Cool Runnings: An oral history
Jon Turteltaub first heard the story of the 1988 Olympic Jamaican bobsled team when he was in film school. “We all thought that was both hilarious and sort of indicative of what the Olympics was all about,” Turteltaub said. “In some ways it was looked at as a joke, and in other ways, it was looked at as a very inspiring little anecdote that made the whole Olympics have more character.” Less than five years later, Turteltaub would get a call from his agent about a new opportunity.
Disney was making a film about the Jamaican bobsled team’s story, and Turteltaub was in need of a gig. “I needed a job. This script was just sitting out there, and they weren’t sure whether they were making it or not. My agent sent it to me, and said, ‘Remember when you were the flavor of the month? Your month is over. Do this movie.'” Just like that, Turteltaub agreed to audition for the job, which he would later get. “When I first got the job to do the movie, I called my mother and I told her the big news that I finally got hired by a real movie studio to direct a movie and that I was going to Calgary for two months and then to Jamaica for a month. The first words out of her mouth were, ‘How do you pack for that?’ So that was my welcome to show business.”
Now, nearly 25 years later, Turteltaub is not only accustomed to the world of show business, but he’s yet to stop hearing about that Disney film he created all those years ago. And in honor of the 2018 Winter Olympics — and the story behind this year’s Jamaican bobsled team — EW is looking back at the 1993 film about the Jamaican team that could. As the saying goes, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time!”
About a year before Cool Runnings started shooting, producer Dawn Steel was attempting to cast a film called Blue Maaga. It was a more dramatic take on the Jamaican team’s story, and it was the first script that landed in the hands of actors Leon, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba, and Doug. E. Doug, who would end up portraying the beloved bobsled team in the Disney film. It was through casting that film that Steel found many of the elements that eventually came together to create Cool Runnings.
TURTELTAUB, Director: Blue Maaga was a script before I got there. It was more of a heavy journey about a realistic life in the slums of Kingston and taking guys from that sort of background through their journey. There were versions of the script that were pretty heavy and very dramatic, and it started that way. It really wasn’t until the script found its light touch and found its playfulness that it found itself.
MALIK YOBA, Yul Brenner: I went to an open call. I think I was the last person on the last day. I went down there and did some improv. There might have been some other scripted stuff, but I remember my improv being about how I taught Bob Marley how to write music. And two months later, I got a call, “Can you fly to L.A. tomorrow and screen test?” [That was] back in 91. Then Dawn Steel called me on Christmas Eve of 1991 saying, “Hey they’re not going to make the movie, but I’m going to get this movie made.” They called me back about eight months later and said there’s a new director, we’d like you to come in again. I was pretty indignant because I felt like I had the taste of it and it went away, so I was like, “I’m busy.” [Laughs] And then I was convinced to fly back out to L.A.
LEON, Derice Bannock: The film was scheduled to be done a year before. I got cast and signed on to do the movie, and then they didn’t do the movie. So they had to go ahead and postpone it, and then they brought it back with a new director the following year, and I had to go through the whole casting process again even though I was already cast previously and paid. So I had to go do it again, and did it again and was cast again. This time I did the movie, I actually earned my money. [Laughs]
DOUG E. DOUG, Sanka Coffie: I was sent the [Blue Maaga] script and I was quite frankly bored by it. [Laughs] My family’s from Jamaica and it’s quite an extraordinary story, but a dramatic take on it just didn’t work for me. I met with the director. By the time we got together I think it went into turnaround, so he was just kind of like, “Oh well.” [Laughs] So I thought this Jamaican bobsled movie was dead. Apparently they decided to revisit the idea of a comedy and I was sent the script, read it and then I met with the late, great Dawn Steel and Jon Turteltaub. I actually read for them, that’s where I met Rawle [Lewis] who was the reader at the time, and I didn’t really think much of it. I tried to push my heritage. Like most auditions, I didn’t know if any of that was working. Then I got a call to do a screen test at some undisclosed location. It was really like a hush, hush project.
