Schaffner always knew how to make the best use of him. He did it on The War Lord, and did it again on Planet of the Apes. But that’s enough about Chuck. What about the rest of the cast?
They’re all unforgettable. All three of them made their respective roles their own. Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall are wonderful as Dr Zira and Dr Cornelius, the two friendly chimpanzees who befriend Taylor. Hunter would return for two of the sequels, and McDowall for three, plus the short-lived TV series, but it’s no wonder the producers kept coming back to them to reprise their roles. A especial mention should be given to Maurice Evans as the malicious, and backwards-thinking Dr Zaius. One cannot help but wonder what Edward G. Robinson’s take on the character would’ve been. We did get a taste, however brief, of what that would’ve been like in the makeup screen test, and it was great; but it’s hard to now disassociate Evans from the character given what he was able to achieve with it. It’s like asking yourself what Kevin Spacey’s version of J. Paul Getty, (surely tacked away in a vault somewhere), on Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017), would have been compared to that of the great, late Christopher Plummer. I’m sure he would’ve been equally great, but the thing is that once an actor makes an iconic character his own, it becomes very difficult to see past them. All three actors are not only mainstays of the first movie, but of the saga as a whole.
On a technical level, the movie passes the test with flying colours. Given the amount of cheating and corner-cutting the crew had to do to try and bring the movie in with as small a price tag as they could, it’s amazing how colourful, pristine and good looking it turned out to be. No doubt thanks to Leon Shamroy’s intricate lighting schemes, and William Creber’s imaginative Production Design. Schaffner conducts his personal orchestra with a firm hand, giving the film on occasion a documentary feel, aided with the extensive use of hand-held camera shots. That coupled with Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully eerie score helps to set the right tone for the movie, just as Schaffner always intended. There’s still lots to talk about when it comes to Planet of the Apes, and in time, I intend to cover each one of the sequels, which have their own merits. But first of all, I think it might be a good idea to tackle the much maligned 2001, Tim Burton-helmed remake which, imperfect though it may be, and definitely not in the same league as the original, or some of the sequels, it deserves some love and appreciation for what Burton was trying to achieve. But that’s a discussion for another day. Until then…
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When Batman came out on June 1989, it took the world by storm. Anticipation for the release of the first serious attempt to bring the Dark Knight to the big screen had been building up for months. It could be said that this movie had the most effective, and massive marketing campaign ever done for a movie. People were really pumped to see what the filmmakers at Warner Bros. had been cooking up in the UK for months. Secrecy surrounding the movie got people even more excited, and by the time the first box office figures started coming in, all those who had poured their heart, time, artistry, and money into the movie, knew they had a hit in their hands. One for the ages. Getting there though, had not been easy. It was a long, winding road that took 10 long years to finally produce what Michael Uslan, one of the chief architects behind it all, described as the definitive big screen version of the character as both Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned it all those years ago.
To say that making Batman was a difficult and arduous process would be a bit of an understatement. When Michael Uslan, a self-confessed Batman fan, and teacher at the University of Indiana, (the first ever in the US to teach a course about comic books), was approached, first by DC comics, where he spent a few years writing comic books, and later on by United Artists; he set himself the goal of making the first serious Batman movie for the big screen. Uslan felt that the character wasn’t taken seriously because of the 1960s Batman TV show (1966-1968), and that the campy nature of that show had tainted the legacy of the character in subsequent years. The Caped Crusader created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 for issue number 27 of Detective Comics, had been envisioned as a myterious and brooding character, that had been diluted in subsequent years in an attempt to appeal to wider readership and TV audiences alike, in its numerous comic book runs and TV iterations. At the time, Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978), had been a massive success at the box office, and Uslan felt that the time was right to get a Batman movie off the ground. Along his associate Benjamin Melniker, whom Uslan had met at UA, and who found Uslan’s ideas very compelling, he optioned the rights to adapt the character for both cinema and animation, but not TV. They also contacted Tom Mankiewicz, who’d been responsible in large part for restructuring Superman’s script into a cohesive whole. Mankiewicz wrote two drafts, and his script was the one Uslan and Melniker used to shop around the project. Even though the deal had been made to hire Mankiewicz to write the movie, and some conceptual art sketches had been drawn; Uslan and Melniker failed to capture the interest of any of the Studios. It is fair to say that, although Mankiewicz’s efforts were worthy at the time, the writing style he applied to the Caped Crusader was not dissimilar to the one he’d used for the Man of Steel a few years earlier, a mistake he admitted to have made, as both characters are quite different from one another, and should be approached in a different manner. Mankiewicz’s script does have some interesting elements to it. It does go deep into exploring Batman’s origin story; the murder of his parents, his training, the discovery of the Batcave, and the setting up of the Batman persona. On the other hand, it lacks action, and some of the side plots are redundant, or aren’t explored enough. He does introduce the Joker as a fully formed character, as the main villain of the piece, and as in later drafts, he has a hand in Thomas and Martha Wayne’s demise. Bruce’s love interest, Silver St Cloud, plays a similar role to the one that Vicki Vale in Sam Hamm’s draft plays for what would eventually become Tim Burton’s Batman, with a different fate for her character at the end of the story, depending on which draft you happen to come across. The first of Mankiewicz’s drafts is too stuffed with characters, and silly concepts that don’t go anywhere; like Penguin’s small cameo in the story, whom the Joker makes a deal with to get rid of Batman. And in both drafts, Robin is worked into the plot, and plays an integral part in the finale. Now, the finale in whatever draft you read, is nothing short of fantastic. It takes place in Gotham’s museum, during a writing exhibit, which includes giant type writers, pencils, and pencil sharpeners. It is in fact, by way of getting pushed into a huge pencil sharpener, that the main villain meets his demise. The script is quirky in places, has some very nice dialogue (Mankiewicz’s stronger suit), but it lacks the action and dramatic drive necessary to push the story, and characters along; something that I feel could’ve been improved upon with subsequent rewrites. In order for the property not to languish in development hell, Uslan and Melniker made a deal with producers Peter Gruber and Jon Peters. Gruber was part of Casablanca Records, a musical label that had recently created a movie division. Gruber was sold on the idea of making a serious Batman movie, and together with Uslan and Melniker, kept on trying to shop around the project. It wasn’t actually until Frank Miller’s four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986, that the Caped Crusader was validated in the big Studio heads’ eyes, as a hot property to be taken seriously. After Universal’s refusal to back the project, Warner Bros. started to take an interest in it. Warner felt that, as a DC comic character, like Superman, Batman should stay under their roof.
This is the moment in which Tim Burton came into the picture. The director caught the attention of the hire ups at Warner when they saw the two shorts he’d directed for Disney (Vincent, 1982), and ( Frankenweenie, 1984). He’d also directed his first feature film (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985), and (Beetlejuice, 1988), both for Warner Bros. The director felt he was languishing at Disney, without nothing much to do, and so he jumped at the opportunity to work with Warner Bros. His first two feature movies were also kind of a test by Warner to see if the filmmaker could handle both the pressure of a big budget movie, and generate a box office hit at the same time. Even though Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure hadn’t been a massive success, Beetlejuice was; which gave Warner the confidence to hand over the reins of the Batman production over to him. These were uncharted waters for Burton, but for a filmmaker used to dealing with small, relatively low budget movies, he demonstrated to have a great resolve, and character to push through the whole production.
With so many failed attempts to get the character right on the page, and the revolving-door of directors who’d been at one time or another attached to the project, Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman chief among them, it was time to bring the character up to date under one unified vision. Sam Hamm was a contract writer at Warner who’d been asked personally by Burton to write the script for Batman. Hamm was very excited by the prospect, and immediately started working on a first draft which would end up being the blueprint for what would end up on the big screen. Many of the elements of Hamm’s draft would be used for the movie, especially for the first two acts. There were important omissions, characters and situations that would be changed altogether, or flipped around in subsequent drafts though. On the first draft, the character of Robin was worked into the story, as part of a daytime chase sequence throughout the city at the end of the second act, in which Bruce Wayne has to give chase to the Joker, who’s kidnapped Vicki Vale. Bruce has to resort to wearing a stocking on his head to conceal his identity, and comandeers a police horse to go after the Joker, who’s escaped with his goons in a van. The Joker breaks into a Circus performance that is part of Gotham’s 200th year Anniversay celebrations, and provokes an accident that causes The Flying Graysons, Dick Grayson’s family of acrobats, to fall to their deaths while performing an aerial stunt. Grayson goes after the Joker, and almost gets killed, but is saved by Bruce at the last minute. The placement of this sequence, the fact that it took place during the daytime, and the introduction of the character of Robin so early in the precedings felt too forced, and was ultimately dropped. The relationship between important characters like Vicki Vale, Alexander Knox and Bruce Wayne was also altered during subsequent drafts. Vicki Vale is a stronger character in Hamm’s first draft, she has a strong friendship with Knox, whom she’s known for years, and Knox has strong feelings for her, which drive him to threaten Bruce Wayne to expose him as The Batman unless he agrees to end his affair with Vale. He then redeems himself when he dies at the end of the movie while trying to help Batman fight the Joker. The ending was also much darker. It also takes places at the top of Gotham’s Cathedral, like in the movie, with a battered and bruised Batman climbing to the top of the tower to confront Joker, with the distinct difference that he’s attached a bomb to his Batsuit to take both him and The Joker out. In the end, it is a horde of flying bats that causes the Joker to fall to his death. Warts and all, this was basically the script Tim Burton and his crew were using when they started shooting the movie at Pinewood Studios, in the UK. Being prevented to work on the movie while it was in production because of a Writers Guild strike, the producers hired another writer, Warren Skaaren to do on-set rewrites on the fly. Skaaren dramatically altered the structure of the script’s third act, getting rid of most of the side plots, changing dialogue, characters’ motivations, and adding a couple of changes to the storyline that, still to this day, annoy the fans; Vicki Vale being let into the Batcave by Alfred, and The Joker being the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This last change was one that drastically altered the origin story as written in the comic books, in which Joe Chill, a common thug, had been the one responsible. A fact that had been respected even by Tom Mankiewicz in his early 80s drafts. Both changes had been suggested by Tim Burton on-set, but it wouldn’t be the last minute script change in the movie. After Jack Nicholson and producer Jon Peters had gone out to see The Phantom of the Opera on stage, they came back with the suggestion that the Joker takes Vicki Vale at gun point to the top of Gotham’s cathedral, and they have a dance while waiting for Batman to show up. Peters had also made suggestions regarding some of the fight scenes, which Burton used as, by his own admission, he wasn’t a action director.
As seen in the movie, the story goes like this. The criminal element in Gotham City are scared witless because of the constant sightings of a black figure that looks like a giant bat. Gotham Globe news reporter Alexander Knox is chasing the story, but neither the police, nor his colleagues will believe him. Newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent, along with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, has vowed to rid the city of the crime and corruption that has plagued it for years, especially going up against the major crime figure in the city; Mob boss Carl Grissom. Grissom feels threatened, and so he sends his second in command, Jack Napier, to get rid of some compromising files stored in one of Grissom’s businesses, Axis Chemical. Unbeknownst to Napier, Grissom has already taken care of it, and the raid is just an excuse to get rid of Napier, as he knows that Jack is having an affair with his kept woman, Alicia Hunt. It is also unknown to Grissom that Jack has ambitions of his own to become the next crime boss in Gotham. Meanwhile Alexander Knox runs into photojournalist Vicki Vale, who seems to be the only one interested in his Batman story. Vicki Vale has secured invitations to a Gala organised by Bruce Wayne, millionaire and philanthropist, to promote Dent and Gordon’s fight against crime. Knox and Vale are hoping to run into Commisioner Gordon at the Gala, who’s rumoured to have a file on The Batman. They both fail to get answers from Gordon, but end up meeting the elusive Bruce Wayne, who’s immediately taken by Vale’s charms. Wayne is then called aside by his butler, Alfred, to inform him that Commissioner Gordon has had to leave the party unexpectedly. Bruce leaves in a hurry, and after studying the footage from his security cameras in the Batcave, he discovers that Jack Napier and his men are raiding Axis Chemicals at that very moment. He then assumes the identity of his alter ego, The Batman, and goes to the factory. During the police raid at Axis Chemicals, Batman dispatches Napier’s goons in short order, and is in the process of apprehending Jack, when he’s interrupted by Bob The Goon, who threatens to kill Gordon, unless Batman let go of Jack. Jack takes the opportunity to try and shoot Batman, but Batman uses his reinforced gauntlet to deflect the bullet, which ricochets, and hits Napier in the face. Napier stumbles and falls into a vat of acid, in spite of Batman’s efforts to save him. When he re-emerges to the surface, he’s badly disfigured, and has a constant grin on his face as a consequence of his exposure to the acid. He’s become the Joker. And he vows to destroy The Batman. Bruce Wayne invites Vicki Vale out on a date at Wayne Manor, and the two of them hit it off. Bruce is afraid that his ever growing romantic feelings for Vale will get in the way of his crusade against crime, and tries to push her away. In the meantime, the Joker has assumed control of Gotham’s criminal underworld after killing Carl Grissom, and the rest of the criminal heads of the city. He’s also fully embraced his new identity as the Joker, taken Axis Chemicals as his headquarters, and used an old chemical formula development by the CIA back in the day as part of their abandoned chemical warfare program to create Smylex. This poison provokes the victim to die of uncontrollable laughing fits, leaving a gruesome grin on the victim’s faces as a byproduct. He manages to hold the city at ransom, by mixing lots of cosmetic products at the source, thus rendering the citizens of Gotham City susceptible to die by Smylex. Now is up to The Dark Knight to rise up to the challenge, and stop the Joker before it’s too late.
The casting of Batman wasn’t without its problems. For the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Burton decided to go with an unusual choice; that of character actor Michael Keaton. Keaton was best known for his roles in Clean & Sober (Glenn Gordon Caroll, 1988), and especially his comedic role in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). It was actually this role that actually made the public panic, as everybody thought that the movie would eventually go into campy territory. The reasoning behind having Keaton don the Batsuit was that Burton couldn’t think of a single serious actor who could wear the outfit without eliciting a laugh from the audience. He thought that a semi-unknown actor like Keaton, who didn’t especially look physically imposing, but had that inner determination that he’d shown to have in his more dramatic roles, could pull it off, and make it believable. Burton also thought that it was perfect in the sense that Keaton as Bruce Wayne really did need to wear the suit to transform him into Batman, and make him more menacing; so there would be a clear divide between the Bruce Wayne persona and the Batman persona. But what really gave the production its momentum, and turn him into the biggest commercial draw and marketing tool of the movie, was the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker. The tremendously charismatic actor was the first and only choice to play the role. The producers thought that if they could nab him, they could ensure the financial success of the movie. Nicholson accepted in exchange for a sizable fee, and a good chunk of the box office profits. The astute deal made Nicholson a very wealthy man, much in the same way that it had made Marlon Brando very wealthy, when he signed on to play Jor-El in Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978). The marketing strategy employed wasn’t dissimilar to what the Salkinds had done when they wanted to get their Superman movie off the ground. Get a big name on the marquee, and the rest of the pieces would fall into place.
For the part of Bruce Wayne’s love interest, photojournalist Vicki Vale, the producers had already hired Sean Young. She was already four weeks into Pre-production when she fell off a horse while training for the sequence in which Vale is invited by Bruce Wayne on a date to Wayne Manor, and they end up riding horses around the state. The severe injuries the actress suffered prevented her from taking on the role, and had to be substituted at the last minute by Kim Basinger, who was faxed the entire script overnight, accepted the role, and was on a plane on her way to England the next day.
For the role of Bruce Wayne’s faithful servant Alfred, Burton wanted classic British actor Michael Gough. Burton was a fan of the actor and especially his multiple participations in the Hammer movies. Pat Hingle played the role of Commisioner Gordon, and would actually go on to reprise his role, just like Michael Gough, in the subsequent Batman sequels, Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), Batman Forever (Joel Schumacher, 1995), and Batman & Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997). Two actors who would sadly never get to appear on subsequent movies, or reprise their roles were Robert Wuhl as Journalist Alexander Knox, and especially Billy Dee Williams as District Attorney Harvey Dent. Williams accepted the role in the hopes that he’d be asked to come back in future sequels to reprise his role as Harvey Dent’s villainous alter ego, Two Face.
Other important screen contributions were those of Walter Tracey as Bob the Goon, the Joker’s faithful lieutenant (Tracey was good a good friend of Jack Nicholson, and was cast as a personal favour to him), model and actress Jerry Hall, who was dating musician Mick Jagger at the time, plays the part of the Joker’s ill-fated girlfriend Alicia Hunt, and last, but not least, Jack Palance as Mob boss Carl Grissom. Jack Palance was ostensibly chosen because Burton needed someone with as much a big screen presence as Nicholson to play his boss.
The decision was made to shoot the movie in the backlot at Pinewood Studios due to the unavailability of sound stages big enough in the US to accommodate the sets the production team wanted to build. Production Design was done by Anton Furst, who designed Gotham using a mixture of Industrial and Art Deco architecture. The idea was to place the action of the movie in an undefined time period, to give the whole movie a 40s Noir style, but mixed in with modern elements. This notion comes to the fore in the design of some of the buildings facades, like the City Hall, The Monarch Theater, the interior of the Gotham Globe, or Alicia Hunt’s penthouse. All of this in direct contrast to the dirt, grime, and rundown aspect of downtown Gotham. The Gotham skyline would be further extended by the use of matte paintings. Another element that helps the movie further that 40s look is the choice of wardrobe for some of the characters, especially Jack Napier’s and the rest of the gang members suits throughout the movie. Jack Nicholson’s suits were especially tailored for him by Savile Row. Of course, all that aspect of the design is thrown out the window once Jack Napier becomes The Joker, and his outfits get more colourful and outrageous until the end of the movie. Bob Ringwood was the costume designer for the movie, but the single most difficult and striking costume in the whole movie, and one that in my opinion has never been recreated to quite the same degree of intricacy, and faithfulness to the design in the comic books in subsequent movies, is the Batsuit. The whole concept and design, with the black muscle suit, the cape, the boots, the cowl, and especially the black Batshield on an oval bright yellow background is just iconic. A silicon mold of Keaton’s body was made, and then all the different rubber pieces of the suit were sculpted using the mold as a reference. The crew experimented with different kinds of materials for the cape, sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, but the suit was extremely heavy, hot and uncomfortable to wear; to the point that different stunt people, like professional fighters, dancers and so forth, would have to perform different actions in it when required. Another issue was the limited field of vision the actor had once they put the cowl on, and the fact that the cowl/cape piece was so heavy that the actor would find it very difficult to turn the head. This resulted in what would become to be known as the Bat-turn, in which the actor had to turn his whole body around in one single movement to face a specific camera angle. Even if Jack Nicholson didn’t have to deal with the problem of wearing a heavy, uncomfortable rubber suit, he did have to contend with a more sticky issue on a daily basis. The intricate makeup design that makeup artist Nick Dudman had to create for Nicholson was a long and ardous process of trial and error, in which Dudman had to come up with a way of transforming the actor into the Joker without burying the actor’s performance in the process due to an overload of makeup. Dudman actually molded the character’s extreme grin on Nicholson’s own making a mould of the actor’s face while pulling the most extreme of grins, and another on a normal pose. He then used both molds to work around them, and try to come up with a look that, without losing the character’s iconic look, would still allow Nicholson’s performance to shine through. Another very important design element of the movie was the iconic Batmobile. Several designs had cropped up over the years in the different comic book runs, and TV shows, but this time around, the production team wanted to create a design that would make it stand apart from everything that had come before. The main body of the vehicle was moulded in polystyrene, which was then used as a guideline to finish it off in fiber glass. The whole aesthetic of the vehicle gave it a very sleek, and aerodynamic look, with batwing motifs used for the rear fenders. It is to this day, at least to me, the most iconic of all the looks the Batmobile has had over the years, with the exception perhaps of the look of the 1960’s TV show Batmobile. For the chase scenes in which the Batmobile is chased around the city by Joker’s goons, the crew had to be very careful not to run out of set. As big as the Pinewood backlot, and the Gotham street set was, it wasn’t that big that the crew could film the whole sequence in one take. In fact, given the limited road space inside the set, they had to shoot the whole sequence in several passes, and keeping the speed down, so it wouldn’t be too obvious that they were running out of road, as when the Batmobile was road tested, the crew found that it could go up to 90 mph, no problem. The Batwing too makes an appearance at the end of the movie, but the majority of the shots in which it appears were achieved through the use of model work for those long shots of the aerial vehicle zooming through the Gotham skyline, and those that show the Batwing crashing on the steps at the foot of the cathedral. All the model shots were done by model maker wizard Derek Meddings, a legend in the business who’d made a name for himself working on the James Bond movies and Richard Donner’s Superman, just to name a few. The close ups of Keaton inside the Batwing’s cockpit were done by using a mock up of the cockpit mounted on a gimbal, with a rear projection plate on the background. The Batcave was a very faithful recreation of what fans were familiar with from the comic book. There was no Tyrannosaurus Rex, or giant Penny, like in the early comic books, or the Tom Mankiewicz draft, but it was a very atmospheric piece of set decoration.
The shooting conditions were very trying on the whole cast and crew. They shot for a period of up to three months, six days a week, in freezing conditions in the middle of Winter, mostly at night, from four in the afternoon, ( when it was already dark), till six o’clock the next morning. Burton complained that he didn’t see the light of day for months. Cinematographer Roger Pratt also admitted that it was very difficult to light the immense sets, but ended up doing a remarkable job considering the circumstances.
For the soundtrack of the movie, Burton brought in his long-time collaborator Danny Elfman. Elfman was quite apprehensive at first about taking on the project, as he’d never worked on anything of this scale before. He had prepared several tracks for the movie for a sort of test in front of the producers. He started by playing several of the tracks at random, and after seeing that Peters wasn’t particularly impressed by what he was listening to, Burton insisted that Elfman play the Batman march, which immediately got Peters off his feet. He was in fact so impressed by the music that he told Burton that they’d commision Elfman’s music to be sold separately as another disc, which he did. This was a very uncommon practice at the time. Another Warner label artist came to work on the movie; Prince. Prince came to visit the set while they were shooting, and was so inspired by what he saw that he came up with a whole album comprised of nine songs in total, when he was only asked to compose two, with the most prevalent being Partyman, Trust, and Scandalous.
The movie was also famous for using sound effects from English studios sound libraries that had been used over the years for movies and TV shows produced in the UK. Danny Elfman went on record complaining that the movie was edited and mixed in England by sound engineers who didn’t care, but it is precisely the dated quality of some of these sound effects that give the movie its charm. Not surprisingly, fans of the movie went up in arms when the movie was remastered in 4K, and given a new Dolby Atmos sound mix, which enhanced, or altogether replaced all the old sound effects. Unfortunately, for those wanting to upgrade to 4K, the old Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that was present on both the DVD, and the Bluray, is no longer an option.
To create an appetite for the movie, Warner released a teaser trailer that immediately got audiences very exciting about the upcoming movie. Fans were in fact so pumped to see the trailer thay they would try and find which movies at the cinema were showing the Batman teaser to go in and see it, even if it meant getting up and leaving right after. By the time the day of the premiere at the Westwood Theater in Los Angeles came around, people had already been lining up outside the theater for days. The movie had a total worldwide gross of $411,6 million, even though the critical reception was mostly tepid. Fans of the character finally got the serious Batman movie they had been waiting for years. So, was it it really worth the wait?
Yes, it was. The movie works on a lot of levels. It treats the source material with respect, and the character is suitably dark, brooding and mysterious, like he’s supposed to be. From a purely visual perspective, it’s a beautiful movie to look at. It’s got a very intricate Production Design (its strongest virtue, by far), great special effects, and a smashing score by Danny Elfman, whose next effort for the sequel, Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), would be even more nuanced than the original, which is not always the case when a composer repeats in a sequel. As far as the acting goes, Michael Keaton does a commendable job. He’s not the best actor who’s played the role, that merit still goes to Ben Affleck, but he does try his darnest to give the character some depth, and looks fantastic in the suit. So much for the naysayers who claimed he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Kim Basinger does a decent job, even if her role is mostly relegated to be eye candy, which is a pity given how her character was first envisioned by Sam Hamm on his first draft. The rest of the actors do a very good job, despite most of them not be given much to do on screen. And yes, it was a real pity that Billy Dee Williams never came back to reprise his role as Harvey Dent/Two Face. But the absolute show stealer is Jack Nicholson. His larger-than-life portrayal of the Joker can sometimes go overboard, but he’s an absolute delight to watch every minute he’s on screen. His performance would pave the way for future actors portraying villains for the subsequent Batman sequels, creating a trend that’s the main pitfall that this movie, and the subsequent ones would fall into; the main villain, or villains, becoming the centrepiece of the story, relegating Batman to play second fiddle in his own movie. And that’s the main issue I have with this movie. Nicholson’s presence is so overwhelming, that he drowns out everyone around him. The movie lives and dies by Nicholson’s performance, not really giving much breathing room to the rest of the characters. It also doesn’t help that the movie lacks action, and what little there is, is quite average. Tim Burton has repeatedly admitted that he wasn’t, and still isn’t, an action director. It’s just not his thing. His focus has always mainly been on creating visually stunning worlds for his characters to live in. That’s why a mostly average plot, and action set pieces, but beautiful visuals, makes the whole movie rest even more heavily on Nicholson’s shoulders, which fortunately is not a problem, as the actor delivers in spades. In short, the movie relies most of all on the Joker to drive the story along, turning it into the Jack Nicholson show.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very good Batman movie. It’s the best of the original four that would be released between 1989 and 1997, and I have very fond memories about the first time I caught it on a TV airing. They publicized the movie airing for the first time on public TV for weeks before it actually came out, and I even remember taping it from TV one Christmas. It was a movie I constantly went back to, but as with most movies from my childhood that I had a great fondness for, this one started showing its cracks as soon as I started reaching adulthood. Do I still like it? Yes. Do I still think it is as good as I remember it? Unfortunately, no. Some people seem to place this movie on a pedestal, and while I still think that the movie plays an integral part in finally giving the character the respect it deserved, I also think that it is somewhat overrated. Not let this last opinion of mine discourage you from seeing the movie, though. It rightfully deserves its place in Cinema history, and it paved the way for how many superheroe movies would be made in subsequent years. It doesn’t reach the heights that Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie did. That’s still, in my opinion, the gold standard. But it was the movie that gave the Dark Knight, one of the best comic book characters ever created, the chance to finally rise.
