Welcome to Jurassic Park: An oral history
As a child, Steven Spielberg was captivated by dinosaurs. He collected cast-iron figurines of them and preferred them in starring roles on the big screen. “I was more interested in the dinosaurs in King Kong than I was in King Kong himself,” remembers the Academy Award-winning director. “I thought the T. rex was one of the most awesome dinosaurs of the fossil record! But I never knew how to parlay all my love for paleontology into a story until Michael Crichton came along and wrote his book.”
That book was Jurassic Park, which Spielberg adapted in 1993 into an exhilarating adventure and one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—not to mention a groundbreaking technological achievement. “It changed special effects forever,” the director says, “and for better or for worse, it really did introduce the digital era.”
In this oral history, published in 2013 to celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary, EW looked back at the film that so memorably shook the earth.
Spielberg and author Crichton had been developing a feature film based on Crichton’s script Cold Case, about his time as a medical resident (which would become the TV series ER). Crichton, who died from cancer in 2008, told the director about another idea he was working on: a novel about dinosaurs being brought back to life through old samples of their DNA. Spielberg was immediately hooked. When galleys for Jurassic Park made their way around Hollywood in May 1990, the sci-fi adventure became the It project to buy. According to Spielberg, other interested directors may have included Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) and James Cameron (Avatar). Universal won the bidding war, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s relationship with Crichton. The director started storyboarding before the script was even written and quickly assembled an effects team. Creature master Stan Winston (Aliens) created the large-form models, including a nearly 20-foot-tall T. rex, and stop-motion artist Phil Tippett (RoboCop) would animate miniatures based on those Winston designs for the more elaborate action sequences. Then, Industrial Light & Magic’s Dennis Muren, who had just designed the liquid-metal effects in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, brought up the idea of using CGI to animate the dinosaurs. Muren invited Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and Tippett to watch a CG demo of a gallimimus stampede.
STEVEN SPIELBERG Director Here’s what was scary: We were creating the title characters of a film. These were the stars of the picture, these dinosaurs. And if that didn’t work, nothing about Jurassic Park could have worked. So that was daunting, because I was using Universal’s money to basically make an experimental dinosaur picture.
KATHLEEN KENNEDY Producer I remember getting the phone call where Dennis said, “I think I have something you and Steven should take a look at.” We saw this wire-frame model of a dinosaur running across the screen, and it caused five or six of us to literally leap to our feet because it was so extraordinary and significantly beyond anything we had seen in motion control up to that point.
SPIELBERG The last time my jaw dropped like that was when George Lucas showed me the shot of the Imperial cruiser [in Star Wars]. I showed it to [stop-motion effects legend] Ray Harryhausen. He was absolutely enthralled and very positive about the paradigm changing. He looked at the test and said, “Well, that’s the future.”
DENNIS MUREN Full-motion dinosaurs I knew how hard it was to get these effects to look good, and I was just sitting there saying, “This is impossible that we did it.” Since the early ’80s, there was this promise that CG could do this, and it had finally delivered.
PHIL TIPPETT Dinosaur supervisor Steven asked me how I felt after seeing the footage and I said, “I think I’m extinct.” He said, “That’s a great line. I’m putting that in the movie.”
Although his go-motion models were not used in the film, Tippett, a paleontology enthusiast, ended up staying on as a sort of choreographer for the dinosaurs. He even insisted the animators take mime classes over the course of six weeks to learn how to move like a dinosaur.
TIPPETT It’s very helpful physically. When you act it out, you internalize it. You can feel it a different way.
SPIELBERG Phil gave all the dinosaurs personalities and real characteristics based on his experience with the animal kingdom and the natural world.
TIPPETT Another thing that was really important is that they locked me in a room with Gary Rydstrom for a week. Before we started doing the actual performances, I wanted to have the dinosaur voices, or as close as we could.
GARY RYDSTROM Sound designer I tried to stay organic, so all the dinosaur stuff is from real animals. The raptor is probably made up of bits and pieces of 20 or 30 different animals, to make a vocabulary. So breathing, guttural sounds, screams, communication — that kind of thing. But the main attack scream is a combination of a walrus, for the low frequency, and then the higher-frequency range was a boy dolphin pining for a female.
