Al­most ev­ery­thing you think you know about Kevin Cost­ner’s block­buster is wrong, ex­plains Luke Dormehl

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The story of the Cost­ner epic might sur­prise you…

Imag­ine the sce­nario. You’re a starv­ing screen­writer, living in Los An­ge­les. One day you come up with the idea for a script that starts out as a “low- bud­get Mad Max rip- off ”. Some­where along the line it gets more am­bi­tious and, through a cou­ple of friends, you get it into the hands of an agent, them­selves just start­ing out in the busi­ness. Then things go nuts. Overnight, there’s a bid­ding war for your script. Ma­jor movie stu­dios get in­volved. You go from zero to Hol­ly­wood hero. Be­fore long, the script gets into the hands of a direc­tor- star combo, who de­cide to make it as the next col­lab­o­ra­tion in their suc­cess­ful se­ries of movies.

That, in a nut­shell, is the story of Peter Rader. “It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary, head- spin­ning two weeks,” he tells SFX. “Within the space of a fort­night I went from hav­ing the script sent out by this young agent I was in­tro­duced to by a cou­ple of friends to hav­ing a closed movie deal. I was driv­ing a beaten- up old Corolla and strug­gling to make the rent. Sud­denly I had this high six- fig­ure deal with a ma­jor stu­dio, and an agree­ment that they would buy my next script, sight un­seen.” Just days later, Rader’s dad flew over from Lon­don to Los An­ge­les to see his son. Rader hired a limou­sine to pick his dad up from the air­port. “We had cham­pagne on the way home,” he says.

This is how post- apoc­a­lyp­tic movies of­ten begin: with a flash­back to hap­pier times, be­fore the world is an­ni­hi­lated by in­vad­ing aliens, turned into a war­zone by gleam­ing Aus­trian cy­borgs, or drowned be­neath melted Po­lar ice caps. The script Rader was paid $ 350,000 for ( plus an ex­tra $ 150k if it suc­cess­fully reached screens) was Water­world, a 1995 movie that has gone down in his­tory as one of the great Hol­ly­wood dis­as­ters.

Ar­riv­ing at al­most ex­actly the same time as SFX # 1 hit news­stands, Water­world tells the story of “the Mariner”, an an­ti­hero drifter played by Kevin Cost­ner, who sails a wa­tery Earth search­ing for dry land, while drink­ing his own pu­ri­fied urine.

But if you think that ex­is­tence sounds mis­er­able, you haven’t heard the sorry tales of those in­volved with a pro­duc­tion that ran out of con­trol in just about ev­ery way pos­si­ble.

Wa­ter Way To Go

To work out where Water­world went so wrong, you’ve first got to ex­am­ine why it ap­peared at the time to be so right. On pa­per, the film looked per­fect. In the mid- 1990s, few movie stars were big­ger than Kevin Cost­ner: then fresh off the re­lease of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Dances With Wolves and The Body­guard, Cost­ner was one of a se­lect few post-’ 80s stars who could sell an ac­tion movie with­out enor­mous mus­cles

or an over­sized gun. For Water­world, he was paired once again with his Robin Hood direc­tor, Kevin Reynolds.

Right from the start it was clear that trou­ble was brew­ing. Af­ter Rader’s script was bought, he was dragged into what seemed like an end­less process of rewrites, with five, six, seven drafts all writ­ten and then dis­carded. Rader him­self was even­tu­ally let go and a host of other writ­ers brought in to take a crack at the screen­play. “I didn’t re­alise a writer could be fired. That’s how naive I was,” Rader says. David Twohy, the screen­writer be­hind The

Fugi­tive and The Chron­i­cles Of Rid­dick, is the only one to share an on- screen credit with Rader in the fin­ished movie, although there were plenty of oth­ers – in­clud­ing genre leg­end Joss Whe­don.

