Beau­ti­ful? Sun­sets are beau­ti­ful. New­born ba­bies are beau­ti­ful. This fea­ture cel­e­brat­ing 20 years of the de­mented ac­tion clas­sic? This is fuck­ing spec­tac­u­lar.

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS ALEX GODFREY Dig­i­tal illustration PETER crowther

He, pro­ducer Jerry Bruck­heimer, di­rec­tor Si­mon West and writer Scott Rosen­berg were vis­it­ing Fol­som, a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia — all part of their re­search for a $70 mil­lion ac­tion block­buster they were mak­ing. After sign­ing a no-hostage waiver (to en­sure that, should a pris­oner in­jure or kill them, their fam­i­lies wouldn’t sue), they walked into the yard. It was busy: 2,000 prison­ers talk­ing and ex­er­cis­ing. “Grad­u­ally they started to recog­nise Nic,” says Rosen­berg. “And big­ger and big­ger groups started to gather around ask­ing ques­tions.” One wanted to make a film with him. “And one guy came up to Nic and said, ‘Holy cow, it’s re­ally you!’ Nic said, ‘Yeah, it’s me.’ And the guy said, ‘Yeah! It’s you! Jerry Se­in­feld!’”

Cage was not im­pressed. But as more and more cons ap­proached him, the Hol­ly­wood crew got anx­ious. “You could feel it get­ting slightly out of con­trol,” says Rosen­berg. And then, across the yard, a stab­bing. Guards grabbed the film­mak­ers and hus­tled them out of the yard. Fast. “I say this now,” says Bruck­heimer, “I felt okay — but that’s ’cause I’m out of there. I was ner­vous.” To bor­row a line from the film it­self: wel­come to Con Air.

The ul­ti­mate high-con­cept nap­kin pitch (“Prison­ers on a plane!”), it was the pin­na­cle of late-’90s ac­tion-movie ex­cess, an out­ra­geous film that cared lit­tle for logic, am­pli­fy­ing ev­ery­thing un­til the am­pli­fier broke. A Bruck­heimer block­buster di­rected by an English­man who’d never made a film and star­ring in­die ac­tors who had no busi­ness be­ing in such a pro­duc­tion, it rev­elled in its own ridicu­lous­ness. But as the Fol­som ex­cur­sion sug­gests, the cra­zi­est parts of all hap­pened off-cam­era.


movie so re­moved from re­al­ity, Con Air is rooted in fact. In Au­gust 1993, Los An­ge­les Times staff writer Eric Mal­nic heard about the Air Oper­a­tions Di­vi­sion of the US Mar­shals Ser­vice, which flies prison­ers around the coun­try for trans­fers, med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions and court ap­pear­ances on Boe­ing 727s. Mal­nic wrote about it in an ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled ‘When Jail­birds Fly, They Al­ways Use ‘Con Air’’. Of course, a guard told him, con­victs dreamt of us­ing the ser­vice to es­cape, adding that a suc­cess­ful at­tempt had never oc­curred: “If they bite or spit, we put panty­hose over their heads.”

Don­ald De Line, then pres­i­dent of Dis­ney’s adult off­shoot Touch­stone Pic­tures, thought it would make a good movie, and Todd Garner, then vice pres­i­dent of pro­duc­tion, be­gan look­ing for a screen­writer. Rosen­berg’s screen­play for

Things To Do In Den­ver When You’re Dead, a twisted char­ac­ter-driven drama in­spired by his fa­ther’s death, was get­ting a lot of buzz, so in 1994 Garner hired him for Con Air. The writer spent a jovial three days fly­ing with some cons, then wrote a draft.

The story’s driv­ing force was Cameron Poe, a for­mer street hood on the verge of free­dom who just wanted to get home to his daugh­ter but found him­self, says Rosen­berg, “on the wrong plane with the worst pos­si­ble peo­ple you could be on with”. Char­ac­ters were mu­si­cally in­spired. Rosen­berg lis­tened to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The All­man Brothers Band while writ­ing, and Poe was a take on the re­spec­tive south­ern rock front­men, long-haired beardies Ron­nie Van Zant and Gregg All­man. Black Gueril­las gen­eral Di­a­mond Dog got his name from David Bowie’s hit, rapist Johnny 23 was a take on Bruce Spring­steen’s Johnny 99, and cross-dress­ing Sally Can’t Dance was a Lou Reed song.

