Making ''Radio Flyer'' -- The movie seemed like a Hollywood dream, until the shooting started

Radio Flyer

Unlike some of the trendier gyms in Los Angeles, where portable phones are brandished as vigorously as free weights, Bally’s Holiday Health Spa in West L.A. isn’t considered an industry stomping ground. That’s exactly what made it attractive to production executive Peter McAlevey and his pal, agent Paul Kelmenson: It gave them a place where they could meet for their regular weekend workouts and forget about the pressures of the movie business.

So when Kelmenson pulled a phone out of his gym bag on Saturday morning, Nov. 18, 1989, McAlevey knew something unusual was up. ”What’s with the phone?” he joked, already suspecting the answer. Kelmenson was representing the hot script of the moment, a piece called Radio Flyer, by a new, then 27-year-old writer named David Mickey Evans. Warner Bros. had already made a bid to acquire the property for its star director, Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman), who wanted it. And the word had flashed through Hollywood’s intelligence network that Donner had discovered a winner, but that Warner Bros.’ initial, lowball offer had been mere ”chump change.” Even without reading the screenplay in question, executives at competing companies, including Disney, Fox, and producer Larry Gordon’s Largo Entertainment, had begun extending hungry feelers. Word was that Warner Bros., fearing a bidding war, had already bumped its offer up to a middling $100,000.

McAlevey’s interest in all this was more than that of a casual onlooker. The company for which he worked at the time, Michael Douglas’ Stonebridge Entertainment, was headquartered at Columbia Pictures, and he had already received an urgent call from a Columbia executive begging him to try to get his hands on the elusive script. As the two friends took turns pressing 225 pounds on the bench, they discussed the sought-after project. ”So why not let me take a look at it?” McAlevey suggested. Kelmenson just happened to have a copy in his gym bag.

Skipping his shower, McAlevey raced down to the parking lot and, sitting in his ’86 Alfa Romeo GTV, tore through the script. What he read excited him. ”It was a movie for families,” he remembers, ”a movie about the magical world of childhood and how kids respond to the terrors of life.” He immediately called his boss, Stonebridge’s president, Rick Bieber.

By the following Monday, the struggle to obtain Radio Flyer had become the biggest game in town, with Warner Bros. bidding on Donner’s behalf and Columbia backing Douglas’ Stonebridge Entertainment, while Douglas monitored the negotiations from his home in Santa Barbara. The bidding escalated until late Wednesday evening when, just as the studios were shutting down for Thanksgiving weekend, Columbia and Stonebridge closed the deal. David Mickey Evans would receive $1.25 million, an astounding figure for a young screenwriter making his studio debut.

Yet that wasn’t even the most surprising part. Stone-bridge Entertainment had helped clinch the deal by using the one word every screenwriter most wants to hear: They were also going to let Evans direct.

Looking back, Radio Flyer seems an unlikely project to have set off such a competitive frenzy. The script tells a fanciful tale of two young boys who flee the terrors of an abusive stepfather by taking fantasy flights in a Radio Flyer wagon they’ve outfitted with wings. Its tenor was more that of a low-budget independent film than a major studio production.

But by the time Radio Flyer hit theaters last week, it had become one of the most controversial and closely watched projects in recent Hollywood history. For many it became a symbol of the industry’s lack of discipline, a high-water mark in the spendthrift trend that saw fabulous sums lavished on scripts from the late ’80s to mid-’91. Before Radio Flyer reached the screen, one director would be fired, an entire cast replaced, and the movie’s crucial framing device would be rethought, reshot, and rethought again. And what began as a modest personal story about growing up would become a huge drain, sucking in time, money, and talent as its release date moved again and again.

Hollywood’s fascination with the project had a lot to do with timing. For although Douglas’ Stonebridge Entertainment had played the lead role in acquiring the property, its purchase was authorized by Columbia Pictures Entertainment’s brand-new cochairmen, Peter Guber and Jon Peters. In a widely debated move, Sony Corp. had purchased the troubled studio and then paid an estimated $500 million to extricate Guber and Peters from a deal at Warner Bros. and install them as Columbia’s heads. Industry observers were following their every move, and this was the team’s first major purchase. The two men were confirmed hit makers (Flashdance, Batman) with reputations as flamboyant spenders: The Radio Flyer deal, which Hollywood came to see as Jon Peters’ pet project, suggested they had no intention of changing their style.

As filming began on June 18, 1990, Evans, a young, clean-cut redhead with the eager enthusiasm of television’s Richie Cunningham, clearly felt confident about the task before him. After all, Radio Flyer could trace its genesis back to one Christmas morning in the late ’60s, when Evans, then growing up in Southern California, received a Radio Flyer wagon for Christmas. ”My brother and I did try to build an airplane out of a wagon,” the writer says. ”Of course, it was a lot less sophisticated than the one in the movie. We just went down the driveway and off the curb.”

That memory was locked away for nearly 20 years until Evans, having worked his way through Loyola Marymount University turning out scripts for low-budget exploitationers like Route 666, decided the time had come to try writing something more personal. He began with a short story he called ”Robert Radio Flyer, the King of Pacoima.” At the urging of his agent, Kelmenson, he began reshaping it into a screenplay.

Actor-producer Michael Douglas still believes the decision to allow Evans to direct the film was a justifiable risk. ”I’ve worked with a lot of first- time directors,” he says. ”I felt confident that it was such a personal story that David could handle it, that he had the vision.” To ensure that he would also have the expertise, Douglas surrounded him with a top-notch crew headed by ace cinematographer William Fraker. Rosanna Arquette was hired to play the confused mom, Tomas Arana was cast as the abusive stepfather, and Luke Edwards and Badge Dale were set as the two boys caught between them. A mid-range budget of $17-18 million seemed practicable, especially after Evans agreed to trim some expensive special effects.