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On June 1982, one of the most influential Sci-fi movies in Cinema history was released. It was based on a book written by prolific Science Fiction writer Phillip K Dick; Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it was a financial failure. But how come one of the highest regarded Science Fiction movies in history became a box office flop? What was it about this particular movie that drove people away from movie theaters at the time? And why did it have such a resounding critical re-appraisal after having had such dismal returns at the box office? Was it a movie ahead of its time? Too intricate, and complex in its storytelling to reach out to audiences? Blade Runner’s road to achieving the cult status it enjoys nowadays was a rocky one, to say the least. It is a journey worth taking, and we’re going to do it together. Nothing that I’m going to write about here is gonna be an eye-opener for those of you who, like myself, know the movie by heart. Countless pages have been written about the subject, and some very interesting and astounding visual accounts on Blade Runner’s movie making process have also been done over the years. When talking about Blade Runner lore, two names come to the fore; those of writer and film historian Paul M. Sammon, who wrote, what is to me, the definitive account on the making of Blade Runner; Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, and Film Restorer and Documentary maker, Charles de Lauzirika, and his efforts on compiling the largest assortment of Special features and Documentaries for Blade Runner’s 5-disc DVD, and consequently, Bluray Boxed sets, chief among them, Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner; a treasure trove of Blade Runner factoids and trivia, that digs deep into the nitty-gritty of what it was like, for all those involved, to make this astounding picture. This is my very humble personal account of what I found most fascinating about the making of this movie, and my personal thoughts on the movie overall. So, let’s begin.
Hampton Fancher was a Hollywood actor, who thanks to his relative success in the Industry, and having recently come into some money, was well-off enough to think about becoming a producer instead. Through a friend of his, he learned of Phillip K. Dick’s work, and especially his novel; Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?. PKD was a struggling writer in a genre that at the time was frowned upon; Science Fiction. The bulk of his literary work revolved around the idea of state control, what it means to be human, how easily that humanity can slip away it the midst of a society increasingly obsessed with technology, and the fatal consequences that can derive from the misuse of said technology. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tells the story of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter in a desolated and polluted Earth of the future, in which the vast majority of Society, those who can afford to do it anyway, have emigrated to Off-World colonies like Mars. In this future, set in the year 1992 in the first edition of the book, 2021 in later editions, artificial lifeforms who are practically identical to human beings called Androids, or Andys in the book, are manufactured by big corporations to fight Humanity’s space wars, and to serve the human colonists in whatever capacity they see fit. Some of these Androids escape to Earth from time to time, and it’s up to people like Deckard to hunt them down, and kill them. Almost all animal life on Earth is extinct, and it’s a great sign of social status the possession of a real animal, but for those who can’t afford that, they have to resort to buying an artificial one, like Deckard, who owns an artificial sheep. After having been informed that a bunch of new model of Androids, the NEXUS-6, have escaped from Mars, and are hiding somewhere on Earth, Deckard sees this as the perfect opportunity to earn enough money so him and his wife can buy a real sheep, like they’ve always dreamed of.
So it was that after having read the book, Fancher decided that it might be interesting enough to turn it into a movie. With that in mind, he set about trying to secure the rights. He found PKD, and secured a meeting. The thing was that some Hollywood producers had already tried to option the book, but PKD was extremely unhappy about the scripts these people had shown him, and didn’t want to have anything to do with Hollywood. Unable to convince him otherwise, it was only years later that a fellow actor, Brian Kelly, talked to him about wanting to produce a movie, and, in a last ditch effort, Fancher sent him in PKD’s direction. Surprisingly enough, PKD liked Kelly for some reason, and agreed to option the novel. It was now time to get down to business, and write a script they could use to show around and get people interested in. Actress Barbra Hershey, a good friend of Fancher’s, talked him into writing the script himself. Fancher had never thought of himself as a writer, but wrote an eight-page treatment, taking many elements from the source novel, which is what Kelly showed to a friend of his, British producer Michael Deely. Deely had recently achieved some success with the Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), and although he didn’t like Fancher’s first treatment, or the first draft of the script he wrote after that, was still convinced that the story was intriguing enough to get a good picture out of it. Deely also had in mind the perfect director to bring PKD’s vision to life; Ridley Scott.
When Ridley Scott was first offered Blade Runner, he was still editing his second feature, Alien (1979). He’d also been offered, and had been working for some time on adapting Frank Herbert’s seminal Science Fiction novel Dune to the big screen. He felt that whatever he did next, he wanted it to be anything other than a Science fiction movie, and so rejected the picture. He did, however, upon reading Fancher’s script, find the story interesting, and always kept it in the back of his mind.
When the Dune project fell through, Scott decided to have a second look at the script. At that time, Scott had also suffered a personal loss. His older brother Jack had died of Cancer, and Ridley was desperately trying to cope with it by burying himself in his work. At that time, Fancher had already written a few more drafts of the script, and had changed the title several times too, from Android to Mechanismo, before finally settling on Dangerous Days, which was the working title the script had by the time Ridley came on board. But still Scott wasn’t satisfied with the title, and that’s how the title Blade Runner came about. While searching for a new title, Fancher came upon Blade Runner (a movie), a short science fiction story written by American writer William S. Burroughs. Fancher suggested the title to Scott, who loved it, and with the help of Deely, immediately set about securing the rights to use it. Burroughs agreed for the name to be used for a fee, and that was that. As soon as that happened, Ridley started suggesting changes to the script. In his opinion, the movie was a small affair, that took place basically inside small rooms, and in a few locations. Ridley wanted the characters in the story to live and breathe in the outside world. He wanted to, as he put it, “know what was outside the window”. Fancher had no idea, as he’d never thought about any of it, and that is when Ridley brought in Future Visualist Syd Mead, Production Designer Lawrence G. Paul, Art Director David L. Snyder, and Production Illustrator Tom Southwell, to flesh out the future world which the characters were going to inhabit. Scott also took inspiration for such revered works of art as the popular Heavy Metal comic strip, whose designs he would use to inspire his crew to come up with the look he wanted for his movie. Syd Mead was instrumental in this. At first, he’d only been brought in to design the vehicles for the movie. His designs were used to create the iconic look of the Spinner, the police cars, taxis, and Deckard’s sedan, but when drawing these vehicles, he would also design and draw the cityscapes and background environments around them, which gave Ridley a design standpoint from which to create the rest of the city. It was also Ridley’s idea to come up with a retrofitting look for the buildings’ set decoration. Ridley’s idea was that in the future no one would bother to fix something that was broken, choosing instead to work around existing buildings, and technology to keep everything going. His inspired idea of having tubes, and plumbing hanging outside of, and becoming part of the buildings’ architecture, became a source of inspiration for architects all over the world, and became a very important design fixture in movies taking place in the future and music videos from then on. It was actually a decision born more out of necessity than anything else, as we’ll see later on. In the meantime, the filmmakers’ deal that had been secured with Filmways, which was the production company that had agreed to finance the movie, fell apart.
Scott and his crew of Conceptual designers had already been working for several months on the picture, Filmways had invested $2 million dollars on the project, and the production was all but ready to roll cameras in two weeks, but the ever-increasing budget that went from $12 million dollars, which is what Filmways could allocate to the movie, to $20 million dollars, meant that Filmways had to pull the plug. That left Michael Deely, Scott, Associate Producer Ivor Powell, and Production Executive Katherine Haber, scrambling for someone to finance the movie in a very short time. Scott and his team of designers and Illustrators headed by Larry Paull and David Snyder put together a portfolio with all the conceptual design work they’d done so far, and went around to all the studios to try and get the financial backing to shoot the movie. This is how the three-way partnership deal came about, in which Alan Ladd Jr, who at the time was working for Warner Bros. agreed to put up around $8 million dollars of the budget, which gave Warner the Theatrical exhibition rights, Chinese Producer Run Run Shaw put up another $8 million for International distribution rights, and The tandem corporation made up of Jerry Perenchio, and Bud Yorkin would put up the rest. Yorkin and Perenchio had also taken a completion bond deal, which meant that if the movie was to go over budget, they would have to put up the rest of the money to complete the picture, which also meant that it effectively gave them Final cut control of the movie, on top of home video distribution and ancillary rights.
Ridley’s constant demands of changes on the script, had begun to take their toll on Hampton Fancher. Scott was constantly coming up with new ideas and designs, and wanted those changes implemented in the script, which resulted in Fancher writing a record-breaking eight drafts before he finally decided he’d had enough and quit the project, due to creative differences, and probably too, out of sheer exhaustion. That’s when screenwriter David Peoples came in. Peoples was a well regarded screenwriter, better known for the Oscar-nominated Documentary The Day after Trinity ( John H. Else, 1980) about the creator of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and came highly recommended by Ridley’s brother, Tony Scott, who would also go on to have an illustrious career as a filmmaker with titles like The Hunger (1983), Top Gun (1986), Days of Thunder (1990), and Déja Vú (2006). Scott and Deely set the writer up at the Chateau Marmont in LA, and gave him a copy of the script. As soon as he read it, he realized that Fancher’s last draft was so well written, there was nothing he could really do to make it better. He told both Deely and Scott about this, but soon found out that what Ridley really wanted was to have a screenwriter at hand to make the changes he wanted in the script, as Fancher had been unwilling to do so out of frustration. Peoples immediately realised that this wouldn’t be an easy task, as Scott was constantly coming up with new ideas on the spot, and Peoples was constantly rewriting lines of dialogue for the actors, both suggested by the actors themselves, as well as Ridley. Scott felt that the word Android had been over-used in both science fiction novels and films, and it was thanks to Peoples’ daughter, a Biology student, who told her father about replicating cells, that the title was changed from Android to Replicant. Scott had wanted from the very start to go with a film noir style for the movie, that would resemble the hardboiled feel of such classics as The Big Sleep ( Howard Hawks,1946), and The Maltese Falcon ( John Huston, 1941), but set in the future. A common fixture of this kind of movies was the use of a voice-over narration by the protagonist, an often-used storytelling device that would serve as sort of a guiding hand for the audience into both the story and the protagonist’s inner thought process. The voice-over had been a part of the scripting process as far back as when Fancher was still involved in the project; something that the actor who was to eventually portray Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford, was very much against.
Fancher has admitted that he had Robert Mitchum in mind to play Rick Deckard while he was writing the script. He felt that he perfectly embodied the cynicism and toughness required to play the part, and was at the time, still fit enough to do it. For better or for worse, it was never to be. Another actor who was seriously considered for the role was Dustin Hoffman. He was interested in the role, and had endless discussions with both Deely and Scott about it, but they both felt that the further Hoffman discussed his own ideas about the movie, the further the project was moving away from its original concept. Harrison Ford was fast becoming a major Hollywood star at the time due to his participation in the Star Wars movies, Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), and The Empire Strikes Back ( Irvin Kershner, 1980), and was also currently working on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), with Steven Spielberg. It was while he was there on the set of Raiders at Elstree Studios, London, that he was contacted by Deeley. He agreed to meet with the filmmakers at a nearby hotel, and after that meeting, he accepted to do it.
Production Executive Katherine Haber was the one who suggested Dutch actor Rutger Hauer for the role of Replicant Roy Batty. She showed Ridley several of the movies the actor had done in Holand with famed Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, Turkish Delight (1973), and Soldier of Orange (1977). The actor had also participated in an American movie already, Nighthawks ( Bruce Malmouth, 1981), alongside Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams. Scott liked so much what he saw that he cast Hauer without screen testing him, which almost gave him a heart attack when the actor showed up in very strange wear, and his hair bleached white, the first time they met.
For the part of Rachael, an unknowing Replicant, and Deckard’s eventual love interest, several actresses were tested; but it ultimately came down to actresses Nina Axelrod and Sean Young. A young actor named Morgan Paull, who bore a striking resemblance with Ford, both physically and in his voice, was used by the filmmakers to screen test the actresses who were going to play the part of the Replicants. He not only tested with Axelrod and Young, but also with Darryl Hannah, and Stacey Melkin, who were going for the part of Pris, another member of Batty’s group of Replicant fugitives. In the end, Scott decided on Sean Young, based purely on her looks, as he thought she was the perfect visual representation of the Rachael he had in mind, and Darryl Hannah as Pris. Stacey Melkin was to portray the role of Mary, the sixth Replicant from Batty’s group, but her character was ultimately eliminated due to budgetary reasons. Scott was very much aware of the lack of experience of the twenty-something Young, and tasked Katherine Haber with working with her to try and get the best out of her. Paull had done such a nice job with the screen tests, that the filmmakers decided to offer him the role of Blade Runner Holden, who gets nearly killed at the beginning of the movie by Leon, the other male Replicant member of Batty’s group. This role was to be portrayed by actor Brion James.
Actress Johanna Cassidy was chosen to play the role of Zhora, the last female member of Batty’s group. The beautiful, talented, and athletic actress was the perfect fit for the role. She also had the advantage of being comfortable around snakes, a very important characteristic of her character as she would be found by Deckard, performing on stage with a snake in a seedy nightclub. The actress was not only familiar with snakes, she also happened to own one, which was the same one that was used in the movie.
Edward James Olmos, most famously known for portraying the role of Lieutenant “Marty” Castillo in the hit Cop TV show Miami Vice (1984-1990), was chosen to play the role of Blade Runner Gaff, Deckard’s reluctant partner. Olmos was a creative force during the movie, and not only did he come up with the look and wardrobe for his character, which Scott equated to that of a well-to-do drug dealer, but was the driving force behind the creation of City speak, the jargon that his character speaks throughout the movie, a mix of Hungarian, German, Japanese and Spanish. As originally written on the page, the language most often used by Gaff is Japanese, but Olmos thought it would be an interesting idea to come up with a language for his character that would be heavily rooted in Esperanto. Scott thought it a brilliant idea, and let him go for it. It’s just a pity that it’s never really taken full advantage of during the movie, and most of his dialogue is mouthed in several scenes, but never heard out loud. It’s also barely mentioned in any of the subsequent cuts of the movie where the voice-over was scrapped, if at all.
For the role of Captain Bryant, Deckard’s superior, the filmmakers went with character actor M. Emmet Walsh. William Sanderson played the role of genetic engineer J.F Sebastian. Sebastian suffers from a rare condition called Methuselah Syndrome, that makes his glands age more quickly, giving him the appearance of being three times his age when he’s a little over twenty. This look was achieved thanks to Marvin G. Westmore’s incredible make up prosthetics, that give the actor’s skin the wrinkled look of an old person. Other roles went to James Hong, as Hannibal Chew, Tyrell Corp’s eye designer, and Joe Turkel, who plays the role of Eldon Tyrell. Hampton Fancher had Sterling Hayden, funnily enough another one of Stanley Kubrick’s alumni, in mind for the role. Turkel incidentally had shared the screen with Hayden in The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956), and would go on to play roles in two more Stanley Kubrick movies, Paths of Glory (1957), and The Shining (1980). It was his role on this last movie as the ghostly bartender Lloyd that called the attention of Scott to hire him for the role of Eldon Tyrell, much to Hampton Fancher’s chagrin, who would refer to Turkel simply as “the bartender from The Shining”. The actor at the time was going through a rough patch in his personal life, and had difficulty remembering his lines, so the crew would have cue cards at the ready, all around the sets, for the actor to deliver them. Incidentally he, along with Rutger Hauer were also the source of a rather embarrassing incident on set during the scene in which Roy Batty, infuriated by Tyrell’s lack of help, ends up killing him by gauging his eyes out and crashing his skull. Right before all that happened, Batty was to kiss Tyrell in the mouth, which resulted in Rutger sticking his tongue inside Turkel’s mouth in a moment of improvisation. It made for a few laughs on set, but a powerful scene on the screen. Turkel acknowledges the fact that Rutger might have noticed that he was having a hard time, and that was his way of diffusing the tension; for which he was very grateful.
To say that Blade Runner was a difficult shoot would be an understatement. As Harrison Ford so aptly described it; “It was a bitch”. At first Scott was adamant that the movie had to be shot on location, and they actually went scouting for locations in New York and Boston. Even though Scott was very much in love with New York’s architecture, especially the Chrystler building, he soon realised that it would be impractical to shoot in any of those places, as the uncontrollable conditions, and expense of having to close off entire neighbourhoods for weeks on end, would not do. Scott reluctantly agreed to shoot in the Warner Bros backlot in Burbank California, in what was then known as the New York City set, which was somewhat fitting, as that had been the location where the aforementioned noir classics from the 40s that Scott was trying to emulate, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon, had been shot. On walking through the set for the first time, Scott was very disappointed by the small size of the sets, and that even using all of them might not be good enough to achieve the visual scale he was aiming for. Several changes had to be made to hide the architectural shortcomings of the set, the first of which that the bulk of the movie would have to be shot at night, so the visual effects guys wouldn’t have to matte out the nearby wooded hills for starters, and secondly, as the crew couldn’t very well struck out the old sets to build new ones, firstly for practical reasons, and secondly for budgetary ones, it was decided that all the set decoration elements that had to be used to transform the New York City set into the Los Angeles of 2019, would have to be retrofitted onto the exterior of the existing buildings, going back to the aforementioned idea that in the future, nothing would be thrown away, but rather re-used and retrofitted to keep a society already on the verge of economic collapse going forward. With Larry Paul and his crew already working on the sets way before the time Principal Photography started, and realizing many of Syd Mead’s designs, (which ranged from futuristic-looking cleaning trucks, taxis, Spinners, park meters which could electrocute offenders if they attempted to tamper with them, and some iconic props like the Voight-Kampf test machine, Deckard’s blaster..), the sets were pretty much done for the most part by the time Ridley, the cast and the rest of the crew showed up on set. The Pre-production crew had enjoyed a rare and unprecendented long period of nine months of preparation for the project due to an Actor’s Guild strike at the time, which allowed for the bulk of the on-set work and designs to be ready. The crew, however, would soon find out that working with someone like Ridley Scott, with such a penchant for detail and perfect framing, was going to be no picnic. The long shooting hours, mostly at night, under constant rain and fog created by oil smoke machines, was far from ideal. Scott was constantly changing the sets, took a long time to set up the shots, and when he finally did, he would do as many as 15 to 20 takes, until he was satisfied. Yorkin and Perenchio were starting to worry about the production going over schedule, and consequently budget, which would mean that they would have to supply the additional money needed to finish, which didn’t make them in the least happy. The crew wasn’t very happy either, as they felt underappreciated by Scott. It also didn’t help matters that during the course of an on-set interview Scott had done for the British Newspaper The Guardian, when asked by the journalist who did Scott prefer to work with; British technicians, or American ones, Scott responded British. Ridley was accustomed to working with British crews in his home country, and being used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it, he felt somewhat restrained by the way the American crew worked. He was denied the possibility of handling the camera, as per Union regulations in the US, something that frustrated him to no end, and was pretty much a “hands-on” director when it came to the art department, having studied graphic design, and worked as a set designer. Art Director David L. Snyder recalls that upon meeting Ridley on set, and introducing himself as the Art Director, Scott gave him a sidelong look and replied; ” Too bad for you, mate”. The whole crew got wind of this interview, and the next morning Makeup artist Marvin Westmore had T-Shirts made with the phrase; ” Yes, Guvnor. My ass”, in reference to what how the British crews would address Ridley when he requested something; “Yes, Governor”. When Production Executive Katherine Haber learned of this, she also had a few shirts made with the phrase; ” Xenophobia sucks”, in reference to Ridley and the British team being treated different because of their nationalities. Fortunately, the episode lasted for half a day, and by the end of it, the crew was back to business as usual. This, unfortunately, didn’t stop the on-set friction. Some of the members of the cast were also unhappy, with some of them like actor M. Emmet Walsh complaining about the set ups taking too long, and being asked to wait for hours with nothing to do. But the most problematic situation arose with the constant clashing between Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott. The actor was unhappy on a number of levels, not the least of which was the direction, or lack thereof, of the actors on set by Ridley. Ford was an actor who was very involved in the creative process of any movie he participated in, and would be in constant talks with the director on how to approach his character, or a particular scene. Unfortunately, there was no such rapport with Scott, who according to Ford, was more concerned about the visual look of his film than about any of the characters, or the actors portraying them. It is true that Scott wasn’t particularly gifted at that time with dealing with actors, but with a movie already behind schedule, and Yorkin and Perenchio breathing down his neck, and trying to rush him to wrap up shooting, Scott felt that he did the best he could given the circumstances. He also knew that Ford was an actor experienced enough to be able to deliver the goods without a leg-up. Other things like the lack of chemistry between the two leads, the fact that Ford may have resented the fact that Scott was paying more attention to Sean Young, on account of her lack of experience, and certain aspects of the script concerning Ford’s character he wasn’t happy with, only added to the mounting friction on the set. From the very beginning, Ford was unhappy about Young’s casting, thinking her too green for a role of this calibre, and he also fought hard to have certain passages of the script re-worked and re-written. His chief complaint was that his character was a detective who does no detecting, and after having read Hampton Fancher’s last draft before David Proples took over, I can see how he would think that a valid complaint. He also thought that the use of a voice-over was a clunky, inefficient, and redundant way of explaining the story, and his character’s motivations. He thought that it might be more intelligent and useful, to put some of that dialogue in images instead of over-explaining everything. Scott and Peoples did work around the problem, and came up with a few scenes that addressed many of Ford’s complaints but, as lack would have it, the voice-over narration would become a bane in Ford’s existence throughout the whole project that would not die off that easily.
The production was also not without its shortage of problems off-set. Several locations, other than the Burbank New York City set, had been chosen to shoot several scenes. The exterior of the Ennis House, a landmark building in LA that had been designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright was chosen as Deckard’s apartment block, while the interior was recreated in one of Burbank’s sound stages, Union Station was going to double as the Police Headquaters, and The Bradbury, a world famous building in downtown LA, and the filming site of numerous movies and TV shows, was to double for J.F Sebastian’s derelict apartment building. The interior of the Ennis House was considered at one time to be used to film all those scenes taking place in Deckard’s apartment, but it was decided that it would be easier and more controlled if it was shot on the sound stage. In fact, the interior of Deckard’s apartment was recreated to such a level of detail trying to mimic Lloyd Wright’s architecture, that to many of the cast and crew it really felt like a lived-in place, with its low ceilings, art decor furnishings, and even the block-like masonry that was an exact copy of the interior of the Ennis House. The problem would be lighting such a tight and enclosed environment. That’s where the genius of Director of Photography Jordan Cronenweth came to the fore. Being unable to fix any lights from the visible, low ceilings, Cronenweth resorted to lighting from the floor up, bouncing light from the ceiling. Using the excuse of the 2019 Los Angeles being a place with very dense air traffic, he also took the opportunity to shoot Xenon lights from outside the windows of the set into the interior, giving the impression of there always being Spinners flying by outside the tall buildings. This trick was also used in the Bradbury building. That way it gave Cronenweth an additional source of light that was already written into the story. Although all the interiors of J.F Sebastian’s apartment were going to be shot on the set, the crew still needed the exterior of The Bradbury building, and its entry hall, with its never-ending rows of stairs, for some exterior and establishing shots. The crew always shot at night, never during business hours. They would get in at 6 o’clock in the afternoon, and had to be out of there by 6 am the next morning. To give the place the look of it being a derelict, and abandoned building, the art department would come in, trash the place, putting up huge sprinklers to simulate the constant rain, and fill the floor with small pieces of cork, to simulate debris. The use of cork would make it easier for the clean up crew to clean the place, without the use of excessive water, or inflicting irreparable damage to the floor. For the scenes that take place inside the eye designer shop, Hannibal Chew, instead of choosing a real location, or shooting in a sound stage which would have to refrigerated, Scott decided to shoot the whole of the scene inside a meat locker. The crew had to get in a few days earlier, set up all the furnishings, and then blast the whole interior with water, and let it freeze until there were stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and the props. The problem, apart from the unbearably freezing conditions in which the cast and crew had to work, was that as soon as the crew got in and starting setting up the lamps to light up the set, the temperature in the room would rise to the point in which the stalactites would start melting, and falling on the floor.
In the end, the movie went over schedule and over budget, forcing Yorkin and Perenchio to cough up the additional money to finish the shoot. They were so infuriated by the slow pace of Scott’s shooting that, in a fit of rage, issued a letter to Michael Deely informing him that both his and Ridley’s services were no longer required, and that they would effectively take over the production, and edit the movie the way they saw fit. Of course this was easier said than done, as the whole of the post-production, with additional pick-up shots that would have to be done at Shepperton Studios in the UK, still had to be done. All of that had to be supervised by Scott, and after consulting with his Union representative, Scott soon found out that they couldn’t just simply fire him. And so it was that Scott went back to London to supervise the final edit, shoot additional scenes, and oversee one of the most crucial aspects of the whole production; the special effects. The bulk of these were done by Douglas Trumbull and his Special Effects house EEG (Effects Entertainment Group). Trumbull was a highly regarded figure in the field of special and visual effects, and his credits included the visual effects for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture ( Robert Wise, 1979). Trumbull’s crew had a very limited budget to produce the Visual Effects, and had to be very inventive with what they had. They ended up using miniatures from other movies like the top of the Los Angeles PD HQ building on which Gaff’s Spinner lands, which was actually part of the top of the Mothership that was utilized by Spielberg on the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and parts of the Tyrell pyramid were also used for various shots representing some of the city’s skyscrapers. The so-called Hades landscape, the visually mesmerising first shot of the movie, was actually a forced-perspective table top miniature, as too was the Tyrell Corporation pyramid. The scale of the Hades landscape miniature was achieved by using oil smoke to create a haze-like effect, and give the impression that the city went on forever on the horizon, controlling the amount of smoke that there would be on the shot at any given time by using electric fans connected to smoke detectors, thus having always the same quantity of smoke on-screen, and avoiding a stuttering effect. To pinpoint the buildings in the miniature, hundreds of little lights were connected to electric cables that run under the table, while the flames being thrown up by the industrial chimney stacks were optically added to the image later on by layering all the different elements that composed the image with several passes of the motion control camera. Having to print, rewind, and re-print elements on the same negative, it was decided that the crew would be better served by using 65 mm film stock. It could then be sized down to 35 mm, once all the visual effects elements had been added onto the scene, thus avoiding the generational loss that occurs when film stock is exposed several times to add optical effects, and the overall quality of the image degrades. The Tyrell Corporation too was another table top miniature, illuminated by so many pinpoints of light, that some of the circuits fried, burning down half of it in the process. Fortunately, by the time this happened, the crew had already achieved all the shots they wanted with it. The flying Spinners were a combination of miniatures, a life-size fiber glass one for close ups that was elevated with a huge crane, optically removing the wires it was attached to later on, and a mock-up, which was basically just the front part of the vehicle with all the dashboard screens, buttons, and steering wheel, mounted on a gimble, to rock back, forth, and sideways. Some things like water and air could be thrown at the windshield to recreate rain and wind. As the mock up was mounted inside the sound stage, everything that could be seen through the windshield had to be added later on with front projection. When the crew was at first testing the optically added shots of the Spinners flying throughout the futuristic cityscape, the matte lines of the Spinners were too visible, giving up the illusion. To work around this problem, the crew came up with the rather ingenious solution of adding a lens flare on top of the flying vehicles, which created the necessary visual edge to sell the effect. The shots of the futuristic billboards, strange-looking buildings, and the advertising mother blimp, were a combination of miniatures and matte paintings. The magnificent matte paintings by Mathew Yuricich’s crew are some of the most eye-catching ever seen in any movie, ranging from the sunset seen outside of Tyrell’s office window during Rachael’s Voight-Kampf test at the beginning of the movie, to the jaw-dropping ones seen in and around the exterior of the Bradbury building during Deckard and Roy Batty’s final confrontation.
