The road that led to the record-setting, $208.8-million opening weekend for “Jurassic World” was as long as a brontosaurus’ tail, and there were many points along it when the franchise could have gone in a very different direction — or simply gone extinct.
By the time director Colin Trevorrow was brought in to meet Steven Spielberg to talk about reviving the dinosaurs-running-amok franchise in 2013, the series had lain dormant for more than a decade. Many screenwriters had taken a shot at writing a fourth installment, but no one had quite gotten it over the hump.
A filmmaker with just one little-seen low-budget indie to his name, Trevorrow seemed a highly unlikely candidate to revive the venerable tentpole franchise. But Spielberg saw something in Trevorrow’s quirky 2012 sci-fi comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” that made him think he could be the guy to bring the fossilized series back to life.
Some of the scripts for the fourth “Jurassic Park” movie had showed promise along the way, but none had given Spielberg or Universal Pictures the full confidence to go ahead. One particularly gonzo take by John Sayles — a much-respected screenwriter who had gotten his start early in his career writing exploitation movies like “Piranha” and “Alligator" — reportedly featured bizarre, vicious dinosaur-human hybrids.
“I liked that one the best,” Trevorrow said. “It was very well-written while being completely bananas.”
When Trevorrow read the most recent draft, though, he couldn’t wrap his head around the story, which centered on a Chinese paleontologist who unearths the bones of a previously undiscovered dinosaur, only to have the DNA stolen by a corporation with sinister motives. He realized he’d need to start essentially from scratch.
“I told Steven, ‘I can’t direct this screenplay,’ ” he told The Times in an interview in early June. “We have to write a new story with new characters that’s about something else. I can’t use a single word.’ He said, ‘OK, let’s see what you’ve got.’ I think he was a little skeptical because really good writers had been trying to crack this for a long time.”
Trevorrow didn’t have a great idea in his back pocket. The fact is, “Jurassic Park” wasn’t a movie to which he had a deep childhood connection.
“ ‘Star Wars’ and Indiana Jones and ‘Back to the Future’ were my movies,” he said. “ ‘Jurassic Park’ was something that I recognized was special when I was a little older.”
Still, eager to prove he could make the leap from a $750,000 indie to a $150 million summer franchise with all the bells and whistles, he immediately set about trying to crack the code. He quickly wrote the outline for what would become “Jurassic World” in one day, then holed up for three weeks in a Santa Monica hotel room with his longtime friend and writing partner Derek Connolly, who’d written “Safety Not Guaranteed,” to come up with a script.
Spielberg had said from the start that the film needed three basic elements: a park that was open, a raptor trainer and a new dinosaur. But Trevorrow and Connolly knew they needed to put much more flesh on those bones for the thing to come to life.
“A ‘Jurassic’ movie needs to be an adventure that has terror and comedy and warmth and emotion and characters that you care about and science fiction and a debate about ethics and our place in the world and humanity,” Trevorrow said. “It’s a lot. I get exhausted just thinking about it. And to that I decided to add romance.”
Trevorrow and Connolly were particularly keen on two core ideas of their own. One, instead of being grown from the DNA of a recently unearthed fossil, the new marquee beast in their script, Indominus rex, would be the product of genetic engineering. And two, they would drolly poke fun at the whole enterprise of making a bigger, more spectacular “Jurassic” sequel.
“We wrote a movie about what was going on around us,” he said. “That monster, Indominus rex, is profit. It is that desire, that thirst for profit on a corporate level. We wanted to make a movie about 'Jurassic Park 4.’ ”
Given that their only previous film had been a small Sundance indie, many might imagine that Trevorrow and Connolly could find themselves out of their depth in the big-budget studio realm. But Connolly points out that the two, who are both in their late 30s, had actually been working in Hollywood for years. Indeed, Trevorrow had sold an original script called “Tester” to DreamWorks in 2006, and the two had co-written a buddy cop film called “Cocked and Loaded.”
“We had been sort of low-class working screenwriters in Hollywood before ‘Safety,’ banging our heads against the wall trying to get assignments and rewrite jobs for studios and doing studio work on movies that never get made,” Connolly said.
He laughed. “People have this attitude that we just kind of walked out of the woods with a tiny independent movie and got thrown into Hollywood. But any overnight success story is 20 years of failure and hard work and rejection before anything like this can happen.”