'Last Action': Too Many Heroes? : Big-Name Star, Director and Writers--So What Happened?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was built around the world's No. 1 superstar. The studio envisioned it as a huge blockbuster--one of the biggest of all time--and spared no expense to make it. The screenwriters included two of the industry's heaviest hitters.

Yet despite the hype and the high-priced talent involved, Columbia Pictures' "Last Action Hero," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, seems destined to join the ranks of such world-class flops as "Hudson Hawk" and "Bonfire of the Vanities." Opening June 18, "Action" took in an unimpressive $15 million its first weekend and ticket sales fell by 47% last weekend to $8 million, relegating "Action" to an embarrassingly low fourth-place finish.

But while this summer has had its share of disappointing movies, "Last Action Hero," believed to have cost many millions more than the $70 million the studio has admitted to, has emerged as an especially inviting target. "Why is it that people have turned so viciously against this movie?" speculated one former production chief for another studio. "Because it was made irresponsibly. That has to do with throwing so much money into the pot and not handling it properly."

What went wrong? To many in the industry, just the concept of a boy's journey into the cinematic world of his action-star hero seemed an appealing, if not necessarily commercial, idea. But once Schwarzenegger signed on, prospects for the project soared. Outside observers and sources close to the movie, however, cite a wide variety of problems, stemming both from shortcomings on the artistic side to marketing and other strategic decisions made jointly by Columbia management, headed by chairman Mark Canton, and the creative team, which put the picture into direct competition with the record-breaking megahit "Jurassic Park."

Among the creative factors dooming "Action," they say, was a patchwork script, uninvolving characters, a confusing story and a poor choice of director. The race to meet an impossibly tight deadline added to the movie's cost while giving filmmakers little time for advance planning or correcting their mistakes. The project was also handicapped by a seeming indifference to strict cost controls.

Much of the backlash is attributed to what was seen as premature crowing by Columbia executives and Schwarzenegger, who wore a second hat as executive producer and was paid $15 million--the entire production cost of many movies--and promised a percentage of profits, if any. For Mark Canton, who bought the script shortly after becoming Columbia's chairman in the fall of 1991, it was to be his first big test as studio head.

Said one insider, commenting on the executives' bragging: "Canton and (executive vice president, production) Barry Josephson had their coronation prior to the first frame being shot. I do think that backfired on us."

Columbia executives declined to comment on the movie. "We're in the middle of the release, and we intend to be in the marketplace for the whole summer," said Sid Ganis, president for worldwide marketing and distribution, explaining the studio's silence. Director John McTiernan also refused to discuss "Action," and Schwarzenegger was out of town and could not be reached, according to his spokeswoman.

On the first day of production in October, 1992, syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith announced that the studio was spending $750,000 on a trailer to be shown at Christmas--the costliest "coming attraction" ever. "The studio figures it will make back that amount within the first five minutes of the movie's opening," Smith wrote. (Columbia has said the trailer's actual cost was far lower.)

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Although "Last Action Hero" sprang from humble beginnings--a screenplay written on speculation by novices Zak Penn and Adam Leff that was auctioned in October, 1991--Columbia executives saw it from the outset as a project for Schwarzenegger, who at that time was entertaining a raft of other proposals. To land the superstar, the studio let him choose his own writer, Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout"), and director, John McTiernan ("The Hunt for Red October" and "Die Hard"), who was reportedly paid $5.5 million. Schwarzenegger and McTiernan had worked together on "Predator."

Six months after the courtship was initiated, Schwarzenegger was still holding out, worried that the relationship between his character, Jack Slater, and the boy, Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), lacked warmth. Only after William Goldman, Hollywood's leading script doctor, agreed to spend four weeks rewriting the screenplay to make it "sweeter"--the adjective everyone glommed onto--did Schwarzenegger consent to make the film.

