Almost everything you think you know about Kevin Costner’s blockbuster is wrong, explains Luke Dormehl
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.
“I DO NOT DESERVE A RAZZIE!!!”
The many sets built on water proved to be enormously troublesome.
Basic Instinct’s Jeanne Tripplehorn co- starred as Helen.