RAWLE D. LEWIS, Junior Bevil: I was an intern is I guess what you would call me. I was helping them cast the movie. The director and producers were behind me and I was in front of them reading with actors. But with the actors I liked, I’d kind of give them more because I wanted them to book it, but what I didn’t realize was that they started paying attention to me as well. I had no idea. We had to do a table read for all the Disney people. They had the potential cast members lined up, which at the time was people like Jeffrey Wright, and at one point Cuba Gooding Jr. So they had me to the table read which I thought was weird. During the table read, that’s when I started to get suspicious, because the Disney execs were like, “Hey great to meet you.” I was so young and naïve I started to say, “Wait a minute, I’m just a reader.” But I caught myself, and then they had a screen test. I show up with all the papers to read with the other actors. The director goes, “What are you doing?” I go, “I don’t have all the scenes memorized.” And he goes, “No you don’t get it. You’re screen testing.” And that’s how I ended up in the movie.
TURTELTAUB: Jeffrey Wright was one who we got really far down the road with. But it was not just about finding four great guys but guys who made a team and fit in together and how they worked as a team. And that’s what was so crucial to making this cast work, because they didn’t feel like just four individuals, they really had to feel like a group, and it’s like any team you put together, there’s that chemistry that has to be right, and they really found it. Those guys found it within each other. There’s that great scene with Malik and Rawle where Malik is giving him a pep talk in front of the mirror, and that was the audition scene, and Rawle had been playing both of those parts in all the auditions but no one could play that part as good as he did.
YOBA: I wrote the Jamaican bobsled song for my audition. I’ve got some Jamaican roots and just being around Jamaican culture, I knew that every Jamaican has a song in his heart even if he can’t sing or she can’t sing. And when I did the screen test they said, “Okay you guys have just won a race, go! Celebrate!” I pulled the song out and pretended it was an improv, but it was actually pre-written. And then Dawn Steel liked it, and then it ended up in the movie, and then it ended up on the soundtrack, and I ended up getting a record deal as a result of that.
DOUG: We were so distinct in terms of our appearance and our personalities, so that in and of itself was really refreshing, because usually when Hollywood casts black actors, they go for types and types with a stereo on top of it. We were all there represented and I thought, “This is pretty rich.” Then we did the scene where we name the sled, and it was really quite a magical experience, because I remember I immediately felt bonded with the guys. And luckily everybody who I tested with got the role and we all went off to Canada.
Going into the film, Turteltaub was clear with the cast that they were not portraying specific people. The film was based on a true story, but the script was what Turteltaub called “shamefully loose.”
TURTELTAUB: We would never get away today with the changes we made to the true story. Nowadays with the Internet being what it is and everybody having an opinion about your movie like they do now, we never would get away with it. But at the time we just kept refining the true story to make it into a better movie. And shape the character and the tone of it so that it played well as a movie. The feeling is the same. The tone is the same. The ambition is the same. The absurdity was the same. And the main key events were the same.
The history of their coach being a cheater with the American team was a complete fabrication, and that was just a way of building some depth into that movie character. And for a long time we were sticking with the true fact that they had to go first to Austria to qualify for the Olympics, [but] there was no way in that story to have them raise the money to go to Austria and then have them raise the money to go to the Olympics, so we put the qualifying for the Olympics in Calgary itself. The other thing that was also amazing was that Prince Albert of Monaco was hugely instrumental in influencing the Bobsled Federation in allowing the Jamaicans to compete, and we never could find a way to make that work in the movie.
DOUG: I think it was more of getting [the real-life bob sledder’s] essence. I think it was the idea of trying to honor that experience, honor the experience of feeling alienated, wanting to fit in and wanting to just be considered a competitor, seeking legitimacy.
LEON: I wasn’t really playing an actual person. It’s inspired by the story, but the names are different, characters and additional things are different. I’ve met all the bobsledders, but the thing is, the movie is based on that story.