Touch­stone gave it to Bruck­heimer to pro­duce. “I thought it was a ter­rific idea,” says Bruck­heimer now. “It just needed to be more re­alised on the page. So we went to work on it.” On the set of Michael Bay’s The Rock, Bruck­heimer passed the script to Cage, who loved it. To­gether the pair started mak­ing Poe


more sym­pa­thetic, chang­ing him from a ran­dom thug to a vir­tu­ous Army Ranger, while it was Cage him­self who de­cided that Poe would have a plush toy bunny to gift his daugh­ter, to be pro­tected at all costs.

Bruck­heimer liked to re­cruit di­rec­tors who’d worked in com­mer­cials, for their big ideas and vis­ual chops, such as Top Gun’s Tony Scott and

Flash­dance’s Adrian Lyne — Bruck­heimer him­self had be­gun his ca­reer pro­duc­ing ads. There was a meet­ing with Bri­tain’s Tony Kaye, who would go on to make Amer­i­can His­tory X, but, at the time, was still to make a fea­ture. By his own ad­mis­sion in a 2012 in­ter­view, he was id­i­otic. “We should go to pris­ons and get real con­victs to make the movie. It’s the only way,” he told Bruck­heimer ex­ec­u­tives. “What about ac­tors?” they asked. “No, that’s stupid,” he said. He didn’t get the job.

Mean­while, Si­mon West landed on Bruck­heimer’s radar. An­other Brit, West was di­rect­ing mu­sic videos — in­clud­ing Rick Ast­ley’s

Never Gonna Give You Up — and com­mer­cials, be­cause he wanted to make films and had seen oth­ers graduate the same way. It worked. Im­pressed with his out­put, Bruck­heimer called West in for a meet­ing and gave him Con Air; West loved it. He took the job and then, at Bruck­heimer’s re­quest, im­me­di­ately set about work­ing with Rosen­berg on mak­ing it more bananas. The plane shrunk — in­stead of the Boe­ing the real Con Air used, West wanted a small jet that looked like an old prison bus — but the ac­tion got big­ger.

“Scott called me ‘the en­larger’,” says West. “He would write a line and I would turn it into a five-page ca­coph­ony of may­hem. It went from this small, char­ac­ter-driven thing to this gi­ant overblown spec­ta­cle.”

Rosen­berg ad­mits that, at its core, Con Air is “a pretty ridicu­lous movie. We weren’t re­ally quite sure if we were mak­ing a Jerry Bruck­heimer movie or tak­ing the piss out of a Jerry Bruck­heimer movie. We weren’t sure what Jerry thought.”

But Bruck­heimer knew he wanted it funny. He was the one who kept push­ing the ab­sur­dity, and at one point hired J.J. Abrams, then known as a comedic screen­writer for films such as

Gone Fishin’, to con­trib­ute jokes. Abrams was also writ­ing on Ar­maged­don; “He was our go-to guy,” says Bruck­heimer. Abrams gave them a few lines for Con Air, in­clud­ing Poe dead­pan­ning as the DEA Dun­can Mal­loy’s Corvette, tied to the back of the plane, trails be­hind in the sky, “On any other day, that might seem strange.” And on the pro­duc­tion it­self, things only got stranger.


was nuts. Rosen­berg was friends with Steve Buscemi and wrote mass­mur­derer Gar­land Greene for him. Even so, the script got around and Rosen­berg re­ceived a pack­age in the mail. “I opened it and it was a baby doll’s arm cov­ered in blood,” he re­calls. “And there was a note with it say­ing, ‘I am Gar­land Greene.’ It was from De­nis Leary. He re­ally, re­ally wanted that part.” Rosen­berg wouldn’t wa­ver.

For US Mar­shal Vince Larkin, they wanted John Cu­sack, who didn’t care for the script, but fig­ured that star­ring in a block­buster would give him in­creased in­dus­try lever­age. It also paid sub­stan­tially. Cu­sack had one de­mand. To bring some­thing of him­self to Larkin, says Rosen­berg, he in­sisted on wear­ing idio­syn­cratic footwear. “He was like, ‘I wanna cre­ate the very first ac­tion hero who wears Birken­stocks. Charl­ton He­ston wore san­dals and he kicked ass. I wanna do the same.’ Thus, Larkin wears san­dals.”

Last to be cast was the film’s chief evil­doer, big-brained Cyrus The Virus. Bruck­heimer ap­proached Bruce Wil­lis, but he turned it down. John Malkovich was an early idea, but Bruck­heimer asked West to au­di­tion a host of big names. Tom Size­more read for it, as did Willem Dafoe, who gave a very sin­is­ter au­di­tion. And then came some­one who was too close to the bone.

