Saturday, 15 November 2014

80 From the 80s - Romancing the Stone

Romancing the Stone

 She's a girl from the big city. He's a reckless soldier of fortune. For a fabulous treasure, they share an adventure no one could imagine... or survive.

Studio: 20th Century Fox Release Date: 30th March 1984
Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner
Budget: $10M 2015 Equivalent: $23M
U.S Box Office: $76.5M  2015 Equivalent: $175.9M

Joan Wilder is a timid, lonely romance novelist, but a panicked phone call thrusts her into a deadly South American adventure. Teaming up with smuggler Jack Carlton, she has to contend with all manner of dangers while trying to recover a fabled jewel and save her sister. She'll have the story of a lifetime, if she lives long enough to tell the tale.

A director being fired from a movie is a rare occurrence. One being fired from a future project because their current one is so bad, that's something of a one-off. Yet that's exactly what happened to Robert Zemeckis while working on action-adventure Romancing the Stone. The film was a gamble for all involved, but for Zemeckis, it was make or break; failure would signify the end of his short Hollywood career. In the latter half of 1983, the situation wasn't looking good.
Romancing the Stone was written by Diane Thomas, a would-be screenwriter who was working as a waitress to make ends. In true Hollywood fashion, the tale goes that Michael Douglas came into her place of work to eat and Thomas pitched the idea to him. Impressed, Douglas is said to have about purchased the script for $250,000. In reality, Thomas completed the script and sent it to her agent, who sold it to the actor some time later. Despite the comparisons Romancing the Stone would face with Raiders of the Lost Ark, the script actually pre-dates Spielberg's classic by two years.

At that point, Michael Douglas had a production deal with Columbia Pictures and planned to produce the film with them, as well as taking on the lead role. The studio was against the idea and wanted a much bigger name, such as Sylvester Stallone or Christopher Reeve. It's worth noting that back in the early 1980s, Michael Douglas wasn't seen as movie star material. The son of famed actor Kirk, Michael had got his first break in a CBS TV playhouse production in 1969. In that same year he appeared in the movie Hail, Hero! for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Male Newcomer. Other film roles followed, but his next big break came via TV, when he took on the part of Steve Keller in police drama The Streets of San Francisco. He would stay with the show for four years, departing in 1976.

It was during this time that Kirk handed Michael the rights to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Douglas Snr. had secured them back in the earlier 1960s and had appeared opposite Gene Wilder in a stage adaptation that ran for six months, to mostly negative reviews. Michael teamed up with producer Saul Zaentz with a view to bringing the book to the big screen. Kirk Douglas hoped to reprise the role of Randle McMurphy but was deemed too old for the role by his son. Instead, Jack Nicholson took on the lead, and the $4.4M picture became a sensation, making almost $300M during its lifetime. It was the seventh most successful movie ever made at the time and ended up being  nominated for nine academy awards, winning the 'big five' - Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.

While the financial success and award wins were impressive, Michael struggled as an actor once he departed The Streets of San Francisco. He appeared in Michael Crichton's Coma in 1978, and played a supporting role a year later in The China Syndrome, a movie which he also produced. Still, Columbia weren't interested in making Romancing the Stone with Douglas as the lead - though they appeared to have no issue with him acting as producer. When he moved his production deal to 20th Century Fox, the script came with him. Much to his annoyance one assumes, Fox didn't want Douglas as the lead either, and offered the role to both Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, neither of whom was interested. Eventually the studio relented, and Romancing the Stone found its Jack Colton.

Diane Thomas' screenplay still needed some work, and at least three unnamed script doctors helped knock it into shape. In the meantime, she had completed a new script entitled Blonde Hurricane, and rumour has it, was working on a draft of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Meanwhile Fox set aside a budget of $10M for Romancing the Stone, and like everyone in Hollywood at the time, hoped they'd found their own 'Raiders'. However, even at that early stage, the knives were out and many studio executives had the movie pegged as flop material. Douglas pushed on and set about hiring a director and female lead, both of which would end up being very interesting choices.

Douglas was initially interested in Debra Winger for the role of Joan Wilder. Views differ on why Winger wasn't cast, with the studio line being that she wasn't glamourous or athletic enough. The actress was already gaining a reputation for being somewhat difficult to work with - she'd refused to promote An Officer and a Gentleman (a role which arguably put her on the map) and had been dismissive of directors and actors with whom she had worked. A further, more bizarre reason emerged in 2008, when Kathleen Turner stated in her memoirs that Winger had lost the role when she bit Michael Douglas during a dinner the actor had organised to discuss the part. For what ever reason it ended up being, Debra Winger was off the list. The studio favoured newcomer Kathleen Turner, who had burnt up the screen with her first major role, that of Matty Tyler Walker in the 1981 noir thriller, Body Heat. She also gained notice for her work opposite Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains. Turner and Douglas would prove to have a ready chemistry, which legend has it, spilt over into real life during the film's production.