Another important element to be completed during post-production was that of the musical score composed by Greek musical genius Vangelis. Vangelis had already started work on the movie while it was still being shot, but his unique working method, in which the composer insisted on doing everything by himself, meant that it took him a long time for him to finish his scores. He did manage, however, to turn in some musical cues for Scott to use on-set during filming. Scott would have his crew strategically set up speakers all around the set, and would play Vangelis music to inspire the cast and crew, something they were very grateful for, as it helped them fully immerse themselves in the story. Scott was also adamant that a particular scene involving a unicorn was shot at Elstree, and incorporated into the final cut of the movie.
PKD had learned through the trades that the movie was being made, but no one from the Studio; Hampton Fancher, Ridley Scott or Michael Deely had contacted him. He was very unhappy about this state of affairs, and made some very scathing comments on the press about the way the property was being handled, and went down particularly hard on Fancher’s script. PKD didn’t like the noir treatment to his story, and much less the voice-over. He was, however, quite gracious and satisfied about David Peoples’ draft. In his opinion, Peoples breathed new life into the story and characters, got rid of the voice-over, and made something, in his opinion more akin to his original text. Wishing to make amends with the writer, Scott extended an invitation to PKD to come visit the set, so he could see for himself some of the things they were working on. The writer came over with a friend, and after a private conversation with Ridley Scott, they were shown around the set, saw many of the props, and even had the opportunity to see a 30-minute showreel of some of the special effects shots the crew had put together with the Vangelis score. PKD was mesmerised by what he saw, much to the delight of Scott, but especially the special effects crew, and had nothing but good things to say about it all. Scott had been somewhat hesitant to meet PKD, as at the beginning of the production, he had made some unfortunate comments about never having read Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? in its entirety, because he’d found it a struggle to get through, and didn’t really understand what it was all about. Whatever disagreements both men had, it’s clear that they sorted them out during that brief private meeting. He would later tell a close friend of his that, “he was as excited for Blade Runner to come out, as a kid is on Christmas eve”. Sadly, PKD would never get to see the adaptation of his book on the big screen, dying of a stroke four months before the movie came out.
The movie was screened for an audience in two sneak previews that took place in Denver, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas. The results from those two screenings were puzzling, to say the least. Half the audience liked what they saw, even if they were a bit at a loss as to what it was that what they saw meant, and the other half flat out rejected the movie. It was quite demoralizing for all those involved, but especially Yorkin and Perenchio, who wanted several changes for the final cut of the movie, chief among them, the inclusion of a voice-over narration by Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, that they thought would clarify, and help flesh out the story, and the main character’s motivations. Now, Ford had been dead-set from the very beginning against the use of a voice-over, as he thought it would over-explain things happening on-screen; something he felt would be better done by putting those words into actions, and let the audience come up with their own inclusions. Scott, on the other hand, was quite receptive to it at first, as it would serve to create the noir-like atmosphere he wanted for the movie from the very beginning. They had tried, once and again, to come up with the right dialogue for Deckard, but could never quite seem to crack it. Everyone, from Hampton Fancher to David Peoples had had a crack at it, and several variations of the voice-over were recorded many times, much to Ford’s chagrin, who was however contractually obliged to do it. In the end, they gave it one more try, and ended up hiring an screenwriter, TV writer and producer by the name of Roland Kibbee, who was a friend of Bud Yorkin’s. Ford didn’t like the dialogue at all, and legend has it that he recited the voice-over badly, in the hopes that they wouldn’t be able to use. Ford still claims to this day that he did his very best, in spite of the circumstances, and conducted himself professionally at all times. Whichever way you see it, the end result was the same; a clunky, over-explanatory tacked-on mess. Funnily enough, there are people who saw it back in the day, and even some newcomers, who actually like the movie better with the voice over.
Another last minute change that was also required by the producers was that of a happy ending. Yorkin and Perenchio thought the original ending to be too dour and pessimistic, and forced the happy ending on Scott. Kathy Haber was in charge of shooting some additional footage for this happy ending in Monument Valley, Utah, but what was filmed was unusable because of the persisting bad weather conditions. In the end, Scott and a small crew went up to Big Bear mountain, California, to shoot the footage of Deckard and Rachael riding in Deckard’s sedan through a forested mountain road, which was complemented with some aerial footage that was provided by Stanley Kubrick. The aerial footage was actually outtakes from the aerial footage Kubrick’s crew had shot for the opening shots of The Shining (1980). With these changes implemented into the original cut, plus the trimming down of various sequences that were deemed too violent for audiences, the movie was released on June 25, 1982.
Financial reception wasn’t that bad during the first two days, but bad word-of-mouth quickly killed off the movie’s chances at the box office. It also didn’t help that the movie was released at the height of Summer, with E.T the Extraterrestrial ( Steven Spielberg, 1982), having come out only a few weeks prior. A combination of bad marketing, and worse box office timing, stopped the financial success of the movie dead on its tracks. Its main selling point, that of the presence of new Hollywood star Harrison Ford, seemed to work against its favour. Audiences were expecting another action adventure outing by Ford, much in the same vein as his participations in the last two Star Wars movies. His character was anything but heroic, and his fans weren’t quite ready for that. Audiences clearly weren’t ready for the kind of movie they were presented with either. Everyone agreed that it was a visual feast, but that it was dragged down by an incomprehensible plot, unsympathetic, flat characters, and slow pacing. Famous film critic Roger Ebert went down quite hard on the movie, voicing some of the same opinions expressed above. Over the years, he would come to re-evaluate his opinion on the movie, finally caving in, and regarding it as one of the best Sci-fi films in Cinema history. This process of critical and financial re-appraisal of the movie, however, would still take a few years to catch on.
It was actually with the advent of home video in the market that people started looking at the movie with different eyes. With people being able to pause, rewind and pore over the movie’s intricately detailed visual, and artistic merits, the movie found a new market in which to flourish. Only a year after its disastrous theatrical release, some art house theaters, and drive-ins around the country, were hosting midnight screenings. Slowly, but surely, the movie was acquiring cult status, and gaining more and more critical appraisal from most critical circles. Its popularity was further boosted when the movie was edited on Laserdisc by Criterion in all its widescreen glory, something that audiences couldn’t do with earlier iterations of the movie in both VHS and Laserdisc. It was also the first time that US audiences got to see the International cut, which included the bits of violence and gore that had been trimmed from the US theatrical cut. That Criterion LD became a top seller, and a highly regarded collectible item until in 1990 there was a special screening of the movie that had a surprising twist in store for attending audiences.
In early 1990, the Fairfax theater manager requested a 70mm copy of Blade Runner to be screened as part of a revival festival. While looking for it, Michael Arick, a film preservationist who worked for Warner Bros. at the time, stumbled upon a rare copy of the movie that had been thought lost in the Warner vault. It was indeed a 70mm blow-up, one of the very few struck for theatrical exhibition, but not only that. It was a print copy of the very same cut of the movie that had been screened in those early sneak previews in Denver and Dallas; the Workprint. For starters, the condition of the copy was very rough, it had a very different opening credit sequence, alternate takes and dialogue, a louder sound mix, no voice-over narration, except for a little bit at the end when Batty dies, and the last act of the movie, which concerns Deckard’s and Batty’s final showdown, had no music by Vangelis, instead using some cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968) score, and some additional music that James Horner had composed for Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981). Audiences were thrilled about this new print, and relished the opportunity to see a cut of the movie without the clunky voice-over narration. As soon as other art house theaters around the country learned of this new cut, they wanted to book screenings for it. The new print played very succesfully, wherever it went. To the point that the Warner Bros. executives had started to advertise it as the Director’s cut of the movie. When news of this reached Scott, he asked to see it, but soon realized what it really was, and that his famous unicorn scene, which was never really integrated in any cut, was still missing. It was then that a long process started in which Scott wanted to have this cut restored with the unicorn scene included in it. The unicorn scene, much to Fancher’s and Yorkin’s chagrin, was a visual statement by Scott in which the filmmaker all but spelled out the fact that Deckard was in fact a Replicant. Unfortunately, the original unicorn footage that Scott had shot in England couldn’t be found, and the technicians working on the restoration had to make do with outtakes from that footage. The cut was hastily put together, and released on September 11, 1992 in the US, and later on, the rest of the world. It was a smash hit with audiences, but had a lukewarm reception from the critics. The movie was definitely a better version than the original theatrical cut. The voice-over was scrapped, and so was the tacked-on happy ending. Gone too were the extra bits of violence present in both the International Cut, and Workprint. The unicorn scene was finally put in, even if it wasn’t the original footage, and the Worprint’s original ending with the elevator doors closing on Deckard and Rachael, was left as was. What the director’s cut mostly did was sparkle the never-ending debate of whether Deckard is a replicant or not, which still persists to this day. It was also a bestseller both on VHS and Laserdisc, and became the definitive version of the movie for a long time. Still, Scott wasn’t satisfied. It wasn’t until the year 2007 that Charles de Lauzirika, a documentary filmmaker, maker of special feature content for DVD and Blurays, and frequent collaborator of both Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, took it upon himself, and with Scott’s blessing, to not only restore the Director’s cut to how Scott wanted it to look and sound like, but also offer audiences an unprecedented array of documentaries, special features, and audio commentaries that would give those who loved the movie, a unique and never-before-seen glimpse into the moviemaking process of one of the most fascinating movies of the 20th century. Several edits and tweaks were done to the Director’s cut, with many visual and sonic blunders Scott had never been satisfied with being corrected; like the out-of-synch verbal exchange between Deckard and the Egyptian snake vendor ( Harrison Ford’s son, Ben, agreed to come in, and stand-in for his father’s chin so the Visual effects wizards could finally match Deckard’s lips to his actual words), Zhora crashing through the window display after she’s been shot by Deckard, which is clearly a stunt-double wearing an ill-suited wig, that can been clearly seen in all other versions of the movie ( Johanna Cassidy gladly agreed to come in, and redo her scenes as Zhora on a green screen stage), and the dialogue between Bryant and Deckard at the beginning of the movie, where he explains to Deckard that two Replicants, instead of one, got killed trying to break into the Tyrell Corporation was finally corrected, which always left dangling in the air the identity of a sixth Replicant whom we never get to see (the sixth Replicant was called Mary, was going to be played by actress Stacey Melkin, and was always present in all versions of the script until she was written off due to budgetary reasons). Another thing that was reinserted were the extra bits of gore that had been excised from the Theatrical and Director’s cuts, and Scott was finally able to find his original unicorn footage. All in all, this is for many people nowadays their preferred, and definitive version of Blade Runner.
The final film bears little resemblance to PKD’s original text. The book takes place in the year 2021, according to the most recent edition (1992 in the original print), after the end of a third world war called World War Terminus. The Earth is a desolate place on the brink of ecological collapse, and most of the population has emigrated to Off-World colonies, and use human look-alike androids, with limited life spans, as slave labour for the most hazardous chores. A virtually empathic mode of religious cult called Mercerism is all the rage, and the population have home devices called Mood Organs to regulate their moods on a regular basis. Almost all animal and insect life on the planet is extinct, and it’s considered a great sign of social status to possess a living animal. Those who can’t afford one, have to make do with artificial ones. That’s actually Deckard’s main goal throughout the book; to earn enough money to buy a real Sheep, to replace the artificial one he owns. It’s a more intimate affair, Deckard is married, many of the characters have different names, Rachael is still a Replicant, but she and Deckard don’t end up together, even after they have an intimate affair, the Replicants are portrayed are selfish, cold-blooded assassins, and the overall story goes in a very different direction. What Scott does is expand the universe of Deckard’s text, filling it up with visual and storytelling nuances. The core of the story is still there though; what’s the difference between an artificial being and a human, and when do the two of them start to blend, and become indistinguishable. The animal theme, even though it was an idea that Scott really liked, was something that could never fully be integrated into the story to his satisfaction. Rachael has a very different role in the movie, and the Replicants take on a whole new dimension, making them more sympathetic than the Blade Runner who’s hunting them down. Mercerism, and things like the Mood Organ, disappear completely, which I think is for the best, as it would’ve been very tricky to recreate, and make it come across on the screen in a way that people could understand it. So, which one is better? Neither. They’re both great Sci-fi stories in their own right, and I enjoyed them as separate entities. What’s important in this case is that the main theme of the book is elegantly portrayed on-screen, which is the best one can hope for given how PKD’s style of writing doesn’t necessarily lend itself to an easy adaptation.
Blade Runner is a Sci-fi masterpiece, plain and simple. It doesn’t make for easy viewing, its themes are rich and complex, and so are the characters. When I first saw this movie ( a VHS rental I might add), I must admit I was somewhat dissapointed. I was a lot younger and dumber back then, and didn’t fully appreciate what the movie was trying to tell me. Quite frankly, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill Sci-fi actioner, especially having Harrison Ford in the lead. Fortunately, it didn’t take me that long to come around, and on second viewing (a public TV airing this time, and in widescreen to boot!), I was thoroughly enthralled by the whole affair. Of course, like everybody else, I was blown away by the visuals the first time I saw it, but this time it was the philosophical themes of what makes us human, the story and the wonderful characters that drew me to it. Harrison Ford is playing against type, something that he admitted, was what really attracted him to the project. He does a very good job with it, and would really get to expand on his character on the sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Villeneuve, 2017). I completely share his misgivings about the voice-over now, although I have something to confess. The first time I got to see the Director’s cut, if there was one thing I really missed, was Deckard’s narration. Sure, it was over-explanatory and clunky in places, but it provided the viewer with some bits of information about the character, and everything surrounding him, that we wouldn’t have known otherwise; like the fact that Deckard used to be married, information about the character Gaff, City Speak, and even some bits of inner dialogue to further support the theory that Deckard may indeed be a Replicant. Throughout the numerous drafts written by both Fancher and Peoples over the years, it was never mentioned, or even suggested that Deckard might be a Replicant. It was only by the inclusion of some visual clues peppered throughout the movie by Ridley Scott, that the idea started to take hold; like Deckard’s collection of old photos on his piano, the voice-over bit in which he says that he thought it a better idea to become a hunter rather than hunted, and what most thought it to be an on-set technical mishap at the time, but a deliberate one according to Scott, in which Ford accidentally walked into Sean Young’s mark during the kitchen scene between the two actors in Deckard’s apartment, after Deckard has retired Leon, and the light which was purposefully reflecting into her eyes, and which belies the fact that she’s a Replicant, also reflects on his. Of course, all of this was further cemented when the Director’s cut was released, and the unicorn scene included. All of a sudden, Gaff leaving a tin-foil origami unicorn by Deckard’s doorstep is, to me at least, irrefutable proof that Deckard is a Replicant. Which is all the more confusing, given the way the sequel went. Whether Deckard is a Replicant or not, I think it ultimately boils down to which of the five cuts one chooses to watch. As for me, after having seen all five available cuts of the movie, I find myself strangely drawn to the Workprint. It may be down to it being the one which is the most different from all other subsequent versions, but I think is a combination of different factors. The rough nature of the cut, louder music, alternate takes, and the only bit of narration recited by Harrison Ford in the entire movie, and the only one that is unanimously praised as being what the narration of the Theatrical cut should’ve been like, which he does right after Batty dies. It’s true that Vangelis hadn’t finished the soundtrack by then, and that editor Terry Rawlings was forced to use tracks from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner as temp music for the final confrontation at The Bradbury, but it’s this disjointing element what makes it so unique, among other things. All other versions of the movie are really re-works of the Theatrical cut. I think all the actors do a superb job, especially Rutger Hauer and Sean Young. Him for his wonderful contributions in creating his character ( the whole “Tears in Rain” speech being one of them), and Young for her magnetically intoxicating presence as Rachael, (which is quite surprising given how inexperienced, and hesitant she was on taking the role). Enough good things cannot be said about Jordan Cronenweth’s Cinematography. His unusual lighting style gave the movie the futuristic look Scott was looking for. A technological Hades, which is visually mesmerising, and nightmarish in equal measure. Very few movies from that time have aged as graciously has Blade Runner has. It was probably one of the last movies in the industry to use the old techniques to achieve its visual trickery, and it shows. Everything from Production Design to music contributes to make this a unique piece of moviemaking. A rare avis, the likes of which we don’t see that much these days.
Thanks for reading.
After succesfully proving that the James Bond franchise was still a viable box office commodity with the runaway success of Goldeneye (Martin Campbell,1995), work inmediately started on the next James Bond picture. Having found a new audience for the latest iteration of the iconic character, Eon Productions wanted to move ahead, and demonstrate to the powers that be at MGM/UA, that the movies could come out on a regular basis, and still keep audiences interested. The problem, as it always is with movies, was the tight schedule whitin which the filmmakers had to work to deliver the movie by Christmas 1997. A schedule that would bring more than its fair share of problems.
The producers wanted Martin Campbell to direct the next movie, which had the working title of Tomorrow Never Lies. This would later be changed for Tomorrow Never Dies, because of a typing mistake made by a publicist when the studio was preparing a press release to announce the title. Campbell turned it down, preferring to helm The Mask of Zorro (1998). Campbell was, according to him, offered to direct every subsequent James Bond movie with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, only agreeing to come back to bring a new James Bond into the limelight in the highly successful and groundbreaking, Casino Royale (2006), when Daniel Craig was chosen to take over the role. The producers decided to go with a filmmaker whom they were looking at as far back as when Timothy Dalton was still playing the role; English-Canadian Roger Spottiswoode (Deadly Pursuit, 1988), (Air America, 1990). Spottiswoode confessed that he couldn’t see himself directing a Bond movie with Dalton in the lead, as he thought Dalton’s approach to the character to be too somber, preferring the lighthearted touch that Brosnan had given it.
Pretty much all the players from the previous movie were invited to come back, with a few notable exceptions. Judi Dench and Samantha Bond were asked to reprise their roles as M and Miss Moneypenny respectively. The actresses, who’d worked together on stage for years, had a very good working relationship, and audiences had liked the way both actresses had approached such iconic characters. Desmond Llewellyn was too asked to come back to play Q one more time. At one point in the screenwriting process, it was decided that the character would be written off the story, stating that he’d retired. There was however one scene in one of the early drafts in which Bond would run into Q lounging on a yacht, surrounded by beautiful women. The idea was scrapped, deciding to bring Llewellyn out for one more movie, and sewing the seeds of an idea that the producers had been toying with for some time in the next movie, The World is not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999); which was to bring in a new Q. The role of the main villain, media baron Elliot Carver, went to British actor Jonathan Pryce, a well regarded stage and film actor better known for his roles in Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985), and Evita (1996, Alan Parker). Screenwriter Bruce Feirstein had Albert Finney on mind while he was writing the script, although he was never contacted, only becoming part of the Bond family years later in Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012), as Kincaid, Bond’s family’s caretaker of the title’s ancestral home, Skyfall. Anthony Hopkins was also approached about the role, and even showed an interest after having read one of Feirstein’s earlier drafts, but ultimately turning it down in favor of participating on The Mask of Zorro ( Martin Campbell, 1998). For the role of the henchmen, the producers chose German actor Gotz Otto for the part of blond-haired assassin Mr Stamper (choosing to dye his hair blond was probably Otto’s idea of homaging Robert Shaw’s iconic turn as SPECTRE’s deadly assassin Red Grant in From Russia with Love, Terrence Young, 1963), and American actor Vincent Schiavelli for the role of Stamper’s master, the assassin Dr Kauffman. Famous magician-turned actor Ricky Jay was offered the role of tecnoterrorist Henry Gupta. American actor Joe Don Baker made a reappearance as CIA agent Jack Wade.
American actress Terri Hatcher, from Lois & Clark: The new adventures of Superman fame, which run from 1993 to 1997, was chosen for the role of Paris Carver, Elliot Carver’s wife, and a former lover of Bond’s. Hatcher was pregnant at the time, and due also to her conflicting schedule with the Superman TV show, it was the source of some on-set friction with her co-star Pierce Brosnan, as she was said to have been late to the set in a few occasions. Italian actress Monica Bellucci was actually Brosnan’s first choice for the role, but was unable to participate in the movie, only to appear a few years later on Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). Malaysian action star Michelle Yeoh was chosen to play the part of Chinese secret agent Wai Lin. Hers was a character that was an equal to 007 in every possible way, and the enthusiasm that Yeoh brought to the role, along with her very dynamic fighting style (a product of a very prolific career in martial arts movies, and her background as a professional dancer), never before attempted in a Bond movie, brought a very fresh perspective to the way Bond girls had been viewed thus far, a trend that had already started in earnest with Izabella Scorupco’s characterization of Computer Programmer Natalya Simonova in Goldeneye. Yeoh’s character proved to be so popular with audiences, that the producers toyed for some time with the idea of bringing her back for subsequent Bond movies, something that sadly never came to pass.
As for the crew, a few last-minute changes had to be made. Peter Lamont was unavailable at the time, as he was still working on Titanic ( James Cameron, 1997). Allan Cameron replaced him, and given how tight a schedule all the crew had, he does a magnificent job with the sets. Especially noteworthy is the dressing of the Carver Media Group’s (CMG) Headquaters in Hamburg, for which the IBM HQ in England was used, the interior of the stealth ship, the interior of the British battleship cruisers, and especially an alley in Bangkok, Thailand which was dressed to resemble an alley in Hanoi,Vietnam, for the motorcycle chase sequence; a portion of which was later recreated in Frogmore Studios, UK, for the scene in which Bond jumps with the motorcycle over a helicopter between two buildings. The level of detail that Cameron brought to his sets is amazing considering the time constraints he and his team were under. Vic Armstrong, the legendary stunt double-turned-stunt coordinator, and who was a stalwart of the Bond family since the days of You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967), where he was one of the ninjas climbing down from the roof of Ken Adams’s amazing volcano set, was put in charge of shooting the main action set pieces. It was kind of a full circle kind of deal for Armstrong, who after having had an illustrious career as one of the best stunt doubles in the business, would finally come to be an instrumental part in the design of some of the amazing action set pieces from the Bond movies he’d grown to love over the years. Back to the Bond family fold was also John Richardson. After the untimely passing of master model maker Derek Meddings before the release of Goldeneye, the filmmakers decided to enlist the talents of an equally gifted Visual Effects wizard who’d honed his skills working on some of the most memorable action set pieces in the series. Robert Elswitt would become the first American Cinematographer to light a Bond picture. British Costume Designer Lindy Hemming was hired once again after her work on Goldeneye to dress the cast. Hemming would go on to do the Costume design for every subsequent Bond movie afterwards until Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006). After having proven his mettle in the Sci-fy genre with movies like Stargate (1994), and Independence Day (1996), both directed by Roland Emmerich, David Arnold was offered the chance to fulfill his long-cherished dream of writing the music for a Bond movie. Arnold was a self-confessed John Barry fan, and had even released an album of Bond covers titled, Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond project. It was said that John Barry was considered by the producers to write the music for the film, but bowed out due to asking too much money, and being denied the chance to write the title song. The producers had liked the way things had worked out on the previous movie, where Eric Serra had written the score, but Bono and the Edge had written the title song, with Tina Turner singing. They wanted to keep on doing the same thing, and that’s how they got in touch with Sheryl Crow to sing the title song; Tomorrow Never Dies. Arnold had also written a title song for the movie with lyrics by Don Black, and sang by K.d Lang, which is intrinsically linked with Arnold’s score, and more in keeping with the Bond sound, but was ultimately rejected in favor of Sheryl Crow’s song, and relegated to the end titles. Arnold used a variety of composing styles for the score, going from the more classic John Barry-esque sound for the first part of the movie, full-on techno for the scenes taking place in Hamburg, and which had to do with Carver’s mass media world, and giving it oriental vibes for the last stretch of the movie taking place in Asia. It was a thematically rich soundtrack, that however owed too much to John Barry’s style. As it had been the case with Pierce Brosnan on the previous movie, Arnold would not really come into his own musically until he wrote the music for The World is not Enough ( Michael Apted, 1999). Daniel Kleinman was counted upon one more time to design the title sequence for the movie. Kleinman had been a more than apt substitute for the late, legendary Maurice Binder. After having dabbled with the fall of the Soviet Union on Goldeneye, this time around the design would revolve around the theme of TVs, electronic circuits, and satellites, with the usual gorgeous looking ladies playing an important part in the proceedings.