LEWIS: I met some of the guys and talked to them. We were going off of the script, but from talking to the guys, you hear the real deal. The basis of it is that they took the best of that and amplified that.
TURTELTAUB: I wouldn’t want to change anything that would harm the movie in any way. I get really proud when the movie’s still talked about, but what makes me most proud is to see and hear about how much Jamaicans love the movie. That was my number one barometer, that as silly as we may have gotten and as loose with the facts as we may have gotten, did Jamaicans still look at the film with the same amount of pride that they looked at the actual Jamaican bobsled team? And they do.
YOBA: One of the [Jamaican bobsledders] ended up moving to the Bronx, so I’ve run into him in New York sometimes. I actually ran into him in Toronto like two years ago. I was up there filming something and he was living in Toronto.
DOUG: As a matter of fact Leon and I, last year, hung out with one of them, Devon Harris is his name.
The most realistic part of the film ended up being the crash, for which Turteltaub used the actual NBC sports footage from the 1988 Olympics. With it being too dangerous for the crew to actually crash a sled, Turteltaub filmed small close-ups for the scene, but whenever the film zoomed out to show the full crash, viewers will notice that someone in the movie is watching it on a television. But even without a crash sequence, the actors did need some training when it came to running and jumping in a bobsled.
TURTELTAUB: They had to learn how to push; they had to learn how to jump in. But as any bobsledder will tell you, once you jump in, you’re a passenger. You don’t have to bobsled. Only the driver has to know how. And Leon did the most he could to learn how but I think movie insurance prevented him from ever getting a shot at driving one.
LEON: We had to go down and bobsled to see what it was like to be in a bobsled. [It was] very bumpy, very rough. I obviously could never go down in the position I played in the movie because I was the driver, and if I was driving, I doubt anyone would’ve ever gotten in the sled with me. [Laughs]
LEWIS: They only allowed two weeks for that part. I really started to have respect for these guys once we started training to run and jump in. That’s all we had to do. We just had to learn to run and jump in that sled and not look like idiots. I think they were sweating bullets for a while, because we were all over the place. We were slow getting in. I’m sure everyone would like to tell you that we were all badass, but we weren’t. You’re doing this thing where you run on ice so you have these shoes with these little spikes under them, so the other thing is, when you’re running and jumping in the sled, you’re spiking the other guys if you don’t get in there right. Once we were filming, we were okay. I think we were better. I remember us being better at it. There were times when we did it slower than we needed to do, but we had gotten better by then.
DOUG: For me it was terrifying. Even though we weren’t really permitted to go down, there’s a possibility. What if it gets out of control and we have to go down? I was very tense about that. Also there’s a testosterone thing, so there’s no way to let on to one another that you were terrified. They had us in a weight lifting regimen, and we’re training so everybody’s trying to out lift each other, especially Malik, which of course he did. [Laughs] But it was really this male thing of, “Let’s not share too much how harrowing this thing is,” at least for me.
PETER OUTERBRIDGE, Josef Grool: I think we all went to the gym because we knew we would be wearing spandex, but it was never asked of me to make sure I look like a bob sledder. They do have a bob sled run for people to go down, like professional sledders will take you down on a ride and they go down slower and it’s not as dangerous. But that particular year, they were having thaws and freezes and thaws and freezes and the sled hill just wasn’t in good shape, so they wouldn’t let any of us go down and try it out, and that was a bit of a drag.
NEXT: Accent trouble, remembering John Candy, and discussing a sequel
The bobsled training might have been the most physically exhausting part of the process, but it wasn’t the film’s greatest challenge. Rather, Disney was having constant debates about the use of Jamaican accents in the film.
TURTELTAUB: I remember almost being fired by Jeffrey Katzenberg because he couldn’t understand the Jamaican accents, and he told me that unless I got the guys to speak English like Sebastian the crab from Little Mermaid, I’ll basically never work at Disney ever again.
