“Nothing’s free in Waterworld!”
Waterworld is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film that was released by Universal Studios in the summer of 1995. Upon its release, the film received decidedly average reviews and is considered by many to be a commercial failure.
However, this isn’t strictly true. The film did manage to recoup its production budget through cinema takings worldwide. Further profits were then made through home video sales and rentals. To date the film has been made available on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray. But yet the film still carries an aura of failure about it.
The director, Kevin Reynolds, knew there would be problems before production had even started,
“During pre-production. Because having never shot on water to that extent before, I didn’t really realise what I was in for. I talked to Spielberg about it because he’d gone to do Jaws, and I remember, he said to me, “Oh, I would never shoot another picture on water”.
“When we were doing the budget for the picture, and the head of the studio, Sid Sheinberg, we were talking about it and I said, “Steven told me that on Jaws the schedule for the picture was 55 days, and they ended up shooting a 155 days”. Because of the water. And he sat there for a moment and he said, “You know, I’m not sure about the days, but I do know they went a hundred percent over budget”. And so, Universal knew the potential problems of shooting on water. It’s monstrous.”
The film began with a projected budget of $100 million which had reportedly increased to $175 million by the end of production. The principle photography had overrun for at least thirty days more than originally planned due to one major decision.
Whereas today they would film in water tanks with partially built sets, employing green screens to fake the locations, back in 1995 they decided to build everything full size and shoot out on the ocean.
This causes extra logistical problems on top of those that already come with making a major action blockbuster. Cast and crew have to be transported to sets. The camera boats and sets float out of position and will have to be reset between takes taking up valuable production time.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A film has to have a script before it can go into production.
The first draft of Waterworld was written by Peter Radar, a Harvard graduate who wanted to break into the film business. His contact in the film industry was Brad Kevoy, an assistant to the legendary director Roger Corman.
Roger Corman is best known for making films very quickly on a small budget. He also liked to give young talent a chance to direct and write their own films. Brad informed Peter that if he could write a Mad Max rip off, he would arrange to finance and let him direct the picture.
Radar came back and pitched the idea for what would become Waterworld. Kevoy took one look at him and said,
“Are you out of your mind? This would cost us three million dollars to make this movie!”
So Radar kept hold of the idea and decided to re-write the script but, this time, going wild. He wrote what he wanted to see on-screen, limited only by his imagination, not a real world production budget.
He took this new rewrite to his cousin who was currently working as a line producer with industry connections to Larry Gordon. Larry has produced many iconic films over the years such as Predator, Die Hard, Hellboy and Watchmen.
The cousin declined the offer to get it shown to Gordon as he was too nervous in meeting the producer. Instead, it was passed onto one of his friends who was a working screenwriter. Unfortunately, the review notes that came back were crushing to Radar. The script was trashed with strongly negative views. This dented Radar’s confidence and the script was placed on the shelf where it sat for several years.
Radar moved on and after making a couple of low budget films for a Greek production company, he became disillusioned with the filmmaking business. Whilst deciding what his current career options were, he retrieved the Waterworld script down from the shelf. Deciding that what he held in his hands was actually a good idea, he spent the following month rewriting the script.
He managed to get the newly written script shown to a pair of producers with whom he had made contact with. They loved it and ironically they passed it onto Larry Gordon. He shared the enthusiasm saying it had the kind of cinematic possibilities he was looking for. A deal was signed on Christmas Eve of 1989.
As further script rewrites progressed, it became clear that Waterworld was too big for the Larry Gordon’s production company to undertake by themselves. In February 1992, a deal was signed with Universal Pictures to co-produce and co-finance the film. This was now six years after the first draft had been written.
Universal had signed director Kevin Reynolds to Waterworld. Whilst he was finishing his latest film, Rapa Nui, pre-production for Waterworld was already underway.
The decision was taken that the largest set for the film, known as the atoll, would be built full size. The atoll was the primary location for film and in the story served as the location for a small population of survivors.
The logic behind this decision was due to the high percentage of live action filming required in this location, as well as a huge action set piece. No sound stage would be big enough to incorporate this number of scenes and it was crucial that we see the mariner sail his boat into the atoll, turn around and set out again. A full-size construction was the only way to go as the use of miniature and special effects would be impractical.
The next problem was deciding where to build this huge set. After much research, Kawaihae Harbour in Hawaii was chosen as the location. The atoll could be constructed in the harbour and rotated when needed thus allowing for open sea in the background. Later towards the end of principle photography, the atoll could be towed out into the open sea for the filming of the big action sequences which would be impractical to shoot in an enclosed harbour.