Bruce Feirstein, who’d been one of the screenwriters responsible for polishing Goldeneye’s script, pitched the producers the idea of a media mogul, who being unsatisfied with England’s handover of China back to the Chinese government in 1997, wanted to create a war between the two countries, at the same time bolstering his newspapers sales all over the world. This character, by the name of Elliot Harmsway, would also align himself with a hard-line Chinese general, who would take over whatever was left of the government in exchange for granting Harmsway exclusive broadcasting rights in China. The producers were very happy with this outline but, following the advise of Roger Spottiswoode, they wanted to get more screenwriters involved to see what they could bring to the table. A total of six screenwriters were brought over to England to stay for a week, and work out the story’s details. Among these were well known screenwriters like Nicholas Meyer (The Wrath of Khan, 1984), Leslie Dixon (Mrs Doubtfire, 1993), and Daniel Petrie Jr (Beverly Hills Cop, 1984). A few ideas were tossed about, but ultimately it was on Feirtein to finish writing the script, while the movie was already being shot. This haphazard way of working round the clock, without a clear vision, produced a great deal of unhappiness within the crew, but especially the cast, who after having learned their lines of dialogue for the next day, would be handed over new revised lines by courier the night before, giving the actors very little time to learn them. Bruce Feirsten had a tent outside the set, on which he’d work on the script every day, handing fresh pages to the cast and crew on the day when needed. Pierce Brosnan was very unhappy about the way the production was being handled, and was pretty vocal about it, going as far as to complain to both Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson about it. As too was Judi Dench, who had a very tense working relationship with Spottiswoode on the set. The problems derived mostly, as Brosnan put it, from the uncohesive nature of the script. Brosnan, as did many other cast members like Jonathan Pryce, felt that the script didn’t have a clear structure. The overall feeling was that the picture had been rushed into production, without having done the Pre-production prep work properly, like it had been done on Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995), which was one of the requisites for Campbell taking on the project; being completely familiar with the script, and what needed to be done on the day, by the time Principal Photography started. Be that as it may, the production team was able to plow ahead, having come up with the main action set pieces months in advance. More on that later.
The core of Feirstein’s first draft remained, albeit with many changes made to the characters and situations. As the filmmakers thought that the subject of the Chinese Handover would be too much of a touchy subject, they decided to drop it, leaving it as follows; the name of the villain was changed from Elliot Harmsway, which pretty much sounds like a name Fleming would’ve given one of his villains, to Elliot Carver. The whole plot about Carver causing an armed conflict, to confront China and the UK, out of resentment for the whole handover thing was dropped, instead being the increase of newspapers sales, the expansion of his media empire, and him being given exclusive broadcasting rights in China as result as his aligning with a hard-line general of the Chinese army, being the main motives behind Carver’s schemes. The Bond girl would not be the daughter of one of Carver’s associates, as was the case in the earlier drafts, instead not only changing the girl’s nationality from British to Chinese, but from being the daughter of a business man to that of a secret agent. The character of Paris was also a late introduction. With the changes in place, the story goes as follows; Elliott Carver, CEO of the Media Carver Group wants to provoke World War III, to increase the circulation of his newspapers, and expand his media empire. With the help of a hard-line Chinese general, he’s built a stealth ship, and stolen a Satellite positioning device that will enable him, through his telecommunications satellites, positioned all around the world, to deviate the course of a British battle cruiser from international waters to Chinese waters. He then uses the stealth vessel to get next to it, and sink it. While the battleship is being attacked, two Chinese Mig fighters come to investigate, and to warn the British to return to international waters. Carver’s crew fire a missile from the stealth ship, and take down one of the Chinese fighters. Once the ship has sunk to the bottom of the sea, a diving team from the stealth ship goes down to the sunken ship to remove two nuclear missiles to be used at a later date. Some survivors from the British Battleship are found by the crew of the stealth ship, and killed using Chinese munition, to better sell the illusion of there being an open conflict between the two countries. Carver’s media group covers the incident immediately, and M, finding the timing a bit suspicious, sends her best mant, agent 007, to investigate.
As mentioned earlier, many of the main action set pieces for the movie had been meticulously planned out and storyboarded, well in advance of Principal Photography during Pre-production, even when the connective tissue provided by the rest of the script was still being developed. This is no strange practice in the movie business, as these sequences are always the first to be ready due to the amount of planning and special and visual effects usually needed for them. A very important element of this process were the storyboards provided by storyboard artist Martin Ashbury, who had every shot of these action set pieces drawn up before all the different units started shooting a single frame of the movie. And so it was, that three months before the main unit started shooting in London, Vic Armstrong and his second unit crew flew to France, more especifically to the French Pyrenees. There on top of an airfield on Peyragudes, Armstrong and his crew built a hangar, and laid out the whole scene to shoot the pre-title sequence that was supposed to take place on the Khybar Pass in Afghanistan. It was decided that they would do it at the beginning of the year, in January, as it would be the time of the year when they would find the most snow on top of the mountain. Not only did they find, to their horror, that what little snow there was, was melting away, but that also due to the awful weather conditions, with rain and fog, they had a very short window during the early hours of the morning, and midafternoon, where they could shoot the scenes. Due to the huge amount of pyrotechnics the special effects crew had to rig, they had to be very precise with their planning and execution, as most of the explosions could only be done once. In the end, the crew managed to sort out the snow problem by bringing truckloads of it from the nearby mountains, with the rest being artificial snow spread all over the place, and mixed in with the real snow. In total, Armstrong ended up supervising three major action set pieces in the movie; the pre-title sequence, which was a combined effort with Mark Wolff taking care of the aerial unit stuff, the car park chase sequence in Hamburg, which was shot in the car park of Brent Cross shopping centre in London, and the rooftop motorcycle chase sequence, which was shot both in Bangkok, and in the backlot at Frogmore studios in the UK, doubling for a section of the same street as mentioned earlier. For the car park chase sequence in which Bond escapes his pursuers using a tricked out BMW 750i that can be remotely controlled via Bond’s gadget-laden Sony Ericsson cell phone, the crew were given as many of sixteen BMWs, each one of them to perform a specific function within the sequence. To sell the illusion that the car was being driven without anyone behind the wheel, they had a driver hidden in a compartment in the backseat, provided with monitors, fed by cameras placed around the car, that would enable the driver to see where he was going. It was a very difficult and time consuming stunt, as even the images showing on Bond’s cell phone screen during the pursuit, had to have been previously shot to then be inserted on the cell phone screen. The motorcycle chase on the rooftops in Bangkok also proved to be very tricky, not only because of the difficulty of the stunt, but because of the exceedingly hot temperatures during that time of the year in Bangkok, with many crew members having the soles of their shoes melt away because of the heat. To perform the motorcycle stunt the filmmakers went to the only man in the business who could perform the stunt safely; Jean-Pierre Goy. Goy was a specialist motorcycle stunt driver, who at the time held the record for the longest running wheelie in the world. The BMW motorcycle provided to the crew was a very unwieldy and heavy piece of machinery. Only Goy could get it to perform well. On the backseat, doubling for Michelle Yeoh, was Vic Armstrong’s own wife, Wendy Leech. Together they performed the amazing stunt in which Bond jumps with the motorcycle from one roof of a building to the other over a flying helicopter in between the two buildings, which was done in the backlot in Frogmore studios, as it was deemed safer to do the stunt there in a more controlled environment, as the stunt team had done with the tank chase sequence in St Petersburg under the direction of Ian Sharp in Goldeneye, two years previously. Another amazing stunt was the one that has Bond and Lin coming down the front of a building by grabbing onto a huge banner with Carver’s face on it. This was achieved by having a model of the banner shot by the model unit headed by John Richardson, and later on superimposing it on the facade of a real building in Bangkok for the establishing shots. The trickiest part of the jump was done by both Brosnan’s and Yeoh’s stunt doubles for some of the long shots, and those having Bond and Lin crash through the building’s windows, while Brosnan and Yeoh did the close ups on a mock up of the building and banner. Principal unit, directed by Roger Spottiswoode himself, took care of the final battle sequence aboard Carver’s stealth ship. The variety of locations and different time zones was mind-boggling, something the Bond crew was quite used to by this point. There were scenes shot in France, Thailand ( Phuket and its chain of islands, a recognizable landmark by any Bond fan, as it was used as a filming location in The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974), also doubles here for Kowloon Bay), and the UK by Vic Armstrong’s second unit. Roger Spottiswoode, took care of most of the stuff shot in Frogmore and Pinewood Studios, while the Visual Effects unit headed by John Richardson were in Puerto Rosarito, Mexico, shooting all the model shots of the British naval vessels, and the stealth ship in the Fox Baja Studios water tank, the same used by James Cameron to shoot Titanic (1997). That water tank was also used to shoot the underwater scenes of the model of the sunken British naval ship, while the paddock tank in Pinewood Studios, UK, was used by the cast to shoot the equivalent of those scenes in close ups. It was a very nerve-wracking, and claustrophobic situation for some of the actors, especially Pierce Brosnan, who wasn’t the most experienced of divers. Michael Wilson himself, being somewhat of an expert diver, volunteered to go under with the actors, and give them a few pointers on how to best manage the pressures of being underwater for long periods of time. One more stunt was handled by long-time Bond Stuntman and Stunt Coordinator, aerial unit Stunt Coordinator wiz B.J Worth. Worth had been a mainstay of the Bond stunt team as far back as Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979), where he’d performed the amazing freefall off a plane without a parachute for the pre-credits sequence. This time around, he had to perform a HALO (High Ultitude, Low opening) jump from a military cargo plane over the coast of Florida, which would be doubling for the coast of Vietnam. It was a very dangerous stunt in which several things could go wrong, from either getting entangled on his parachute when he pulled it just before entering the water, crashing in the water at too much speed, or cracking his head against the two oxygen tanks he had to carry on his back. An emergency rescue boat was stationed near the area where he would land, in case anything went wrong. Fortunately, everything went perfectly well, and without a glitch.
The film achieved generally good reviews, and a worldwide box office gross of $333,011,068 million, making it the second highest grossing Bond movie of all time, even if it had strong competion that year from James Cameron’s mammoth romantic drama set during the sinking of the famous luxury liner, Titanic (1997). 1997 was the year of Titanic, and the fact that the next James Bond movie could confidently stand its ground against the financial onslaught that Cameron’s movie signified for most theatrical releases around that period, was a testament to how well things were working out for both the franchise, and Brosnan himself. Brosnan had started his run as 007 with a bang with Goldeneye, and was asserting himself as the new James Bond. So, is Tomorrow Never Dies as good, entertaining, or exciting as its predecessor? Let’s see.
It’s certainly not on par with Goldeneye when it comes to its plot and characters, but it is certainly a highly enjoyable, entertaining Bond film, with all the usual visual and thematic tropes associated with the character, (the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination, the gadgets, the girls, the incredible action set pieces, and the final showdown in the villain’s lair). It’s very competently made, with high production values. Brosnan is clearly more settled into the character this time around, the ease with which he portrays him is astounding, given it’s only his second movie. Even though Jonathan Pryce is clearly having fun playing the villain, his and Gotz Otto’s additions to the Bond Villains’ Hall of Fame come off as somewhat formulaic and, uninteresting at times. Michelle Yeoh’s energizing characterization throughout is clearly one of the film’s highlights, and it’s a real shame that she was never afforded the chance to come back. We would get Halle Berry’s Jacinta Jinx a few years later on Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), instead. Imagine how much better that movie would have been, if Yeoh had been given the chance to come back then. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What occupies us here is a very well made, if somewhat formulaic, Bond movie. It also happens to be, along with Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964), and Quantum of Solace (Marc Foster, 2008), one of the shortest. It’s got a serviceable, but ultimately underwhelming title song, definitely a step down from Tina Turner’s wonderful rendition of Goldeneye. David Arnold and Don Black’s title song for the movie, Surrender, sang by K.d Lang, would’ve been a more traditional sounding and satisfying Bond title song. One thing that is a notable improvement over the previous movie is the score. Not only is the music for the film more traditional, and in keeping with the Bond soundscape of old, I’d even go as far as to say that Arnold is probably the best musician who’s composed for the saga since John Barry. John Barry’s scores for the series became a musical landmark that would forever set the tone for what a Bond movie should sound like for years to come, and here Arnold follows suit. Eric Serra’s introduction into the series was a gross misstep, best left forgotten, which was happily corrected. Arnold would be afforded four more chances to leave his musical imprint in the series with (The World is not Enough, 1999), (Die Another Die, 2002), (Casino Royale, 2006), and (Quantum of Solace, 2008), Casino Royale being his absolute best score for the entire series. Not all Bond movies are created equal, but this one ranks amongst the most entertaining, and it’s definitely not the write-off many people consider it to be. Great entertainment value, and well worth your time.
Thanks for reading.
After a six-year hiatus, the time had finally come to get a new 007 adventure off the ground. Having been entangled in never-ending rights disputes, Timothy Dalton had been waiting for a long time in the sidelines to make another movie. Some very nice ideas had been bounced around in an attempt to breathe more life into a character that, in many people’s minds, had turned stagnant and was in dire need of a revamp. Nothing ever came to fruition though, and by the time 1994 came around, the powers that be at MGM/UA did no longer consider Dalton a viable commercial option to bring the character back into vogue for the 90s. He was kindly requested to publicly step down, a fact that both Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who had already taken over Eon Productions by that time, sorely lamented, as they were sincerely hoping to honour the commitment they’d made with Dalton to stick with him for at least one more picture. Dalton made a public statement, and gracefully stepped down as requested leaving both the character, and the whole future of the franchise in the hands of an actor who’d been offered the part once before, but had to give it up at the last minute; Pierce Brosnan. But how did this come about, and how exactly were the filmmakers planning to modernize a character that, according to public opinion, seemed old-fashioned and ill-suited for modern times?
As soon as the legal issues had been resolved, the filmmakers started playing around with the idea of how to best bring the iconic character of 007 back into the spotlight. First, they had to find a story that would fit within the modern sensibilities of a new world order in which the Cold War was no longer the status quo. They found such a story by screenwriter Michael France. France had recently penned the script to the highly successful Renny Harlin directed Stallone action-vehicle Cliffhanger (1993), and had even been to Russia doing research on a story in which James Bond came face to face with an obscure criminal organization by the name of Janus, comprised of former KGB agents and various terrorist and mercenary groups from around the globe. Their latest coup had been the robbery of an experimental fighter helicopter provided with stealth technology and immune to electromagnetic energy pulses. The organization then uses the helicopter to steal the activation codes for a space satellite weapon that activates an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse), to erase any trace of their theft. Bond’s mission is to recover the stolen codes, a mission in which he will be helped by Natalya Simonova, a computer programmer who used to work at the Severnaya station where the weapon was based. Along the way, Bond will encounter old foes, unlikely allies, and a surprising ghost from the past who comes back to haunt him. The seed of the story was very much liked by both Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who insisted however that more rewrites were done to streamline the story and some of the characters. First Jeffrey Caine, and later Bruce Feirstein, with un-credited help by Kevin Wade, were brought on to help with the re-writes. A director had already been picked by the producers. Michael Campbell had been brought to the attention of the hire ups at MGM/UA on account of his previous movie; No Escape. The producers were mostly impressed by the way in which Campbell had made a relatively low-budget Sci-fi movie look like an A-list movie. His list of TV credits were also quite impressive, as he had directed for the BBC the highly successful TV series thriller, Edge of Darkness, and the spy-thriller Reilly: Ace of Spies, which had been a source of inspiration for the Bond producers. They were also pretty confident that he could both, deliver the movie in time, and make every cent spent on it show on the screen. With this in mind, and Campbell being a self-confessed James Bond fan, everything seemed to be on track for a successful new take on the character. Apart from his usual Director of Photography Phil Mehéux, who had up until that point, lensed every movie ever directed by Campbell, the filmmaker didn’t draw too far away from the well as he pretty much asked the majority of the technicians who had worked on all the Bond movies over the years, to come back. So it was that Peter Lamont came back on Production Designer duties, and so did the likes of Stunt Coordinators Simon Crane, B.J Worth, model maker and Special Effects wizard Derek Meddings and several others who’d grown professionally making the magic for the Bond movies. Some new blood was also incorporated into the mix like Costume Designer Lindy Hemming, who provided the magnificent wardrobe for the multiple characters, and the excellently tailored Brioni suits for the new 007, and Luc Besson’s frequent collaborator, the new-age composer Eric Serra, contributing for the movie what was hoped would be a new soundscape for the character, and resulting in one of the most criticized, and head-scratching decisions ever made for a Bond soundtrack, with the exception of Michel Legrand’s jazzy score for the un-official James Bond entry Never Say Never Again, Irvin Kershner (1983).
With a constantly re-worked script pretty much locked by the time Campbell was all but ready to start Principal Photography, the world press was finally ready to meet the man who would step into the shoes of James Bond; Pierce Brosnan. The official unveiling took place at the Regent’s Hotel in London. Sporting long hair and a beard for his upcoming role in Robinson Crusoe, Rod Hardy and George Miller (1997), the press was a little taken aback by the physical appearance of the new 007. But no one was more taken aback, and surprised by the news, than the man himself. As previously stated on my review of The Living Daylights, John Glen (1987), Brosnan had already been offered the role back then, but had to bow out due to his contractual obligations with the Remington Steele TV show. The actor was somewhat hesitant and cautious about getting excited for it all over again as, and I quote; “He didn’t want to get jerked around again”. When the news were all but confirmed by his agent, the actor was beyond ecstatic. He was excited to give it his best, as he’d been a huge admirer of both Sean Connery and especially, Roger Moore, whom he freely admitted years later had taken a lot of cues from to build his own 007. Brosnan felt that humour was an element that had been seriously lacking in the last two entries, and wanted it to be re-introduced as part of the character’s makeup.
For the all important role of Bond’s archnemesis, Alec Trevelyan, A.K.A former 006, the producers went with actor Sean Bean. The British actor was very popular in the UK for the ITV Sharpe TV show which run from 1993 to 1997. The producers were looking for an actor of around the same age and built, that could be a match to Brosnan in the hand to hand combat scenes, and who could’ve conceivably been thought of as a potential candidate to play the role of James Bond himself. German actor Godfried John was chosen to play the part of General Ourumov, who’s in cahoots with Trevelyan. Scottish actor Alan Cummings was offered the role of computer programmer geek Boris Grishenko, Turkey-born French actor Tchéky Karyo played the role of Russian Defense Minister Dimitri Mishkin, an old acquaintance of Martin Campbell’s from his Edge of Darkness days, American actor Joe Don Baker, came back to the series as Bond’s CIA contact in Russia, Jack Wade. This was the actor’s second appearance in the series after he’d played the villain in The Living Daylights, John Glen (1987). British actor Robbie Coltrane fulfilled the role of Valentin Zukovski, ex-KGB agent, who runs guns, and who has an old score to settle with Bond. An important, and rather surprising contribution was that of Judi Dench, who plays the role of M. Having M being played by a woman instead of a man was screenwriter Bruce Feirstein’s idea, and Campbell suggested that if the role had to be played by a woman, it might as well by a star. Dench was a prestigious stage actress at the time, and had even worked with Bernard Lee, who’d played the role of Bond’s boss for the first ten movies. She was a bit nervous about taking on the role, but thanks to both her performance and choice of wardrobe by Lindy Hemming, she did a wonderful job of it. The only actor from the old movies who was asked to come back was Desmond Llewellyn as Q. Llewelly was more than happy to reprise his role, and surprised to be the only one from the old cast asked to come back, as not even Caroline Bliss, who’d played the role of Miss Moneypenny in the two previous movies was. She was replaced by an actress aptly named Samantha Bond, who happened to be very good friends with Bliss since Grammar School. Both Samantha Bond and Judi Dench, each in their respective ways, give Bond a good tongue-lashing, Moneypenny no longer being the meek, ever-expecting secretary pining for Bond’s elusive affections, and Dench describing him as a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war. The 90s had brought on more awareness towards certain sexist attitudes that were no longer deemed appropriate, a change especially in the attitude towards women that would be further reflected in the way the Bond girls would be portrayed by their respective actresses.
For the all important roles of the Bond girls we have two very interesting choices; Dutch actress Famke Janssen plays the role of sadistic, thigh-crushing assassin Xenia Onatopp. The actress was approached by the filmmakers after they’d seen some footage of a film the actress was shooting in the USA for MGM, Lord of Illussions, Clive Barker (1995). She came in, and did a terrific reading of the casino scene which totally convinced the producers they’d found the right actress for the job. The other side of the coin, the “good Bond girl”, so to speak, went to Polish actress Izabella Scorupco. The casting agent Debbie McWilliams was struggling to find an actress for the role, and was looking everywhere in Europe, until she happened to find herself in the office of a Swedish casting agent who showed her rushes of the movie that Scorupco was shooting at the time, Petri Tears, a medieval drama in which the actress spent most of the running time dressed as a man. McWilliams liked her very much, and chose her for the role of Natalya Simonova, the Russian Computer programmer who helps Bond stop Trevelyan. Her role in the movie was to be somewhat of a breakthrough role for Bond girls in the series as, this time around the Bond girl would be even more resourceful, self-reliant, and instrumental in the development of the action. Strides had been made over the years in this terrain, but the producers were even more adamant to bring across the point that times had changed for the better, and that Bond would have to change with them.
Even before the script had been finished, the filmmakers were faced with the problem of finding a soundstage large enough to fit in the immense sets that the movie was going to need. This was to be an even more larger in scale production than any of the previous ones had been, and the, by all accounts, too small sound stages in Pinewood were no longer a suitable option. While scouting all over Europe for set space, the crew came upon the solution closer to home than they could’ve imagined. Leavesden Aerodrome, home to a former Rolls Royce factory, where they used to build aeroplanes during WWII, was the place chosen by the crew to shoot the next 007 adventure. It was up to the technical crew, under the direction of Peter Lamont, to build one of the largest, working soundstages in Europe. Over the years, the ever-growing soundstage would be host to George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace (1999), and many other Hollywood blockbusters until it became the home base for the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011). The entirety of the interior of MI6 HQ (situation room, M’s office..), Valentin Zukovski’s nightclub, a faithful recreation of a whole floor of the Montecarlo Casino, the control room of the Severnaya station, the interior of Trevelyan’s underground base of operations under the submerged control antenae, and the interior of Trevelyan’s bulletproof train were all built in Leavesden. Associate Producer Anthony Waye was able to secure the French goverment to loan the crew one of their experimental prototype Tiger helicopters that was parked on top of a naval vessel at Monaco’s port. The crew had a very limited time to make use of both the helicopter and the ship, and had to breeze through the shots in all but two days. The crew also made use of many exterior locations like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico for establishing shots of Trevelyan’s hideout, a local beach in the area that was secluded enough for the crew to shoot one of the most romantic scenes in the movie, Verzasca Dam in Lugarno, Switzerland, for the bungee-jump scene at the beginning of the movie that serves as an establishing shot for the Arkangel Chemical Factory in USRR, Montecarlo for the Casino scenes at the beginning of the movie, the Alpes-Maritimes, and its twisting roads for the cat and mouse car chase scene between Bond’s Ashton Ashton Martin DB5, and Onatopp’s red Ferrari, the Swiss Alps for the scene in which Bond jumps off a cliff with a motorcycle to try and catch up with a rapidly-falling-into-a-ravine, pilotless plane, Nene Valley Railway in Northhamptonshire doubling for the Russian Railway station from which Trevelyan’s bulletproof train takes off, the SIS HQ in Vauxhall, London, for establishing shots of MI6 HQ, and finally St Petersburg, Russia, where the crew went to get some establishing shots, and where a good chunk of the tank chase sequence throughout its streets was done.
One of the most remarkable and memorable aspects of this movie is the greater amount of action set pieces that are in it, even more so than in any other Bond movie before it. First off, the movie starts with a remarkable stunt performed by stuntman Wayne Michaels for the pre-credits scene in which Bond has to bungee-jump off the top of a dam to the very bottom of a ravine where there is a secret passageway into the chemical factory. On his way down, he has to take out a grapple gun attached to a belt in his suit, shoot the grapple onto the metal surface at the bottom of the dam, and laser his way in, using the laser cannon fixed on top of the grapple gun. Many aspects of the stunt had to be taken into consideration, not the least of which was the fact that the wind velocity and direction had to be perfect in order for the stunt to work. The wall was concave, which made it difficult for Michaels to control his descent without smashing his body against the concrete surface. For that, the crane onto which the cable was attached had to be sufficiently outwards to allow Michaels enough leeway if the cable recoiled. After many tries in which the crew attached weighted mannequins, and even a tree trunk of roughly the same size and weight, with these almost inevitably crashing against the wall before many of them even got to the bottom, the weather conditions were finally ideal enough for Michaels to do his jump. The difficulty of the jump was also compounded by the fact that Michaels had to get the grapple gun out in camera before reaching the bottom. Amazingly enough the stunt was achieved, and when edited together with the bits and pieces done by Brosnan in the soundstage, it was seemless. The next stunt takes place at the end of the pre-credits sequence in which French stuntman Jaques Malnuit drives the Italian Cagiva motorcycle off the cliff, and after the pilotless plane. The first part of the stunt was done by Malnuit, while the second part was supposed to be done by B.J Worth, a veteran of the Bond stunt team who’d worked in numerous Bond films like Moonraker, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, and Licence to Kill; whenever there were aerial stunts involved. It was actually Worth, who was in charge of coordinating and directing the stunt, but as many times as he tried, he could not get the stunt to work properly, with the idea being that he had to be able to match the velocity of his freefall with that of the descending plane, with weight and gravity always one step ahead. Unable to get the shot, the stunt crew had to wrap up, and recreate the whole stunt in a soundstage with Pierce Brosnan hanging from cables from the roof. The process shot had an unrealistic quality to it that has never quite satisfied both the filmmakers and the audience. For the cat and mouse car chase scene between Bond’s DB5 and Xenia’s red Ferrari, the filmmakers went back to the expertise of an old acquaintance of the Bond family; the French stunt driving team of Rémy Julienne. For the scene to work properly, and for the on-road performance of the DB5 to match that of the Ferrari’s, Julienne and his team had to alter the mechanics of the car. The sequence was heavily storyboarded and shot by second Unit director Ian Sharpe, who also took charge of most of the action in the pre-title sequence and the tank chase around St Petersburg. The tank chase was one of the most difficult action set pieces from a logistical point of view. Barbara Broccoli was in charge of supervising Main Unit in St Petersburg, with the crew having to replace lots of street furniture overnight for breakable materials and props, to be replaced to their original state once they were finished. The local authorities were always a pain in the neck for the Bond crew, even after having acquired all the necessary permits to shoot, because of all the local neighbour’s complaints about the noise and the havoc the crew was wreaking in their beloved city. It was decided that it would be better to work in a more controlled environment by making use of all the extra room that the backlot at Leavesden afforded them. A section of the city of St Petersburg was recreated on the backlot to finish the tank chase, and especially for the crucial scene in which the tank crashes against a truckload of Perrier water.
