A look inside Hollywood and the movies : A Converted Deconstructionist : How first-time feature film director Marco Brambilla pulled off ‘Demolition Man’ and lived to laugh about it


“Demolition Man” takes place in the year 2032, when Los Angeles--sorry, San Angeles--is a land of pristine streets and shops and beatific citizens with lobotomized smiles, a place where discouraging words are seldom heard, because they’re illegal.

Marco Brambilla, making his directorial debut after five years of directing television commercials, considered the film’s cityscape a fanciful conceit--until he saw Universal Studios’ CityWalk.

“When I saw it, I thought, ‘My God, we could’ve saved a lot of money on sets,’ ” Brambilla said with a laugh. “But another studio owns it.”


Money became an issue on the set of “Demolition Man,” as the film went over budget--from $45 million to approximately $60 million--and past schedule. But behind-the-scenes rumors were quashed and mixed reviews mostly forgiven when the Sylvester Stallone-Wesley Snipes action vehicle showed some unexpected muscle at the box office--it has topped the charts two straight weekends and grossed $30 million in 10 days.

Brambilla, 32, had some idea of what he was getting himself into--a friend is David Fincher, a music-video director whose first film, “Alien 3,” became an out-of-control nightmare. To make it more of a challenge, Brambilla was working with producer Joel Silver, whose reputation tends toward the colorful--he helped make another director’s maiden voyage into blockbusterdom, Michael Lehmann’s “Hudson Hawk,” as unpleasant for the filmmaker as it was for the audience.

The Milan-born Brambilla admits there were times during the production when he wished he had taken on a smaller project for his first film. “That crossed my mind many times,” he said. “But I enjoy science-fiction and comic books. As a commercial director, you have to communicate ideas aggressively, quickly, and that’s important in science-fiction movies. So I was interested in this, rather than two people sitting in a room talking.”

Brambilla championed creating a lighthearted atmosphere for the film; screenwriter Daniel Waters (“Heathers,” “Batman Returns”) was brought in to punch up Peter Lenkov and Robert Reneau’s script and to create San Angeles’ painfully politically correct society.

“I wanted a real comic-book tone to it,” said Brambilla. “A lot of these action movies have a hard-core, cold edge to it. My argument was, this is our thesis for what the future is gonna be like, so it couldn’t take itself too seriously.”

Brambilla doesn’t shirk accountability for the film’s production problems, though he does point out that actress Sandra Bullock replaced Lori Petty three days into shooting and production was stalled a week when Stallone suffered an arm injury.


“I directed the movie, so ultimately I’m responsible for how much the movie cost,” Brambilla said. “I didn’t get involved in the budget up front, but I think we were overly optimistic. ‘Total Recall,’ ‘Hudson Hawk,’ ‘Alien 3,’ ‘Die Hard 2’--they all went over budget. I wish we had been less optimistic with the budget so that we wouldn’t have had a situation where these hidden costs were coming out and we had to scramble.”

Likewise, he believes, the film’s original 75-day shooting schedule wasn’t so much optimistic as insane. “We ended up working something like 112 days--there should have been more time in the original schedule,” he said. “ ‘Indecent Proposal’ had a 100-day shooting schedule, and it had very little in the way of stunts, little action and no futuristic setting. ‘Total Recall’ took 119 days. Given what we did, I wish we could have done it more quickly, but the schedule wasn’t disproportionate to what was accomplished.”

Bruce Berman, president of worldwide productions at Warner Bros., is philosophical about the cost and schedule overruns. “Sometimes pictures run over schedule. Sometimes they come in on schedule. Every once in a rare while they come in under schedule.”

Asked whether Warner Bros. was taking a risk entrusting such a big-budget movie to a first-timer, Berman responded, “Marco’s choice is what it was, and remains a very good choice. He did a terrific job.”

In fact, despite the headaches of the past, Brambilla has little to complain about. The film’s success has found the director besieged with offers, and he already is developing future projects with Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola.

“The amazing thing that has happened to me is, two years ago, so many people didn’t know who I was,” Brambilla said. “No matter how big a commercial director you are, that means nothing in Hollywood. Now I’ve got opportunities I wouldn’t have dreamed of two years ago.”

But maybe he’s learned his lesson about the high-pressure world of blockbusters? “I’m developing a much smaller film, with a budget below $25 million,” he said. “I will not need this many toys to play with.”