Dangerous when wet: Inside the tumultuous times of Waterworld
This article originally appeared in the July 14, 1995 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
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. Costner isn’t the only Waterworld player who wants to set the record straight. Talk to producer Chuck Gordon and he’ll tell you two things:
(1) That the budget on the movie had already been upped to $100 million by the time shooting began in Hawaii on June 27, 1994. “This movie’s been picked on because it’s so over schedule and over budget, because everybody thinks we started out at $65 million.”
(2) “There were bathrooms all over the place!”
Yet no one has fully explained exactly why such an expensive film was not only greenlit, but greenlit at a budget destined to be left in the dust, on a 96-day shooting schedule that everyone involved knew was unrealistic, and even, as costar Jeanne Tripplehorn puts it, “without a script — without a locked-in script.” Some speculate that MCA/ Universal’s executives were afraid to tell their estranged Japanese bosses at parent company Matsushita how much the film would cost; others say they dove into Waterworld in order to scare Matsushita out of the business (Matsushita sold the studio to Seagram’s Edgar Bronfman Jr. this April for $5.7 billion). Tom Pollock, chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group, pooh-poohs both rumors. “We believed at the time that the movie could be made for just under $100 million,” he insists. “I thought it was a good bet. Do I believe that the movie, at this price, will make money? I don’t know. I think it can.”
Waterworld‘s byzantine history began nearly a decade ago in the fertile brain of a 1983 Harvard graduate named Peter Rader. In 1986, Rader, an aspiring director, was summoned for a meeting at New Horizon, the production company of noted schlockmeister-director Roger Corman. “Listen,” Rader says he was told by a young executive named Brad Krevoy, “I got some South African money, and they want to do a Mad Max rip-off. If you write it, I’ll let you direct it.”
Recalls Rader: “There seemed to be two moral questions. One, would I be willing to take South African money? And I answered that in, like, five minutes. ‘For a chance to direct? Sure!’ The second question was, was I willing to do another Mad Max rip-off? On that I put my foot down. At that point all the B-movie companies were doing post-apocalyptic road movies. Crappy movies.”
But Rader arrived at his next meeting bright-eyed and hopeful. “I’ve got this brand-new spin,” he pitched. “What if we set the entire thing on water?”
“Are you crazy?” Krevoy snapped. “A movie like that would cost us $5 million!”
Krevoy passed — and went on, years later, to produce Dumb and Dumber. Rader decided to write the script on spec. In 1989, Lawrence Gordon’s Largo Entertainment purchased Waterworld for a price in the mid-six-figures and asked for rewrites. There were seven drafts over the next two years.
Then, in 1991, a miracle happened. Costner phoned Lawrence Gordon’s brother Chuck, who had a production deal with Largo. “What’s this thing called Waterworld?” Costner asked. Gordon sent him the screenplay, and Costner called to say he was interested.
Within days, Kevin Reynolds called: “What ever happened to that project Waterworld?”
“Funny you should mention it,” Chuck Gordon told him, “because a giant movie star is interested in doing it.”
Reynolds and Costner had already met.
Sixteen years ago, Kevin Reynolds, now 45, was a golden boy, the son of a prominent Texas family. (His father, the stern, imposing Herbert Reynolds, recently retired as president of Baylor University.) At USC film school, Reynolds’ student film had so impressed Steven Spielberg that he produced Reynolds’ 1985 feature debut, a well-reviewed but little-seen road comedy called Fandango. Reynolds auditioned Costner, now 40, for the movie, gave him his first starring role, and they hit it off. They shared a taste in movies — “epics,” says Reynolds, “things that told a personal story against a big backdrop” — and came from similar backgrounds. Both are principled — some would say stubborn — men who like to have their way with their vision of a film.
When Costner was making his directorial debut on Dances With Wolves, Reynolds stepped in to help with some of the more complicated scenes — though when Costner accepted his 1991 Oscar as Best Director, Reynolds wasn’t among the 15 people he thanked. Still, in his first flush of superstardom, Costner hired Reynolds to direct Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). Then their relationship went sour. They played creative tug-of-war over Costner’s insistence on trying an English accent, and squabbled over script and editing changes. Costner reportedly wanted less of the villain, played with scenery-chomping delight by Alan Rickman, and more of the hero, himself. Foreshadowing Waterworld, Reynolds walked off the film during the editing process. The two stopped speaking.
