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The Life And Death Of Last Action Hero
The cast and crew discuss the filming of the 1993 blockbuster

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Die Hard’s director. Lethal Weapon’s writer. And The Terminator himself. Last Action Hero should have been bulletproof. Instead, it brought a studio to its knees, sent its cast and crew insane and proved, really quite conclusively, that some movies are not... too big to fail.

This article first appeared in issue 269 of Empire magazine. Subscribe to Empire today.

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The summer of 1993 was a bad time for Rainier Wolfcastle. One of The Simpsons’ most beloved minor characters, the Austrian action star is famed for co-owning Planet Springfield (along with “Chuck Norris, Johnny Carson’s third wife and the Russian Mafia”), and headlining the McBain franchise, which includes such entries as McBain IV: Fatal Discharge and McBain VI: You Have The Right To Remain Dead. But Wolfcastle’s lowest ebb is documented in classic episode The Boy Who Knew Too Much, as Bart Simpson spots him at a party.

“Hey, McBain, I’m a big fan, but your last movie really sucked,” complains Bart.

“I know,” sighs the musclebound A-lister. “There were script issues from day one.”

“I’ll say,” chips in Chief Wiggum. “Magic ticket my ass, McBain!”

Rainier turns to his wife, shoulders slumped. “Maria, my mighty heart is breaking. I’ll be in the Humvee...”

Wolfcastle is, of course, not real (and neither, sadly, is his movie I Shoot Your Face Again), but for the actual, non-yellow person he’s based on, there would have been nothing funny about this exchange whatsoever. With his own tale of a magic ticket that, yes, had script issues from day one, Arnold Schwarzenegger had just suffered his first devastating flop and a production process so agonising it’s become Hollywood legend. Friends became enemies. Vaults of cash went up in smoke. And Danny DeVito voiced a cartoon cat. The creation of Last Action Hero is the horror story that development executives whisper around campfires to this day. “The weird thing is that The Simpsons inspired it in the first place,” remembers Zak Penn, co-writer of the first draft. “We thought, ‘If this show can destroy genres even as it embraces them, why can’t we do it in live action?’ But somewhere along the way, the movie got lost. And nobody came out smelling like a rose.”

Last Action Hero was the worst time I’ve ever had in this business.
 - John McTiernan
Penn and Adam Leff, two young graduates of Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, loved action movies. So in 1991 they decided to write an ambitious script, titled Extremely Violent, which would work both as a deconstruction of the genre and a kick-ass romp in its own right. “The basic idea was: wouldn’t it be cool if a kid got sucked into a silly action movie and used his knowledge of the genre to subvert all the clichés?” explains Penn. “We dubbed it Reverse Purple Rose after we realised it was the opposite of Woody Allen’s Purple Rose Of Cairo, where a character comes out of the screen into the real world.” For research, the pair visited their local videostore. “We rented every action movie we could think of and made a checklist. Does the second-most evil bad guy die before or after the most evil bad guy? Does the hero have a Vietnam buddy? It was fun, although watching Steven Seagal movies one after another can be soul-crushing.” Extremely Violent, which can be found online, lives up to its name. In the opening sequence, invincible cop Arno Slater takes on a horde of hitmen in LA’s Beverly Center, blowing them away with a laser-sighted hand-cannon while merrily dispensing one-liners such as, “Shopping can be hell.” The twist is, all this is revealed to be a trailer for a movie within the movie. Later, after the teenage hero has been yanked into the actual film, he uses his knowledge of the story’s beats to help Arno through the mayhem.

The script found a champion in Chris Moore, now a producer of such films as The Adjustment Bureau and the American Pie series, but back in 1991 an up-and-coming agent. “I saw it as a modern-day Wizard Of Oz,” Moore recalls. “The kid has a problem with his family. His father has left and he’s not getting on with his mom. And instead of getting whisked away to Oz, he does what most kids today would want to do, which is to escape into a movie.” He wasn’t the only fan. Penn and Leff watched agog as a bidding war unfolded, with Sony-operated studio Columbia Pictures ultimately prevailing by plonking down $350,000. More miraculous still, it attracted the attention of the star who had inspired Arno Slater in the first place: Arnold Schwarzenegger. “We never thought we’d actually get Arnold,” says Penn. “We were just two guys sitting in my apartment, thinking maybe someone would read it and get the reference. When we heard he wanted to do it, Adam and I looked at each other like, ‘This is insane.’”