But as Stonebridge executives watched the dailies, they grew increasingly concerned. Although it’s always difficult to judge a movie by the accumulating raw footage, they feared that Evans wasn’t capturing his screenplay on film. Their concern was compounded as word filtered back from the set that the neophyte director wasn’t taking full advantage of the seasoned professionals around him. Finally, after 10 days of filming, Douglas drove down from Santa Barbara with some traumatic news: He was shutting down the production, a move that is estimated to have cost $5 million.

”Unfortunately, I did not think it was working out,” Douglas explains. ”As painful a decision as it was, I had to step in and protect the script. I had to make a change. It was particularly difficult because that meant replacing the man who’d written it. I hope he’s forgiven me. I think in time David will become a really good director.”

Evans now shrugs off what must have been a devastating experience. ”The whole episode, it doesn’t mean anything to me,” he claims. ”I don’t dwell on it. I don’t think about it. It was just purely a case of different expectations.”

Word of the scuttled shoot went off like a major detonation in the Hollywood buzz machine: the new Columbia team’s first big project, already on the rocks. ”The collapsed production marks a significant setback for studio heads Guber and Peters,” Variety opined.

Now holding an expensive property without a director, Douglas quickly moved to enlist the services of the filmmaker from whom his company had snatched the project in the first place: director Richard Donner. At first, Donner hesitated about taking over from Evans. ”I didn’t think I could do it to David,” he says. ”But then David called and told me they were taking him off the movie and asked if I’d do it. He was sincere, and so I said I’d do it as long as David would stay with me on the movie.”

So, with Guber and Peters’ blessing, Radio Flyer, now dubbed Radio Flyer II by insiders, began rising Phoenix-like. But the resurrection wouldn’t come cheap. Evans was added to the list of producers, which already included Douglas and Rick Bieber. Donner was guaranteed $5 million, and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, another $1 million. ”They probably could have gotten us to do it for scale, because we wanted to do it so much,” Donner says. ”But they took a different approach, and that was a pleasure.” He can’t resist a roguish smile. In the end, the budget would balloon to an estimated $30 million.

Insisting on rethinking both cast and crew, Donner did not start filming until Oct. 3, 1990, on new locations north of San Francisco, with Lorraine Bracco (GoodFellas, Medicine Man) as the new mom, Adam Baldwin as the stepdad, and Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello as the boys. But even with a director as experienced as Donner, Radio Flyer wasn’t destined to have clear sailing. There remained the problem of finding the proper tone, a delicate matter that would bedevil the film during its shooting. For although Evans’ screenplay had moments of Spielbergian fantasy — a mystical buffalo, nightmare monsters, and ecstatic flying sequences — it was rooted in serious family issues, including alcoholism and child abuse. If the fantasy took over, the movie might seem irresponsibly escapist; if the hard truths won out, it might be reduced to a grim movie-of-the-week problem drama.

The biggest question was how to play the dramatic climax — and be warned that this requires revealing the end of the picture — when the younger brother actually takes flight in the wagon contraption. Is the Radio Flyer magically airworthy, carrying the boy to a better life, or does the child perish in an inevitable fall? Donner and Evans opted to make the scene ambiguous, though in their hearts both like to think the boy escapes harm.

”At first, I had trouble with (the movie’s point of view),” Donner admits, ”because I was seeing it in much more of a realistic vein. But then I realized you have to see this movie through the children’s eyes. Then the subjectivity becomes totally believable and transcends reality.”

Initially, test audiences didn’t get it. In addition to the ambiguous climax, the movie included a coda in which the older boy, now a grown adult played by Tom Hanks, escorts his own children through the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where the fabled Radio Flyer is displayed right alongside the Wright Brothers’ original flying machine.

”It was my attempt to leap into the legendary,” says Evans. ”The ending worked for me as a filmmaker,” adds Donner, ”but if you’re ever going to confuse an audience, we really did it then. If I could have stood up in every theater in front of every audience, I could have explained it. But obviously, I didn’t convey it properly visually.”

The tests continued, with the coda eliminated — and with the addition of an on-screen 800-number for Childhelp USA, a hot line that assists in child-abuse cases. But that ending seemed overly abrupt and didn’t explain the source for the voice-over narration that Hanks provides throughout the film. Finally, after more than a dozen screenings and two postponed release dates, Guber suggested shooting a new pair of scenes bookending the film, in which Hanks tells the tale to his two sons. Although he was by then deep into night-shooting on Lethal Weapon 3, Donner took a day to fly up to an airfield in Santa Paula, Calif., to film the new sequence that both sets up and completes the finished film.

For a project so replete with anxious moments, Radio Flyer ended on a remarkably harmonious note. ”In hindsight, we’d probably agree it came around in a neat circle,” says Douglas. ”I admire David for his strength in continuing with all the rewrites Dick wanted. And Dick, with his energy, enthusiasm, and warmth, was great. The person who wanted to direct it in the first place ended up directing it side by side with the person it meant so much to.”

”We were in a fish bowl,” Donner says now. ”We knew it. We were going to suffer for it. But, hopefully, we delivered a good picture.” And Evans — expressing either a youthful enthusiasm that his first mainstream feature has found its way to the screen, or else showing the instincts of a born Hollywood survivor — says, ”The thing was charmed from the beginning, it really was.”

As for Jon Peters, whose eager championship of the project ironically doomed it to its high profile within Hollywood, he resigned as cochairman of Columbia Pictures Entertainment — since renamed Sony Pictures Entertainment — last May. If Radio Flyer at last takes off, it flies without him.

Radio Flyer
  • Movie
  • 114 minutes