“I’m not interested,” said Reynolds when Gordon disclosed the identity of the giant movie star who had set his sights on Waterworld. Costner also balked. “I’m not going to do it,” he told Gordon. “But I really think [Reynolds] is the right guy to direct the movie.”
Lawrence Gordon finally persuaded the two Kevins to meet in Lake Tahoe, where Costner was shooting The Bodyguard. There they resolved their differences — “I thought we did,” says Costner — and agreed to try working together again. Costner went on to produce Reynolds’ next project, the disastrous Easter Island adventure Rapa Nui, released by Warner Bros. in a now-you-see-it-now-you-see-it-on-video fashion. Costner the actor kept busy in A Perfect World, Wyatt Earp, and The War, which grossed a respective $31 million, $25 million, and $16 million. The two men began Waterworld unaware that by the time it wrapped, they both would need a hit.
Reynolds, Costner, and Gordon’s first order of business was to overhaul Rader’s script. They kept his basic concept — a future in which the polar ice caps have melted and the earth is underwater. Reynolds put gills on the Mariner (Costner’s character), one of the first human beings to mutate and adapt to this wet new world, while Costner pushed for him to be something more than a standard action hero. So he became a grizzled loner reluctantly saddled with a beautiful woman and her adopted daughter, whose tattoo of a map to dry land makes her a target of the villainous Deacon and his army of “smokers,” so named because they possess a dwindling supply of oil.
A series of screenwriters began work on the script, though only Rader and David Twohy (The Fugitive) will get credit. Early on, the old conflicts between Costner and Reynolds resurfaced. “Kevin Reynolds saw this as a movie that could redefine ’90s action,” says Marc Norman, who composed three drafts of Waterworld. “Costner also wanted that kind of action, but not at the expense of character.”
Reynolds had planned on polishing the script further before shooting. But Costner — worried about the June 1994 start date — took it into his hands, ordering his own writers to work on it. “This character has to be unique,” he says, “and to do that, you have to have scenes that are unique and interesting, and show behavior where you’re willing to follow the guy through the movie. Those things weren’t there.” But Reynolds claims Costner took control of the script when they “were still months away from shooting.”
“Kevin [Reynolds] said, ‘If you were director, would you let somebody do what you’re doing right now?’ ” Costner recalls. “And I said, ‘No, but I wouldn’t be in this position.’ ”
The rumbling continued right into production, with Costner grousing that Reynolds “passively-aggressively” sat back and never followed the studio’s orders to trim a costly first-act scene in which the atoll is attacked. Reynolds says the complaint was “totally unfounded. Costner was in control [of the script] at the time.” Indeed, Costner ultimately hired writer Joss Whedon (a script doctor for Speed) to work under his orders during production.
Crags of black lava line the way to Kawaihae Harbor on the island of Hawaii, where most of Waterworld was shot. There, bits of white coral and shells remain, fashioned into messages that bear witness to the production: “We love The Bodyguard,” they proclaim, and “Kev C. We Love U.”
Production designer Dennis Gassner had scouted locations in Australia, New Zealand, Malta, and the Bahamas before deciding to dock in Kawaihae Harbor. The locale offered manageable fax and phone lines as well as flights to Los Angeles. In return, the mammoth production pumped fuel into a community still depressed over the closing of a sugar mill, providing work for nearly 300 extras (who were queried at casting calls, “Will you do nudity?” and “Do you have a pet?”). Had Gassner asked the natives, however, he would have learned that Kawaihae means “warring waters.”
What may have been the first recorded overrun occurred in March, when Ginger Peterson, a local hire who served as a location manager, met with Gordon. “He saw my BMW,” she recalls, “and joked, ‘She’s being paid too much.’ ” As Gordon swung open the car door, a gust of wind blasted it loose. “It caused $1,600 in damages,” says Peterson.
Sixteen hundred dollars. Sounds quaint, no? Waterworld‘s final overrun tab could have bought her about 4,000 brand-new BMWs. Relatively minor thefts (computers and generators) added to the tally. So did contractors, who gouged the production for everything from steel supplies to portable toilets. “Companies knew they were the only games in town and took advantage,” says Peterson, whose finger-pointing earned no friends in the community. (She relocated after the shoot because, says one local, “she would have been lynched if she’d stayed.”)