Director Kevin Reynolds also discussed the possibility of using the same water tank as James Cameron’s The Abyss, which had filmed there around five years ago,
“We had even entertained the notion of shooting at that big nuclear reactor facility where they had shot The Abyss, to use it for our underwater tank. But we found it in such a state of disrepair that economically it just wasn’t feasible. We didn’t have as much underwater work as they did. Most of The Abyss is interiors and underwater and model work, ours is mostly surface exterior.”
The production company had originally envisioned building the atoll by linking approximately one hundred boats together and building upon this foundation, just like the characters in the film. The production crew set out to search Hawaii and get hold of as many boats as possible.
During this search, a unique boat in Honolulu caught their attention. Upon further investigation, they discovered it was built by Navitech, a subsidiary of the famous aircraft production company, Lockheed.
They approached Lockheed with the strange request of figuring out how they could build the foundations of the atoll. Lockheed found the request unusual but didn’t shy away from the challenging. They agreed to design the atoll foundation and Navitech would construct it.
Meanwhile, an 11ft miniature model of the atoll was sent out to a model ship testing facility in San Diego. Scaled wave tanks are used to determine the effects of the open sea on large scale miniature models of new untested ship designs. This would help determine what would happen with the unusual design of the atoll when it was out of the harbour.
Navitech supplied the atoll foundation in several sections. Huge knuckle joints connected the sections and allowed the entire atoll to flex with the movement of the water. The first sections were placed in the harbour and set construction commenced. Everything on the atoll had to be carefully weighed and measured. If the set was too heavy there was a danger of overturning in strong winds.
The floor of the atoll was originally built with wooden sheeting but it soon transpired that more than two inches of seawater would also cause the atoll sections to capsize. The flooring was removed and the steel mesh foundation underneath now became the atoll’s floor.
Not only was this strong enough to hold the weight of the cast and crew, it matched the aesthetic of the set and it allowed seawater to drain away.
The atoll, when finished, was approximately ¼ mile in circumference. It took three months to construct and is rumoured to cost around $22 million. As the atoll would be used out on the open sea, it required a seafaring license. Nothing like this had been done before and after much deliberation, it was eventually classed as an unmanned vessel. This meant that all cast and crew would have to vacate the set whilst it was towed into position. By the end of production, the atoll was towed out to sea a total of five times.
Shooting out on the open sea presented a series of logistical problem as Reynolds describes,
“We had an entire navy, basically – I mean, this atoll was positioned about a mile off-shore in Hawaii, it was anchored to the bottom of the ocean so it could rotate. What you don’t think about are things like, you’re shooting on this atoll to maintain this notion that there’s no dry land, you always have to shoot out to sea. Away from the land. So we chose a location where we had about a 180 degree view of open water. Nevertheless, any time when you’re shooting, there could be a ship appear in the background, or something like that, and you had to make a choice. Do I hold up the shot, wait for the ship to move out, or do we shoot and say we’re going to incur this additional cost in post-production of trying to remove the ship from the background.
And at that time, CGI was not at the point it is now, it was a bigger deal. And so, even though if you’re shooting across the atoll and you’re shooting out onto open water, when you turn around and do the reverses, for the action, you had to rotate the entire atoll, so that you’re still shooting out to open water. Those are the kinds of things that people don’t realise.
Or something as simple as – if you’re shooting a scene between two boats, and you’re trying to shoot The Mariner on his craft, another boat or whatever, you’ve got a camera boat shooting his boat, and then the other boat in the background. Well, when you’re on open water things tend to drift apart. So you have to send lines down from each of those boats to the bottom, to anchor them so that they somewhat stay in frame. When you’ve got a simple shot on land, you set up the camera position, you put people in front of the camera and then you put background in there. But when you’re on water, everything’s constantly moving apart, drifting apart, so you have to try to hold things down somewhat.
And these are simple things that you don’t really realise when you’re looking at it on film. But logistically, it’s crazy. And each day you shoot on the atoll with all those extras, we had to transport those people from dry land out to the location and so you’re getting hundreds of people through wardrobe and everything, and you’re putting them on boats, transporting them out to the atoll, and trying to get everybody in position to do a shot. And then when you break for lunch, you have to put everybody on boats and take them back in to feed them.”
Reynolds described the filming inside the atoll as like working inside a Brillo pad, there were so many sharp corners you had to watch out for.
The final size of the atoll was determined by the size of the Mariners boat, the trimaran. The dimensions for the trimaran were finalised very early on in pre-production, allowing all other vehicles and sets to be sized accordingly.
Production required two trimarans boats which are so called because they have three hulls. The first was based on the standard trimaran blueprint and built for speed but also had to accommodate a secret crew below decks.
During wide and aerial shots it would have to look like Costner himself was piloting the boat. In reality, a trained crew could monitor and perform the real sailing of the boat utilising specially built controls and television monitors below deck.