For what was essentially the films only other major role, that of the kidnapper Ralph, Douglas chose to cast Danny DeVito, someone who he had known for many years, and had lived with when the pair were struggling actors in the 1960s. DeVito had played Martini in the stage adaptation of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a role he reprised in the film adaptation. While the actor had appeared on screen before, it was his part in Cuckoo's Nest that brought him attention. The recurring role of Louie De Palma in the sitcom Taxi made him a household name in the early 1980s. The remainder of the cast included Manael Ojeda as the villainous Zolo and Zack Norman as Ralph's partner, Ira. Directing the picture, which would shoot on location in Mexico after real-life kidnappings became prevalent in Columbia, was Robert Zemeckis.

Robert Zemeckis got his start in film like many other directors - making 8mm movies with his parent's camera.  He wasn't even aware that film schools existed until he heard one mentioned on an episode of The Tonight Show. His desire to make movies grew further after seeing Bonnie & Clyde, and he set about applying to the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. Submitting an entrance essay and a music video based on a Beatles record, Zemeckis was disheartened to discover his average grades had gotten him rejected. Determined not to give up, he made a promise to attend summer school and work on improving if USC would accept him, which they eventually did.

It was while attending film school that he met writer Bob Gale. Like the wannabe director, Gale was more interested in working on mainstream movies as opposed to the arthouse fare that many of their contemporaries favoured. Remaining true to his word, Zemeckis worked and studied hard, and graduated USC in 1973, winning a Student Academy Award for A Field of Honor. At around the same time, Zemeckis met Steven Spielberg when the latter screened Sugarland Express for USC students. Approaching the director afterwards, Zemeckis urged him to watch A Field of Honor, and set up a screening at Universal for him to do so. Spielberg was impressed with what he saw, and the two stayed in touch. Later, John Milius would approach Zemeckis and Gale, with a view to them writing 1941. When the script was complete, Spielberg committed to direct and the duo visited the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, spending the evenings re-writing 1941's screenplay. In the meantime, Spielberg offered to executively produce Zemeckis' first major picture, a story he had co-written with Bob Gale entitled I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Universal put up a budget of $2.8M, on the proviso that if Zemeckis looked to be making a mess of things, Spielberg himself would step in to take over. I Wanna Hold Your Hand was a fictionalised account of the day The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and while critics and preview audiences were impressed, the general public gave it a wide berth. As a result, the film failed to recoup its budget. Spielberg moved forward on 1941 and as is well documented, it became his first major failure, though it wasn't the flop that history would lead one to believe. Coming off back to back hits with Jaws and Close Encounters, the studio had simply expected a much bigger return on 1941. Zemeckis and Gale worked on their next script, Used Cars, a comedy that would end up starring Kurt Russell. Spielberg and John Milius executively produced the picture but like 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand', it reviewed well yet failed at the box office.

Zemeckis was now two for two and was gaining a reputation as a great writer whose work didn't translate to the screen. The writing duo began work on a new screenplay, a time travel tale about a high school student who finds himself transported back to 1955. Every major studio rejected it, including Columbia Pictures, who felt the story wasn't sexual enough - something that the current spate of teen comedies had in abundance. Zemeckis was offered other similar work, but none of it interested him, and by 1983, he began adapting David Saperstein's book Cocoon, with a view to directing it himself.

 When Michael Douglas named Robert Zemeckis as the man he wanted to direct Romancing the Stone, 20th Century Fox balked, arguing that the director had already made two flops and they didn't intend to fund a third (this despite the fact they were entertaining the idea of him directing Cocoon for them). But Douglas stuck to his guns; he'd seen a style in 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' that he wanted on Romancing the Stone. Douglas also played up the fact that Zemeckis hadn't been responsible for the script, like he had been on his previous two failures. And so it was, that Robert Zemeckis signed up for Romancing the Stone purely as a director for hire.

Shooting got underway in Mexico, and while all appeared to go smoothly, Turner would later confess to clashing terribly with Zemeckis, who she saw as a typical film school graduate - more concerned with cameras and angles as opposed to what the actors had to do to make the shots work. For his part, the director felt the script contained a number of good elements, but that the story didn't bear them out, and it would be up to him to pull it together to make the climax work. He was also instrumental in casting Alfonsa Arau as Juan, having worked with the actor on Used Cars.  In the background, Zemeckis continued work on Cocoon. With Fox still jittery, a rough cut was hastily assembled once shooting was completed and a screening arranged.

It was a disaster. The studio, which had never been sure of the picture or its director in the first place, hated it, and prepared for the worst come its release. So bad did the screening go that Fox fired Zemeckis from Cocoon, despite him having spent a year developing it. With the power of hindsight, it was the best thing that ever happened to his career, but at that point, he must have assumed his time in Hollywood was truly over.  The concerned director worked towards finishing up the picture in time for its March 1984 release. In an interesting aside, the film's temporary soundtrack, composed by Alan Silvestri, so impressed Zemeckis that he opted to keep it in the film. Silvestri went on to score every picture the director has made since.

20th Century Fox decided to open the film at the end of March, keeping it clear of much of the summer's competition, which would include Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom, Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock and Ghostbusters. The first sign that things weren't as bad as suspected came with the reviews, which were surprisingly positive, citing Douglas and Turner's on screen chemistry as one of the film's many strong points. While some were quick to dismiss it as yet another Raiders knock-off, the good reviews easily outweighed the bad. The picture currently holds an 87% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. March 30th would see Romancing the Stone open opposite Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, while having to contend with Police Academy, which had already made over $8M during its first three days. Splash and Footloose, while looking a little long in the tooth, would also still offer very real competition.