In May 1994, the cast joined the 500-plus crew on the island. Jeanne Tripplehorn (The Firm) would play the role of the Mariner’s sexy atoll passenger. Tina Majorino, 10, the achingly cute costar of Corrina, Corrina, beat out Oscar winner Anna Paquin as the tattooed tyke. Dennis Hopper signed on as the Deacon after shooting began.
Throughout June, Waterworld‘s crew constructed the trimaran — the Mariner’s swift, sleek, 60-foot-long sailing vessel (two were built, costing at least $500,000 each); a floating “slave colony”; and the atoll, a doughnut-shaped jumble of metal that would become a metaphor for the gargantuan production itself. Its eight sections included the morbid organo-barge, in which dead Waterworld residents are buried in muck and recycled as fuel. Originally budgeted at $1.5 million, the atoll, constructed of 1,000 tons of steel, ultimately weighed in at $5 million.
With the tally rising, Universal could have considered pulling the plug. By then, however, the producers were in it for about $20 million, mostly because the actors’ pay-or-play deals had kicked in. So on June 27, 1994, the adventure began. “The winds were terrible,” says one crew member. “Some days we couldn’t shoot at all.” Shots were often ruined by other boats on the horizon, and angles from inside the atoll sometimes caught glimpses of mountains in the distance — a Waterworld no-no. An effects crew, operating in an expensive postproduction crunch, had to correct the glitches by computer.
For their troubles, the extras got a lesson in the price of showbiz glamour. “We were tripping over cables,” says Sonny LaRosa, 53, who quit after six weeks. By the time the production was in full swing, the medics were treating 40 or 50 employees a day. At least the suffering was democratic. Nearly everyone got seasick, including Reynolds, who as a young man had attended the Texas Maritime Academy before discovering he “hated the sea. I vomited my way across the North Atlantic.”
“I threw up,” says the intrepid Majorino, “but not in front of anybody.” In addition, along with Tripplehorn, she endured being dumped from the trimaran and run over by it. “They were a little shaky for a while,” says Reynolds, “but they were real troupers.” Majorino was thrice taken ashore with jellyfish stings (which were treated with meat tenderizer), thus earning her the nickname “Jellyfish Candy” from Costner. As for Tripplehorn, “I was feeling a little like Patty Hearst. I was just completely brainwashed by my captors and I was just out there trying to get through it.”
Even the hero wasn’t immune to mishap. He spent two hours strapped high on the trimaran’s swaying mast for the benefit of a helicopter shot. “I’ve read about The Twilight Zone and every f—ing thing else,” he says of the notorious 1982 accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children. The mere recollection of the shot turns him cranky. “The helicopter was about 20 feet away from me.”
“Back the f— up!” Costner yelled. Drowned out by the roar of the helicopter, he frantically waved the pilot away. They got the shot, but as the boat turned around, a fierce gale blew up. “I don’t know what the reason was, but we had purposefully gone out to one of the windiest channels in the world,” says Costner, who was stranded, white-knuckled and lashed to the mast, for half an hour. Gordon laughs now, but tries not to. “He was not happy,” says the producer, who was safe on shore.
No one, however, is laughing about Norman Howell, Costner’s stunt double, who suffered a near-fatal embolism during a deep-sea dive while filming. Flown on Costner’s jet to a hospital in Honolulu, he recovered in a decompression chamber, and returned to work in a few days. “He was lucky,” says Gordon quietly.
The two Kevins eased into a truce following the script squabble, and their relationship throughout production was “tolerable,” says Reynolds. “Strained sometimes, but overall, pretty civil.” Now, however, it was Universal’s turn to make noise.
For one thing, high-profile crewmembers kept leaving. Peter Chesney, the designer who helped create the atoll’s elephantine gates, was reportedly forced off the set in August, along with effects liaison Kate Steinberg. Gone by Labor Day was frustrated first assistant director Alan Curtiss, who production sources say had tried to convince the studio from the start that the picture couldn’t be finished in the 96 originally scheduled days. Curtiss thought it needed 135; it eventually took 166.