The second trimaran was the trawler boat which could transform into the racer through the use of special practical effects rigs. Both of these boats were constructed in France by Jeanneau. Normally this type of vessel requires a year to construct but production needed two boats in five months!
Normally once the boat had been constructed, Jeammeau would deliver it on the deck of a freighter, requiring a delivery time of around a month. This delay was unacceptable and so the trimarans were dismantled into sections and taken by a 747 air freighter to the dock Hawaii. Upon arrival, a further month was required to reassemble the boat and get them prepared for filming.
Another major location for the film was the oil tanker, the Deez. The oil supertanker is used as a home by Dennis Hopper’s bad guy, the Deacon, and his followers, known as the smokers.
According to the film’s plot, this rusting hulk is all that remains of the famous Exxon Valdez. The oil tanker which ran aground and created one of the largest oil spills in 1989.
Research quickly determined that purchasing a second-hand oil supertanker was impractical. An empty supertanker sits 90ft above the water line. Precious time would be wasted every day using cranes to transport equipment and crew on and off the vessel.
Also, when an oil tanker is decommissioned it still contains 100,000 litres of sludge sitting in the pipes which would create an unsafe working environment for cast and crew. A cleaning operation would be prohibitively expensive and so the idea was quickly dropped.
Instead, sets recreating the inside of the tanker were built using forced perspective in a huge 1000ft long warehouse which had an adjoining 2000ft field. In this field, they built the set of the oil tankers deck, again constructed using forced perspective. Using the forced perspective trick, the 500ft long set could be constructed to give the impression that it was really twice as long.
The script called for an aircraft to land on the tankers deck and this is why they originally chose this large exterior location. Unfortunately, the location was considered unsafe for this particular stunt and ended up being filmed elsewhere.
There’s more to a film than just it’s sets and filming locations. Over two thousand costumes had to be created with many of the lead actors costumes being replicated many times over due to wear and tear.
This is not an uncommon practice for film production, but due to the unique look of the people and the world they inhabit, it did create some headaches. One costume was created with so many fish scales the wardrobe department had to search the entire island of Hawaii looking for anyone who could supply in the huge quantity required.
Makeup had to use waterproof cosmetics, especially on the stunt players. As everyone had a sun burnt look, a three-sided tanning booth was setup. The extras numbering in their hundreds, with ages ranging from six to sixty-five, passed through the booth like a production line to receive their spray tan. The extras then moved onto costume before finally having their hair fixed and becoming ready for the day.
In some scenes, extras were actually painted plywood cutouts to help enhance the number of extras on the set. This can easily be seen in one particular shot on board the Deez super tanker.
Filming on the water is not only a difficult and time-consuming process but also very dangerous. It’s been reported that Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino nearly drowned on their first day of filming.
Waterworld’s star Kevin Costner reported having a near-death experience when filming a scene in which the mariner ties himself to his catamaran to survive a storm. The pounding water caused him to black out and nearly drown.
As well as the logistical problems of creating a film of this scale and on water, they also had to deal with the press who seemed intent on wanting the film to fail. Director Kevin Reynolds discusses the situation,
“It was huge, we were constantly fighting – people wanted to have bad press. That was more exciting to them than the good news. I guess the most egregious example of that that I recall was that the publicist told me that one day…we’d been out the day before and we were doing a shot where we sent two cameras up on a mast of the trimaran and we wanted to do a shot where they tilled down from the horizon down to the deck below. We’re out there, we’re anchored, we’re setting the shot up and a swell comes in, and I look over and the mast is sort of bending.
And I turned to the boatmaster and I said, “Bruno, is this safe?”. And he looks up the mast and he goes, “No”. So I said, “Okay, well, we have to get out as I can’t have two guys fall off from 40 feet up”. So, we had to break out of the set-up, and go back in a shoot something else and we lost another half-day.
Anyway, the next day the publicist is sitting in his office and he gets this call from some journalist in the States and he goes, “Okay. Don’t lie to me – I’ve had this confirmed from two different people. I want the facts, and I want to hear about the accident yesterday, we had two cameramen fall off the mast and were killed”.
And, he goes, “What are you talking about?”. And he goes, “Don’t lie to me, don’t cover this up, we know this has happened”. It didn’t happen! People were so hungry for bad news because it was much more exciting than…they just said it, and you know, it hurt us.”
Upon release, the press seemed to be disappointed that the film wasn’t the massive failure they were hoping it to be. Universal Studios told Kevin Reynolds that one critic came out of an early screening in New York and in a disappointed tone said,
“Well, it didn’t suck.”
It is true that during principle photography the slave colony set sank and had to be retrieved. However due to bad press, the rumour became much bigger and to this day when you mention the sinking set, most people assume it was the huge atoll.
