“All of a sudden they’re unleashed in Vegas. It was like the Vikings attacking, looting and sacking.”
“You can imagine, it got pretty macho out there in the desert,” says West. “Everyone went a little crazy. They built a dojo so at lunch they could all fight and wrestle each other, and it did become a bit like a prison. Everybody was stripped to the waist all the time because it was so hot, everyone was showing off their muscles. There was competition over who could do the most pull-ups and push-ups.” In a podcast interview last year, Ty Granderson Jones, who played the convict Blade, said there were often fights brewing, and he punched a few guys who wanted to cause trouble with him. Danny Trejo, who played Johnny 23 and spent years in the penitentiary system himself, has said it was the biggest test of testosterone he’d ever seen.
Cage, Trejo claimed, was the baddest baddass of them all, while West describes him as “ripped” and says, “He could beat everybody, hands down. He did 70 one-arm push-ups, or something ridiculous,” though he mostly kept to himself. “Nic was in the craziest shape of his life,” Rosenberg tells us: sober, eating macrobiotic food, working out constantly in his mobile gym, behaving “like a monk”. The other big leads also kept away from the off-screen debauchery, of which there was much. “In Wendover there was one Pizza Hut, one Blockbuster video and one little casino,” says West. “And a strip club. Which was called The American Bush. I would be shooting all day and was exhausted at night, going back to my hotel room and preparing for the next day, but 400 guys would descend en masse on this little town and basically take it over.”
They spent many hours at The American Bush, Rosenberg recalls. “At any one time, you could look up and one of the cons was in the DJ booth putting on some AC/DC. I joked that 15 years later, you’d see an article in a newspaper about how the Wendover football team is the greatest in the country, because all these big giant guys [from the film] impregnated these strippers, who went off to have big giant babies that would eventually make the Wendover football team.”
Chaos continued when the production moved to Las Vegas to film the climax. “It was crazy,” says Rosenberg. “These guys were cooped up in that little town then all of a sudden they’re unleashed in Vegas. It was like the Vikings attacking, looting and sacking.” Oftentimes, when people were needed on set, they were nowhere to be found. “I’d be shooting and I’d say, ‘Where’s so and so?’” says West. “And someone would say they were in a casino. We’d have to send people out to track them down.”
West’s original idea for the climax was to have the plane crash into The Mirage casino’s fake volcano, which would then erupt on cue, the plane sinking into the lake, leading to an underwater fight between Poe and Cyrus. But that went kaput when Mirage owner Steve Wynn read the script. Wynn wanted to move The Mirage away from Vegas’ Sin City reputation and attract families, and didn’t want the association with an R-rated film. So West was without his location.
But the director had recently read in the Los Angeles Times that the Sands casino was closing down, scheduled to be demolished. He asked them to delay the demolition until they got there,
and they agreed. Although the first part of the crash, the plane causing carnage as it descended, was done with miniatures, the rest was real: they smashed all hell out of the place. And then, after filming a post-climax climax with motorbikes and a fire engine, they were done.
THE FIRST TEST
screening took place in Arizona. “It was going along fine,” remembers Todd Garner, “until the scene with Garland Greene and the little girl” — Rosenberg’s homage to Frankenstein. The original cut of that sequence, in which Garland meets the child in a trailer park, was considerably longer, the tension “excruciating” says West. “About a minute-and-a-half into the scene,” continues Garner, “a woman stood up and turned to us and said, ‘Why are you guys doing this to us?’ And walked out. [Former Disney CEO] Michael Eisner turned to me and [former Disney chairman] Joe Roth and said, ‘We’re gonna cut that down, right?’ And we said, ‘Oh yeah, definitely.’” It was just too intense. “Yeah, the bosses were not happy,” laughs Rosenberg.
“It was supposed to be a big popcorn movie. It wasn’t supposed to be a Cronenberg film.”
Con Air premiered, appropriately, at Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which the plane crashes through during its final descent. Guests were flown in from LA on a 737 and, arriving on the Tarmac in Vegas, were shouted at by ‘prison guards’, who shoved them all onto fake prison buses with batons, convoys driving them down the strip. At the Hard Rock, a replica of Con Air’s plane had been supposedly crashed into a pop-up cinema. Guests were led through the plane into a tunnel which housed prison cells, behind which ‘prisoners’ shouted at them and gave them popcorn. Just before showtime, guards shoved a prisoner onto the stage, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wearing a spit guard. The prison officers pulled off his spit guard, revealing Bruckheimer, who duly introduced the film.
Eric Malnic, writer of the article that started it all off, was there. “To say that Touchstone’s version of Con Air differed somewhat from mine — and from the reality of the federal prisoner transportation system — would be an understatement,’” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Bruckheimer, promoting the film on the Charlie Rose show, said, “We just added some drama and stretched reality a little bit.” Just a bit.
CON AIR GROSSED
$224 million worldwide. Reviews were mixed, but most recognised the sheer fun of the thing; Empire gave it four stars, calling it “an adrenaline blast of the highest order… magnifying every excess to previously untapped levels”. While 1996’s
The Rock introduced Cage as an action star,
Con Air made a fully fledged, outsized hero of him, and he made John Woo’s Face/off immediately after.
Rosenberg has a memory of West eating lunch on set, being given spaghetti sauce and saying, “More. More. More.” That, says Rosenberg, sums up the film. “More and more crazy shit just kept happening. That was the directive. It really was a big, absurd enterprise. But the fun and the ebullience and the feeling that none of us will ever get to make a film in this way again — I think you feel [that] on the screen.”
To Bruckheimer, it’s just “a fun romp”. Nonetheless, he says he’s very heartened every time he reads about how much affection people have for it. Rosenberg, meanwhile, is happy with haters, too. In a 2012 interview, Sideways and Election director Alexander Payne was asked if films ever make him upset, and he immediately cited Con Air, calling it “completely amoral”. Rosenberg laughs heartily. “I would take that as truly the height of praise,” he claims. “Nothing makes me happier than him saying it was amoral. Yeah, we got one through! We got an amoral film through the net.” A gleeful, alpha, bratty statement. Just like
Con Air itself.
Poe mid-ordinary day at the office.
Jerry Bruckheimer, Nic Cage et al arrive at the Vegas premiere in a customised Humvee.
West talks script with Cusack on location.
Above: From storyboard to screen: The plane crashes on the wrong kind of strip in Las Vegas. Left: Director Simon West on the miniature set.