Plenty of Riptides on ‘Waterworld’ Set : With key crew people quitting and reported turmoil, logistical and organizational problems, the big-budget film, scheduled for release in summer of ‘95, could end up costing more than any movie ever made.


Two of the entertainment industry’s most powerful players, MCA president Sidney Sheinberg and superagent Michael Ovitz, led a high-level contingent to Hawaii last week to inspect personally what is looming as the most costly movie in Hollywood history.

“Waterworld,” a futuristic “ ‘Road Warrior’ on the water” adventure picture starring Kevin Costner and slated to be Universal’s biggest summer movie of ‘95, now has a projected budget of around $135 million and is already two weeks behind schedule. The movie--which also stars Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino--is set in a post-apocalyptic future when polar icecaps have melted and the earth is submerged in water. Costner plays the hero, Mariner, a creature with gills and fins who attempts to lead the surviving good humans to freedom.

Directed by Costner’s close friend, Kevin Reynolds, and being filmed on an elaborate floating set off the Kona Coast, the production has been beset by turmoil and plagued by logistical and organizational problems, according to interviews with several sources connected to the production. And some key crew members, including the assistant director and special effects designer, have quit.


Sources characterized the shoot as “extremely difficult,” “chaotic” and “out of control.” One described the production as “a runaway train under water.” Another said, “No one is running the show, and the environment is hostile to the detriment of the film.”

When delays and cost overruns escalated last week, Sheinberg and Ovitz decided to board the MCA corporate jet, along with MCA motion picture chairman Tom Pollock, Universal president Casey Silver and physical production head Donna Smith and fly to the movie’s set on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Sheinberg said that while he was mindful that his presence on a set “can have a chilling effect on people,” he came at the personal invitation of Costner and his Universal colleagues. He said it was not unusual for him to visit the sets of the studio’s bigger productions, as he did last year with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

The MCA chief was invited to the “Waterworld” set by Costner’s agent, Creative Artists Agency head Ovitz, who reportedly urged Sheinberg to make the trip since the executive had had extensive experience with difficult productions, including the 1975 thriller “Jaws.”

Ovitz was there apparently to protect the interests of one of his most important clients, as well as to run interference with MCA and the filmmakers, who include producers Charles Gordon and his brother Lawrence Gordon, who is not personally receiving screen credit but is actively involved in the production.

Sheinberg, who for the first time publicly confirmed that “Waterworld” was greenlit at $100 million, told The Times that he was in part prompted to fly to the set because “this is a very big, expensive movie, and I did want to go and see what was going on.”

The MCA president said his main purpose in visiting the set “was to be sure everyone was pulling together in the same direction to get the picture made and that delays would be no greater than they had to be . . . it could be the most difficult picture ever made.”

After meeting with Costner, Reynolds and the producers, Sheinberg said he was “satisfied” and “very comfortable” with how things were running. “Knock on wood, I’m quite pleased with everything I’ve seen so far.”

Sheinberg admitted that “my biggest fear is that the unforeseen will happen with the weather and the water.” But he refuted allegations that “Waterworld” is a production out of control: “It’s simply not true--none of it.”

Sources working on the movie, however, paint a grim picture.

“Nobody realized the magnitude of the problems with making a movie like this and how the logistics are so impossible,” said one source. “It’s slow going and setting up the shots (on the water) take forever.”

Since the production began June 27, Universal executives have made several trips to the movie’s set to try to address mounting problems. Several members of the nearly 500-person crew have either been fired or walked off the picture, including assistant director Alan Curtiss, who reportedly left over creative differences. Curtiss refused to comment, although an experienced Hollywood filmmaker suggested that when a first assistant director “up and quits, that’s not a good sign. That means they don’t like what they’re seeing and have concluded that all of their efforts are for naught.”

Sources on the set say most of the problems in delays and cost overruns stem from shooting on water and from the logistical problems of coordinating some 30 boats and a crew that constantly has to be shuttled from the Kawaihae Harbor on the west side of the island to the set a quarter-mile offshore.

“Unlike filming on land, anything you do on water is just more difficult. The wind is constantly changing,” one source said. “If you are lining up a shot, things are always moving, they are never going to stay in the same place.”

For example, several sources said it took four weeks to film one battle scene in which 125 actors on the floating city were attacked by 50 villains.