During production, press nicknamed the film “Kevin’s Gate” and “Fishtar”, referring to 1980’s box office failures Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar. Heaven’s Gate failed so badly it led to the sale of United Artists Studio and has become synonymous with failure in Hollywood.
Newsweek magazine even went as far to print a rumour that star Kevin Costner ordered the special effects department add computer generated hair to hide his bald patches. Costner didn’t find it very amusing telling CNN,
“I was so surprised that it came from Newsweek. No matter if they cite a source, it’s just bullshit, and they’re bullshit for printing it.”
As well as the exaggerated set problems and other various production rumours, there were also difficulties with the script. In a risky move, the film was green lit and moved into production without a finalised script.
The final total is a reportedly thirty-six rewrites. One of the writers involved was Joss Whedon. Joss had worked on many scripts before becoming a director having being at the helm of both The Avengers and the sequel Avengers: Age Of Ultron. He described his experience on Waterworld as,
“Seven weeks of hell”
Everything came to a head just three weeks before the end of principle photography. Kevin Reynolds who was an old friend of Kevin Costner allegedly walked off set or was fired. There was no official statement on what happened.
When Reynolds left the production this event caused many changes to be made. Composer Mark Isham had already composed approximately two-thirds of the film’s score by the time Reynolds left and that event ultimately caused him to leave production. As Mark describes in this interview excerpt,
“Kevin Reynolds quit the film, which left me working for Kevin Costner, who listened to what I had written and wanted a completely different point of view. He basically made a completely different film — he re-cut the entire film, and in his meeting with me he expressed that he wanted a completely different approach to the score. And I said, “oh let me demonstrate that I can give that to you”, so I presented him with a demo of my approach to his approach, and he rejected that and fired me. What I find a lot in these big films, because the production schedules are so insane, that the directors have very little time to actually concentrate on the music.”
Rumours report that Costner took control of production. He directed the last few weeks of principle photography and edited the final cut of the film that was released in cinemas.
Reynolds discusses his surprise at discovering that one of the most famous scenes from what is known as the extended version, was left on the cutting room floor,
“…it would have differed from what you saw on the screen to some extent, and one of the things I’ve always been perplexed by in the version that was released, theatrically, although subsequently the longer version included it, and the reason that I did the film, was that at the very end of the picture, at the very end of the script, there’s a scene when they finally reach dry land and The Mariner’s sailing off and he leaves the two women behind, and in the script they’re standing up on this high point and they’re watching him sail away, and the little girl stumbles on something.
And they look down and clear the grass away and that’s this plaque. And it says, “Here, near this spot, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first set foot on the summit of Everest”. And that was in script and I was like, “Oh, of course! Wow, the highest point on the planet! That would have been dry land!”. And we got it! We shot that. And they left it out of the picture. And I’m like, “Whaaat?!”. It’s like the Statue of Liberty moment in Planet of the Apes. And I was like, “Why would you leave that out?”
Despite the average reviews (it currently (April 2016) scores 6.1 on IMDb), Waterworld fared quite well at the box office taking in just over $264 million, which is considerably more than its budget. It was nominated for several awards including an Oscar for best sound, a Bafta for special effects and five Razzie nominations. Out of those five nominations, Dennis Hopper won for worst supporting actor.
There were rumours in 2012 that the Syfy channel was going to remake Waterworld as a TV movie or even a miniseries but these stories have failed to come true.
However, the legacy of Waterworld still continues in other mediums. Universal Studios Hollywood created the Waterworld Stunt Show and this has been running for over twenty years and is regarded as one of the best stunt shows in America. The stunt show has been so popular that is has been recreated in other Universal theme parks around the world.
Also, there were several computer games produced to cash in on what was hoped to be the big summer blockbuster of that year. In particular, the PC and the unreleased 3DO version will be discussed in the last chapter.
Where Are They Now?
In the film industry, many sets and props are built for single use and then destroyed after production has ended. In my research for this article, I discovered that two major set pieces of Waterworld still exist to this day.
The sailing trimaran was shipped to Universal Studios Florida and sat in the entrance to the Waterworld Stunt Show. There is sat in a lagoon for approximately six years unmaintained.
Then in March of 2004, the trimaran was bought off Universal by a private party. The trimaran has since been restored back into a sailing vessel and renamed as the Ugly Sister. It was moored in a harbour just south of San Diego International airport and for many years could be seen on Google Earth.
The forced perspective model of the oil tanker, known as the Deez, currently sits in an airplane junkyard just North East of the Mojave Space and Airport. It too can be seen on Google Earth.
Written by John Abbitt | Follow John on twitter @UKFilmNerd