LEON: We were getting constant notes from Disney about our accents, that we were being too authentic Jamaican and we needed to have it be clearer. The note that I got – I’ll never forget this – was that they wanted to liken me to a black Aladdin. And I said, “Aladdin is not Jamaican!” [Laughs] I think we did our absolute best to bridge the gap between what Disney ultimately wanted and get as much a hint of real Jamaican as possible.
DOUG: Most of their notes made no sense. One note made sense but it was ridiculous. They wanted me to sound like Sebastian the crab, which is really more like a Trinidadian accent, it’s kind of sing-songy . So that was a controversy and a challenge. I ended up just having an accent that’s not Jamaiican at all really. Mine is kind of like a Jamaican Jerry Lewis. [Laughs]
YOBA: That for me wasn’t a challenge. I had my Jamaican accent long before I did that film. It was just deciding the consistency between the four of us, and how far we could go. As they would say, “People in Utah may not be able to understand.”
LEWIS: At one point they thought of just letting us have regular accents and just play a lot of Jamaican music. [Laughs] Sometimes we’d get accused of having too much accent, which I thought was weird. It wasn’t like, “Oh your accent’s bad,” it was like, “Tone that down a little bit, add a little more American in there,” especially my character because supposedly I went to school in America.
OUTERBRIDGE: I was the stereotypical Eastern European. Josef Gruhl was like your East German bad guy, so I did my thickest bad German accent. I didn’t make any effort to try to do a correct German accent. I did my best to find a German accent on a cartoon show and imitate that. [Laughs] I’m sure the Germans who saw the movie were probably very offended by the way I was speaking.
On set, spirits were always high. Despite some weather troubles in Calgary, and the inherent danger that came with filming on a bobsled track — one fall and the crew member would wind up at the bottom of the hill — the most memorable element of filming Cool Runnings seems to be the time spent together, and most significantly, with the late John Candy.
OUTERBRIDGE: It was a lot of camaraderie, and not just from the Jamaican bobsled team, who were hysterically funny and really really great guys to hang out with, but just amongst the other sledder guys, it was just a lot of fun, which is how it should be when you’re doing a film like that. That may be another one of the reasons why the movie has had such success is that I think that that warmth and I think that that camaraderie really shows through.
YOBA: One of the things that stands out the most to me was when we were in Calgary. Every now and then you’ll be in some random location, generally there’s snow involved, and there’s like one Jamaican with a restaurant somewhere. So this guy who fed the actual bobsled team during the Olympics heard a rumor the Jamaican bobsled team is in town and they’re doing a movie. So he didn’t have all the facts, but he had the food. And he cooked up a bunch of food and drove around for two hours looking for us to feed the Jamaican bobsled team, and then realized it was an actual movie being made about them and not the actual guys, but we got to enjoy the food anyway. I just remember thinking how sweet that was that this man drove around all this time looking for these folks.
TURTELTAUB: I think about being with the four guys nonstop and how much they taught me about directing. And how little they got paid. [Laughs] And how much love and effort they put into it. We all got paid very little. The movie was not expensive, and everyone got, basically, scale to do the movie, but there was so much enthusiasm and love.
LEON: I had rented this great house because I was down in Jamaica all the time and I had my chef with me, so I would have the guys over, and he would cook dinner for everybody at night. I always had the guys over for dinner. It was great. It was fun.
YOBA: The first dinner I remember having was John Candy inviting us all to dinner. He picked up some music that he thought represented each character and gave it to us. I remember thinking that was a classy move. And he had promised to take us salmon fishing in Alaska but unfortunately he passed soon after, so we never got to do that. But we would have dinners together, and we did spend a lot of time together. And the cool thing is, we’re all cool to this day, which is nice.
DOUG: [John Candy] played a song for each one of us that he thought represented the essence of our characters, which I don’t quite remember what my song was. I know it was a Rolling Stones song, but he was just a beautiful dude, the long and short of it, he was a beautiful guy.