Brosnan and Bean tried as much as possible to do their own stunts, having occasionally to be doubled by the likes of Wayne Michaels or Simon Crane, but the majority of their hand to hand fight in the dark engine room of the antenae was done by them. This scene was a nightmare for Phil Méheux to shoot because of the darkness of the room, and the fact that both Brosnan and Bean were dressed in dark colors. In the end he came with a solution to his dilemma by having holed up panels put up on the sides of the room to allow some natural light to come through.
One of the best contributions to the movie were those from model maker and Special effects Supervisor Derek Meddings. Meddings was no stranger to bringing the world of 007 to life as he’d been a fixture for the James Bond movies on and off since Live and Let Die, Guy Hamilton (1973). His incredible model work helps bring to life some of the most impressive action set pieces of the movie, most of which were built on Leavesden’s back lot. Among these we have a model built to scale of the Severnaya control station complemented with a Tiger helicopter model as well that was used for establishing shots, as well as some incredibly detailed forced perspective shots in the scene in which Grishenko comes out of the station to have a smoke and the station’s main building and antenae come be seen in the background. Equally impressive are the shots of the Russian Migs crashing against the antenae which is all model work enhanced with a little bit of some early CGI. His are as well the shots of the exploding chemical factory in the pre-title sequence which was all a miniature. A mixture of live action and model work was also used for the scene in which Bond and Natalya are trapped inside the Tiger helicopter which is rigged to explode. A miniature tank and bulletproof train was used for the scene in which Trevelyan’s train rams Bond’s tank. But the most impressive model set which Weddings and his crew built is probably Trevelyan’s base of operations; a control antenae that is submerged under an artificial lake. Meddings and his crew copied the design of the real Arecibo Observatory antanae, and built an exact replica in the back lot, having it rigged to come out of the water on cue. When married with the live action footage of Bond and Natalya walking up to it that was optically inserted, the end result is so photorealistic, it’s hard to tell which part is a model, and which part isn’t. Unfortunately Meddings didn’t live long enough to see his best work on the big screen, having died a few days before the premiere. The film was posthumously dedicated to him. As a matter of fact, this review is kind of my own homage to two brilliant minds and contributors to the way James Bond movies looked on the big screen; Derek Meddings and Peter Lamont, who passed away a few weeks ago. Their time in the Industry, and especially working on the Bond movies, defined a way to work and artistry that is sadly lost these days, where CGI, be it good or bad, runs rampant. They will be forever missed, and their work a living testimony of what true filmmaking of the highest order looks like.
Goldeneye was very well received by both critics and audiences alike. Both modern and established audiences liked the new James Bond. Pierce Brosnan had passed the test with flying colors, ushering in a new era for the character. The movie had a cumulative worldwide gross of $352,194,034 million, and it was, up until that point, the highest grossing movie in the franchise. James Bond was alive and kicking, financially healthy enough to keep going for a few more rounds but, what do I think of Pierce Brosnan’s baptism of fire in the franchise?
This movie has enormous significance to me. I already was a James Bond fan by the time Goldeneye came around. I’d discovered the character first on TV airings as a little kid, and would fall in love with the character all over again when I started renting all the old movies on VHS. I was pretty much aware of the fact that we hadn’t had a Bond movie for six years, for whatever reason, and was really hyped to get to see this one on the big screen, as I’d never seen a Bond movie on the big screen before. Needless to say, the movie lived up to my expectations and more. I was enthralled from beginning to end. Everything from the story, the characters, the sets, the special effects; it all worked for me. Sure, Brosnan still seemed a little stiff, and wouldn’t really come into his own as the character until the next movie; Tomorrow Never Dies, Roger Spottiswoode (1997). When you remove the bias, Goldeneye is everything you come to expect from a James Bond movie; an interesting plot of world domination, exciting villains, beautiful, lethal and resourceful Bond girls, amazing action set pieces, a great title song by an equally great singer; Tina Turner, and good old-fashioned special effects. More modern efforts have aged more badly due to shoddy CGI, i.e; Die Another Die, Lee Tamahori (2002), but this one still stands the test of time. I consider it to be one of the great Bond titles, and certainly the best one that Brosnan was ever in. It’s certainly not in the same league as say From Russia with Love, Terrence Young (1963), or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Peter Hunt (1969), but it sure holds its own against the rest, and even better some others, Octopussy, John Glen (1983), or A View to a Kill, John Glen (1985). It’s certainly more action-oriented than the ones that came before, and it’s highly entertaining, but I still have some minor issues with it. One of them would be the score by Eric Serra. It just doesn’t work for me. He does do however an interesting rendition of the Monty Norman theme for the gunbarrel sequence but, as for the rest of the score there are only a couple of dramatic tracks that I really liked, mainly the Casino scenes music, and Natalya’s theme. Thankfully, the music was changed for the tank chase scene in St Petersburg. The editor Terry Rawlings was having difficulty matching Serra’s score to the images on-screen, and so it was agreed that Serra’s Arranger, John Altman, come up with more suitably Bond-sounding music. As I mentioned before, Brosnan seems a little bit stiff, but that’s understandable given that this was his first time playing the character. It usually takes at least two movies to warm up, and get into the character. Those are really my only two hangups regarding the movie, but they don’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the movie. It’s bucketloads of fun, and one of the best in the series overall.
Thanks for reading.
With The Shining, Stanley Kubrick wanted to dabble in a genre he had no previous experience with; Horror. After the financial disappointment that had been Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick was obliged to give Warner Bros. a fail-safe box office hit that would restore the Studio’s faith in Kubrick, to give him the necessary financial backing to get his cherished proyect about Napoleon off the ground. Kubrick had been interested in doing something in the Horror genre for some time already, but was having difficulty finding the right source material. Legend has it, that after spending the better part of one afternoon tossing books around in his office trying to find the right book, he finally happened on a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining. The successful writer from Maine was already hot property in Hollywood after filmmaker Brian De Palma had adapted his first published book to the big screen in the box office hit Carrie (1976). Great things were being done in the genre already with the likes of William Friedkin in The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner in The Omen (1976); two groundbreaking movies in the genre that elevated a mostly derided, and considered inferior genre, to the higher echelons of critical appraisal. Kubrick wanted to join in on the genre’s revival by delivering his very personal take on it. Thus, The Shining as we know it, came to be.
Kubrick didn’t just want to adapt the book as written. There were some supernatural elements to King’s work that didn’t interest Kubrick in the slightest, preferring instead, to focus his attention in the psychological aspects of it. For this, he hired Diane Johnson, a well known American novelist who’d written The Shadow Knows, a novel about a woman recently divorced, who has to raise four children all by herself after having escaped a constricted marriage, and who is, all of a sudden, plagued by mysterious occurrences in her daily life that prompt her to believe that someone out there wants to hurt her. The level of paranoia that the protagonist reaches in a confined environment was something that appealed to Kubrick a great deal, and was something that King’s novel offered to a certain degree without being the main focus of the story, that being the old hotel Overlook being haunted by malevolent spirits that cause the main protagonist, Jack Torrance, to go over the edge.
The story is well known to those who’ve ever read the book, or seen any of the two adaptations (more on that later). Jack Torrance, an ex-professor and struggling playwright with a drinking problem, takes on the job of looking after the Overlook Hotel, a Summer Resort high up in the Colorado mountains, during the Winter. Jack takes his wife Wendy and only child Danny with him. Over the course of a cruel Winter in which the hotel is snowbound, the malevolent spirits that inhabit the hotel slowly take over Jack, and use his weakness with alcohol and a very short temper to drive him mad, putting his whole family in jeopardy. As clean cut as the story may seem at first, Kubrick wanted to sideline the paranormal aspects of it, in favor of exploring Jack’s already manic personality as the main reason for things starting to go horribly wrong. Of course there would always be an inescapable supernatural element that the story would draw from, but the development of the story once the Torrances get to the hotel, and especially its conclusion, go in a very different direction than that of the book.
With Johnson working on the script, it was time to find the actors who would portray the main parts in the movie. Jack Nicholson was an actor who’d always fascinated Kubrick. In fact, Kubrick always had him in mind to play the role of Napoleon in his biographical proyect on the French military leader. When that film fell through, he thought Nicholson could be an excellent fit to play the deranged Jack Torrance. For the part of Wendy, Kubrick decided to go with an unusual choice, that of actress Shelly Duvall. This is unusual in the sense that Duvall is nothing like the character as described in King’s book, neither physically, nor psychogically. Wendy is a very good-looking, strong female presence in the book, very much in love with her husband, but not afraid to stand up to him and defend her son when it becomes obvious that Jack has gone off the deep end. As surmised by Steadicam Operator Garrett Brown on the Bluray’s Audio Commentary, it was quite obvious that it was particularly that fragile and vulnerable quality that the actress transmitted, that decided Kubrick to use her as the perfect counterbalance for an aggressive and domineering Jack Nicholson. Next up was Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance, who was chosen after an exhaustive casting process that took months and hundreds of child actors to be screen tested. In the end, they settled on Danny Lloyd, an eight-year old with no previous acting experience, who was taken under the wing of Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s personal assistant, to be coached, trained and looked after. Vitali, who’d played Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon (1975), gave up his acting career right after, to become Kubrick’s personal assistant, and would play a vital role in preserving his state after his death, was instrumental in getting the best out of Lloyd. The young actor proved to be a quick study, and is regrettable that he didn’t pursue an acting career afterwards. Scatman Crothers apparently became attached to the project on account of his friendship with Jack Nicholson. He asked Nicholson to put in a good word for him. Crothers had been a musician throughout most of his life, and had played in numerous bands throughout the 30s and 40s. His brilliant take on Dick Halloran, the Overlook’s cook who shares a strong psychic connection with Danny was a painstaking process of trial and error for the actor as he had a very difficult time remembering his lines, and was one of the actors who was pushed the hardest by Kubrick.
Other bit players in the movie were Joe Turkel, who plays Lloyd, Jack’s imaginary barman/friend, and British actor Phillip Stone as Delbert Grady, the Overlook’s first caretaker. Both actors had previously worked with Kubrick in The Killing and Paths of Glory in the case of Turkel, and A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon in the case of Stone.
With Kubrick’s fright of airplanes to contend with, it was quite obvious that the bulk of the movie would be shot in the UK, where the filmmaker had resided for years. He did, however, want to base his Overlook Hotel on a existing hotel. For that, a Second Unit flew to the United States to shoot aerial footage of the mountain roads in and around Mt. Hood, and the Timberline Lodge in Northern Oregon, a very good real-life approximation of the Overlook Hotel as described in the book. Kubrick also sent a crew to take pictures of the interior of the hotel, and some of the rooms, so that later on, the look and furniture of those rooms could be recreated in detail in the sets at Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, UK. The exterior of the real Timberline Lodge was used for establishing shots, while the bulk of the interior of the hotel was recreated in the sound stages at Elstree Studios using multitude of Native Americans motives to play around with the idea that the hotel was actually built on the site of a former Indian burial ground. Kubrick also wanted the sets to be as big as they possibly could to highlight the sensation that the Torrances are dwarfed by their surroundings. This was achieved through the use of wide-angle lenses, to increase the vertical scope of the image. It was an imaginative solution helped in great part by the use of the Steadicam. The Steadicam is a camera stabilizing device that allows the cameraman to move freely around the set, with the image staying static throughout, which makes for inmersive and fluid imagery. It was the brainchild of Cameraman Garrett Brown, who put it to very effective use in The Shining. So he wouldn’t have to constantly run around chasing the actors with his camera, given how heavy the equipment was, a special solution was devised in which the crew retrofitted a wheelchair onto which the camera was mounted. This not only made for a more stress-free shoot, but it also allowed for more autonomy, control, and it also saved the crew from having to lay tracks on the floor for tracking shots.
A small part of the Timberline Lodge’s facade was built on the Elstree backlot for those exterior shots of Wendy and Danny trying to run away from a demented Jack at the end of the picture. So was a section of the maze, which was something completely new that was created for the movie. The maze was a substitute for the topiary animals present in the book, that Kubrick thought would be very difficult to realistically recreate on film given the technology available at the time. It was built using wood and chicken wire to hold the hedge structures in place, with pieces of hedge stuck to them. In reality, the hedges weren’t that tall, but through the clever use of the Steadicam, and wide-angle lenses, the hedges appeared to be bigger than they actually were. Each member of the crew were given a blueprint of the maze before entering, to make sure they could find their way around inside, and wouldn’t get lost. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Many a crew member got lost inside the maze. The heavy use of styrofoam, fake snow, and oil smoke to recreate the blizzardy and cold conditions outside, didn’t help much either. The maze was also the subject of the only bit of visual trickery seen in the whole film. The scene in which Nicholson is looking down on a model of the maze in the hotel’s lobby, and we can see from very high up an aerial shot of Wendy and Danny walking inside the maze, was achieved by recreating a very small section of the maze in the Studio’s parking lot, and using a crane to film down on it from as far up as they possibly could. The resulting shot was later superimposed over the model maze seemlessly, giving it that eerie and impossible-shot quality that’s had the most experienced filmmakers puzzling over throughout the years. Tons of salt were also used by the crew as snow for those scenes in which the hotel is snowbound. This represented another problem as the corrosive nature of salt would do away with the crews’ footwear while shooting those outdoor scenes. Kubrick’s legendary penchant for multiple takes didn’t make things easier either, with Shelley Duvall mostly being on the receiving end of Kubrick’s impatience and bouts of bad temper. Many on the crew, Duvall among them, have recognized over the years that this was probably a clever directing ploy on Kubrick’s part to keep the actress on her toes, and get the best out of her. Most of the third act of the movie required Duvall to be in a constant state of hysterics, which resulted in the actress being in and out of good health, suffering anxiety attacks, and even losing some hair in the process. Whatever the technique, it worked like a charm. Duvall delivered a very believable and nerve-wracking performance. As for the rest of the cast, Nicholson also grew occasionally impatient with Kubrick’s constant demands to change his approach to numerous scenes, until the actor was so exhausted, he’d start to pull faces and deliver wackier performances. These, ultimately were the takes that Kubrick would settle with. Another actor who suffered under Kubrick’s demands was Scatman Crothers. The actor not only had difficulty remembering his lines, but was also pushed to the limit by being asked to repeat scenes over and over again, until Kubrick was satisfied with the end result. Crothers was ultimately very satisfied with the experience, but like Nicholson, would often get frustrated with Kubrick’s demands to the point of asking him what was it that he wanted from him, as he long since had run out of ideas. One actor who proved to be a real trooper was Danny Lloyd. His playful approach to the whole affair, no doubt aided by Leon Vitali’s very clever coaching techniques, resulted in the child actor having a very good time on set, and always ready for more. The constantly demanding nature of the shoot also kept the crew on their toes, with Garrett Brown being forced to repeat his compositions so much, that he ended up perfecting his shooting technique with the Steadicam to a degree he never had before, for which he was, and still is, most grateful.
The movie was a substantial financial success, earning $47 million given its budget of just $15 million, but above all, it garnered very positive reviews from critics. Not everybody was won over by it, though. Stephen King considered it at the time to be a visually strong movie, but a very poor book adaptation. So, what is my opinion on this matter? Well, let’s first discuss what a faithful adaptation of The Shining looks like.
In 1997 the book was adapted into a Prime Time, three-part TV miniseries. Stephen King was never happy with the way Kubrick had adapted his work to the big screen, and had been pretty vocal about it for years. So it was that he finally got to do his own take on it when the CBS network offered him the chance to write and produce a miniseries based on the book. He immediately jumped at the prospect, and soon after enlisted the help of filmmaker Mick Garris, with whom he’d had a very fruitful working relationship on Sleepwalkers (1992), and especially The Stand (1994). It was decided pretty early on that the show would be shot at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where King had actually had the inspiration to write The Shining, after having gone there with his wife Tabitha for a small weekend escapade. Being shot for TV, King was able to stick very closely to the book, including most of the subplots in the book, but done away with by Stanley Kubrick. It also leaned more heavily on the supernatural aspect of it, with things like the topiary animals coming to life that had been excised from Kubrick’s version, and exchanged for the now iconic maze. The cast was also definitely more lackluster than that of the original movie, with a hit-or-miss Rebecca de Mornay filling in for Wendy Torrance, a decent enough Melvin Van Peebles playing Dick Halloran, and a horrendously miscast Courtland Meade as Danny Torrance. His is, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst bit of acting in the whole thing. There are some interesting character actors playing bit parts like Elliott Gould, who plays the hotel manager Stuart Ullman, and Pat Hingle, who plays the hotel’s full-time caretaker Bill Watson. Stephen King and filmmakers Mick Garris and Sam Raimi have brief cameos in the movie too. Oddly enough, the best actor from the whole emsemble proved to be Steven Weber, who very competently steps into the role, and makes it his own, in spite of the obvious acting gap between him and Jack Nicholson, something that the actor was very aware of having to live up to, but conscious of not being able to match. He did the most intelligent thing, that was to give his own spin on it. Surprising, considering the actor was best known for his part in the sitcom Wings (1990-1997).
The TV miniseries is mostly limited by a Prime Time rating code, and obvious technical limitations, with some very poor CGI for scenes like the topiary animals coming to life, less than perfect make-up effects, and some very weird and drawn out scenes, that limit the impactfulness of the story. The subpar acting doesn’t help either, with Weber having to carry the movie on his shoulders most of the time. So, let’s play the game of comparisons.
To be fair with King’s criticisms of Kubrick’s adaptation, I must admit that from a strictly book-to-movie adaptation point of view, Kubrick’s The Shining is not a very good one. But it doesn’t really have to be. If you take a step back, you start to see that what Kubrick did with King’s novel was something very interesting, and unique. An exemplary study on family disfunctionality and paranoia. It’s never clear cut in Kubrick’s version whether what we’re witnessing is real, or the product of the protagonists’ imaginations. Even the last shot of the movie leaves plenty of room for interpretation. In the book, Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic, a very flawed, but loving father and husband, whose problems stem mostly from uncontrollable fits of rage as the result of heavy drinking. He starts off as a character who’s definitely on the mend, and wants to make a fresh start, with the malevolent spirits that inhabit the hotel slowly getting into his head, and turning him into a deranged psychopath, who goes after his family. He also has his redemption at the very end, something that Kubrick never gives the character in his version. Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is already on-edge by the time the family arrives at the hotel. The past history of domestic abuse that is hinted at on Kubrick’s movie, but taken full advantage of, on both the book and TV show, is a lurking threat that’s always simmering under the surface, ready to explode. Kubrick also changes the fate of some characters, and even the hotel itself, resulting in an ending that is a total departure from the book, that I think gives Kubrick’s version a new and unique perspective. His ending is thus more interesting, and open ended, while the book’s and TV show’s is more straightforward. There’s a definite contrast between the way Kubrick saw the character of Wendy Torrance, and the way King describes her in the book. Kubrick’s Wendy is a meek, complacent housewife, too afraid to stand up to her increasingly unstable husband, while Rebecca de Mornay’s take on is more book-accurate, but more of a mixed bag. She may be a bit too sassy for her own good, but does try her best considering. Both the book and TV show give equal protagonism to all three of the main characters, while Kubrick’s version is more centered around Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, with Duvall and Lloyd playing second fiddle to Nicholson’s on-screen antics. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to see Nicholson full-on Nicholson-mode too. When told by Steven Spielberg that Jack Nicholson’s performance was a bit hammy, he replied by asking Spielberg to name his ten favourite actors of all time. After producing the usual suspects, Kubrick admonished Spielberg on not having included James Cagney in that list. That’s why he thought Nicholson was a great actor, and the perfect Jack Torrance. I also think that some of the changes made by Kubrick for his version are better than what we get in both the book and TV show. The topiary animals in the TV show are the result of some laughably bad CGI, and one of the weakest passages in the book. Jack’s obsession with the hotel’s backstory is a very commendable storytelling device in the book to reflect Jack’s rapid mental decay, and is aptly played up in the TV show, having being mostly played down, or ignored by Kubrick in his version. There have been countless interpretations drawn from Kubrick’s film, and even a full-on documentary dedicated to the subject titled Room 237, Rodney Asher (2012), in which various people extrapolate the different conspiracy theories, and double-meanings that are supposedly peppered throughout the movie. I have watched that documentary, and while I can appreciate some of the theories, I found most of them to be the results of an overly active imagination on some of the participants’s part. So, what do I think of it all?
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is that, Stanley Kubrick’s. It’s his own version of a very popular book by master of Horror storytelling Stephen King, and I happen to like both. For years I was on the fence about reading King’s book, even though I’ve read most of them, because I really liked Kubrick’s The Shining, and I’d heard that the filmmaker had taken massive liberties when adapting the book. I basically didn’t want to be dissapointed by Kubrick, and so I put it off for years. Now I’ve finally plucked up the courage to give the book a go, and was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed the similarities, and especially, the differences between both. Reading the book didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film, and vice versa, as I treated both as two separate entities to be enjoyed in their own right. And as the TV adaptation proved years after Kubrick’s attempt, being faithful to the source material doesn’t necessarily mean getting a better picture. Like Peter Jackson proved years ago when he adapted J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to the big screen, there are sacrifices you have to make for a literary property to properly fit into a visual medium. People may not always agree with these changes, but what works on paper doesn’t necessarily translate well on the screen. Not so long ago, I learned through a very good friend of mine of an extended cut of The Shining that I surprisingly didn’t know anything about. Apparently this was the only cut of the movie that was shown in the US, with the rest of the world getting a shortened cut of the movie that was also the only version of the movie that the Europeans ever got to see. After having seen it recently, I’ve got to say that I much prefer the European cut, and I can clearly see why Kubrick chose to cut out most of the added scenes. Apparently this cut was especially cut for American audiences so they could get a better grasp of the story. I don’t know why that is, as I think that the European cut does a wonderful job of telling the story, and the ambiguity is still there, while on the Extended cut, some of the ambiguity goes out the window because of the inclusion of some scenes at the end that definitely feel out of place in a Stanley Kubrick movie. There’s, of course, the short scene at the beginning in which there’s talk about Jack’s backstory of domestic abuse, but other than that, the added scenes don’t add a whole lot to the story. And there’s also the controversy surrounding the presentation of the film, with it being formatted in an aspect ratio of 1.33.1 for the 2001 Stanley Kubrick DVD boxed set, was later re-formatted into 1.78.1 aspect ratio for the newly remastered 2007 Bluray, that gives it a more film-like appearance, but crops the image at the top and at the bottom. Apparently, Kubrick wanted his movies to be open-matted, or 1.33.1 for home viewing to fit TV sizes back in the day, while still keeping true to the original Theatrical presentation of 1.66.1. Loss of image on the sides would be negligible at best. With the advent of Widescreen TVs that was no longer the case, but having being shot in 1.66.1, if wrongly formatted, you run the risk of losing image, and thus image composition on the top and the bottom, as it’s clearly the case here. That’s why I’m holding on to my DVD copy. Literary and technical nitpicks aside, The Shining is a masterful work of suspense. No matter how many times you see it, you can’t help but be enthralled by it each time. It oozes atmosphere, it’s highly disquieting in its best moments (the eerie appearance of the ghosly twin sisters in the corridor with matching blue dresses, the effective use of Wendy Carlos’s original score, and classical pieces by György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, the river of blood gushing through the elevator doors, the maze scene at the end..), are images, and moments of the movie that will forever be etched in your memory once you’ve seen them. The acting is excellent throughout, and the cinematography superb, as it wouldn’t be otherwise coming from Kubrick. All in all, it’s an excellent movie where endless nuances can be found each time. The 70s and 80s were rife with jewels in the Horror genre, and Kubrick left for us one of the very best examples.
Thanks for reading.
WARNING!!: Spoilers ahead!!
With Back to the Future part II being a hit at the box office, even if it hadn’t managed to capture the people’s imagination as much as its predecessor had, or being universally praised by the critics, for that matter; the responsibility was on the filmmakers to finish off the trilogy in a way that it would win back the hearts of those fans the sequel had lost. Doing that proved to be easier than expected, as the final entry in the series went back to familiar territory and tropes, even if it took place in a totally new time period.
The movie picks up where part II left off, with the DeLorean time machine being hit by a bolt of lightning, sending “Doc” accidentally back in time to the year 1885. Immediately after, a letter is delivered to Marty by a Postman who claims they’ve had the letter for 70 years with precise instructions to be delivered to him at this exact location and this exact time. In the letter, “Doc” explains that the bolt of lightning sent him back to 1885, that he’s been living there for a while, and that he’s happy. Marty runs back to find 1955’s “Doc”, moments after his older self has been sent back to 1985. “Doc” is shocked to find him there and passes out. Marty takes him to the house, and when ”Doc” wakes up, he gives him the letter where everything is explained; he tells Marty that he hid the DeLorean for Marty to find in an old mine, with instructions to his 1955 ”counterpart” on how to repair it, and once it’s done, for Marty to go back to 1985 and don’t go back for him. While unearthing the DeLorean from the mine, Marty discovers a tombstone with ”Doc,s” name on it. They discover that ”Doc” was shot in the back for an outlaw by the name of Bufford ”Mad Dog” Tannen. Marty decides to go back to 1885 and rescue Doc, but upon arriving he accidentally rips the car’s fuel line. He finds Doc, tells him about the tombstone, and also about the fuel line. Doc tells him that without any fuel to feed the combustion engine, the car won’t be able to reach 88mph to break the time barrier. Together they try to find a way to make the time vehicle reach 88mph, which presents itself in the form of a steam locomotive. With a solution at hand, now it’s only a matter of waiting for the next train to come to town. But as fate would have it, things won’t be as easy as that, as Doc has unexpectedly fallen in love with the new local school teacher, and Bufford Tannen is bent-on putting a bullet in ”Doc’s” back before the week is out….
The whole of the cast were more than happy to continue playing the characters for the third movie, but now with a few added twists; Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox himself played Maggie and Seamus McFly, the first McFlys to settle in America, fresh off the boat from Ireland. Both sporting a rather dodgy Irish accent, they have fun with the roles, with Fox once again demonstrating his wide acting range and excellent comedic timing playing more than one character in the same movie.