“Mickey Rourke was a par­tic­u­larly har­row­ing au­di­tion,” shud­ders West. “He was do­ing a con­fronta­tional scene and there was this young as­sis­tant cast­ing di­rec­tor read­ing the Poe part op­po­site him. Mickey Rourke was eye­ball to eye­ball, nose to nose with him, and then pulls out this 10” Bowie knife from be­hind him, which was to­tally real and in­cred­i­bly sharp. And he held it un­der this poor guy’s chin. And me and the cast­ing di­rec­tors froze — do we in­ter­vene, do we wres­tle him to the ground? Is this great act­ing, or has he lost the plot and is go­ing to kill us all? I’m ashamed to say we did not in­ter­vene. We let him fin­ish the scene. So it was a pretty pow­er­ful au­di­tion, that one.” Even now he sounds re­lieved.

Fi­nally, Bruck­heimer asked West to choose. West said he still wanted Malkovich, and they cast him with­out an au­di­tion. “So Malkovich flew in from France two days be­fore the shoot,” says West, “and we squeezed him into his or­ange jump­suit.”

Cage ar­rived, ready to go, with — in­spired by Rosen­berg’s talk of Poe be­ing cut from the same cloth as Ron­nie Van Zant and Gregg All­man — a full, thick beard. “We can’t have him look like that,” said Bruck­heimer. “Jerry’s think­ing was, ‘You don’t pay a guy $20 mil­lion and then cover up his face,’” says Rosen­berg, who loved the beard, but be­cause Bruck­heimer saw it as his fault, was in­structed to tell Cage to shave. Rosen­berg skulked off to Cage’s trailer. A crest­fallen Cage ac­qui­esced, and as his makeup lady shaved him, his face dropped. “I’ve lost Cameron Poe,” he said. “I could see him leave the char­ac­ter,” says Rosen­berg. “For him, the beard was part of it. He looked mo­men­tar­ily lost. But he got Poe back.” As a com­pro­mise, Cage kept a five o’clock shadow, and in­sisted on hav­ing his long hair flow; Bruck­heimer had wanted it in a pony-tail. “Nic loved that long hair so much,” says Garner. “So, the scene near the be­gin­ning when he comes off the prison bus and hits the wind and it’s like a Fabergé com­mer­cial? That was Nic’s mo­ment for his hair to shine, lit­er­ally.”

FILM­ING BE­GAN ON 1 July ’96, with Salt Lake City In­ter­na­tional Air­port dou­bling for Con Air’s base. Cage was fully in­vested, to­tally pre­pared and rarely went be­yond three takes. Malkovich, on the other hand, “ap­peared not to have read the script,” West says, and just asked the di­rec­tor each time what he wanted him to do be­fore com­ing up with hi­lar­i­ous, ex­ple­tive-strewn im­pro­vi­sa­tions. Cu­sack, while great, didn’t hide his dis­dain for the film. For Rosen­berg, it was dis­heart­en­ing. “It was kind of a bum­mer. He thought he was sell­ing out.”

Then came mad­ness. For eight weeks, for the shoot­ing of the siege in Lerner Air­field, they all lived and worked in Wen­dover, a 1.6 mile-long strip of noth­ing­ness on the Ne­vada/utah bor­der, cho­sen by West be­cause he thought it looked like the moon. The 400-strong cast and crew there counted just two women. Some sup­port­ing ac­tors play­ing mi­nor roles had done time, as had a few of the crew. And it was hot: tem­per­a­tures hit 120 de­grees.

“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.


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-anda-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.


$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.

Nic Cage sport­ing a lux­u­ri­ant head of hair plus com­pro­mise five o’clock shadow as Cameron Poe.

Crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind Cyrus The Virus (John Malkovich).

Sally Can’t Dance (Renoly San­ti­ago) leads the charge. Be­low left: Law­men Vince Larkin (John Cu­sack), Dun­can Mal­loy (Colm Meaney) and Skip Dev­ers (John Roselius). Be­low: Steve Buscemi’s killer Gar­land Greene makes a friend.

From sto­ry­board to screen: Fight­ing the Na­tional Guard at Lerner Air­field.

Cyrus The Virus and Dave Chapelle’s Pin­ball Parker.

Be­low: Poe with wife Tri­cia (Mon­ica Pot­ter) and Casey (Landry All­bright), the daugh­ter he’s never met. From sto­ry­board to screen: DEA agent Mal­loy’s Corvette goes for an im­promptu ride in one of the film’s many spec­tac­u­lar stunts.

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.

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