Script dif­fi­cul­ties were just the tip of the ( melted) ice­berg for Water­world’s prob­lems, how­ever. Ever since the dis­as­trous shoot for

Jaws in the ’ 70s, the chal­lenges of film­ing at sea were well known. “[ Water­world’s film­mak­ers] ac­tu­ally spoke to Spiel­berg be­fore they be­gan pro­duc­tion,” Rader re­calls. “He told them, ‘ For god’s sake, what­ever else you do, don’t shoot the whole movie on wa­ter. Do it on a sound­stage.’ They chose to ig­nore that ad­vice.”

Mak­ing big- bud­get Hol­ly­wood movies doesn’t come with a “how to” man­ual, but if it did, one of the points would likely be that pro­duc­ers ig­nore Steven Spiel­berg at their peril. Al­most ap­pear­ing to tempt the cinema gods, the movie’s film­ing lo­ca­tion was cho­sen as Hawaii’s Kawai­hae Har­bor. Too late they dis­cov­ered that the name trans­lated as “rough wa­ters”. The re­sult­ing sea­sick­ness and con­stantly chang­ing weather con­di­tions made it a mas­sive headache for all in­volved. At one point dur­ing film­ing, an en­tire set sank and had to be re­trieved.

Three weeks into pro­duc­tion, Rader vis­ited the set. “By that point they were al­ready three weeks be­hind sched­ule,” he says.

From Bad To Worse

Wa­ters were far from calm be­tween direc­tor and star, too. De­spite hav­ing worked to­gether mul­ti­ple times be­fore – most no­tably on 1991’ s Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves – Water­world turned out to be a headache for all in­volved as lead ac­tor ( and pro­ducer) Kevin Cost­ner butted heads with direc­tor Kevin Reynolds. It wasn’t the first time.

“Kevin Cost­ner and Kevin Reynolds had this crazy love- hate re­la­tion­ship go­ing back to film school days,” says Rader. “Cost­ner would bring Reynolds into a project to di­rect him, then kick him out of the edit­ing room. Af­ter Robin Hood they weren’t talk­ing to each other. But, of course, as soon as Kevin Cost­ner got in­ter­ested in Water­world, he said, ‘ I know the per­fect guy for this.’ And it was Reynolds. As I un­der­stand it, Kevin Reynolds was given a num­ber of as­sur­ances that the same thing wouldn’t hap­pen again. And guess what? He was kicked out of the edit­ing room one more time. I think that was the death knell in their re­la­tion­ship.” Cost­ner wound up tak­ing the brunt of the movie’s bad press. Hav­ing risen to A- list sta­tus in the years be­fore, by the time

Water­world set sail for cine­mas the im­pres­sion was that he had got too big for his fish­ing boots. Cost­ner was paid $ 14 mil­lion for ap­pear­ing in the movie, but the vast sums of money be­ing hurled about didn’t stop there. Ev­ery­thing was dis­sected in the press: from the cost of his ac­com­mo­da­tion ($ 1,800 per night) to the $ 800,000 yacht ac­quired specif­i­cally for fer­ry­ing him the 400 yards from dry land to movie set.

The end re­sult of all this messi­ness was a wa­ter­logged shoot­ing sched­ule, which bal­looned from an op­ti­mistic 96 days to a down­right epic 166 days: al­most half a year of non- stop film­ing. The bud­get ex­panded too,

“spiel­berg told them, ‘ for god’s sake, don’t shoot the whole movie on wa­ter’”

like the waist­band of a pair of elas­ti­cated trousers at an all- you- can- eat buf­fet. When Cost­ner signed on, Water­world was bud­geted at a not- in­con­sid­er­able $ 65 mil­lion. Af­ter all was said and done, the film cost $ 175 mil­lion to bring to the screen. Ad­justed for in­fla­tion, it cost more than Avatar.

“You know what the crazy part is?” laughs Peter Rader. “When I first wrote the script, one pro­ducer turned it down flat, say­ing, ‘ You think I’m made of money? This thing will cost three mil­lion to shoot.’ If only they’d known.”