It seemed their dream was coming true. But it was about to curdle into a nightmare. Hot off the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Schwarzenegger was in no hurry to make a commitment. As well as Extremely Violent, he was considering a family comedy called Sweet Tooth, in which he would play the tooth fairy. Columbia top brass, desperate to bag the world’s biggest star, met with Schwarzenegger at his Santa Monica restaurant, Schatzi, where he puffed on a Romeo y Julieta Cuban cigar, sipped schnapps and explained that while he loved the concept — “Having a kid come into a movie awakens certain fantasies I had as a kid in Austria, like sitting on a horse with John Wayne” — the script wasn’t “executed professionally”. He also had concerns about Extremely Violent’s extreme violence.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater

To their dismay, Penn and Leff were swiftly dismissed from the project. Then, at Schwarzenegger’s suggestion, Columbia called in Hollywood’s hottest scribe. Shane Black’s first script, Lethal Weapon, had launched a lucrative franchise; his latest, The Last Boy Scout, had netted him an incredible $1.75 million. He also had history with Schwarzenegger, having played a commando alongside him in Predator. “The irony is that we’d gone to the MPAA library and read all of Shane’s scripts,” says Penn. “We were big fans of his — he was the Elmore Leonard of action movies. So it was this surreal moment of, ‘We’re parodying this guy, and now he’s been hired to rewrite us.’ It was just a strange, strange occurrence.”

It was a mess. What they'd made was a jarring, random collection of scenes.
 - Shane Black
To Black, who took a break from Iron Man 3 pre-production to talk to Empire for this article, it looked like easy work. “Me and my partner, David Arnott, were to take this very small script, where not a lot happens, and beef it up into a summer movie, with a lot of set-ups and pay-offs and reversals. Zak seemed to think that we ruined his script, but I was actually quite fond of what we came up with. We had a silly gag where Slater reaches up, grabs a scratch on the film and stabs a villain with it. I know Columbia told us at the time that they were very happy with it. But then, abruptly, things changed.” Black attributes the sudden chill to the hiring of John McTiernan, the man behind action classics Die Hard and Predator, as director. “McTiernan had made a lot of hits, so the studio said, ‘Let him do what he wants.’ And we watched as John rewrote the whole thing. I have a lot of fondness for John. He’s an interesting guy with a lot to say. He just wasn’t keen on the things we’d written.” Watching from the sidelines, the original writers became more and more anxious. “We always thought it would be someone like Robert Zemeckis or John Landis directing,” says Penn. “Someone with a history of pulling genres apart. I like Shane and I like John McTiernan — I wouldn’t have watched all their movies so many times if I didn’t. But I do think it’s easier for someone from the outside to mock the conventions of action movies than it is for the people who created them in the first place.”

Stress levels were rising fast on the project now called Last Action Hero, with Penn alleging that Black hung up on him during a phone call and Schwarzenegger still unhappy with the story. Before long, Black and Arnott were themselves fired and the increasingly choppy script sent to legendary writer William Goldman, who was paid an eye-watering $1 million for four weeks’ work. “Back in those days, that kind of thing was an insurance policy for keeping your job at an executive level,” says Black. “A script would be questionable and the trembling executive would give it to a famous writer with a million bucks, so he could say, ‘Yeah, it’s fortified now. We’ve given it vitamins. Wait, wait, wait... It needs the woman’s touch. Give it to Carrie Fisher!’ It just made people breathe easier, throwing money at this enormous behemoth. Even if the movie sucked, now they could say, ‘It’s not our fault.’”

As well as Fisher and Goldman, several other script doctors, including The Hunt For Red October’s Larry Ferguson, made nips and tucks. The projectionist of Danny’s favourite cinema went from demonic villain to kindly old man; a scene in which dozens of iconic movie villains invade the real world was added, then deleted; even Slater’s forename changed from Arno to Jack. Also new was a climactic premiere set-piece, where Slater — having escaped from his movie Jack Slater IV — would meet the real Schwarzenegger, the star sending himself up as a nitwit who won’t stop plugging Planet Hollywood. But the more money Columbia threw at the script, the more problematic it became. Late one night, a desperate McTiernan called Black, asking him to take a look at the action sequences. “I declined,” says Black. “We’d been fired and now they wanted us to fix up the explosions and helicopter scenes? I considered it an insult to my professional pride.”