LEWIS: John Candy, at one point we were invited to his room and we were all listening to music, reggae and stuff [Laughs], and he said, “Hey listen, I’m from Canada. I was there. They don’t know what they have on their hands. This thing’s going to be huge.” He said, “But no one gets it because no one gets how big this is going to be.” I remember listening to him and going, “I knew I wasn’t crazy. I feel the same way.” But I didn’t say a lot because I didn’t want to be that guy.
TURTELTAUB: When I think about what it was like to be on the set in Calgary or in Jamaica and laughing with John, that’s as much as any person can ever expect to get out of the phrase “a dream come true.” It was a dream of mine to one day work with John Candy and to have had that much fun and that much success with him was really exciting and really heartbreaking eventually.
OUTERBRIDGE: It was really fantastic to be in [John Candy’s] presence. I had one very brief scene with him, and it wasn’t even a scene, it was at the top of the sled hill and I think he had to look up at me and say something to me. But to hang out on set in his presence was really extraordinary. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met in this industry, which goes a long way, because there’s a lot of real jerks in this business. For all his fame and everything that he was, he was unbelievably generous, he never got angry. He had a handler who had to step in and pull him away from the fans because he would refuse to stop signing autographs, he would refuse to stop shaking hands, because he really felt that the fans, his audience were who made him. And he had nothing but time for them. Being in that presence, you learn a lot about how you should really behave in this industry.
YOBA: I just remember when we were filming, we had so much fun on set and I remember, particularly with Doug, he’s a funny guy. I just remember how much the crew laughed and how the camera would shake. I just remember that feeling on set like if people are laughing on set that could be an indicator of what’s to come.
“Cool Runnings” was a Jamaican expression that had already been worked into the script before it became the film’s title. In fact, it wasn’t until filming had wrapped that Turteltaub, Steel, and the Disney marketing department decided the movie would be called Cool Runnings. But once the name was solidified, the cast and crew got to sit back and watch as the film gained a following.
TURTELTAUB: There’s no point in directing a movie if you don’t think what you’re doing is going to be awesome. On the other hand, there was no way that this weirdo movie about Jamaicans and winter sports and being at Disney was ever going to come together in a way that people would see it, and I believed in the movie more than I think Disney did. They didn’t know what to do with the movie until they saw it.
LEON: One things that always stands out to me about Cool Runnings was the first public screening of it. I remember watching the movie for the first time, and I’ll never forget when they get to the point, “Where are these people from?” the whole audience stood up, “Jamaica!” And they weren’t even Jamaican! I remember thinking, if I got these white people thinking they’re Jamaican in here, this movie plays well. [Laughs]
TURTELTAUB: Your first test screening [is] when you know whether you’re the only person on earth who likes the movie or if an audience is going to join you. And our first test screening went so shockingly well with people screaming and shouting back at the screen, and cheering, and standing up and the depth and the quantity of laughter, we knew we had touched a chord.
DOUG: The opening night of the movie, I went with the producers to a theater, and it wasn’t packed. It was kind of like the faithful few. There was just a way that people were reacting and responding to the movie that I thought, “This is going to be one of those word-of-mouth things.” I told them, “This is going to be at the top of the box office,” and it was. As a matter of fact it was unusual because I think it was second at the box office and then the next week it went up as opposed to down, so it was a word-of-mouth thing.
LEWIS: I actually knew it was going to be big when I was filming it. As a matter of fact, I remember in one of my first interviews, I specifically said, “I think it’s going to do about 60 to 70 million in the U.S. but it’s going to do better overseas,. It’s going to do about 100 [million].” I remember the guys goes, “100? Wow you’re confident.” At the time that’s exactly what happened. I was pretty close to nailing it.
DOUG: I always get sucked in by the whole world slowly clapping. It always gets me. Actually when I saw that at the premiere, I cried and I was so shocked because I was like, “I know! I was in this! I knew this was going to happen why am I not prepared for it?” [Laughs]
YOBA: When it first came out, I loved it. I paid to go see it at the movie theater. I took a girl on a date — classy move. [Laughs] I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I have kids now so it’s great and my kids watch it and they get a kick out of it.