With preproduction under way, Spielberg selected screenwriter David Koepp to help Crichton adapt the book, based on a recommendation from Robert Zemeckis, who was directing Death Becomes Her, co-written by Koepp.
DAVID KOEPP Screenwriter Steven was looking around for somebody to take a fresh shot at Jurassic so I read it and got a meeting and told them how I thought I’d do it. I do remember that I wanted to start it in a sort of a globe-trotting way, I wanted to give it this feel of international dimension.
SPIELBERG David basically took it from a banquet to fast food and that’s a compliment because the movie feels like a drive thru. The scenes are tight. The story David wrote is a page-turner. There’s just enough science to make it credible and then it’s a downhill race from then on.
KOEPP The problem turning the book into a movie was that there’s a vast amount of scientific exposition and how on earth do you get that in a movie? I remember Steven and I were wrestling with that very issue, about the DNA, and one of us said, “What are we supposed to do? Have a little animated character called Mr. DNA?” And the other one said, “Yes! That’s exactly what we’re going to do!”
SPIELBERG Yeah, that was my idea. When I was a kid, the AV kids used to wheel in the projector and show these Frank Capra produced and directed documentaries on the mind, the heart, and the sun. I just remember all the interstitial animation that was done to illustrate the science and thought, “Why don’t we do all this in a two-minute animated handbook for the audience?” It would be easy for everybody to understand how this is even possible to bring dinosaurs back.
Spielberg then set about finding the actors who would spend much of their screen time running from these ancient behemoths, including director Richard Attenborough as park creator John Hammond, Jeff Goldblum as chaos (and quip) expert Ian Malcolm, Sam Neill as stern Dr. Alan Grant, and Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello as Hammond’s grandkids. Laura Dern was Spielberg’s first choice to play paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler.
LAURA DERN Dr. Ellie Sattler I was talking with Nicolas Cage, and we had just done Wild at Heart together, and I said to him, “Nic, they want to put me on the phone with Steven Spielberg, but they want to talk to me about a dinosaur movie…” And he was like, “You are doing a dinosaur movie! No one can ever say no to a dinosaur movie!” I was like, “Really?” And he’s like, “Are you kidding? It’s a dream of my life to do a movie with dinosaurs!” [Laughs] So he was such an influence on me. Then I talked to Steven and he goes, “I know that you’re doing your independent films, but I need you to be chased by dinosaurs, in awe of dinosaurs, and have the adventure of a lifetime. Will you do this with me?” And I was like, “Sure.”
SAM NEILL Dr. Alan Grant I was in L.A., on the way to a job in Canada, and my agent called and said Steven Spielberg would like to meet with you in half an hour. So I got a cab and I went over to Steven’s house and we sat in his hallway and I looked at his art and we talked about this thing Jurassic Park. It was all very surprising. So I went to Canada and two days later, I had the part. And three or four weeks after that we started shooting in Hawaii. So it all happened real quick. I hadn’t read the book, knew nothing about it, hadn’t heard anything about it, and in a matter of weeks I’m working with Spielberg.
JANET HIRSHENSON Casting director I read the book and I thought of Jeff Goldblum right away. There were several other people we taped for the part, though. Jim Carrey had come in and he was terrific, too, but I think pretty quickly we all loved the idea of Jeff.
JEFF GOLDBLUM Ian Malcolm A meeting was set up, so I went over there to Amblin. I’d quickly read the book in preparation and Steven said, “Since we scheduled this meeting, there’s an idea afoot to combine the two characters, to absorb your character into the Sam Neill character.” I said, “Well, geez. I hope you don’t do that.” I might have even advocated on the spot, and I came back and lo and behold I had a little part in it.
ARIANA RICHARDS Lex I was called into a casting office, and they just wanted me to scream. I heard later on that Steven had watched a few girls on tape that day, and I was the only one who ended up waking his sleeping wife off the couch, and she came running through the hallway to see if the kids were all right.
JOSEPH MAZZELLO Tim Steven had me screen-test with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman for Hook. I was just too young for the role. And because of that, Steven came up to me and said, “Don’t worry about it, Joey. I’m going to get you in a movie this summer.” Not only a nice promise to get, but to have it be one of the biggest box-office smashes of all time? That’s a pretty good trade.
Filming began in August 1992 on Kauai, Hawaii, with actors facing off against Winston’s life-size creations.
DERN When I saw the triceratops, I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Sam Neill — we were both freaking out. And like Sam does in the movie, we did lay ourselves over the belly and feel the belly moving in and out. I forced my way in, and [the puppeteers] let me go into the belly of the dinosaur and watch them work.
NEILL The thing was breathing — Stan Winston’s puppets were so incredible. To touch them was to blow your mind.
GOLDBLUM I used to be enthralled with dinosaurs like a lot of kids. I grew up in Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum had at the time the biggest display and I would traipse through the exhibit like once a week. So cut to me in Hawaii coming on the set and seeing that thing already fully there and the puppeteers — one working the eyes, one doing the breathing. For all the world, it was a live dinosaur sitting there. Amazing.
JOHN WILLIAMS Composer The sight of the animals as we saw them for the first time, I thought what I saw was awesome and that the animals were beautiful and inspiring and the orchestra could illustrate some of the sense of absolute wonder and breathtaking beauty of what our actors are supposed to be seeing.
Winston’s animatronics were augmented by CGI courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic. At this point, CG effects were still in their nascency and the idea of adding dinosaurs fully in post-production was a new concept to most of the actors.
MUREN Actors are great. They don’t have any problem imagining something that’s not there. That’s part of what their job is, creating a character. So people said a lot, “Boy it must be hard for actors to do that.” You know, not really. And if it is, they’re not complaining. They’re getting it right away, they know where to look where there’s nothing.
DERN With ILM and Dennis Muren, those guys we’ve gotten to know from their Oscar-winning speeches from all the movies they’ve worked on since, but when I met them, I was like, “Oh that’s sweet, dudes. You’re, like, into computers?” I didn’t even know what they were talking about. “There’s a piece of paper up there in the tree and it has an X on it. Just stare at that. That’s a brachiosaurus.” And we were all like, “Okay… is there still going to be an X when they see the movie, or are you going to put something else in?” “No, no, Laura, we’re going to put something else in.” [Laughs]
NEILL Steven said, “Look over there and imagine there’s a whole plain of grazing dinosaurs of all different stripes and persuasions. How would you feel about that?” And I said, “Oh sh–. I don’t know Steven, I think I’d faint!” That’s why my knees go in the shot.
MAZZELLO For a long time, I was upset, because I didn’t get to see any [dinosaurs]. We were running around in Hawaii with the gallimimus that were supposed to be running past us that were just computer animated. And I remember one scene where the T. rex comes out of the woods, snatches one up, and eats it. What I got to look at was this wooden stick with a dinosaur head drawn at the top of it that I think I, as a 9-year-old, could have drawn and a couple of guys moving it around and Steven screaming into a megaphone, “Okay, now he’s eating him, Joe. He’s eating him now. You’re looking at him. He’s eating him.” I was a little upset. I was like “Yo, when are we getting some dinosaurs. I keep hearing this movie’s about dinosaurs.”
NEILL Steven was holding a bullhorn and roaring in a not very convincing way. It’s difficult enough acting to a tennis ball, but it’s even harder when you’re trying not to laugh.
Everything went smoothly until the last day of shooting. Spielberg awoke in his hotel room at 4 a.m. and noticed the staff bringing in all of the pool chairs. In a few hours, Hurricane Iniki — the most powerful storm on record to hit Hawaii — would strike.
SPIELBERG I turned on the TV. There was an animation of the Hawaiian island chain. The island we were on, Kauai, was outlined in red and there was a big arrow pointing to it, and then there was the icon of a cyclonic hurricane moving directly towards us. It was like a movie.
NEILL We were all huddled into the ballroom of this hotel, which was completely trashed in the course of the hurricane. What kept morale up was that the only thing to read in the whole ballroom, the only thing anyone thought to bring in with them, was a Victoria’s Secret catalog. So that, in our darkest moments, cheered us up.
GOLDBLUM The lights went out, and I remember Steven Spielberg took a flashlight and held it above his head and shined it down on himself and said, “Love story,” and then put it under his chin and said, “Horror story.” “Love story. Horror story.”
RICHARDS Steven helped to combat boredom with both Joey and me. He took it upon himself to tell us ghost stories, and I think the ghost stories scared me more than the hurricane.
SPIELBERG Kathy Kennedy jogged to the airport. She found some guy about to leave on a small private single-engine aircraft. She hitchhiked her way to Honolulu and she was trying to find a plane that could get our crew and cast back to Los Angeles. She bumped into this guy she kind of recognized and she walked over to the guy and said, “Don’t I know you?” and he said, “Hi Kathy.” It was the young man that flew the biplane in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was the pilot that was in our movie and he just happened to be a pilot of a four-engine 707, a cargo plane and he was between flights. So Kathy arranged with him to send a large plane to the island the next day to take the cast and crew out. It’s once again something else that seems to only happen in the movies. And when things like that happen in the movies, the audience rejects that!
Once the storm passed, the cast and crew were airlifted out of Hawaii and returned to L.A. to shoot the remainder of the film, including the film’s most iconic action sequence: the T. rex’s attack on Dr. Grant and the kids in their Ford Explorer. Spielberg had storyboarded extensively and even enlisted Tippett to create a mini stop-motion animation of the pivotal moment. But as Goldblum’s Malcolm implies in the film, not everything can be predicted.
SPIELBERG I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire [in my car] and had it cranked up really loud. I suddenly saw my rearview mirror vibrating every time the horns section came in. I thought, “What if when the T. rex approaches, the mirror starts vibrating?” That is in the picture. But then I thought, “What if it was a glass of water and these concentric circles?” So I gave it to Michael Lantieri, the guy in charge of physical effects, and he came up with how to actually achieve those ripples by using guitar strings [placed under the dashboard].
JOHN ROSENGRANT Stan Winston Studio puppeteer The T. rex was 36 feet long and 18 feet tall. We’re talking about a hydraulically powered creature that felt like a bus going by you when it would move. We found out not long before we were going to shoot that it was going to be raining [in the scene]. So it went from this beautifully tuned machine that worked fantastically to… suddenly the foam-rubber skin started absorbing water, and now all of the calculations were off and it started to shudder. We went out and bought tons of towels and started putting big blowers, dryers, on it to dry it out.
KENNEDY The T. rex went into the heebie-jeebies sometimes. Scared the crap out of us. We’d be, like, eating lunch, and all of a sudden a T. rex would come alive. At first we didn’t know what was happening, and then we realized it was the rain. You’d hear people start screaming.
MAZZELLO We were in that car, and I think the T. rex was only supposed to go down so far, and the Plexiglas was the only thing between the dinosaur and us. It came down too far one time, and it chipped the Plexiglas and broke a tooth. And if you pause on it, you can actually see in the movie that there’s a shot during that scene where the T. rex was missing a tooth.
MARTIN FERRERO Donald Gennaro I remember Steven telling me when we first met that he was planning on having my character get eaten by the T. rex while he was sitting on the commode, and I was always worrying about how it was going to play until we shot it. And then I was more worried about it! I would be sitting there on the toilet on this enormous set while this big thing came down on top of me.
RYDSTROM The T. rex is doing this dog-like thing which kills its victim by shaking. That’s how it kills the lawyer. For that, we recorded my dog, a little Jack Russell Terrier. One of the keys to sound design is you can slow down sounds and make them sound big so a Jack Russell Terrier playing with a rope toy played a half-speed or so makes a wonderful T. rex.
RICHARDS It was very wet. I remember drinking a tremendous amount of hot tea during the whole thing. I didn’t get sick, but there were all these wind machines and rain pouring down on us. A lot of mud, I remember that. The hair and makeup people were always plastering mud on us constantly to make sure we looked dirty enough.
NEILL I’ve still got a big scar on my left hand that I’m looking at right now from the flare. It dropped some burning phosphorous on me and got under my watch and took a chunk of my arm out.
One of the film’s most harrowing scenes involves Mazzello and Richards’ Tim and Lex being chased through the visitor center’s industrial kitchen by a pair of predatory velociraptors. Those raptors were actually portrayed using full-body suits with Winston’s puppeteers crouching inside.
ROSENGRANT We started analyzing how we were going to break down each creature. We got to looking at the raptor and I think we all kind of brainstormed that you could probably get a guy in that suit. We did a clay study of me bent over in the most uncomfortable position and sculpted the raptor around it and said, “Yeah, it will work.” So we went forward with that and I had been in little suit things here or there but I knew I was going to have to really get myself into super-duper shape. One of the main scenes was when it first comes in the door and reaches up and hoots — that’s me in the suit doing that. I feel bad that young boy, Joe, those things creeped him out. They were nasty looking.
MAZZELLO On my birthday, we were doing the kitchen scene, and I was supposed to run into the freezer. I was chased by the raptor and they had him on wheels. They were rolling after me, and I was supposed to go left, and it’s supposed to go right. The one time I go left, I turn around and it’s following me left, and the claw just hit me right in the head. I had a nice bump on my head after that. But it was a good birthday. Actually, the the hurricane happened on Ariana’s birthday, so either natural disasters or we were getting beaten up by dinosaurs, but there was always something going on on our birthdays on that shoot.
RICHARDS There’s that part where I’m supposed to run towards the freezer and save my brother from the raptor. We had done one take and Steven came over to me and was able to let me know, “Okay, Ariana, I want you to really let loose for this.” So I did. I really went berserk, just totally hysterical. And that was the shot he used.
Jurassic Park wrapped 12 days ahead of schedule. Kennedy and George Lucas oversaw postproduction while Spielberg was in Europe shooting Schindler’s List. The film opened on Friday, June 11, 1993, and broke box office records its first weekend, with $47 million. It eventually went on to make more than $900 million worldwide.
KOEPP I remember the day it opened, I was in New York and I walked to the Ziegfeld [Theatre] to see how it was doing. The guy comes out and announces to the big line, “Ladies and gentlemen, the 7 o’clock show of Jurassic Park is sold out.” And people go, “Oooh.” And he goes, “Also the 10 o’clock show is sold out.” And they went, “Ooooooh.” “And also Saturday night’s 7 and 10 o’clock shows are also sold out.” And I was like, “I’m not an expert, but I think this is very good.”
SPIELBERG My reaction was “Thank God.” I don’t often preview the movies I direct. I did not preview Jurassic Park. The first time I saw it was at a theater with the 8 p.m. Friday audience. I sat in the back with my agent Mike Ovitz and my wife.
KENNEDY That was a period of time where it was so fun to release movies because it was like a rock concert. You’d get in a limo and get a couple bottles of champagne and drive around town and see the lines around the block and people going crazy and getting dressed up. And then you go into the theater, and people were so excited. We’ve lost a bit of that with movies opening in so many theaters.
MAZZELLO It was wild. I couldn’t leave the house. I would be walking down the street and I would get mobbed.
DERN [People were like,] “Oh my gosh, you’re the girl who put your hand in the dinosaur poo!” That was my big entrée. I have met kids who were afraid to shake my hand, as though I hadn’t washed.
NEILL I get stopped for different reasons on the street, but Jurassic Park would be the most universal of them. If I go to the Philippines or Rwanda or something, people just know me all around the world. And they’ll start roaring like dinosaurs.
KENNEDY In many ways it’s one of Steven’s really great movies. When you look at what the technology spawned, it’s pretty remarkable what a game changer it was.
SPIELBERG I think people like Jurassic Park because it’s a helluva yarn.