The Flop That Wasn’t

Ac­cord­ing to popular leg­end, what hap­pened next was one of Hol­ly­wood’s most in­fa­mous money- losers: a movie which barely reg­is­tered a rip­ple of in­ter­est from au­di­ences. In fact,( the truth is some­what dif­fer­ent. Water­world earned $ 264 mil­lion in cine­mas and went on to be a hit on video and tele­vi­sion. An un­spec­i­fied mar­ket­ing bud­get plus the magic of movie ac­count­ing means it’s dif­fi­cult to know ex­actly when Water­world broke even, but it did. To­day, it is a prof­itable film in Uni­ver­sal’s back cat­a­logue. The film’s real suc­cess, how­ever, was a theme park at­trac­tion called Water­world: A Live Sea War Spec­tac­u­lar. In the years that fol­lowed, the show played thou­sands of live shows in five dif­fer­ent parks around the world. “That was where the film did re­ally well in terms of li­cens­ing,” says Peter Rader. “I still get resid­ual cheques for it, even 20 years on.”

Per­haps even more sur­pris­ing is that, all things con­sid­ered, Water­world is ac­tu­ally a pretty de­cent film, more than wor­thy of a crit­i­cal reap­praisal. Far from be­ing the de­ba­cle that makes the dis­as­trous Bat­man & Robin look like Cit­i­zen Kane as some be­lieve, the movie stands up as a post- apoc­a­lyp­tic epic. The film­mak­ers chose to avoid us­ing CGI and in­stead go for prac­ti­cal ef­fects, which might have seemed dis­ap­point­ing in 1995, but is a god­send when watch­ing the movie to­day and be­ing spared the kind of graph­ics which look like they be­long on a first gen PlaySta­tion.

Kevin Cost­ner makes a good lead, too, de­spite the crit­i­cal drub­bing he took at the time. His char­ac­ter is a gruff an­ti­hero that bor­rows from Cost­ner’s Robin Hood per­sona and adds a level of gritty sto­icism. Even the once- mocked fact that he plays a mu­tant ( some­thing which prompted crit­ics at the time to mock­ingly la­bel the film Fishtar, in ref­er­ence to 1987’ s flop Ishtar) seems de­cid­edly less silly in an age of Aqua­man and X- Men movies.

The real sell­ing point of Water­world, how­ever, is the su­perbly over- the- top per­for­mance by Den­nis Hop­per, who crim­i­nally won a Razzie for his per­for­mance. Hav­ing made his come­back to the big time as the gas- huff­ing vil­lain in David Lynch’s Blue Vel­vet, Hop­per’s per­for­mance in Water­world may lack sub­tlety, but it’s a blast to watch. “Den­nis Hop­per is ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic in the film,” says Rader. “He just went to town with that role, sink­ing his teeth into it and ham­ming it up like crazy.”

Water­world may be syn­ony­mous with Hol­ly­wood gone wrong, but if any­thing it speaks to the strange re­la­tion­ship we have with ul­tra- ex­pen­sive movies – and with the stars we raise up to the su­per­heroic level of mod­ern gods. Turn­ing 20 this year ( and, as noted, shar­ing a birth­day with this very mag­a­zine) it’s a film we have a not- sose­cret soft spot for: the Hol­ly­wood flop that re­ally wasn’t.

So give it an­other shot. Tell ’ em SFX sent you.

No, this isn’t a scene from the never- re­leased se­quel, Fire­world…

Den­nis Hop­per won a Razzie for his per­for­mance as the vil­lain, the Dea­con.

Care­ful, you could take some­one’s eye out with that. Oh, hang on…

The young actress who played Enola, Tina Ma­jorino, later ap­peared in True Blood.


The many sets built on wa­ter proved to be enor­mously trou­ble­some.

Ba­sic In­stinct’s Jeanne Trip­ple­horn co- starred as He­len.

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