Hurricane weather in Hawaii, which plagued Universal’s production of “Jurassic Park” in 1992, continues to be of concern to the “Waterworld” team, but so far the production has escaped serious damage. Several hurricanes passed by the islands, creating high swells, but they did not cause any substantial delays, says a source, although hurricane season is not yet over.

With the production not even halfway through its shoot, sources say that morale on the set has sunk and tempers have flared. Some crew members have been targeted as scapegoats. Sources say physical effects designer Peter Chesney and effects liaison Kate Steinberg, who have been with the project for more than a year, were being pushed off the picture, so they quit in early August. They declined to be interviewed.

The Gordons, producer John Davis and executive producers Andy Licht and Jeffrey Mueller also refused to comment on all matters regarding “Waterworld.”

Originally scheduled to shoot 96 days, including several weeks of additional effects work and filming in Los Angeles, the movie was to have wrapped by year’s end, but now is not expected to be completed until early 1995. The Hawaii portion of the shoot is expected to be finished by late November or early December. If the movie is not completed until January or early February, as some suggest, it could put a big strain on Reynolds to deliver a finished print by Universal’s hoped-for July release date.

“With an investment and picture of this size, you can’t slam the movie together in the editing room,” says one veteran filmmaker. “You have to have time to test the movie (with preview audiences) and go back and fix what’s wrong.”

Since Universal’s financial risk is so huge, the studio will want to ensure the movie as much substantial summer playing time as possible. This summer, which tallied a record box-office gross of $2.2 billion, delivered more than a half-dozen films with ticket sales each exceeding $100 million. Two of those blockbusters, “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump,” grossed more than $200 million.

“Each week you hold a picture beyond Memorial Day, it costs you summer playing time,” says one industry insider, noting, “On a movie as costly as ‘Waterworld’ you want to give it as much time to make back its money and get into profit as you can.” (Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule as was the case with “The Fugitive,” which was released Aug. 6, 1993, and grossed more than $180 million.)

Universal has not yet officially slated “Waterworld,” but is undoubtedly hoping to release it over the heavy moviegoing Fourth of July weekend.

But, Costner and Reynolds, who collaborated on 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and on the recent, disappointing “Rapa Nui,” are well-known perfectionists who take their time in the postproduction process.

Given the lackluster box-office performance of this summer’s three-hour Western, “Wyatt Earp,” Costner--one of Hollywood’s most highly paid stars, undoubtedly has been banking on “Waterworld” to wow audiences next summer.

Given the reported length of the script of “Waterworld,” some wonder whether Costner will deliver yet another long movie. He has personally done rewrites on the script, especially the third act, as has Reynolds. Joss Whedon, who did an uncredited rewrite on this summer’s big action hit “Speed,” also spent weeks on the set polishing the script. Originally scripted by Peter Rader, the movie has gone through a number of drafts. David Twohy (“The Fugitive”) will share screenwriting credit with Rader.

One experienced filmmaker noted: “All movies get rewritten during production to one degree or another. But on movies this big and complex, the essential story line and characters need to be locked before the cameras roll--otherwise the ramifications are huge.” One of the questions MCA will inevitably raise to the moviemakers, suggested the source, is “how this movie ever got going without a script being locked.”

Even with all of its rewrites, production problems and cost overruns, “Waterworld” has the potential of being a blockbuster, much in the same way that “Jaws,” which also had problems during its filming, became one of the biggest box-office draws of all time. The 1975 movie, which cost around $9 million, nearly 100% over budget, went on to gross $260 million domestically. “Waterworld” now joins Hollywood’s list of the most costly movies of all time, including this summer’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, “True Lies,” which reportedly had a $118-million price tag.

Sheinberg said he hopes “Waterworld,” which he called a “big, unique action picture,” will “even be bigger than ‘Jaws.’ ”

Based on seeing some dailies of the movie, Sheinberg said, “I really believe this picture has enormous potential. . . . Do I wish it had cost a lot less? Of course. But I’d rather have this movie than two ‘Havanas,’ ” referring to Universal’s 1990 box-office bomb directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford.

Sheinberg, who was on his way to temple to observe Yom Kippur, said: “I’m going to pray for (“Waterworld’s”) successful and timely completion.”