By the time Curtiss quit, Waterworld‘s budget had risen to $135 million, and a production that was supposed to end before the October hurricane season had no end in sight. Around that time, Costner’s agent, Michael Ovitz, MCA president Sid Sheinberg, Pollock, and Universal president Casey Silver powwowed in Hawaii. Their marching orders: Start trimming expensive scenes. Costner said no. “But I’ll participate on some level,” he told them. “I’ll let you know I give a s—.”
In order to keep Universal from forcing draconian cuts in the script, Costner reached into his own pocket: He agreed to forfeit his 15 percent cut of the gross receipts, which was to have been piled on top of his $12.5 million fee. (His cut will kick back in if the film makes money.) “That’s something Kevin [Reynolds] seems to ignore,” says Costner. “The guy got to shoot everything that was there. That doesn’t happen by magic — it happens by somebody going to bat.”
By October, even young Majorino seemed to get into the bunker mentality, choosing a striped prisoner’s uniform as her Halloween costume. That same month, hurricane season arrived right on schedule — though the biggest storm was Costner’s announcement that he and his wife, Cindy, the mother of his three children, were divorcing after 16 years of marriage.
Asked why he decided to go public during an already tumultuous time, Costner lets his voice go soft, and says, “There’s almost never a good time for these things.” The announcement only whetted the appetite of the press, which was already hungry for details from the set, as it had been closed to journalists. Costner even banned the tabloids themselves from the set after he saw a crewmember with one that carried his photo on the cover. “This doesn’t help me at all to have this sitting right here,” he told the worker. “I’m really happy you have time to read this. I wish I had the time.” And when Hopper tried to show Costner a tabloid article, Costner quietly got up and walked away. “I don’t ask for a lot on the set,” he says. “Be quiet, don’t read my tabloid headlines to me.”
While Costner was agonizing over his marriage, he found solace for the first time in several years in his old friendship with Reynolds. “I sympathized with him,” says Reynolds, whose first marriage ended in divorce in 1985. “I knew he was going through a very hard time in his life. He didn’t miss any days because of it. I just think it played heavily on his mind.”
By the time the production moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of this year, the bill was up to $150 million, and phrases like Fishtar and Kevin’s Gate (a term that, it should be noted, was also applied to the hugely successful Dances With Wolves when it was in production) were showing up in print.
Back on dry land, Reynolds shot underwater city sequences in tanks at Huntington Beach, and scenes of the Deacon’s tanker (a replica of the Exxon Valdez) on a field in the City of Commerce, south of L.A. Heights — shy Costner says he insisted on doing his own bungee-jump stunt work at a parking lot location “so the movie would be over sooner.” (Stuntmen require extra camera setups to hide their faces.) He plummeted toward the asphalt, which resembled “any other parking lot. Black, large, you fall on your head, you’re dead.”
On Feb. 14, the day shooting finished, Costner was being jerked like a marionette by wires in front of a bluescreen for a shot that would become part of a bungee jump. “I hurt my back really bad doing the shot,” he says. “[Reynolds] wanted another take. I just kind of shook my head and said, ‘I can’t.’ ”
Footage of the 110-foot tanker miniature had already been shot in the Mojave Desert, so the filmmakers quickly started on postproduction, producing such elaborate visual effects as a computer-generated ocean and creating a giant sea creature from scratch.
And while they were at it — according to Newsweek — Costner ordered his hair to be computer-enhanced. “I cannot tell you for the life of me where that would come from,” he says, denying the report. “We had a hard enough time getting the computer-generated things we need for the movie, let alone that.”
And then, of course, there were the gills. “The damned things look like little vaginas!” a Universal exec was quoted as saying. “They were always going to be enhanced by computer,” says Gordon, who called columnist Liz Smith to deny that Costner had anything resembling sex organs on his neck. “Talking to Liz Smith about vaginas, that was probably the hardest conversation.” An effects crew solved the problem by digitally transferring Costner’s gills from an above-water scene — in which they looked like gills — to the underwater shots, in which they indeed looked like…you know.
Meanwhile, whatever détente the two Kevins had reached was icing over in the editing room. Costner says he fought with the studio to give Reynolds a 10-week edit schedule rather than the truncated five-week schedule the studio wanted. “The next day [the executives] came back to me and said, ‘[Reynolds] waived it.’ I said, ‘Fine, I don’t give a s—.’ ” Five weeks later Reynolds turned in a 2-hour-and-40-minute cut that he intended to trim to 2 hours and 15 minutes (as his contract required) after the studio saw “the tough choices [in editing] that we’d have to make.” He also called for reshoots in Hawaii.
Costner predicted that the cuts Reynolds would choose would leave the film with nothing but “wall-to-wall action, which the movie couldn’t sustain. It’s not good enough to be wall-to-wall action.” He also worried that Reynolds’ plan for reshoots would jeopardize the film’s summer release.
A Robin Hood rerun was unfolding. “[Costner’s] biggest concern was the Mariner,” says Reynolds. “My biggest concern was the story. I wanted a coherent tale from beginning to end.” Says screenwriter Twohy, “At the end of the day, there should be one director on a movie, one clear voice. When you have a star as talented and powerful as Kevin Costner, it leads to pushing and pulling. Sometimes that can hurt a film.”
Reynolds took Universal’s suggestions and promised to accommodate the studio, on the condition that he could also prepare his own version for a Directors Guild of America screening — a standard part of the postproduction process. He says the producers agreed, but that Costner and Chuck Gordon wanted “a day or so” with the film in the editing room to work on it.
“A week later, they were still cutting,” says Reynolds. And when the producers told him there was no longer time for him to preview the movie for the DGA, “I finally said, ‘I’m not going to work like this.’ That’s when I left.”
Ten days later, on May 9, the lights went down on a test screening of the producers’ rough cut in Sacramento. The test audience had been invited to “a new action movie with a major Hollywood star.” At 7:25 p.m., they were told it was Waterworld. “I want my money back!” shouted one man. “I knew it would be this f—ing movie!” The print received lukewarm to bad reviews. “It took us two hours to realize what was going on,” one attendee said. And someone complained that the computer-generated shark footage, unfinished at the time, looked fake.
Costner and the effects crews returned to their editing rooms for more cutting. A subsequent sneak in Dallas scored 20 percent higher approval ratings, says Gordon. “And it’s getting better. The movie’s being cut even again. The shark footage was worked on.” As of the end of June, camera crews were on Catalina island, still working, taking shots of the ocean.
Universal is hopeful that Waterworld, which will be rated PG-13, can somehow make money by the time it’s released internationally. “If it does Flintstones business or Speed business worldwide, it will be very successful,” says Pollock. But even he admits the movie needs to do blockbuster business, commonly defined as at least $100 million domestically. In any case, the real winner — or at least the sure non-loser — may be MCA’s new owner Bronfman; under the terms of his purchase, Matsushita agreed to shoulder Waterworld‘s production costs, while MCA will reap its profits, if any are made.
These days, the two Kevins are once again not speaking to each other. They are, however, more than willing to talk about each other — at separate tables, in separate restaurants, on separate days. This morning, Kevin Reynolds is having breakfast in the Polo Lounge of the recently revamped Beverly Hills Hotel, going over what went wrong between him and the star. He’s cautious. He wonders what Costner’s been saying about him. He’s told Costner feels he ran interference between Reynolds and the studio, and got no thanks for it.
“I’m sorry,” says Reynolds in his softened Texas accent, containing his temper, “but all good things don’t flow from Kevin Costner. If he fought so hard for me, why did he stay in the editing room and jeopardize my DGA screening?”
Costner said there just wasn’t time. That was his…
“Rationale?” says Reynolds.
The director says his next project will be moving to Seattle with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. He’s catching a plane later in the day. “I’m going to take some time off,” he says, thoughtfully. “Next year I want to do a really small movie, more personal.”
At the end of his interview, Costner is still in a gentlemanly good mood when the waiter brings the bill. Costner boards his big white Chevrolet and heads back to work. He idles in traffic on a bridge that spans a small gully. A woman has parked on the side, so her little girl can get out and gaze over the guardrail at the water.
“I keep thinking that woman is going to toss that kid over,” says Costner. He pulls the great white vehicle forward and thinks on this further. “I’ll have to jump in and save her.” Now he’s smiling again, and he laughs at himself. “I hope the music’s playing when I go.”
(Additional reporting by Gregg Kilday, with Pat H. Broeske, Michael Szymanski, and Jeffrey Wells)