Opening at just over 800 locations, Romancing the Stone got off to a solid enough start, making $5.1M over its first three days. While it had to settle for fourth place, that first weekend was encouraging and allowed both the studio and Zemeckis a small sigh of relief. A week later the film actually moved up the chart and increased its weekend to weekend takings by 9% - recouping its budget in the process. Before the start of its third frame on release, it had already made more than Zemeckis' previous two films combined. Fox were no longer concerned with failure; rather they wondered how high the picture could go. By now it was out to over 1,000 locations, and word of mouth was white hot. By the end of its fifth weekend it had made more than $34M.

Romancing the Stone would remain in the top ten for an astonishing eleven weeks, never seeing a bigger fall in weekend to weekend takings than 30% (and that was due more to it giving up screens to newer releases). It would face down the aforementioned summer blockbusters, and many more besides. All up the film remained in theatres for 16 weeks, closing with an incredible $76.5M. It went on to become the eighth most successful film of 1984, and also made a number of 'best of' lists. It enjoyed great success on the burgeoning home video market too. In something of surprise, Turner won a Golden Globe for her work on the film (she would go on to win another for Prizzi's Honor).

Fox immediately set about commissioning a sequel, The Jewel in the Nile, tentatively planning its release for the winter of 1985. Despite Romancing the Stone's huge success, not everyone was interested in making a follow up. With the attention and acclaim the film had bought him, Robert Zemeckis was able to move forward on his time travel script, which would become known as Back to the Future. All three lead actors were contractually obligated to return for the sequel, though Douglas and Turner felt they should quit while they were ahead. Turner attempted to back out of the film during pre-production, but Fox threatened to sue her for $25M if she proceeded. In the directors chair for the sequel was Lewis Teague, best known at that point for directing the Stephen King adaptation, Cujo.

The Jewel of the Nile would go on to be almost as successful as its predecessor (it made $75M at the domestic box office) though it didn't score as favourably with critics. In a sad note, Romancing the Stone writer Diane Thomas was killed in a car crash just months before Jewel's release. While she didn't contribute to the script (apart from the creation of the original characters) the film is dedicated to her memory.

A second sequel was said to be in development, but work on The Crimson Eagle didn't progress far. It was rumoured to take place a number of years after Jewel, and would see Joan and Jack in Thailand with their teenage children, forced to recover a priceless statue. In the mid-2000s, Michael Douglas began developing a new sequel, said to be titled Racing the Moon, but little has been heard of the project since 2007.

After Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile, the three leads would reunite in 1989 for the unrelated movie, The War of the Roses. Danny DeVito would both direct and co-star, while Turner and Douglas played a warring, divorce-bound couple. The picture was a huge success, taking over $160M at the global box office. Prior to Roses, Douglas would give a legendary (and Oscar winning) turn as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. He also saw major success with Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. He has continued to produce movies and act across many genres to this day - including his latest turn in Marvel's Ant-Man.

Aside from Prizzi's Honor, Kathleen Turner starred opposite Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986 for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She later re-teamed with Zemeckis to provide the sultry voice of Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 smash hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Some poor career choices (turning down Ghost and The Bridges of Madison County) and notable failures (V.I Warshawski) stalled her career in the early 1990s. The onset of rheumatoid arthritis confined her to a wheelchair for some time and made working difficult. However thanks to medical advances in the latter part of the decade, she went into remission and began to slowly rebuild both her health and career. In recent years she has favoured the stage over the screen, and also gave a memorable turn as Chandler's father in the TV sitcom, Friends.

Danny DeVito appeared in a series of very successful comedies during the remainder of the 1980s, including Ruthless People and Twins. He'd made his directorial debut on the 1984 TV movie The Ratings Game, and returned to the chair for Throw Momma from the Train (1987), The War of the Roses (1989) and Hoffa (1992). He would continue to take on acting and directing work throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, winning acclaim for his work on Matilda (as director and actor) and L.A Confidential. He can currently be seen in the hugely successful sitcom, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

As for Robert Zemeckis, getting fired from Cocoon did indeed turn out to be the best thing that could have possibly happened. He would go on to see massive success with the Back to the Future trilogy, along with the stunning technical achievement that was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He would win an Academy Award for his work on Forrest Gump in 1994, and continued to have major mainstream success for the rest of the decade and well into the next. After three ground-breaking motion capture films (Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol) Zemeckis returned to live action with 2012's Flight. At the time of writing, he is in post-production on The Walk. With an impressive body of work, Robert Zemeckis is the fourth biggest director in cinematic history, whose films have grossed over $4 billion dollars.

Romancing the Stone is still a great action comedy, mainly due to the strength and chemistry of its leads. Because the film didn't concentrate on special effects, it has aged remarkably well, and while considered by some to a poorer, somewhat forgotten cousin to Indiana Jones, it still stands up as an enjoyable thrill ride.

No comments: