His first taste of Hollywood, recalls Michael Crichton, came in 1970, just after his best-selling novel “The Andromeda Strain” was bought by Universal Pictures. When he arrived at the studio, the 27-year-old recent medical school graduate was told that a bright, young director--then shooting an episode of TV’s “Night Gallery"--would show him around the lot.
“Steven Spielberg misled me about the movie business,” Crichton says of the fellow who, after his stint as tour guide, went on to direct “Jaws,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “He’s so rational, so organized, so intelligent, it made it seem like something a reasonable person would want to do.”
Reasonable or not, Crichton has straddled the worlds of publishing and movie making ever since. Though his career as a screenwriter-director (“Coma,” “Looker”) has been somewhat checkered, seven of his novels have been made into movies and an eighth, the 1980 “Congo,” has been acquired by the production company of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall at Paramount. Hollywood is also standing in line for a shot at his latest book, an as-yet-untitled story of sexual harassment in a high-tech Seattle firm that will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in January.
“Because Michael’s novels are more plot-driven than character-driven, they’re easily adaptable into film,” observes Lynn Nesbit, Crichton’s literary agent since the late ‘60s. “Recently, he’s turned to ‘issue books.’ Things get under his skin and find their way into his fiction. There’s a bit of the muckraker in him.”
This summer, in particular, Crichton is leading the pack. A costly film version of his 1990 “Jurassic Park,” a cautionary tale about dinosaurs (and bioengineering) run amok, reunites him with Spielberg and Universal. The movie, scheduled to open on June 11 and featuring an ensemble cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Sir Richard Attenborough, is said to be carrying the studio’s fiscal and mental health on its shoulders.
On July 30, it will be joined by “Rising Sun,” the film adaptation of Crichton’s hotly debated 1992 murder mystery with a not-so-sub subtext about the dangers of unbridled Japanese investment. The $35-million project, directed by Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff”) and co-starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, is a 20th Century Fox release.
“He’s the most popular girl at the prom,” “Rising Sun” co-writer Michael Backes says of Crichton, who also has three novels perched on many paperback bestseller lists.
Crichton, for his part, doesn’t identify with the “in” crowd. Being an idea man in bottom-line Hollywood reminds him of when, as a student, he wrote for the Harvard Crimson while playing on the college basketball team.
“The coach hated the idea of a reporter in the huddle,” the 6-foot-9 author says. “Feeling conflicted, different, has been a fact of my life. Someone once compared me to a bat. ‘Put a bat among birds,’ he said, ‘and they call it a mammal. Put it among mammals and they call it a bird.’ In more intellectual circles, I’m seen as a ‘popular entertainer’ unworthy of consideration. In popular entertainment circles, I’m considered too intellectual. I don’t seem to fit in anywhere.”
The author, a boyish-looking 50-year-old, is stretched out in the living room of his office, a modest two-bedroom bungalow on a residential Santa Monica street. A bookstore-type display of “Rising Sun” paperbacks greets visitors as they walk in. Next to a table full of dinosaur models sit photographs of Crichton’s 4-year-old daughter, Taylor, and his fourth wife, Anne-Marie. (“Didn’t you ever hear of premarital sex?” Steve Martin once asked the author.)
Being tall has fed Crichton’s sense of “otherness.” Fitting into cars, clothes, airplanes and doorways has never been easy. Tuning in cocktail party chatter is a challenge. Not until he met 7-foot-2 basketball player Wilt Chamberlain at a gathering 20 years ago did he let go of the feeling he was “geeky and strange.”
“To my surprise, I found myself standing on a step to make myself taller,” the writer says with a smile. “I was so uncomfortable that, after a half-hour, I had to leave. When my therapist asked me why I wasn’t happy not to be the tallest, weirdest person in the room, I had to admit that a part of me is proud of what makes me different.”
Such candid introspection is characteristic of Crichton, whom friends credit with a genius IQ and a childlike curiosity. He is a man of considerable contrasts. Dubbed “the master of the techno-thriller” by critics, he says he’s bored with hardware. (He’s far more interested in its impact on society.) Politically, he’s peripatetic--first and foremost an individualist opposed to “group-think.” (“I’ve never voted a straight ticket--in the voting booth or in conversation,” he says.) Rational to the extreme, the writer has a deep-seated interest in the occult. (At a metaphysical seminar in the Mojave Desert, he developed a meaningful relationship with a cactus, and he has programmed his computer with the I Ching--the Chinese Book of Changes--and Tarot cards.)
“Though Michael’s not cold, in some profound sense he can step back from himself,” Nesbit says. “He has what you might call an ‘Eastern’ sense of detachment.”
Crichton is digging into a plate of yaki soba --buckwheat noodles--the same meal at the same Japanese restaurant he frequented every day for a month while writing the screenplay for “Rising Sun.” (Routine, he notes, is critical to his creativity. Tuna fish sandwiches with pepper got him through “The Great Train Robbery.” An open-faced turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy filled the bill on “Congo.”)
Though he knew “Rising Sun” would ruffle feathers, he says, the vehemence of the reaction came as a surprise. Challenges to his economic premise--that the United States is selling its future to Japan--failed to materialize. Instead, he recalls with obvious annoyance, American critics labeled him racist.
“This book wasn’t about the Japanese, but about America,” Crichton says. “We’ve turned into a gigantic backward nation, self-important, full of ourselves. We’re no longer in the lead. The U.S. is good at innovation, but we’re selling off our emerging high technology, a crop we plant that comes to fruition 30 years later. Though we can’t control Japan, an independent sovereign nation, we should be alert. As Akio Morita (the founder of the Sony Corp.) says at the end of the book: ‘If you don’t want Japan to buy it, don’t sell it.’ ”
Backes believes Crichton was maligned: “ ‘Rising Sun’ is a polemic disguised as a thriller, an editorial disguised as a mystery story, but the critics acted as though Michael had written ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (an anti-Semitic tract the Nazis used to justify persecution of Jews).
“Charges of Japan-bashing are quite ironic since he’s more of a Japanophile than a Japanophobe. Michael likes the Zen thing: austerity, simplicity, serious-mindedness. He’s not a workaholic, but he’s extremely focused. You know the train will get to the station.”
Perhaps because of the growing Japanese presence in Hollywood, not to mention the increasing importance of the Japanese market, Hollywood was slow to respond to “Rising Sun.” Neither Universal nor Sony, the two studios under Japanese ownership, made an offer. In the end, 20th Century Fox was the only studio to bid on the project, paying Crichton more than $1 million for the rights. (Paramount, on behalf of producer Ned Tanen and director John McTiernan, offered to match the Fox deal at the eleventh hour, but it was too little too late.)
Sean Connery, whom the author had in mind when he wrote the character of John Connor (get it?), was cast as the worldly wise, culturally sensitized police detective called in to investigate the murder of a “party girl” in the Los Angeles office of a Japanese firm. Wesley Snipes was signed to play the L.A. Police Department’s Asian community liaison. Philip Kaufman had been lined up to direct.
Pairing the material with the politically liberal Kaufman did not make for easy going. Still, not until Crichton and Backes--in the wake of numerous rewrite requests--walked out on the project in November, 1991, did philosophical differences emerge. Kaufman tried his hand at a draft. David Mamet did another. Kaufman knocked out a couple more and Fox submitted his name to the Writers Guild for sole screenwriter credit. Though the arbitration turned down the request, awarding Kaufman first position and the team of Crichton and Backes second, the tone of the picture, according to insiders, is most definitely the director’s.
“Kaufman did a 180-degree turn,” says one. “He took all of the politics out of it--and not, I suspect, because of studio pressure. The battle took place between Phil’s ears . . . and what’s missing now is ‘the point.’ ”
Kaufman says he was shocked when Crichton and Backes jumped ship seven weeks into the collaboration--so much so that he almost quit himself. Despite some problems with the draft they’d turned in--particularly with Snipes’ character, whom he considered too bland--the director thought they were all on track.
“I didn’t agree with everything in the book, but I thought Crichton took a difficult subject and addressed it with a lot of energy,” Kaufman says. “I never wanted to write the script, but when I did, I followed my instincts. A movie adaptation requires a lot of cutting--and I decided to make plot, character, relationships the focus. I view the film basically as a murder mystery. The political and economic material in the book, I figured, would find its way in.”
Fears voiced by the Japanese-American community notwithstanding, Kaufman doubts “Rising Sun” will generate negative fallout. “The movie is a strong one, but it takes on everybody ,” he explains. “When you become moralists, analyzing other people’s behavior, you have to examine your own. I hope this movie will actually lead to an easing of tensions. Things that are hidden grow in the dark.”
Crichton, who, like Backes, has yet to see the film, takes a philosophical approach. “Phil is an intelligent, interesting man,” he begins, choosing his words carefully. “We tried very hard to work together, but were unable to. Asking me how I feel about not having an ongoing relationship to the project is like asking an Indy race car driver how he feels after his car crashed. It’s too bad, of course--but you know that’s a possibility going in. I’ve been in this business 20 years, and if there’s a conflict between the writer and the director, the director wins.”
The Chicago-born, Roslyn, Long Island-bred Crichton always had ambitions. Asked how she managed to rear such a successful child, his mother once responded: “I just get out of his way.” Though writing and filmmaking (Alfred Hitchcock was an early hero) always loomed large, enrolling in Harvard University’s English department dampened his enthusiasm. Exasperated by the bad grades he received on his papers, Crichton submitted a piece by the famed George Orwell. When that assignment came back with a B-minus, a frustrated Crichton cut his losses, transferred into anthropology and eventually graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.
Next stop: Harvard Medical School--a costly and time-consuming detour. Despite deep-seated reservations about the program and the profession, Crichton hung in, writing novels under pseudonyms to help pay the bills. “A Case of Need,” published in 1968 under the name Jeffery Hudson, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award given out by the Mystery Writers of America and resurfaced as an MGM movie, “The Carey Treatment,” four years later. In 1969, “The Andromeda Strain"--the story of a group of scientists confronting an extraterrestrial virus--put him on the map.
“When I left medicine to work in film, it was like leaving the Supreme Court to work as a bail bondsman,” he says. “Still, there’s a level at which I’m helpless to prevent things from happening. I felt compelled not to be a doctor.”
Medicine, while not his calling, has stood Crichton in good stead. Doctors, like directors, he once noted, must plunge into the unknown, overcoming any fears of ineptitude. Exposure to sick people whose defenses are down provides a glimpse into the human condition. And the scientific and medical knowledge he absorbed has served as an underpinning for his fiction. The meticulous detail in Crichton’s work, critics have remarked, has been crucial to establishing an environment of believability.
“In ‘Jurassic,’ Michael creates the biggest ‘what if?’ of all, and yet you swallow it completely,” says David Koepp, who shares a joint screenwriting credit with him. “His exhaustive information-gathering convinces you not only of the possibility of his premise, but of the probability that it’s happening as we speak.”
The story revolves around a company called International Genetic Technologies, an outfit cloning dinosaurs from genetic material found in mosquito-like insects who had sucked their blood and been preserved in amber. The goal is to create the ultimate amusement park, on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. When the security system is sabotaged and some of the most lethal creatures go on the attack, the tale becomes a metaphor for the hazards of commercialized and unchecked bioengineering.
The author had been interested in genetically engineered dinosaurs--a topic actually discussed in the scientific community--since the early 1980s. For a variety of reasons, he put it aside. He didn’t want to be part of what he saw as a “loony trend” of dinosaurmania. But when scientific advances made the extraction of genetic material from fossils and DNA-cloning a realistic possibility, the subject became more intriguing.
In 1988, he found himself buying a surplus of stuffed dinosaurs for his child-to-be’s nursery and concluded the time had come. If his 1976 “Eaters of the Dead” was based on “Beowulf” and his 1987 “Sphere” on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Jurassic Park” would be modeled on “Alice in Wonderland"--children caught in a nonsensical world created by adults.
Contrary to published reports, Crichton says, he never visualized the story on the big screen. For starters, a dinosaur film, to be authentic, would be very costly. (“The most expensive movie ever made,” the author joked to studios sending out feelers.) It was the late ‘80s and the industry was in an economic downturn. To cap things off, he hadn’t sold a book to Hollywood in more than 12 years.
Four studios--Universal, Fox, Columbia and Warner Bros.--bit, nevertheless. The prospect of working with his old pal Steven Spielberg--a man with the requisite technical expertise and the clout to command a big budget, Crichton says--made the difference. Universal paid him $1.5 million for the rights, plus $500,000 for a draft of the screenplay. An ensemble cast--noticeably absent the superstars with whom Spielberg worked on his previous film, “Hook"--was assembled.
“People expressed various fears that Spielberg would ‘Stevenize’ the project, giving it a juvenile, sentimental treatment,” Crichton recalls. “I never had that concern. On some level, I knew, we see things similarly.”
One of the points on which they agreed was to go for a PG-13 rating--an aesthetic rather than a marketing choice, the writer says.
“There are a couple of things you can’t do in a movie without throwing the audience out of the picture,” Crichton explains. “One of them is nudity. The minute you see a nude actor, you are no longer watching the character. ‘Oh, I see so and so has put on a little weight.’ or ‘Wow, so and so has been going to the gym since the last movie.’ You’re out of the movie looking at that body--in a sense, a member of the crew.
“The second thing guaranteed to pull you out of the dream is explicit violence and gore. The minute you see people eviscerated and their intestines pour out, you wonder how that was done. Coils of plastic covered in red gook? Special effects? Barriers are immediately thrown up. In this book, I had to rely on gore to make the threat of the dinosaurs real, a task which falls elsewhere in a film. Besides, in a book, everyone can come up with the image he or she wants. We’re all our own censors in our own imagination. Movies might stick you with images you don’t like.”
More than two years of pre-production by Spielberg finally paid off. With the complicated dinosaur technology working like a charm, the picture wrapped 12 days under schedule. Still, by the director’s tally (considered low in some quarters), the picture comes with a $56-million price tag--not including a hefty tab for marketing. Universal is banking on the fact that the picture--by all accounts the wanna-see movie of the summer--will initiate a sea change for the studio, whose fortunes have been flagging since it was sold to Matsushita, the Japanese electronics giant, nearly 2 1/2 years ago.
“It’s a kick in the head that the fate of a Japanese company is, in part, hanging on a project written by the author of ‘Rising Sun,’ which warned of the dangers of foreign investment in America,” observes “Jurassic Park” co-screenwriter Koepp. “Even more ironic are ‘Jurassic’s’ warnings about the greedy amusement park owners messing with nature by manufacturing ‘Jurassic Park’ lunch boxes and the like. The same ‘greedy’ merchandisers are making a truckload of money on our movie. I had to laugh as I typed out the dialogue. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys here?”
Crichton, for his part, has pushed such considerations aside. For starters, he says, Japanese investment in the entertainment business has never been a concern. “Movies are a high-profile business, but represent just a tiny fraction of the revenues generated by cosmetics or computers.” On a more personal level, he says, “Jurassic Park” is ancient history.
“A book is like delivering a baby,” the writer explains with a rueful grin. “By the time it’s out, you’re so exhausted you’re delighted to send it to a foster home. I’ve had it with dinosaurs, I’ve had it with Japan, I’ve had it with sexual harassment . . . and the book isn’t even out yet.”
The last of these projects was formerly called “Exposure"--a book Crichton expects will surpass “Rising Sun” in the “controversy” department. Based on a true story, the material tackles male-female relations, taking potshots at chauvinists and feminists alike. It was a project that he embarked upon shortly before Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas brought the issue to national prominence.
“Michael has impeccable timing as a novelist,” says Michael Backes. “Because of his ability to discern trends and look to the future he would probably have been successful as a stockbroker or investment analyst.”
Until he began his research, however, even Crichton was unaware of the volatility of the harassment issue. People he interviewed about corporate policy and personal experience insisted on anonymity. No one wanted to be thanked in print. Though he took up the subject, in part, to make the world better for his daughter--"We’re all led by our feelings, not our intellect"--he believes some brands of feminism actually obstruct the march toward equality.
“Though the movement started out as a way of helping women to stand on their own, now it portrays women as an oppressed class of victims,” he says. “And the moment you start saying that women have certain needs--they are more at risk for social violence, they can get pregnant, or whatever--you find (conservative televangelist) Jerry Falwell standing next to you in agreement. Calling for special treatment, or ‘protectionism,’ doesn’t help women, at all. It’s been used to deny them their rights throughout history.”
Crichton’s goal is not to undercut feminism, he maintains, but to show that all points of view are inherently limited. “Any argument is too simple to cover all situations,” he says. “People are smug in the conviction that they’ve thought through Hill-Thomas, but I want to stick them with feelings they haven’t dealt with yet.”
The manuscript, which will be circulated at the end of this month, already has Hollywood salivating. More, Nesbit says, than for any previous Crichton project--or for any other book she’s handled.
The author himself hasn’t directed for four years--ever since the 1989 thriller “Physical Evidence.” Making movies, he says, has its drawbacks. Film limits freedom in ways unthinkable for a novelist. (“When I’m writing a book, no one calls me at home with suggestions.”) The need to deliver big audiences and big dollars has a chilling effect on creativity. And for someone intent on challenging the conventional wisdom, he says, books seem a better bet.
“The proliferation of discount bookstore chains has focused attention on books, greatly enlarging the audience,” he says. “Now that publishing has entered the 20th Century, I no longer have the feeling I’m writing sonnets. But this is primarily a visual culture--and I don’t preclude the possibility of directing in the future.”
Though work is a virtual lifeline for Crichton, “balance,” these days, is a priority. When working on a project, he rises at 5 a.m. and puts in a seven-day week. Still, the 5 p.m. family dinner is a ritual.
“I feel like I’ve lived my life backward,” the author says. “I had an independent existence for so long, and now I have a young person running me ragged. As happy as I am about my professional success, I’m far more pleased by the private life I thought I’d never have. A family is a wonderful group to be a part of--and has been the most difficult thing for me to achieve.”
Crichton, as usual, has a “shopping list” of projects in the works--one-third to one-half of which, he acknowledges, will end up still-born. (“Writing for me is like raiding the refrigerator--a subconscious process over which I have little control.”) He talks about a biting social satire inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels,” a book touching on the sad state of modern education, another on historical and contemporary Hawaii. In addition to an 18th-Century historical novel set in London and Paris that he’s been writing on and off for years, he’s planning a sequel to his 1988 “Travels” (a nonfiction recounting of his internal and external journeys)--not to mention some original screenplays.
Backes believes everything the author has turned out thus far will, one day, be viewed as “early Crichton.”
Crichton hopes he’s right.
“This is a very exciting time for me,” the writer admits, knocking on wood. “I’m starting to feel OK . . . sometimes. I’m getting used to making people upset. There’s a very crowded airport with lots of planes trying to land. And since I’m old enough to know people my age whose hearts have stopped, that adds a certain seriousness to it all.”