It is not unusual for multiple writers to work on a screenplay, nor is it always a sign that a picture is in trouble. Several uncredited writers helped shape the hit films "Tootsie" and "Sister Act," for example. It is also not uncommon these days for studios to parcel out large sums of money for screenplay revisions--in this case, Penn and Leff received $500,000; Black and Goldman got $1 million each; and Black's collaborator, David Arnott, was paid $250,000. Other writers recruited to help out on "Action" included Larry Ferguson and--reportedly--Sally Robinson, who is believed to have furnished dialogue for Danny's mother, played by Mercedes Ruehl. Robinson denied involvement.

In hindsight, the screenplay's many permutations were a sign that either Schwarzenegger or studio executives were not exactly sure what the picture was about. It had started out as a contemporary version of "The Wizard of Oz"--a comic story of a fatherless boy who finds himself in a fantasy world and teaches his hero about the folly of violence, getting him ultimately to give up his gun. At Columbia's direction, Black and Arnott turned it into a hard-boiled, cartoon-like spoof of action pictures, putting more of the focus on the action hero and less on the boy. But their bosses determined that this approach might earn the picture an R-rating and prevent it from reaching the broadest possible blockbuster audience.

"The studio wanted a PG-13 rating for the film. I did, too," said Black. "But my temptation is always to see what I can get away with. We pushed it a little bit." A second draft was ordered up, but still failed to please Schwarzenegger.

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Aiming for a $200-million-grossing film meant it "had to be more for kids, the jokes had to be goofier," said a knowledgeable source, adding that some of the violence had to be toned down (although plenty of killings remain) and the language cleaned up.

Goldman injected more emotion into the film by, for example, making a benign figure out of the formerly evil projectionist who supplies Danny with the magic ticket to join Slater in his movie. Still, the principals were not happy.

"When (Goldman) turned in his draft, which was much more serious and real, they realized it wasn't going to be that much fun for the audience. Then they decided to go back to Shane and David," said another close observer. "No one at that moment believed that the movie had come together the way it was supposed to, but they didn't know how to fix it. No one was willing to say, 'Start over.' " Goldman was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

Not surprisingly, much of the blame for "Action" is falling on McTiernan, who also served as producer and contributed much of the writing. (Steve Roth, for whom Columbia acquired the project, receded into the background after McTiernan and Schwarzenegger came on board.) Many in Hollywood believe that while McTiernan is one of the industry's greatest action-scene directors, humor and character delineation are not his strong suit, as demonstrated by his last picture, the poorly received "Medicine Man," an adventure drama set in the Brazilian rain-forest.

Though both McTiernan and Schwarzenegger, with top studio executives' concurrence, made most of the creative decisions concerning "Action," the actor was given veto power over every aspect of the film--a right he continually exercised even on matters that are traditionally the studio's prerogative. After Schwarzenegger insisted on changing the movie's poster to make his hair fly, Josephson went to his trailer to talk with him and then called Canton, according to Premiere magazine. "I want to put you on the phone with your new head of marketing," the magazine quoted Josephson telling the studio chairman.

Adding to its troubles, Columbia locked in the June 18 opening date as far back as last July so as to position the film as a summer blockbuster, complete with the usual array of tie-ins to companies such as Burger King and Mattel toys. That decision, like many others, was made collectively by Schwarzenegger, McTiernan, Canton, Ganis, production president Michael Nathanson and distribution president Jeffrey Blake. It put the picture in the shadow of "Jurassic Park," which opened a week earlier.

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In addition to saddling the cast and crew with an onerous schedule, the tight timetable added to the cost, especially during the short (10-week) post-production period, when triple crews worked feverishly around-the-clock and tensions ran so high that a masseuse was summoned to relieve tight muscles. Only eight weeks were set aside for pre-production; by contrast, "Jurassic Park" had the advantage of more than two years of planning.

To screenwriter Black, however, the time pressure was irrelevant. "It always happens that there's a degree of thinking on your feet that goes into the making of a film, but this was not a panicked, oh-the-movie's-a-turkey kind of feeling," he said.

Instead, Black blames the movie's ill fortune on the press, which not only published "rumor after rumor" even before the film had opened but also "came after the film with a vengeance."

"It's a fun, experimental, wild movie, but not exactly the summer machine it was expected to be," Black said. "All of a sudden everyone swarmed on it, as if Arnold shouldn't be allowed to do something different."

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