LEON: One of the things that happened to me with the film as a father is my daughter goes to school, she’s in fifth grade, she walks into class and they say, “This is a different kind of lesson today. We’re going to watch a movie, and we’re going to discuss the movie in class.” So lights go off, the movie comes on, and the first part of the movie is just all me. So as soon as the movie starts, she said the entire class looks at her. She felt so weird she said. But it was great because they loved it and she said she never imagined that her dad’s movie would be for a lesson being taught in school.
LEWIS: Sometimes I forget I’m in it. I get caught up into the story, and I think that’s a great testament to the movie. I remember turning it on and watching the scene where we’re all carrying the bobsled and my character’s dad’s there and he opens his shirt and he’s now supporting his son and the team, and I got a little teary-eyed, I hate to say. I was like, “Aw, his dad showed up.” And then I’m like, “Wait, that’s you, you idiot.” [Laughs] But that’s how powerful the story is, I actually forgot. I wasn’t watching my acting or anything, I was just watching an interesting story.
OUTERBRIDGE: By the way, there’s no way in the world you could pick up one of those bobsleds like that and carry it. Those things weigh a ton. [Laughs]
Now, 20 years later, what is Cool Runnings‘ legacy?
TURTELTAUB: [The film’s legacy is] the notion that not only can David beat Goliath but he can have a great time doing it. And that your sense of humor and your ability to laugh is a weapon that you have that not enough people use. For us, the movie was about dignity. And with all of its silliness, dignity is at the heart of every scene of that movie. Somehow, with all the silliness, the dignity comes through in the film and I think that’s one of the reasons it ended up coming out the way it did.
LEON: Everyone can relate to a fish-out-of-water story. Everyone can imagine what it’s like to be the only one of your kind some place. That is something that universally everyone identifies with. Then it’s also the message about pride, pride in your country and who you are and about working hard to achieve the things you want.
YOBA: Hope is the word. I think that the movie’s just really hopeful, and it’s really funny. And it’s an evergreen. Each generation can enjoy it with a fresh perspective. When I saw my kids get into it, that was the cutest thing. And then there are kids younger than my kids now that love that movie.
DOUG: I think it’s survived because it does say something about human beings on many levels. It talks about their potential to ostracize and alienate people for arbitrary reasons but it also talks about the redemptive aspects of being human, which has to do with recognizing and appreciating people’s resilience and recognizing your own resilience. Jamaica’s like a metaphor for coming from any place that’s considered small or insignificant and it definitely touches people from all over the world and I was shocked how many people all over the world feel small. [Laughs] But it’s true! So it’s a universal thing.
OUTERBRIDGE: I think it’s the consummate underdog film, and I think that anybody out there who’s been told that what you’re doing is ridiculous, or you can’t do what you want to do, it represents that. Even if you don’t take the Disney version of the actual events and you just look at the true story, it’s extraordinary, what happened. And it says to anybody that the most unlikely people can actually end up doing the thing that nobody thought they could do. I think that message is loud and clear, whether you look at the true story or you look at the Disney version, the theme remains the same which is don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it if its’ something that you really really want to do.
RAWLE: The Jamaicans, even what they’re doing now, they’re saying to people who have a dream to definitely pursue your dream. It’s your right to have a dream, and it’s not a fairytale, it’s a fruition, and you should go for it. And I think that this movie captures that. And also it captures teamwork. Be yourself and be proud of that and follow your dream, as corny as it may sound. It’s something that I’m proud of, and I’m glad I was able to be a part of it and that it’s out there around the world. I’m glad I can go to Brussels and get free French fries because someone likes Cool Runnings. [Laughs]
Cool Runnings is available for streaming on Netflix.
(This article was originally published on Feb. 12, 2014)