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'Waterworld''s tumultuous times: From the EW archive

The story behind the most expensive film made to date

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Wind. Water. Costner.

He’s soaked, greasy hair brushing his shoulders, grimy face looking grim. He clings to the sail for life as his craft rips the ocean. Before him: safety, the atoll, a great floating fort. Behind him: villains on Jet Skis, beating the waves. A nightmare army. Gaining fast.

In a few weeks, Waterworld — the most expensive movie in history — will finally arrive in theaters nationwide. But on this June day, at high noon, it’s playing on just one screen — inside the Todd-AO recording studio in Los Angeles. The orchestra, 102 strong, obeys the twitches of a single skinny baton, itself a slave to the regiment of numerical subtitles fluttering at the bottom of the picture. It’s one of the first scenes moviegoers will witness in Waterworld. As Costner outwits his speedy nemeses and navigates his craft toward home, the music swells. The real Costner — who has been watching from a control room at the back — stands up, and his grin crescendos with the score. He points dramatically — heroically — over the orchestra. He says nothing.

A few minutes later, over lunch at a quiet middlebrow restaurant near the studio, Costner is talking a blue streak. And he’s not smiling. For weeks, he has been caged in editing rooms, trying to make sense of the sometimes thrilling, sometimes sprawling Waterworld footage, racing toward a July 28 release date. He’s the star of the show, a producer, and now — in the wake of some brutal battles fought during production — an investor in the film and its surrogate director. ”I’m not doing this because I love this,” he says. ”I really wanted to be in the mountains fishing this summer and hunting. I did not want to be in the editing room when the sun is shining. That wasn’t my job. It wasn’t something I signed on for. I didn’t want it. I don’t know how to make that any clearer.”

How has it come to this?

The answer will explain how Waterworld gobbled up a record budget and generated a record amount of ink on, variously, reports of the volatile Hawaiian weather that plagued the production, rumors that an on-location affair led to Costner’s decision to divorce while filming last October, gossip about the runaway cost — estimated conservatively at $160 million, liberally at $180 million. Even The Wall Street Journal hit the pool, announcing — quel scandale! — that there were no bathrooms on the atoll set.

The answer will also explain how the film began without a finished script and finished off, perhaps once and for all, the star’s historically rocky 10-year friendship with his director, Kevin Reynolds, who jumped ship after Costner took over editing duties. ”In the future Costner should only appear in pictures he directs himself,” says Reynolds. ”That way he can always be working with his favorite actor and his favorite director.”

Kevin Costner. Savior or scoundrel? Depends on whom you ask. Either way, he’s suffering. It’s hard to feel sorry for Oscar-winning movie stars who are said to cheat on their wives and betray their friends, and Costner knows it. But he seems to see himself as a hero, on screen and off; the bodyguard, carrying Whitney Houston — and now Waterworld — to safety. So here he sits in his torn jeans and white polo shirt, at a patio table, patiently telling his story. ”All I know is that I’m going to work every day trying to fix problems, trying to make a movie for people spending seven dollars to go see and enjoy,” he says.