With the two previous movies having had Marty and his family as the main focus, it was time to give ”Doc” his dues. The filmmakers had, what I think was the rather nice idea of having ”Doc” Brown fall in love for the first time in his life, and with a like-minded spirit in the form of local school teacher Clara Clayton. For this role, the filmmakers only ever had one actress in mind; Mary Steenburgen. Gale has admitted on interviews that had she rejected the role, they would’ve been at a loss as who to cast. Luckily for them, she said yes; mainly because her children were great fans of the first movie, and begged her to accept the role. Her casting proved to be serendipitous as she and Lloyd had previously worked together, and had fantastic chemistry. Her and ”Doc’s” love story is one of the best and most touching things in the movie. Thomas F. Wilson has a blast as the dangerous, but buffoony Bufford Tannen. Of all the characters he played throughout the trilogy, this surely had to be the one he had the most fun with. His lines of dialogue, and especially his delivery are spot on, and hilariously funny. James Tolkan makes another appearance, this time as Sheriff Strickland, and this time with a long hairpiece. A few interesting cameos are sprinkled throughout the movie, like Director of Photography Dean Cundey, who fittingly plays the cameraman who takes the picture of ”Doc” and Marty standing right next to the newly constructed clock that will be placed on top of the yet to be finished Hill Valley courthouse. Other interesting cameos are those of Rock band ZZ Top, who were also among Zemeckis’s favourite bands, and play the song ”Doubleback” for the final credits. They play the parts of the local country band who, with their long hair and beards, didn’t need any additional makeup to fit right in. When they were asked to write a song for the movie, they immediately accepted as they were huge fans of Back to the Future. In fact, they had so much fun on set, they even mingled with the local bands and performed with them on stage in between takes. They also play a westernized variation of their title song that doesn’t sound half bad.
With Principal Photography for part II already wrapped, the filmmakers didn’t have time to rest on their laurels, and immediately had to start working on the third and last film. A four-week break period for both cast and crew after wrapping on part II ensued, and then everybody would have to saddle up, get back on the horse, and ride the final home stretch. The analogy is more than appropriate given the location where the final part of their massive back to back shoot would take place; an old Western town on the outskirts of Sonora, California, which had been used over the years for multiple Western movies and TV shows. The crew took over the entire town, and stayed there for the duration of the shoot. It was a happy time for everybody, as they got to experience something that most of them had never experienced before, and the atmosphere was clearly more relaxed. Relaxed to everybody but the filmmakers.
The filmmakers still had to deliver part II in Theaters in time, while working on part III. That meant that Bob Gale had to stay in Burbank, California, with Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas supervising the final cut and sound mix on part II, while Zemeckis was on set in Sonora shooting part III. It was a hectic and exhausting schedule that lasted for the better part of five weeks, with Zemeckis shooting from early in the morning to late in the evening, driving to the local airport, jumping on a jet, flying to Burbank, grabbing some dinner before going into the editing room, stay there until late at night, back to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep, going back to the airport in the early hours of the day, and flying back to Sonora to repeat the process all over again. Because of this extremely busy schedule, Zemeckis has always lamented the fact that he just didn’t have enough time to sit down with part II in the editing room, and that’s why, still to this day, he considers BTTF part II one of his rougher movies from an editorial standpoint. Had he had the TV satellite connection technology that Peter Jackson would take full advantage of years later for his back to back shoot of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which allowed Jackson to supervise several shooting units all over New Zealand, while being able to supervise the editing and sound mixing process of the different movies being done in London, things might’ve turned out different for part II. As it stands, I think part II is a very solid movie in its own right, and it was a massive achievement what the Bobs managed to pull off given the tools they had at their disposal at the time, and further testament to the Bobs resilience and commitment to get the very best versions of their work out there. The Bobs had always been great admirers of the Western genre, so it was kind of inevitable that going back in time to the Old West would be a path they choose to go down to when dealing with time travel.
The filmmakers took full advantage of the landscape and vistas in and around the western town, even going as far as building a brand new Drive-in right in the middle of Monument Valley for the scene in which Marty travels back to the year 1885. This was, in fact the one time that Zemeckis lamented the fact not to have chosen to shoot in scope, as it would have greatly benefited the picture to show off the landscapes and vistas in as wide a format as possible. Zemeckis had at first chosen to shoot in 1.85.1, because the first movie didn’t really have any great vistas to speak of, to show off, so they decided to keep a low visual profile, also to save money. Alas, in the interest of keeping a consistent look throughout all three movies, he decided to stick with the 1.85.1 aspect ratio, or open matted as it is commonly known in the industry. They also used a running steam locomotive that was part of the local museum’s exhibit for the final action set piece of the movie in which Marty and ”Doc” hijack the steam locomotive to push the DeLorean, so it can reach 88mph and jump into the future. So it was that the local steam engine locomotive 131, with a little help from the Art department, became locomotive number 3. It was an extremely difficult and laborious sequence to shoot, with the use of multiple stunt doubles for the actors and lots of visual trickery to make it look like the train was steaming ahead, when in reality most of the shots were done in reverse with the DeLorean being pushed by a vehicle backwards when Michael J. Fox was inside the actual vehicle. All of this was done for insurance purposes, even if some of the actors like Christopher Lloyd were overly entuthiastic about doing some of their own stunts. He actually, along with Mary Steenburgen, proved to be one of the members from the cast to be the quickest to adapt to life in the Old West. He already was a good horse rider, but proved to be equally adept at shooting a rifle. His steampunk-like designed scope rifle, is one of the most detailed and eye-catching props of the entire movie. Steenburgen was already quite good at riding a horse by the time she came on set, as she’d frequently practiced it as a child, and was really comfortable around steam engines, as her father had worked as a train conductor for many years. She enjoyed all the challenges that the action set pieces provided, and like Christopher Lloyd, tried to do as many of her own stunts as she could. Thomas Wilson, on the other hand, hard though he tried, could never quite master horse riding. The actor had a very hard time at it, but through his enthusiasm and hard work, and especially his brilliant performance as Bufford Tannen, he sells the illusion. Michael J. Fox also practiced hard with his shooting and quickly learned how to handle a gun. The actor, in numerous interviews over the years, has often bemoaned the fact that he learned numerous skills for all these movies like riding a skateboard, playing the guitar, riding a horse and shooting, only to forget them all years later. Michael J. Fox’s time while working on these pictures, while enjoyable, was also a trying one. On the first movie, he’d had to keep a very busy shooting schedule while jumping back and forth between the TV series Family Ties, and whatever spare time he could spend on the Universal backlot to deliver the movie on time, but it also proved to be a life-changing period for him shooting the sequels as he’d got married, had a child, and his father had passed away, all in the midst of shooting. To achieve the effect in which the locomotive runs off the unfinished bridge, and crashes at the bottom of the ravine, they used a large model, built a set of rails and an unfinished miniature bridge for the radio controlled locomotive to ride over. The effect is so well done, you can’t really tell whether it’s a real train or not. That’s how far the ILM crew would go to make things look as real as they possibly could. A real feat in engeneering and craftsmanship. There was one last big trick the ILM guys had up their sleeve; the steam locomotive turned into a hoverconverted time machine. The Special Effects crew actually built the main body of the locomotive to life size, and with as much detail in the inside, but especially on the outside, as they could muster for close ups. For the long establishing shots of the locomotive/time machine taking flight, the Visual effects crew took over, creating a blend of old school techniques and state-of-the-art visual effects that match to perfection.
In addition to enlisting ZZ Top to write the song, Alan Silvestri came back to finish off the trilogy in grand fashion. He truly does cap off the series on a high note, with a Western score in the best tradition of Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone. The homages are evident throughout, but he gives the music his own personal voice without being too referential. It’s his best score for the entire trilogy, and among his best ever composed scores overall.
There are many things iconic about the Back to the Future trilogy, but chief among them is the magnificent poster artwork by Drew Struzan. Struzan was already a big name in the Industry by the time he was considered to design and draw the poster for the first Back to the Future movie. Many designs were tried, one more elaborate than the one before, but the filmmakers always kept going back to the idea that they wanted to keep the design as simple as possible. Struzan has never been exactly sure who to credit for coming up for the final design, it might have been Bob Gale, as he was the one who suggested to have an image of Marty McFly looking at his watch in disbelief, while coming out of the DeLorean, with a set trail of flames in the background. It was so simple, but it described the main concept behind the movie so well, the producers immediately took a liking to it. Due to the little time that Michael J. Fox had to spare while being on the set of the first movie, Struzan resorted to having to draw Fox using some photos the on-set photographer had taken of Fox posing. The low level of detail on the pictures was so bad that Struzan ended up modeling Fox’s character on the one-sheet after him. Things got considerably better for the sequels, with Struzan getting both Fox and Lloyd to pose for him while he drew them. Struzan thought it would be a neat idea to use the numerical motive of having as many people on the one-sheet, as to match the sequel’s number; so part II had both Marty and ”Doc”, while in part III, Steenburgen got to be part of the equation as she had a very important role in the story. For part III, Struzan himself went to the Sonora set, to have the actors pose for him for the poster, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that Michael J. Fox was a long-time admirer of his work. Unfortunately, Steenburgen wasn’t available to pose for him on the day, but agreed to do it later on, all by herself. To avoid having to draw the poster all over again, he simply cut out her part of the drawing and fitted her in the main one-sheet. Struzan would go on to do stellar work for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and many other famous directors, but his work for the Back to the Future trilogy will always remain a watermark when it comes to movie-poster excellence.
As had been the case six months before, part III was eagerly awaited by fans all over the world. There were lines of people around the block at the cinemas, two days in advance to be the first fortunate ones to see the last chapter. The level of hype surrounding the whole affair was electric, and unlike on the previous movie, people were not disappointed. The movie was universally loved by both fans and critics, even those who had been so negative about part II. Strangely enough, and in spite of the level of anticipation, the movie made less money than part II, which in turn had already fallen short of making the same amount of money at the box office as the first movie. So, how good is part III, and more importantly, does it still hold up?
The movie is very enjoyable, and it’s a fitting closing chapter to the trilogy. Unfortunately for me, it fails to deliver the same level of excitement that part II did. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very solid and entertaining movie in its own right, but it suffers from sequel fatigue. Or rather, a lack of fresh ideas brought to the table. It does sort of feel, in a way, as a retread of the first movie, but in the Old West instead of the 1950s. Now is Doc having to deal with problems of the heart this time around, just like Marty had on the first movie, they have to get creative and come up with a plan to go back to 1985, just like on the first movie, devising a plan to harness the energy from a bolt of lightning to travel through time, they now have to use a locomotive to get up to 88mph to achieve the same result, and just as in the first movie, their plan is fraught with mishaps. It does tend to get a bit repetitive, just like Return of the Jedi, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were kind of retreads of Star Wars, George Lucas (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg (1981). That doesn’t mean that, like those films, they’re not highly entertaining movies; because they are. Very much so. Just like part III is. The dynamic between the characters is great, the production values are top notch, and some of the dialogue and situations, even though they are constant reminders of the first movie, are cleverly turned around to try and make them feel fresh, while at the same time having a sense of familiarity to them. The scene in which Clara comes over to ”Doc’s” barn to visit him, and Marty and Doc hastily have to cover up the time machine, after they’ve been going over the plan of stealing the locomotive, and using it to push the DeLorean with a carefully constructed model, is the exact reverse of the same scene that takes place between Marty, ”Doc”, and Lorraine in the first movie. Only now the roles are switched around, and is Marty acting ackwardly around ”Doc”, while the couple is unable to keep their eyes off each other. All the actors are clearly having fun with their respective roles with Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox doing hilariously funny turns as Marty’s Irish ancestors. The scene in which baby William, Marty’s great-grandfather pees on him is priceless, or Marty’s Moonwalking dance in the Saloon; these are the kind of comedic moments that keep the movie alive and all of these scenes having been cleverly set up on the previous movie. Mary Steenburgen is a welcome addition to the cast, given the character of Clara both a naivety and toughness that are endearing, but who really excells here is Thomas Wilson as Bufford Tannen, in his best, to me, role in the trilogy. And he had many. His turn as ”Mad Dog” Tannen manages to be both funny, but menacing at the same time. He steals the scenes he’s in.
What few action set pieces there are, are brilliant, but the locomotive hijack sequence at the end of the movie, and its heart-pounding rhythm, which climaxes on the locomotive crashing at the bottom of the ravine, is perfectly staged, shot and edited, just like the clock tower sequence on the first movie was.
Alan Silvestri delivers his best soundtrack for the entire trilogy, with ZZ Top’s track ”Doubleback” rounding things off nicely, even if their song doesn’t quite have the same impact as ”Power of Love”, and ”Back in time”did. The last scene in the movie with the now hoverconverted locomotive time machine flying towards camera is the perfect way to finish the trilogy, acting as a mirror to the first Back to the Future final scene, coming indeed full circle. So, as you can see, and in spite of a few nitpicks, the movie has plenty of things to enjoy, and will have you leaving with a big smile on your face. Overall as individual movies, the Back to the Future flicks are top-notch entertainment, but as a trilogy, they are the best examples on how to set up and execute the perfect movie trilogy, even if they were never intended to be that in the first place. If you’ve never seen Back to the Future, and it’s hard to believe you’ve escaped its mediatic influence all these years, you owe it to yourself to do it at least once in your life. My personal recommendation is that they are seen back to back, as you’ll get the most enjoyment out of them that way. They are perfectly scripted and shot to fit into one another, and you can’t possibly watch one, without wanting to watch the rest. I’m clearly being bias here, as the first movie happens to be my favourite movie of all time, and the trilogy as a whole, takes the top spot, nudging the original Star Wars trilogy off the top spot by the tiniest of margins. These are movies that I constantly revisit, at least twice a year, and sometimes even more. They’re that great. Can’t say enough good things about them. They have a very special place in my heart, and I can wholeheartedly recommend these any time of the week, or the day. So, sit back, enjoy, and let yourself be transported back in time with the most amazing time travel movies ever made.
Thanks for reading.
WARNING!!: Spoilers ahead!!
When Back to the Future proved to be a worldwide success, the powers that be at Universal wanted to push for a sequel. Even though Zemeckis and Gale were quite proud of the way the movie had turned out in the end, they weren’t that eager to jump back into Marry McFly’s world just yet. But, as things go in Hollywood, they were soon put between a rock and a hard place when they were told by Sheinberg that a sequel would happen regardless of whether they were involved in it or not. The Bobs were faced with a conundrum; do we pass on it, and risk having the sequel not live up to fans expectations? Or do we get involved, and try to make the best out of it? The question answered itself as they both realized that they didn’t want to have their characters and universe touched by someone else, and risk losing their hard-earned fanbase. All that remained to be seen was whether they could count their cast and crew in to come back to Hill Valley once again.
The filmmakers agreed to do the movie on the condition that all the cast members from the previous movie agreed to come back. They all immediately agreed to come back, minus one. Crispin Glover had been a bane to Zemeckis’s existence on the previous shoot because of his on-set antics and strange acting methods. Glover had to constantly be refrained from going over board with some of his crazy suggestions but did, in the end, deliver a memorable performance. One that was intrinsically linked with the movie’s success. The actor had always voiced his disatisfaction with the way he’d been treated during the shoot, and was going to play hardball this time around. Depending on what account you listen to, he was either asking for too much money to come back as George McFly, or according to Glover himself, he was offered less than his fellow cast members. The end result was the same; neither party could come to terms, and so negotiations fell through. The Bobs were now faced with the problem of having to write a sequel without counting on George McFly.
The Bobs had never seriously considered doing a follow-up to their movie, and the finale in which “Doc” Brown, Marty and Jennifer fly off into the future was always meant to be a joke. The Bobs have always stated that, had they known they were going to do a sequel, they would’ve never put Jennifer in the car with Doc and Marty, as they now were at a loss as to what to do with her. Anyhow, with Zemeckis busy shooting Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), it was entirely up to Gale to write a first draft of the script. In this early incarnation, “Doc” and Marty, after having come back from the future to an alternative 1985 in which Biff Tannen reigns supreme, and finding out about the Sports Almanac, they travel to 1967 instead of 1955, in which Lorraine is a flower child and George, now a Proffesor, is cleverly written out of the story as he’s said to be off giving a lecture in another state. When Zemeckis came back from London and read the script, he suggested to Gale the novel idea of re-visiting the first movie from a different perspective, as it was something that had never been done before, and was easily conceivable since they were using time travel. That’s how the story for the sequel was gestated. The movie picks up exactly where the previous one left off. Marty has returned to a new and improved 1985, in which his family is happier and he has the car of his dreams. Soon thereafter, “Doc” shows up in the time machine and tells Marty that they have to go “back to the future”, as something has to be done about his children. With Jennifer, who’d come to visit Marty, in tow, they shoot off into the future, to the year 2015. Here “Doc” explains to Marty that a robbery is gonna take place this very night in which his son is gonna be involved, and arrested afterwards. Marty has to go to an 80s themed Café, where he is to replace his son, who’s physically identical to him, and face off Griff Tannen’s gang, Biff Tannen’s grandson, and reject his proposal of taking part in the robbery. A subsequent scuffle involving hoverboards takes place, and as a consequence, the timeline is restored. Shortly after, Marty enters an antique store and buys a Sports Almanac that will tell him the results of all major sporting events from 1950 to the year 2000. “Doc” finds out about this, and after admonishing Marty on the misuse of time travel for financial gain, throws the Almanac away. In the meantime, Biff Tannen has overheard the entire conversation, takes the Almanac, steals the time machine while “Doc” and Marty are distracted picking up Jennifer, who’s mistakenly being confused by the police as the Jennifer of the future, and taken to Marty and Jennifer’s future residence in Hilldale, and goes back to the year 1955 to give the Almanac to his younger self. Unbeknownst to them, “Doc” and Marty travel back to 1985, only to find that the timeline has been seriously altered. Biff is the richest man on this alternative 1985, has married Lorraine, George has been killed, Marty’s siblings Linda and Dave haven fallen in hard times, and “Doc” has been institutionalized. Marty gets Biff to tell him about the Sports Almanac, and the exact date in which Biff gave it to his younger self, which just so happens to be November 12, 1955; the exact day in which Marty travels back to 1985. Now it’s up to both Marty and “Doc” to recover the Almanac without being spotted by either of their 1955 counterparts, thus further altering the timeline.
As confusing as it may seem at first glance, the script is fairly straightforward and cleverly uses all the tricks in the “time travel” book to create a compelling rollercoaster ride of a movie. Another problem that arose from this first draft was the length of it. After restoring the timeline, the DeLorean, with “Doc” in it, is hit by a bolt of lightning transporting him back to the Old West, in the year 1885, forcing Marty to once again, go back in time and rescue his friend. As soon as Sid Sheinberg read the script, he saw that there was enough material in this mammoth of a draft to make two sequels instead of just one. This was something that neither of the Bobs had had in mind when they were first approached about making a sequel, but decided to run with it, as both filmmakers were fans of the Western genre, and had always wanted to make one. With this new development, they also had to tell the cast and crew that they might be in for a bit more that they had signed for. The cast and crew, having had such a wonderful experience shooting the first movie, decided to go all in too, and so it was decided by all those concerned that it might be quicker and cheaper to shoot both movies back to back. Being something that is quite common practice nowadays with many sequels and sagas being shot back to back like The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 (2010-2011), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Death Man’s Chest, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2006-2007), to name just a few; it wasn’t done that often back in the day with Alexander and Ilya Salkind being pioneers in this practice with their epic two-part adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1973-1974), with a later aborted attempt to do the same with Superman: The Movie, and Superman II. The shoot proved to be a gruelling experience for the cast and crew due to the lengthier shooting schedule, but ultimately an enjoyable one, even if some of those involved wouldn’t necessarily agree to that statement.
Having being unable to reach an agreement with Crispin Glover to reprise his role as George McFly, it was time for the filmmakers to get creative. In the new draft, they had written George McFly off the main body of the story as much as they could but, having chosen to go down the route of re-visiting the first movie in the film’s third act, they had to find an actor who had enough of a physical of resemblance, and who was good at copying Glover’s mannerisms. They found such actor in Jeffrey Weisman. Weisman was an up-and -coming actor who was making a name for himself as an imitator. The filmmakers thought they had struck gold with him, and inmediately hired him. Weisman was at first delighted to be working on the Back to the Future sequel, as he thought this move would further his acting career but, what everyone neglected to tell him was that he would be sparingly used at best, always in heavy makeup to obscure his features, as to make him look more like Glover, or shot out of focus to hide the fact that Glover wasn’t in the movie. The filmmakers wanted to be as faithful to the story’s continuity as possible, and wanted the main audience to feel that Glover was still in the movie. That meant no promotion tours for Weissman afterwards, and no spotlight on him as an actor. The actor inmediately felt the pressure of filling such big shoes as soon as he came on set. He didn’t feel particularly welcomed by any of the cast and crew, and was constantly reminded that he was there to act as a stand-in more than anything else. It also didn’t help that the actor had to be in facial prostethics most of the time, that gave his face a weird and deformed appearance. There was a funny incident in which the actor run into some of the cast members who were shooting Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty (1990), next door. They too were all in heavy facial prosthetics, but nevertheless kept on staring at Weissman, as if he were a member of their cast, but with even more extreme makeup on. For the Future scenes, in which the actor had to wear old age makeup and being hung upside down on a especially designed floating harness, on the excuse that old George had thrown his back, would end up causing the actor excruciating back pain as a result of being upside down for long periods of time. Most of the crew and cast think, and this was later confirmed by Bob Gale on subsequent interviews, that they felt Glover had being such a pain in the neck to deal with, that they decided to have his character upside down for those sequences as punishment. Lea Thompson never felt entirely comfortable with Weissman being there, as she’d got on famously with Glover on the previous movie, and admitted to having had a cold and distant attitude towards the actor. The controversy would not end there, however, as the crew had used molds of Glover’s face from his old-age makeup from the previous movie to use as a guideline for Weissman’s facial prosthetics. This, along with other rumors that the filmmakers were using some of the footage from the previous movie to intercut into the sequel, came to Glover’s attention, who decided to sue the Studio for using his likeness without his consent. He wound up winning the claim, and his win paved the way from preventing Studios from doing the same to other actors in the future. Glover was further helped by private confidences a disgruntled Weissman had made to the actor over the phone complaining about the cold treatment he’d received from most of the crew, and his agent’s inability to negotiate a better salary for him. These declarations would later come back to haunt Weissman, as he’d been expressly told not to get in contact with Glover under any circumstances, digging himself a deeper and bigger hole for his acting career in the future, as no Studio would want to hire him on account of his indiscretions. The overall experience ended up being a bittersweet one for the actor, but has since made his peace with it.
Of all the things Zemeckis had to deal with in the sequel, the one thing he disliked the most was designing the Hill Valley of the future. The filmmaker wasn’t very fond of movies taking place in the future, with a few exceptions, as he thought that no one could ever accurately predict how things were gonna look like. This time around, Zemeckis decided no to re-hire Lawrence G. Paul as Production Designer for two reasons. First he thought that Larry Paul, who had been instrumental in bringing about the design of the dark dystopia future of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), would feel tempted once again to repeat the same concept for Back to the Future part II, and Zemeckis and Gale had a vision for a user-friendly and brighter looking future; and second, even though they’d managed to work well together on the previous movie, they had had disagreements in the way Zemeckis wanted the product placement side of things when designing 1955 Hill Valley, to be handled. Zemeckis feared that they would come to heads once again for the sequel, as this movie, in particular the scenes taking place in the future, would have even heavier product placement than the previous movie from companies like Pepsi, Mattel, AT&T, and Black&Decker. Zemeckis decided to hire Rick Carter, with whom he’d previously worked on an episode of the Amazing Stories TV show. They had got on very well back then, and they had also coincided with Christopher Lloyd on that episode, so there was already an element of familiarity there. Rick Carter would stay on for Back to the Future part III, when the one sequel ended up being two. The idea was to get away from a vision of the future represented in films like Brazil, Terry Gilliam (1985), in which technology was cumbersome, constantly broke down, and didn’t seem to work properly most of the time, and the use of recognizable brands in the market was essential to bring that across. The filmmakers came up with a few nifty ideas for the future like the self-lacing shoes, self-drying clothing, hoverboards, and the most iconic of them all, and one that people are still waiting for to be realized; flying cars. While many of the filmmakers’s predictions for the Future have since come to pass like flat widescreen TVs, and thumb-printing technology, other more eagerly awaited ones like hoverboards, flying cars, and self-lacing shoes, are yet to become a reality. This last prediction, the self-lacing shoes, was the one invention producer Steven Spielberg apparently laments not becoming a reality. One prop especially designed for the scenes taking place in the future would end up causing no short amount of headaches to the crew; the Hoverboard.
On a TV special about the Making of Back to the Future and its sequel, Zemeckis jokingly said that the hoverboards they were using in the movie were real, but not yet available for purchase in your local toy store. To everyone’s surprise, it wasn’t long before parents started calling the Studio inquiring after the fabled hoverboards. Some people just can’t take a joke, I suppose.
A variety of techniques were used throughout the movie, like motion controlled cameras, miniatures, wires, processed shots on stage, blue screen, models, and the grand daddy of them all; the Vista Glide motion controlled camera. This groundbreaking piece of technology was the brainchild of Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston. Zemeckis and Ralston had already worked together on Who framed Roger Rabbit?, and were already pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved on camera back then, but this time around, they were taking it one step further. The idea of using this camera came about as a result of having the characters interact with past and future versions of themselves in all the different timelines the movie would visit. It was a painstakingly slow and difficult process, in which everything on the scene had to remain exactly the same with props glued or nailed down, so they wouldn’t move and with actors having to hit their marks precisely. A clear example of the use of this technology is the scene of the McFlys having dinner together in their future residence in Hilldale. We have Michael J. Fox playing three characters in the scene; Marty McFly Sr, Marty McFly Jr, and Marty’s daughter, Marlene. The original intent of that scene, as shown on the Bluray’s deleted scenes section, was to have it shown as one unbroken master shot, in which Fox interacts with each one of the different characters he plays. That would have called for Fox to play each segment of the scene, with stand-ins to take his place as the other characters, getting out of his old Marty makeup, dressing up as Marlene, and going back in until the scene was finished, in the meantime making sure that nothing on the set was moved or disturbed. The final result is seamless, and the technology makes the most out of it in scenes when the same actor playing two different characters has to interact with themselves. This proved to be the real novelty when it came to visual effects, as the crew had already nailed the best way to show time travel on-screen, having already tested all the necessary techniques on the previous movie. Still, as they’d done before, they used three DeLorean cars conveniently dressed and updated for the sequel; one which was the so-called ”Hero car”, which had the most detail in both the interior and exterior, and was generally used for close ups, another one, from which pieces could be removed from to allow for the placement of shooting equipment inside and outside, which was used generally for processed shots in the sound stage, and another one which was basically an empty shell, with nothing in it, and used generally for dangerous manouvres and stunts. As it now didn’t need plutonium to generate a nuclear reaction to travel through time, and in the spirit of a more user-friendly future, the time machine’s nuclear reactor has been conveniently switched for a new reactor dubbed Mr Fusion, which uses garbage as a means of generating nuclear energy. It also had undergone a hover conversion after ” Doc’s” journey to the future, which now allows it to fly everywhere, with all four wheels bending inwards. All these changes had to be implemented to the cars, in ones more so than in others. A fiber glass life size replica of the time vehicle was built to be used for those shots in which the DeLorean can be seen floating down to land. It was constructed with that material for it to be light enough so a crane could elevate it or lower it easily. For those establishing shots in which the car can be seen flying around at a distance, it was thought best to use models which were shot with motion controlled cameras.
