'Eraser' on a Hurried Run to the Finish Line


Last September, key cast and crew members on the big-budget action film "Eraser," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, were flown from Los Angeles to New York City to film some critical scenes in a building refashioned as CIA headquarters.

Then, just after arriving and before any film was shot, they were ordered to return to Los Angeles to continue production on the Warner Bros. lot, according to production sources.

On another occasion, the crew was flown from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., intending to stay three or four days. But just 24 hours later, without shooting anything, they were sent to New York, sources said.

Stories of similar last-minute changes on the set abound. Amid such changes, the planned four-month production stretched to seven months and the $70-million budget soared to close to $100 million, according to several production sources.

Others associated with the film say that the movie, which stars Schwarzenegger as a U.S. marshal in the witness protection program, was rushed into production by Warner Bros. well before the script was completed--a consequence of trying to have what the studio hopes will be a summer blockbuster ready for its June 21 release.

"I think it was one of the least organized pictures I've ever worked on," said one crew member, a respected industry veteran. "The homework wasn't done. There were so many problems emanating from the screenplay. Some of the people involved in running this production were among the most ineffectual people I've ever seen. You couldn't get answers from them. It was hard on everybody."

The picture--directed by Chuck Russell ("The Mask") and produced by Arnold Kopelson ("Platoon," "The Fugitive," "Seven")--would appear to be a textbook summer hit, complete with people falling out of airplanes and narrowly escaping exploding houses and the sharp teeth of real and animatronic crocodiles. But the pressure to meet its release date may have taken its toll.

"If the studio had given a little bit more time to the picture to get its script together prior to launching, none of these problems would have arisen," said another veteran production source, who requested anonymity. "There was not enough preparation time . . . so it kind of went haywire."

Kopelson, however, said the film was not rushed. "I don't think my movie would be one bit better if I had another month," he said. "It's always nice to have extra time to make a movie, but that's not the real world. You're dealing with large corporations that have lots of things to consider, return cash flow, shareholders."

According to reports from several production personnel, who all asked for anonymity out of concern for their careers, the script was being written and revised while the film was being shot and sequences were scrapped the same day they were scheduled for filming. Until just this past weekend, when the movie played favorably before a test audience, there had been serious talk of rewriting the film's ending.

Veteran screenwriters Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") and William Wisher ("Terminator") were brought in midstream to revise the screenplay, which was filled with complicated stunts and had been written expressly for Schwarzenegger.

"The whole middle of the movie changed about two or three times, so it affected everything we were doing," said a crew member. Noting that each generation of script revision is printed using a different color paper, the crew member added, "I think we went through the full spectrum twice."

Kopelson argued that the film was "an extremely well-organized production." He said the delays were normal and routine and due to the large scale of the production.

He also denied that the film was far over budget and awash in production problems. He said the original $70-million budget only swelled "in the 80s."

"This movie is slightly over budget, slightly over schedule, but well within the contingency set up by Warner Bros. for the making of a large-scale action movie,"Kopelson said. "All the press would like to say we have a runaway production. . . . We would not permit a runaway. Everyone likes to pick and find fault and look for the next 'Waterworld.' "

Kopelson called the frequent script revisions "changes of concept," rather than rewrites.

"This is normal: The writing procedure continues just like everything," the producer said. "It did on 'Outbreak' and on 'Seven.' I have a writer present on every one of my movies."

At first, Kopelson denied aborting the New York shoot. "That is just not so," he said. "We went to New York for shooting and we shot."

But the producer's memory didn't match that of several involved with the production.

"That scene had taken months of preparation," said a crew member who requested anonymity. "We went all the way out there, we adapted buildings. A building had been redone to look like the CIA and a lot of pieces built for that set had been shipped out there. Then the production manager just said, 'We're not going to shoot here' and sent everyone back to the hotel and then to California. Rumor had it that they were afraid [another summer blockbuster] 'Mission: Impossible' had something about the CIA in it and they didn't want to duplicate it."

When told that crew members had insisted that they were flown to New York, then told to return to Los Angeles, Kopelson said, "I could be totally whacked in not remembering, but that's not my recollection. There may have been a consideration for possibly shooting in New York that did not come to fruition."

The film was scheduled to have wrapped at the end of January, but principal photography ended at the end of March and a key scene in a restaurant was re-shot two weeks ago.

Some on the production pointed to the director, others to producers for the production problems and lack of leadership on the film. There was at least one on-set report that Kopelson threatened to fire Russell.

"I think the director bears a lot of the blame," said a person close to the production. "I think it takes powerful people up on top to accept responsibility for things not going well." (Calls to Russell were referred to Warner Bros. publicity officials, who said he was unavailable.)

"Organizational problems are the problems of producers," said another on-set regular. "I can't stress enough how difficult the producers made it for Russell. . . . It was like Kopelson was looking for a scapegoat because things weren't going right."

Kopelson vehemently denied that he did not back up Russell or that he threatened to fire him.

"If I thought Chuck had been screwing up, I would have fired him," Kopelson said, acknowledging that it was Schwarzenegger's idea to have Russell direct. "But I think Chuck did an outstanding job. I had no problem with him."

Schwarzenegger's publicist said the actor was shooting another film in Minnesota and could not be reached for comment. Schwarzenegger's agent did not return calls.

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