As it had previously been done on the first movie, the movie was shot in reverse order as the timelines appear in the movie, with the scenes taking place in 1955 being shot first, the Alternative 1985 being shot next, and finally the scenes that take place in the future. This wide array of different time periods really gave newly recruited British Costume Designer Johanna Johnston a run for her money. She was able to rescue most of the clothes and dresses that had been used for the 1955 scenes on the first Back to the Future movie, that had been kept in storage, minus a replica of the dress that Lea Thompson had worn for the Enchantment Under the Sea dance scene. Luckily for Johnston, Thompson still had the dress she had used in that scene at home. Both her and Carter really let their imaginations fly with the scenes taking place in the future, with Johnston coming up with some outrageous designs like especially designed footwear for which she partnered up with Nike and wearing two ties at the same time, which luckily hasn’t caught on, and Carter infusing the architecture of the buildings, the massive use of publicity through holographic displays, and signage, with a clear Japanese influence; as Carter thought at the time that Japan would have a huge influence in Western culture in the future. But where both Johnston and Carter really went to town was in the design of the Alternative 1985. Both were instructed by Zemeckis to go as much overboard as they could, and amp up the tacky element up to eleven. They defaced the 1985 set, adding as much grime, graffiti and dirty signage to it as they could. They even re-converted the courthouse building into a casino, with the top half of it extending far up into the sky via a matte painting, and lots of biker gangs riding all over the place. They also wanted to introduce the idea that Hill Valley High had been destroyed in a fire, which can be seen as an added scene with incomplete visual effects showing the derelict building in the bluray’s bonus features. They finally decided to do away with that particular scene, and the school burning down is mentioned by Strickland when Marty runs into him. The wardrobe choices for the actors in this particular time period were a mixture of Las Vegas style wear, and the worst of the 70s, with lots of jewelry, flare pants, hideous looking suits, and an outrageously large chest piece that Lea Thompson had to wear to give the impression she had larger breast implants. The makeup artists also went back to applying extra layers of facial prosthetics to make some of the actor’s look exceedingly old and unhealthy, as Lorraine as taken to drinking again in this time period. A bit over the top, if you ask me, and the only technical element throughout the whole trilogy that never really sat well with me. Old-age makeup back in those days wasn’t a fine-tuned craft to say the least. That minor complaint aside, the design team in the movie did an excellent job with all the time periods, with Carter lovingly recreating all the sets that Larry Paul had built for the first movie with all the street furniture, signage, and especially the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, all re-created to a tee.
The movie, even though it slightly fell off what the previous one had made at the box office, was still a financial success by Universal standards, in a year that was choked full of big blockbusters like Batman, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade and The Abyss. On the critical front though, the opinions were definitely more mixed, with critics divided between those who thought the idea of re-visiting the first movie from a different perspective was a novel one, and those who didn’t like the darker tone and apparently confusing plot. So what do I think about the first sequel to my most beloved movie of all time?
I think it’s quite simply brilliant. It doesn’t reach the heights that the first movie did, but it doesn’t really need to. I think that had the Bobs gone with Gale’s first idea of going back to the 60s, interesting change of pace though it may have been, they would’ve delivered a more run-of-the-mill sequel, like indeed the last entry in the series is. Going with this approach, on the other hand, gave the filmmakers the opportunity to offer the fans more or less the same, but with a different twist. It provided the filmmakers the opportunity, once again, to play with the ”time travel rule book” for all its worth, allowing for ample opportunities to set things up that would pay off later. These little nuggets of information are cleverly spread out throughout the movie, which makes the movie even more enjoyable on subsequent repeated viewings. It’s a very clever sequel. There’s no other way to put it. It takes every possible advantage of its plot, taking the audience on an exciting and emotional roller coaster ride. Some people complain about the darker turn the story takes halfway through, but all great middle chapters in a trilogy tend to do this and they, most often than not, take a beating by the critics. People had similar misgivings about The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner (1980), back in the day, labelling it as too dark, and also finishing on a downer; with the bad guys having essentially won. Overtime however, people started to realize what a great piece of moviemaking that film really was, and nowadays is widely considered the best Star Wars movie ever made, far surpassing everything that came before and after. I’m not saying that Back to the Future part II is in the same league, as the first movie’s achievements are clearly superior, but it is definitely one of the better second installments that I’ve ever seen on a cinematic saga. Zemeckis and Gale were put in an impossible situation by the Studio and came out rather unscathed for the most part. They did the best they could to try and honor the fandom, delivering at the same time a product that general audiences would like. Most people have come around, and have now a newfound respect for the movie. Is it perfect? Not really, but it’s a perfect sequel, and to me at least, it delivers on spades. There are a few minor quibbles I have with it, mostly of a technical nature. The old-age makeup, for instance, has never really worked for me; in any of the movies. It always looked too unnatural and over-the-top to me, and although the special and visual effects still hold up pretty well nowadays, some of the blue screen shots definitely needed more work. The scene inside the long tunnel in which Marty is trying to run away from Biff on the hoverboard after he’s recovered the Sports Almanac, comes to mine. But these are minor nitpicks that don’t really detract from the overall experience. Alan Silvestri does sort of a copy and paste this time around re-using most of the themes from the previous movie, but nevertheless, coming up with some very dark and interesting cues for the scenes taking place in Alternate 1985. He’d get his chance to really spread his creative wings for the next entry, which was going to take place in the Old West, which would give him a unique platform to be creative in a totally different time period, delivering what is to me, the best of the three soundtracks he composed for the trilogy. The movie’s got a funny and very well written script, and all the actors are on the top of their game, slipping back into the roles as if the cameras had kept on rolling right after the end of the first movie. There are some notable absences, like Claudia Welles, who was unable to reprise her role due to her family situation at the time, and Crispin Glover, whose absence is felt the most as his character was an integral part of the success of the first movie. But then again, had he agreed to come back, we could be looking at a totally different picture. Instead we have Elisabeth Sue replacing Welles, who does a fine job but it’s out of the picture for most of the running time, as the filmmakers, as mentioned before, didn’t really know what to do with her, and Jeffrey Weissman, who due to his perfunctory function in the story and very bad makeup was cleverly kept out of focus most of the time. A really tough break for him, I think. As for the rest of the cast, they are their usual terrific selves, but to me, who really becomes the standout performer in the movie is Thomas F. Wilson. Goofy old-age makeup aside, his different turns as Biff’s grandson Griff, mild-mannered Biff from 1985, old, hunched-over and bitter 2015 Biff, his 1955 younger counterpart, and especially the all-powerful, mean Biff from Alternate 1985, demonstrate an impressive dramatic range, topped off by his brilliant performance as Bufford “Mad Dog” Tannen in the next entry in the series. Other minor players from the previous movie make their appearance too, like James Tolkan as Principal Strickland, in a funny turn as a shotgun-totting nutcase in Alternative 1985. Regrettably, Wendy Jo Sperber was pregnant at the time, and could not appear on the film, but Marc McClure, who played her brother Dave McFly, did make an appearance on the film as a down-on-his-luck drunkard, whose brief scene of his encounter with Marty outside Biff’s casino, ended up on the cutting room floor. Gale justified the scene not being included as audiences would understandably want to know what had become of Marty’s sister Linda, and since Sperber couldn’t make it, it was better to eliminate that side plot altogether. Another complaint that people seemed to have at the time was the fact that the movie ended in sort of a downer, with “Doc” accidentally being transported to the year 1885 after having successfully recovered the Sports Almanac, and restoring the timeline. I’ve never really had an issue with that, much in the same way that I never had an issue with The Empire Strikes Back’s ending. It’s the middle chapter. It’s supposed to end in a cliffhanger to keep you hooked. Plus there’s a nice coda at the end, in which Marty goes back to find 1955s “Doc” right after the bolt of lightning has struck the DeLorean, and Marty has successfully been sent back to 1985. The title card “To be Continued”, makes it pretty clear that the story is not over yet, and that there are yet more adventures to come. To top it all off, there’s a teaser trailer for Back to the Future part III right after. Something that the filmmakers probably did to address any complaints that the people may have had about the story not having a satisfactory ending. I think it was a brilliant way of ending the movie, as it keeps you wanting to go back for more. I myself always watch these back to back, whenever I have the chance, so this three-story-arc structure makes it the perfect trilogy to watch in one seating. Can’t really say that about many trilogies, except perhaps for The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson (2001-2003), and the Star Wars Original trilogy (1977-1983). It’s a very fun film to watch, highly entertaining, the pace never lets up, and it’s a very clever way to continue the story. Highly recommended.
Thanks for reading.
WARNING!!: Spoilers ahead
Back to the Future, and to a lesser extent its two sequels, are a perfect example of what happens in the cinematic medium when all the creative stars align. Robert Zemeckis was an up-and-coming filmmaker who’d been taken under Steven Spielberg’s wing. Along with his friend, co-writer and producer Bob Gale, Zemeckis had written, produced and directed two movies for the big screen, and written another one for Spielberg. Even though Zemeckis proved time and again that he was a talented filmmaker, his two movies I Wanna Hold your Hand (1978), and Used Cars (1980), had flopped at the box office. The fact that the one movie he and Gale had written for Spielberg, 1941 (1979), had been Spielberg’s one financial failure, for a director who was usually a safe bet when it came to making money at the box office, didn’t help restore the Studios’ faith in Zemeckis’s ability to produce a money-maker, either. This is why when in the early 1980s Bob Gale came up with the concept for Back to the Future, they both had a hard time trying to sell the idea to the Studios. But, as fate would have it, things would turn around in ways neither Zemeckis nor Gale could’ve ever imagined.
One day on a visit to his parents home, Bob Gale found himself going through some old stuff in their garage, and came upon some very interesting information about his father. Apparently, in his high school years, Gale’s father had been elected president of his graduating class. This was something that Gale was completely unaware of, and prompted the question of whether Gale would have been friends with his own father, had they gone to High School together. This is how the idea of teenager Marty McFly going back in time, meeting his parents, and his mother accidentally falling in love with him, came about. Upon returning, Gale told Zemeckis about his idea and he loved it. They immediately started working on a first draft, and when they were done, they presented the idea to Spielberg, who also loved it and wanted to produce it. Zemeckis was concerned about his track record at the box office though, and didn’t want to embroil Spielberg in another one of his failed projects. Spielberg was quite understanding about it, and Zemeckis and Gale started doing the rounds through all the Studios, trying to sell the picture. Lots of doors got slammed on their faces, on the grounds that the script was too quaint and sweet, with Studios pushing for more outrageous and raunchy teenage comedies at the time like Porky’s (1981), until someone suggested to them they take the idea to Disney. Disney flat out rejected the concept for the opposite reason. They thought the idea of a teenager traveling back in time, and his future mother falling in love with him was too outrageous a concept for a Studio with family-friendly content in mind. Being unable to convince a Studio to back the script, Zemeckis decided to take Twentieth Century Fox’s offer to direct Romancing the Stone, with Michael Douglas’ backing as a producer and actor. The movie proved to be a huge success at the box office, and all of a sudden, every major Studio in Hollywood was interested in Back to the Future. It was then that Zemeckis and Gale, out of loyalty for Spielberg, went back to him and Universal Studios to produce the movie. Syd Sheinberg, the head of Universal at the time, was very interested in the movie, but didn’t like the title of the movie at all, on the grounds that it would be confusing to audiences as to what it meant. He even went as far as to suggest they change the title for Space Man from Pluto. Out of desperation, Gale and Zemeckis turned to Spielberg for help, who decided to send a note to Sheinberg, congratulating him on his wit, and that everybody had had a good laugh about it. Whether out of embarrassment, or pride, Sheinberg didn’t mention it ever again, the whole thing was forgotten, and the original title remained. With the movie finally given the go-ahead, everything was set to be smooth sailing, but one more obstacle remained that would put the movie in jeopardy.
From the early stages of production, Zemeckis and Gale were dead set on getting Michael J. Fox for the role of Marty McFly. The actor, who had been increasingly gaining popularity as Alex Keaton in the popular TV show Family Ties, had the required comedic timing that the filmmakers were looking for, and that was precisely the rubb. The sitcom’s proverbial title proved to be rather significant in that due to Fox’s ever growing popularity, and that his role in the TV show had increased due to one of the main actresses being out of it because of maternity leave, Fox was contractually tied to the show for as long as the season would last; something that conflicted with Zemeckis’s shooting schedule. Zemeckis had been given the mandate by Universal to deliver the movie on a certain date, and pressed for time as the whole crew was, he decided to cast a wider net, and try to find an actor that would be a suitable replacement for Fox. All the while, Fox had his hands full, and was completely unaware that Zemeckis and Gale were interested in him for the role, as Gary David Goldberg, the writer and producer of the show, had hidden this fact from him. Spielberg and Zemeckis had approached Goldberg about their interest in Fox, and given him a copy of the script for him to read. As soon as Goldberg read the script, he knew that Fox would want to do it with his eyes closed, and Goldberg didn’t want to risk losing his star.
Many actors like John Cryer, Ben Stiller, C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stolz were screen tested for the role, but only Howell and Stolz ended up as runner ups. In the end, the role went to Eric Stolz, whom Sheinberg preferred due to his wider dramatic range, which he’d amply demonstrated on his starring role of Rocky, the adolescent who suffers from a congenitive facial deformity, in the yet-to-be-released, Peter Bogdanovich’s movie Mask (1985). Zemeckis wasn’t sure that Stolz was the right fit for the role, but given how pressed he was for time, and quite confident about his abilities as a filmmaker, he thought he could make it work. Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case.
As for the rest of the cast, this proved to be less of a challenge. For the role of Marty’s parents, George and Lorraine McFly, the filmmakers chose actors Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson, for the role of Marty’s archnemesis Biff Tannen they went with actor Thomas F.Wilson, actors Marc McClure, who’d played the role of Jimmy Olsen in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Wendie Jo Sperber to play the roles of Marty’s siblings, Dave and Linda McFly respectively. The two actors had been frequent players in Zemeckis’s two previous movies, having landed roles in both I wanna Hold your Hand (1978), and Used Cars (1980). New York stage actor James Tolkan was sought out by the filmmakers to play the role of Marty’s School Principal Strickland, and the best and trickiest bit of casting went to Christopher Lloyd as Professor “Doc” Emmett Brown, friend of Marty’s and inventor of the Delorean time machine.
The main challenge that Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson and Thomas Wilson had to face was to play older versions of themselves in 1985, having to endure countless hours of prosthetic makeup, and altering their body language and their voices to appear older. Funnily enough, Lea Thompson ended up being more comfortable in the skin of forty-something Lorraine McFly, with all the makeup on, than playing her younger self. She’s said to have had a real hard time identifying with a teenager from the 50s, but through immersing herself in the time period by reading magazine from the era, and surrounding herself with props and memorabilia from the 50s, she managed to pull it off. Crispin Glover and Thomas Wilson didn’t have such problems, easily sliding into their respective roles for both time periods. Glover proved to be something of a headache for Zemeckis on set coming up with weird ideas and acting methods to achieve George Mcfly’s unique mannerisms. Zemeckis would have to tell the actor to dial down some of his efforts for risk of coming off as too wacky, and off-kilter. Despite the numerous on-set shaenanigans, Crispin delivered what is probably one of the most memorable performances in the entire series. But one of the clear standouts of the movie was Christopher Lloyd’s turn as wacky inventor “Doc” Emmett Brown. The actor had been sent the script, but being immersed as he was in his stage work, the actor didn’t even get to read it until weeks later at his agent’s insistence. Once he did, he found the story to be really interesting and the script very well written. He agreed to come to Los Angeles to screen test for the role, and both Zemeckis and Gale were blown away by his performance. The character had been brilliantly written by the Bobs, as both Zemeckis and Gale were affectionately known on the set, but it was really Lloyd who brought it to life, coming out with the lightning-fast way of talking, and the character’s wacky outlook, a mixture of composer Leopold Stokowski and Albert Einstein. The character fit Lloyd like a glove, as if he’d been indeed born to play him.
Other bit characters in the movie were played by Billy Zane, J.J Cohen and Casey Siemaszko who play Match, Skinhead and 3-D respectively, all three members of Biff Tannen’s gang. Harry Waters Jr was to play the role of Marvin Berry, lead singer of the fictional musical band The Starlighters, who play on The Enchantment Under The Sea school dance, and fictional cousin to famous musician Chuck Berry, resulting in one of the funniest gags of the entire movie. Claudia Wells as Marty’s love interest, Jennifer Parker, who had been considered from the very beginning by the Bobs, but had to bow out due to been unavailable at the time, as she’d been picked to star in a pilot for a new TV show. When eventually the pilot was dropped by the network, and the Bobs were forced to change the actress who was chosen to play the role of Jennifer Parker, due to the height difference between her and Michael J. Fox, who was going to replace Stolz after all, she was called back again. And that takes us to our next chapter.
The casting of Eric Stolz wound up being a bad decision in the long run, as five weeks into Principal Photography, Zemeckis realized after checking the dailies, that they weren’t getting that comedic touch they needed for the movie. A decision had to be made, and a hard one at that. Zemeckis consulted on Spielberg to get a second opinion before they went to Sheinberg’s office. Spielberg agreed that it was the right call to withdraw Stolz from the picture, and that he would back him up in front of Sheinberg. As Sheinberg had previously agreed that the role of Marty could be recast if things didn’t work out with Stolz, Spielberg went once again to visit Gary David Goldberg and try to work out a deal so Michael J. Fox could be in the movie. Goldberg accepted to pass the script on the Fox on the condition that if the actor accepted to play the part, the TV show Family Ties had to take precedence. Spielberg and Zemeckis accepted Goldberg’s conditions, and Golderberg called Fox into his office to talk. Fox was somewhat apprehensive going in as he imagined Goldberg had asked him to come in for a different reason. He was pleasantly surprised when Goldberg presented to him Gale and Zemeckis’s script, and explained to him the conditions under which he’d be taking on the job. Without giving it a second thought, Fox accepted the role right away. Fox was already aware of the Steven Spielberg produced movie when he stumbled upon some crew members scouting for locations is Pasadena where he was shooting Teen Wolf, Rod Daniel (1985), during a production break of Family Ties, and thought it would be cool to participate in a movie like that. With everything right in the universe again, Zemeckis and Gale were left with the difficult and ackward task of having to tell their current lead man that his services would no longer be required. To say that the news didn’t sit well with Stolz would be an understatement. He actually took it pretty hard. It also didn’t help that Zemeckis and Gale hadn’t been the only ones who’d noticed that something wasn’t quite clicking with Stolz. Lea Thompson, who was very good friends with the actor, and had in fact worked with him previously, has come forward ever since declaring that even though Stolz was a very gifted actor, his sensibilities for the role, and lack of comedic timing, didn’t match Zemeckis’s requirements for this movie in particular. Lloyd also struggled to connect with the actor as did most of the crew. The actor would refuse to come out of his trailer during his downtime, didn’t interact with the rest of the cast and crew and pretty much kept to himself. He also refused to be called by his actual name while on-set, which was kind of irritating to his fellow actors and the crew. Nevertheless the actor, as previously agreed, received his full salary.
Zemeckis and Gale had kept hidden the behind-the-scenes mayhem from the cast and crew as much as they could, but the time had come to make a public announcement, and so Zemeckis got his cast and crew together before the day’s work started, and gave the news of Soltz leaving and Fox coming in. Even though the cast and crew was pretty much aware that something was afoot with regards to Stolz, the changeover wasn’t all that seamless at first with Lea Thompson expressing concern that a sitcom actor with little previous experience on the big screen could pull it off. She was rapidly convinced of the opposite though, and has since apologized for looking down on a genre, the sitcom, after having worked on it years later, as being extremely hard.
The Bobs knew they had a very good idea in their hands, but they also knew that it needed polishing. On one of their very first drafts, Gale and Zemeckis had envisioned their protagonist traveling back in time through the use of a time capsule that had to be transported to a nuclear test site in order to harness the energy resulting from a nuclear explosion for the time vehicle to go back in time. It was soon obvious to all those involved, especially the Studio, that this would be much too complicated, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve. Actually, the very first sequence of the movie, as written for Eric Stolz, involved Marty causing the sprinklers system in the whole building to go off, to escape detention and being able to attend his band audition for the school dance. The whole nuclear test site concept would be teased by having Marty and his fellow classmates watch a video about the dangers of nuclear power while serving detention. There was even an outrageous concept of sticking Marty into a fridge and through the power of a nuclear explosion, send him back in time. An idea that would not go to waste, and show up years later at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s much derided fourth Indiana Jones installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Once Stolz was out of the picture, and since those scenes hadn’t been shot yet, the filmmakers were forced to come up with a whole new, and cheaper concept to send Marty back in time. They say that neccesity is the mother of creativity, and so that’s how the whole idea of making the time machine a moving vehicle came about. It was actually Zemeckis’s idea to make the time machine into a car, and what better car to meet the requirements of both filmmakers than a DeLorean. The ill-fated engineering brainchild of John DeLorean had been a financial blunder from day one. The poor manufacturing quality of the vehicle, plus a decrease in the sales of motorized vehicles in the last few years, had driven DeLorean to try and keep his floundering financial empire afloat by dubious means. Arrested for his involvement with drug trafficking, the motor tycoon would be later exonerated of all charges, but would never be able to make his unusual car model a success. The Bobs didn’t really care about any of this, and just thought that the car looked cool, with its futuristic design that resembled in many respects the design of the spaceships seen in comic books from the 50s. Cool it did look, but it would give the special effects crews who worked on it more than their fair amount of problems on-set, with it constantly breaking down, or not working properly, in addition to being an extremely uncomfortable car to work with and drive. But these little technical mishaps were still far off in the future, and the Bobs immediately hired the best concept artists to start working on the final design of the time vehicle. The first man to be hired by Production Designer Lawrence G. Paul was Ron Cobb. Larry Paul had ample experience designing futuristic vehicles, as he’d previously worked on Ridley Scott’s Sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Cobb was a well known conceptual designer, best known for his work on Conan the Barbarian, John Millius (1982). Cobb came up with the first concept, with all the weird machine parts hapzardly cobbled together and hanging from the car’s main body. Would be later refined by the likes of Andrew Probert and Michael Scheffe, who further streamlined and polished the design, with Special Effects Supervisor Kevin Pike and his crew in charge of assembling the final design. Gale had a pretty concise idea of how he wanted time travel to be represented in the movie. He wanted it to be instantaneous, but also wanted the conceptual designers at ILM to come up with some flashy and visually interesting ways of showing it on-screen. That’s how Ken Ralston and Wes Takahashi from ILM came up with the idea of sparks and lighting coming out of the car as it traverses the space time-continuum. It was also Takahashi’s idea to make some of the elements on the body work glow. The resulting design; one of the most iconic vehicles in movie’s history. With the filmmakers locking on a design, the whole end sequence with Marty going back to 1985 using a nuclear test site was re-written into the now legendary clock tower sequence and the bolt of lightning that will send Marty back to his own time.
With this motto in mind is how Michael J. Fox got through one of the most gruelling shoots of his entire career. The actor knew that this was his one chance to make it big on the silver screen, and so he was commited to it one hundred percent from day one. His commitment at the time with Family Ties made it very tricky for the actor in terms of schedule, though. He was on the Family Ties set from the early hours of the morning till late afternoon, when someone from the Studio would pick him up, drive him to the Back to the Future set, he’d then shoot until 4 o’clock in the morning, be driven back to his house to get a few hours sleep, and be up at 8 o’clock the next morning to get back to the Family Ties set. All in all, the actor would grab four hours straight of sleep in between, an experience that would result in Fox declaring afterwards that he was so tired and confused at that time, that he thought he’d delivered a bad performance. On top of all that, Fox would have to go shoot during weekends at the Universal backlot, as it was the only time of the week where Zemeckis could get him the whole day to shoot daytime sequences. Fox wasn’t the only one to feel the rigors of an ever demanding shooting schedule. Having mostly wasted five weeks worth of shooting time with Eric Stolz, the crew was also asked to put in the extra work and reset and re-shoot most of the scenes that had been shot with Stolz. Marty’s recasting also had caused some unfortunate decisions to be made. As Claudia Wells had been unavailable at the time due to her TV commitments, the role had been given to actress Melora Hardin, who unfortunately never got to shoot a single scene. The actress was about the same size as Stolz, but a few inches taller than Fox. Many people on the crew thought that this would not look good on-screen to have the girlfriend of the leading man to be taller than him. It was taking to a vote, and it fell on Gale to inform the actress of their collective decision to recast the role. On the other hand, Welles series pilot fell through, and she was again available. Being roughly the same height as Fox it was a lucky coincidence that she was finally going to play the role she apparently was fated to play.
The role of Marty McFly also demanded that Fox display a set of skills that would also take extra time out of the actor’s schedule, like riding a skateboard, or playing the guitar. Coaches were brought in to teach Fox how to ride a skateboard and play the guitar. Fox would have to constantly practice both skills in what little spare time he had left, but proved to be up to the task on both fronts. Being as resourceful and eager to learn as he was, Fox quickly got quite good at using a skateboard, even though a double would be used for the most hairy stunts, and already knew his way around a guitar having played in bands when he was younger. Paul Hanson, his guitar instructor, was so impressed with Fox’s progress, that he declared that the actor could’ve made a good musician had he chosen to follow a different career path. Fox learned to finger-synch playing the guitar to a proficient level, and had also to learn to lip-synch to a dubbed recording of the song Johnny B. Goode by singer Mark Campbell. He also had to come up with a choreography on stage for when Marty plays the guitar on stage during the Enchantment under the Sea dance, and starts imitating the style of different artists from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Along with choreographer Brad Jeffries, they came up with a routine that was the result of much improvisation. The actor, in fact, was much into lip-adding to his dialogue due to his experience on TV. With Fox coming onboard for the movie, it also added to the performances of the rest of the cast who finally found in Fox that missing magical touch that was lacking with Stolz. With everyone in the cast gelling so well, things seems to be going smothly.
It was the Bobs original idea to shoot Back to the Future on location, and they had indeed already been scouting for a suitable location for the movie when it dawned on them that taking an existing location and having to change the whole outlook of a town, changing signage and facades of storefronts to accommodate a different time period, not to say anything about having to move heavy and costly shooting equipment hundreds of miles away, would be too cumbersome and expensive an endeavor for a movie with such a small budget. It was decided, in the interest of economizing as much as possible, and out of convinience, to use Universal’s back lot. The filmmakers decided to push the 1950s scenes forward in the schedule, as it would be then easier later on for the art directors to change the pristine looking 1955 fictional Californian town of Hill Valley into its derelict, modernized 1985 counterpart. Larry Paul did tons of research and was able to enlist the help of several companies which had been around from the 50s like Texaco, to provide him with vintage signage and props from that time period to give the fictional town a more realistic and lived-in look. That, along with the use of vintage cars, and the wardrobe provided by Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott, who was able to find the most exquisite designs from that time, gave the film such a picture-perfect look that many members of the audience who were born or had lived in that era, felt themselves being transported back to the 50s.
Music proved to be a very important part of what’s made Back to the Future such a memorable movie. In this day and age in which people seem to have found a new appreciation for the 80s, it’s iconography, and especially its music, it’s no surprise that the music from the film has resiliently stood the test of time. Zemeckis and Gale were massive fans of the group Huey Lewis and the News, and wanted the group the compose a couple songs for the movie, to not only better help market the movie and appeal to younger audiences, but to compose songs that would be thematically and emotionally linked to the movie’s plot. Lewis was somewhat hesitant to take on the job, as he thought he wouldn’t be the right fit to compose music for a movie. Once the Bobs pitched him the concept however, he was sufficiently intrigued to want to give it a try. Zemeckis even wanted to take it one step further, trying to convince Lewis to make a cameo on the movie. Ironically enough, Lewis plays the role of the juror who rejects Marty’s band during the Battle of the Band’s audition for being too loud!!. His choice of wardrobe and hairstyle was the complete opposite of Lewis’s public persona. The band ended up composing two songs for the movie; The Power of Love and Back in Time, which have been become part of the film’s music iconography, and one of the few examples of an artist or group composing songs for a movie that become instantly recognizable and immediately associated with the movie they’re attached too. There’s another one clear example in Queen and the songs they composed for the movie Highlander, Russell Mulcahy (1986) . One important element that helps bring to life Back to the Future’s story is Alan Silvestri’s score. Silvestri had previously worked with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone, a score which, funnily enough, Spielberg didn’t like at all. Zemeckis knew he didn’t have a big budget to work with, or great vistas to show off on the big screen. By anyone’s standards, Back to the Future was a low key, quirky Sci-fi comedy. Not the kind of material that lends itself to great, epic, sweeping orchestral scores. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what Zemeckis wanted for his time travel romp, and his one mandate to Silvestri was to make it sound big. On that directive, Silvestri started working on the score, for which he brought in a large orchestra. Silvestri had already some temp music ready to cut the action scenes, and as fate would have it, Spielberg happen to walk into the Studio one day while Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas were editing to Silvestri’s music, and said to Zemeckis that that’s the kind of composer Zemeckis needed for his picture. To Spielberg’s surprise, Zemeckis told him that that was Silvestri’s music that he’d composed especially for the film. Another element that was completely made up for the film was the fictional band The Starlighters and its vocalist, Marvin Berry played by Harry Waters Jr. The fictional cousin of Rock ‘n’ Roll icon Chuck Berry, is one of the highlights of the movie, and his unfortunate running into Biff’s gang causes Marty McFly to get on stage, and give 1950s teenagers a taste of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a few years ahead of its time. The actor was a trained singer who’d already been performing for a few years in musicals when he was cast in the role. Unlike Michael J. Fox, whom many people at the time thought was really singing, he does all his singing for real, proving his talent singing Earth Angel.
With Principal Photography already wrapped, and ILM still working on the intricate visual effects, an assembly cut of the movie had already been finalized. For the purposes of having a rough cut of the movie available as soon as possible, and to keep ahead of the schedule, trying to make up for the time lost with Stolz, the filmmakers decided to hire two editors to work on the movie; Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas. There were two major action set pieces that required a great deal more attention than any other sequence in the movie. These were the sequence that takes place in the Twin Pine Mall parking lot in which the time machine is unveiled, and Marty travels back in time for the first time, and the second one is the clock tower sequence in which Marty attempts to go back to 1985 making use of a lightning bolt that’s gonna strike the clock tower at midnight. Schmidt worked on the first sequence, while Keramidas concentrated his efforts on the second one. The rest of the footage was divided between the two of them to be worked on at different times, while mainly trying to focus on the visual effects-heavy sequences. This assembly cut was the one that the Studio rolled out and decided to do a preview screening with in a Theater in San José, California. With unfinished visual effects, several trimms still surely to be made, and an audience totally unaware of what they were in for, the movie was screened, with several members of the crew in amongst the audience. The large chunks of exposition at the beginning of the movie, and the scene in which ”Doc” Brown’s dog, Einstein, disappears with the time vehicle, put the audience slightly off, but once Marty traveled back in time and the audience realized where it was that the filmmakers were going with this, they were having the time of their lives, and when the now flying time machine came hurtling towards the screen at the end of the picture, the audience erupted in applause. The filmmakers, but above all the producers, could see that the movie was going to be a smash hit. Zemeckis and Gale were still slightly cautious, as their two first movies, Used Cars and I wanna hold your Hand, had too had successful screen tests before failing miserably at the box office. The movie was supposed to come out in August, but seeing the potential to make a larger profit during the height of Summer, Sheinberg wanted to push for a fourth of July weekend release date. Zemeckis explained to Sheinberg that in order to accommodate such a rushed release date, they would have to hire more special effects people to get the movie out in time. Sheinberg agreed to this, and immediately started writing cheques. The already exhausted post-production crew ended up working seven days a week, but warts and all, managed to get the movie out.
As predicted by Sheinberg, the movie was a massive financial success, with its box office intake growing week by week, with every weekend proving to be more successful than the weekend before. The film was universally praised for its tight script, endearing characters, and very clever mix of comedy and science fiction. Unlike the rest of his fellow cast members, Michael J. Fox was unable to do any promotional tours for the movie, as he was shooting a made-for-TV Family Ties movie in London. It was actually Fox’s agent who called him up to inform a disbelieving Fox of the worldwide success Back to the Future was turning out to be. The movie grossed an estimated $388.8 million on a budget of $19 million. It was nominated for four Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing, for which it won.
Back to the Future is a truly iconic film. A brilliant piece of screenwriting, the kind of screenwriting people in the business talk about when it comes to learning how to write a good, concise script. It’s also a masterpiece in editing and pacing. Everything that can be expected from top notch cinematic entertainment. It’s a movie that from the very beginning, without you knowing it, feeds you lots of information and sets lots of plot points up that will be paid off later on. The first sequence of the movie is a brilliant example of, a) setting up what the movie is gonna be about ( the ticking clocks), b) gives you information about the person who lives in this house we’re seeing, through paper clips on the wall, portraits of famous scientists, his working mechanical inventions, c) there’s one image that shows a small figure of a man hanging from a clock, which clearly foreshadows something that’s gonna happen later on in the movie, d) the TV news broadcast informs you about the stolen plutonium that’s gonna play a crucial role later on in the movie, and e) we know that the owner of the house has stolen the plutonium when the tracking shot ends on the case of plutonium hidden under the table, and we also know that this person has been away from some time when we see the way the dog foot has been accumulating for days on the food tray. And this is just one of several brilliant uses of visual storytelling that Zemeckis uses to deliver information to his audience. He also doesn’t take his audience for granted. He calls attention to certain elements in the scene, but not in an obvious way. It gives the right amount of information so that you can work out the details of the plot without giving it away. The acting is brilliant and spot on, and I’m so glad that Zemeckis stuck to his guns and kept on pushing for Fox to play Marty. When you see the movie there’s no one else who could have played the role as well as he does. He’s brilliant at reacting at things, and his comedic timing is spot on, afforded by his years of experience working on TV, where actors really have to think on their feet, and improvise a lot. He proved to be the perfect complement for Christopher Lloyd, who delivers what is probably his most recognizable role as the wacky scientist ”Doc” Emmet Brown, who really has to deliver, not just one, but two takes on the same character in two totally different time periods. He delivers in spades on both fronts, ensuring his place for posterity as one of the most universally recognized characters in movie history. It really is a pity that he didn’t get at least nominated for an Oscar for his performance on this movie. His scenes with Crispin Glover and Lêa Thompson are comedy gold. The three of them really bring the best out of each other. Especially brilliant is Crispin Glover. His on-set antics and strange acting methods might’ve driven Zemeckis over the hill, but he really does come through with the goods. It’s a pity things couldn’t be worked out for him to appear on the sequels. Thomas Wilson really does a superb job as the school bully Biff Tannen, and he’d get the chance to stretch his acting muscles for the sequels even more. As for the rest, Alan Silvestri is his usual energetic, imaginative self, the Production Design with the 50s setting, and the design of the iconic DMC-12 DeLorean time machine are things that are forever etched in the imagination of cinema goers. One of the few truly rare cases in which a group of talented artists manage to catch lightning in a bottle. Pure cinematic entertainment at its best.
Thanks for reading.
The story of how a movie that almost never came to be, became one of the most iconic Horror movies of the 70s is a fascinating one in itself. The answer can be found in the fact that it was done at a time in which the Hollywood industry was changing drastically with a new focus on low-budgeted, small independent movies, with predominantly gritty plots and characters. A new wave of young filmmakers was coming up, re-shapping the industry in the process. It was a creative renaissance in Hollywood that brought new, daring and outrageous ideas to the table. It was in this new state of affairs that a young unemployed screenwriter named William Peter Blatty, mostly known for writing comedy for the likes of filmmakers like Blake Edwards, started working on a non-fiction account of a real life event that had taken place near the Washington area where Blatty used to live as a teenager, that wound up turning into a novel. But how he got there was a long, winding road.
The real life event on which Blatty based his text was an exorcism that had taken place in Maryland in 1949. Blatty got wind of it while studying at Georgetown University. The local press had published an article about a family living in Maryland, whose young son had undergone inexplicable behavioural changes that could not be medically explained. After months trying every possible solution, they sought out the help of the Catholic Church, who after visiting the boy, authorized an exorcism. Gruesome details about the case came filtering to the students at Georgetown University, and immediately peaked Blatty’s interest, not the least of them that, apparently, the two priests who had performed the exorcism were lodging at the University at the time. Blatty stored this information away to be used in the future.
Years later, and having worked in Hollywood for a while, Blatty found himself currently unemployed. Out of boredom, and in an attempt to try his hand at published writing, he went back to his teenage years, and started research on the Maryland exorcism. He read every book available on the subject, and even sought out the Jesuit priest who had performed the ritual. Bound by a vow a secrecy though, the priest could not reveal the names of those involved, but agreed to talk Blatty through the ritual. Being unable to verify any of his findings, Blatty decided to change the names of the characters, and transformed his non-fiction account into a work of fiction, found a publisher, and published his book to great acclaim. But he didn’t want to just stop there. Confident that Hollywood might show an interest on his work being adapted to the big screen, he started working on the first draft of a screenplay. It was this first draft that he shopped around to the big studios, in the hope that it would get picked up by a daring one. Unfortunately, the idea was rejected by almost all the studios he visited, who found the material too gruesome and shocking to be seen on the big screen. The story of young and innocent Regan McNeill who gets possessed by an evil spirit, and the uphill battle that her soon-to-be-divorced mother, and actress Chris McNeill, with the help of two Jesuit priests must face to expell the demon out of her daughter, after all medical explanations for her shocking mental and physical transformation have been ruled out, wasn’t anyone’s idea of a feel-good movie that would clean up at the box office. Enter William Friedkin and Warner Bros.
From the outset Blatty was determined to get a filmmaker who could give his work the feel of a real life documentary. He’d set his sights on one filmmaker in particular who fit the bill; William Friedkin. Friedkin was a filmmaker who’d started his career as a documentary filmmaker, and his grounded and gritty looking approach was just what Blatty needed for the movie. Friedkin was at the time in the middle of his promotional tour for The French Connection (1971), which would end up winning 5 Academy Awards that year, chief among them, one for Best Picture and another for Best Director. It was actually the clout that Friedkin got after this success, that allowed him to take on The Exorcist, and convince Warner Bros to finance it. Blatty sent Friedkin a copy of his novel, and of his screenplay. When Friedkin finally got a chance to sit down to read it, he loved it. He wanted to get involved with it right away, but wasn’t so enamoured with Blatty’s approach of it on screenplay form. In an attempt to try and cram in as much of the narrative of the novel as possible, without being untrue to the source material, Blatty tried to condense the first third of the book using every conceivable camera and editing trick in the book, resulting in a technical script that was in Friedkin’s words, and I quote; “too flashy”, which was the opposite of what this kind of story called for. Friedkin re-read the novel, highlighting passages of it he thought could be adapted for the screen. It was on these terms that Blatty started re-writing the script.
Having convinced Warner Bros to finance the film, it was hard for Friedkin to convince them that he didn’t really want any big stars for the movie. The Studio came up with a few names, and Friedkin was obliged to follow up on their suggestions. Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft were the three leading ladies that the Studio wanted to have screen tested for the role. Fonda flat out rejected the role, and Hepburn, who was living in Italy at the time, accepted on the condition that the movie be shot in Rome. Seeing the impracticality in that, Friedkin discarded the idea. Another actress however came to Friedkin, who’d read the script, and was very interested in the role; Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn heavily lobbied to get the role, as she explained to Friedkin that she loved the script and the role of the mother in it. Friedkin screen tested her with Linda Blair, the fourteen-year old young actress who landed the role of Regan, and was convinced.
Linda Blair was a curious case in that she was part of an agency that, when the casting process had started, hadn’t been considered for the role. It was in fact her mother who took her to the casting session without really knowing what the movie was going to be about. It was quite shocking for the very young and innocent Blair when she was given a very blasphemous line of dialogue to read, and was at a loss afterwards as to how she was going to explain to her mother what it was that the role implied. Not too concerned, as it turned out, as she was given the role shortly afterwards after having tested a few scenes with Ellen Burstyn. The two actresses seemed to hit it off right away, and it was on this very emotional mother-daughter-like connection that Friedkin successfully built the movie around. As for the two actors who were to portray the roles of the two Jesuit priests who’d end up performing the exorcism, it was clear for Friedkin from the beginning that he wanted Swedish actor Max von Sydow for the role of Father Lankaster Merrin. His election was based on the fact that the actor had regularly played roles for Ingmar Bergman which were, in Friedkin’s words, “mature beyond his young age”. Sydow would also have to be aged accordingly by the makeup artists to fit the age of his character in the book. The role of the second priest, Father Damien Karras, was something more of a head-scratcher. Friedkin was adamant about having an unknown actor play the role, so that the stardom quality of the actor who was to portray him would not ultimately eclipse the emotional depth of such a conflicted character. It was this unique quality to Father Karras’s character that had Friedkin think outside the box, and look for a suitable actor in the most unlikely of places. This is how he came to Jason Miller, a stage actor and playwright, who’d recently achieved great success with his play That Championship season. Friedkin went to see the play, and was impressed by the aura of failed human faith the play had to it, and very much wanted to meet the author. After a first meeting that didn’t go too well, Friedkin went back to the Studio’s idea of hiring a known actor for the role, with Paul Newman seriously being considered at one time. It was only after Miller had read the novel that he started to understand Friedkin’s choice. Having expressed his doubts to Friedkin at first, Miller was now utterly convinced that he was the absolute best choice for the role and got in contact with the director again. Friedkin agreed to test him for the role, and saw that in spite of the actor’s limited on-screen experience, the camera, in Friedkin’s own words; “loved him”. Another important piece of casting was that of actor Lee J. Cobb, who would interpret one of the most significant characters in the movie; Lt. Kinderman. The character was so successful that even actor Peter Falk would take inspiration from him to model his Lt. Colombo from the famous TV show, after him.
Friedkin and Blatty also sought out the advise of real Jesuit priests to ground the movie even more in reality such as Reverend Thomas Bermingham, and Father William O’Malley, who plays Father Karras’s best friend, Father Dyer.
Although most of the movie was shot on location in Georgetown in Washington DC, most of the interiors were shot on a sound stage in New York in which the interior of the McNeill’s residence was recreated, as the filmmakers found the rooms of the house they had rented in Georgetown to double up for the house, were too small. They would also have to build a completely fake third floor facade with a window, which was supposed to be Regan’s bedroom window, facing the now famous steep flight of steps opposite the street as described in the book. These steps would later be known as the ”Hitchcock steps”. Over the years, and after the massive success of the movie, these steps and the house next to it, have become a very popular tourist attraction.
To recreate the gruesome and heart-stopping special effects seen in the movie, the filmmakers used every trick in the book. With the help of makeup artist Dick Smith, in charge of Regan’s striking transformation and of aging Max von Sydow, and practical effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere, with un-credited help by Rick Baker, the filmmakers pulled all the stops, from rigging the bed to shake and move up and down, furniture to slide and crash against the walls, and occasionally actors, to build another bedroom set on hydraulic levers to be tilted sideways, and even go as far as using huge air conditioner units to refrigerate the set overnight, with the actors shooting scenes for only short intervals before having to leave the freezing set. Smith did lots of makeup tests to find the right balance between supernatural and physical depravity. Early makeup tests were deemed too over-the-top by Friedkin, who still wanted the movie to retain a somehow grounded sense of reality without going too far into the supernatural realm. He argued that the facial scars that Regan would gradually exhibit throughout the movie should be seen as self inflicted more than due to supernatural causes. There was also the matter of how much Friedkin could get away with by having a young actress perform extremely demanding physical scenes for hours on end. Union regulations wouldn’t allow for it, so it was decided that a double would step in for scenes that Blair couldn’t shoot on account of her age, or the time necessary to perform them. The filmmakers also tried all kinds of tricks to alter Blair’s voice electronically, which ultimately convinced Friedkin that the right way to go about it was to find someone who had a distinct voice to dubb her. This is how they found Mercedes McCambridge, a talented stage, radio and screen performer, who lent her unique voice-over talents as a possesed Regan.
The shoot wasn’t without its fair share of weird occurrences on set, and deaths among the crew members, that only added to the dark legend behind the movie. Several members of the crew or people related to them, died in strange circumstances, and one weekend when the cast and crew were away, the set burned down for no apparent reason. The fire department who investigated the incident couldn’t find any electrical problem, or outside element which could’ve started the fire.
After the main unit had finished filming in Georgetown, they had to move to Northern Irak to film the movie’s prologue, which presented one major problem.
Diplomatic relations between the US and the Middle East weren’t great even back then, so the producers had to come up with a solution that would allow Friedkin to travel to Irak to finish filming. It was decided that since the UK had good relations with the Iraqui government at the time, the producers would hire a British crew to go there with Friedkin. Once there they found the perfect spot to shoot in an archeological dig on the outskirts of Mosul. Shooting conditions weren’t comfortable though, due to extremely high temperatures that would allow them to only shoot for a short period of time in the first hours of the morning before the sun came up, the crew would then retire to their tents to seek shelter from the blazing sun, and come back out in late afternoon to shoot the rest. Being unable to shoot for long periods of time meant that the shooting schedule extended for three weeks, exacerbated by the fact that the figure of the Pazuzu demon that had been built by the Art department on the US weeks back and shipped to Irak, had somehow got lost in transit, which meant a longer stay in the country.
At first Warner had hired the famous film composer Lalo Schiffrin to compose the music for the film, but after just one recording session, Friedkin threw the recorded tapes out the window in a fit of rage, considering Schiffrin’s score over-dramatic, and started looking out for incidental pieces of music that could better represent the mood and tone of the movie. It was then when someone recommended to him Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. After listening to it, he fell in love with the music and started working on getting the rights. With additional classical compositions and incidental music by Jack Nitszche, Friedkin had stumbled upon the perfect soundtrack for his film.
Against all odds, the movie was a massive box office and critical success, with queues of spectators outside theaters going around the corner for hours on end, to get tickets to the next show, which forced theater owners to extend the number of screenings per day to accommodate the massive amount of people who wanted to see the movie. It was an event the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until the arrival of Star Wars a few years later. The shock factor also played an important role in how the movie performed with people leaving showings mid-screening in disgust and utter horror. The producers played on this shock factor for all its worth as part of the movie’s marketing campaign, by even placing ambulances outside the cinemas. The movie was warmly received by most critics, with film critics like Roger Ebert giving it top marks.
In 2000 the movie was subject to a worlwide re-release in theaters tauting a “Director’s cut” with never-before-seen footage and digitally remastered image and sound. So, how does this “Director’s cut” fare?
First of all, the so-called “Director’s cut” is not actually Friedkin’s preferred version of the movie, but rather a compromise he made for William Peter Blatty, who was never entirely satisfied with Friedkin’s Theatrical cut.
The first cut of the movie run at 140 min, and was the version of the movie that Blatty liked best, as he thought it most faithfully represented his ideas from the book, and what he wanted the audience to take away from it. In spite of that, it was very clear to Friedkin from the very beginning that the movie needed further trimming to make it flow better, streamline some of the side plots, and eliminate all scenes and lines of dialogue which were in his opinion redundant, as Friedkin entirely trusted his audience to understand the meaning of the movie without unnecessary exposition, or added scenes that only served to pad out the running time. Since Warner wanted to re-release the movie in theaters, Friedkin saw this as the perfect opportunity to make peace with Blatty, and try and re-insert as much of the discarded scenes as possible. Unfortunately, due to the poor conditions in which some of the footage had been kept, the editors could only recoup about ten minutes worth of lost footage that was actually usable. The new cut of the movie run up now to about 132 min against the 122 min of the Theatrical cut. So this was a somewhat-in-the-middle compromise in the part of Friedkin towards Blatty, and the perfect excuse to present the classic to a whole new generation. So, what do I think of this new cut?
I think the Theatrical cut is the better cut, hands down. The movie opens up with two new shots of both the outside of the McNeill’s house, where most of the action in the movie is gonna take place, and fades on to an image of the Virgin Mary statue in the local Church that, according to Friedkin on his Audio Commentary for the film, signifies the two places in the story which are gonna be assaulted by the demon. That sort of makes sense with what’s coming later. So does the scene in which Chris takes Regan to the doctor for the first time to undergo physical tests, in which we witness the first signs of Regan developing a strange behaviour. This missing scene from the original cut better explains the scene in which, after the incident with Regan in the party, after giving her a bath and putting her back to bed, Regan asks her mother what’s wrong with her, to which Chris answers her to just do what the doctor said, and take her pills. It made sense to put that scene back in, as it correlates with what happens on this latter scene. As for the rest, which would be the now famous scene of Regan crawling backwards down the stairs on all fours, crab-like, the small exchange between Father Karras and Father Merrin on the stairs after their first showdown with the possessed Regan, about the meaning and sense of it all, and especially the cheesy exchange between Father Dyer and Lt. Kinderman at the very end of the movie, don’t really move the story along in any way, shape or form, and I can see why Friedkin wanted to cut them out of the movie in the first place. The first scene plays on the shock factor, the second one only expresses out-loud something that was already implicit in the story, and the third one is a useless coda that’s supposed to leave the audience in good spirits after all the horror and carnage they’ve been subjected to for over two hours. Funnily enough, this last scene was the one that Blatty was more sorry to see cut out of the original version of the movie. A scene that’s played out exactly like in the book, but confirms the theory that, what works on paper, doesn’t necessarily translate well into images.
So, while the added scenes don’t detract too much from the sheer intensity of an already powerful movie to begin with, they don’t bring anything really new to the table; except perhaps for the aforementioned scene of the first medical tests.
The story is equally satisfying in both mediums, with the book, as usuallly is the case, having a slight edge on the film. That being said, Blatty does a magnificent job of condensing the main themes and plot points found in the novel, disregarding those side plots that, interesting though they may be in the book, get in the way of telling an organically fluid story and don’t really do anything to advance the plot. Subplots like the one involving the sacrileges at the local church, Karl’s personal story, or a more leisurely approach to the way Lt Kinderman investigates Dennings’s murder, are streamlined, or altogether eliminated to improve the pacing. Both the movie and the book can be enjoyed as perfect companion pieces to one another, with the book delving more deeply into some side characters, and paying more attention to some subplots.
The Exorcist is an emotionally exhausting, disturbing, and highly powerful example of the horror genre being given the care and nuance movies of this genre are rarely afforded. It delves into such profound themes as the loss of faith, guilt, regret, evil, but with an underlying theme of the power of faith and the human spirit against the forces of evil in both body and spirit. It’s magnificently written, directed and acted, with a very gritty and realistic look only movies from the 70s were capable of. The characters are fallible, riddled by guilt, and on the brink of giving up. Everything from the choice of locations, the music, and the way is shot, with no fancy camera flourishes, right in your face, and straightforward, makes this movie, along with The Omen (1976) Richard Donner, one of the best examples of a horror movie being taken seriously. It is a slow burner, it’s true, but that makes it more effective in that when we come to the final act of the movie, the tension and suspense has been ramped up to such a level, it makes the ending, and thus the end of the journey, all the more impactful. It’s not gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get over the blasphemy and the graphic and emotional violence of it all, it is a journey worth taking.
Thanks for reading.