Despite all this backstage brouhaha, in August 1992, Last Action Hero finally got its star and its green light. Any fears Columbia may have felt were swept under the rug — after all, with a $15 million fee for Schwarzenegger and a budget set for $60 million, it was fast becoming the most expensive film in Hollywood history. Studio chairman Mark Canton declared to the LA Times that, “Next summer is the season that will make me or break me. This is the big one. This is the best thing I’ve ever done.” Plans were rushed into action for Last Action Hero video-games, a line of Mattel toys, a $20 million Burger King campaign and a hard-rock soundtrack. And, in what would prove to be a fatal move, the event picture’s release date was announced. Whatever went down, it would open on June 18, 1993.

Austin O’Brien, who was cast as Danny after meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger several times, remembers the frantic pace once the shoot got underway at the end of 1992, and the star’s micro-management of the tiniest details. “During the first week on set we kept screen-testing cars — Arnold and I would drive around in different vehicles, trying to find an iconic car for Slater. That was such a strange process. I also remember Slater’s boots being a really big deal.” Schwarzenegger even opened his contacts book, recruiting friends and ex-colleagues. “I was doing ADR for an indie film when I got a call from Arnold,” says Robert Patrick, who’d battled him in Terminator 2. “He went, ‘Robert, I want you to do the T-1000 cameo you did in Wayne’s World for my movie.’ I think we even talked money, for Christ’s sake. It was just, ‘You have to do it for me! You have to do it for me!’”

“The whole thing would have profited from a little more digestion,” reflects John McTiernan. “The movie, from the moment the studio said they wanted to do it until it was in the theatres, was nine-and-a-half months. Which was a month too short. In hindsight, we were arrogant, too.”

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Your Comments

1 Another One Of Those Films That Got Away...
There is (or was) a really great film in there trying to get out. But it clearly didn't know what it wanted to be - action or comedy; postmodern or spoof; PG or R - and got pulled in too many different directions at once. Too many producers, too many re-writes, just too many cooks. The film is all over the place - Ian McKellan as Death from Bergman's The Seventh Seal? Really!?! But it does throw up (in every sense) some great stuff too. C'mon, Arnie as Hamlet is still funny - "Polonius. You killed my fadda. BIG MISTAKE." Then there's the amusingly self-deprecating stuff with Arnie's exasperated then-missus' embarrassment at the humvee and the endless restaurant plugs. And the frankly bizarre meta-moment when Slater tells the "real" Arnie: "You haff brought me nothing but pain!" What was that all about? How I'd loved to have seen the original script of this filmed - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang meets The Purple Rose of Cairo, perhaps? I'd still like to see More

Posted by chris kilby on Friday January 27, 2012, 21:17

2 By the way...
This year is the 20th anniversary of the Batman Returns! More

Posted by Pelle on Thursday January 26, 2012, 19:30

3 Do this...
You know what 90's movie I think Empire should write about? Batman Returns! One of the best movies by Tim Burton, one of the best comic-book adaptations ever and one of the best Batman-movies there is. And this summer when both Dark Knight and Catwoman are back in the big screen it would be appropriate if Empire could look back to the last time when these two rocked the world. More

Posted by Pelle on Thursday January 26, 2012, 19:27

I agree with the below comments - I actually like this film. It has that most important ingredient: FUN! A simple concept that the last two Transformers films could not manage. More

Posted by Spacecowboy on Thursday January 26, 2012, 10:32

I HATED it at the time but bought the DVD ally enjoyed it. I hoped the widescreen aspect would lift the movie & it really does. I think a lot of ppl may have been put off seing it at the cinema by reviews so their first viewing may have been a pan & scan video tape like myself which wouldnt help in the enjoyment stakes as the video framing looked bland. The things I hated then are now the things I love - Charles Dances fake eyeballs seemed rediculous at the time but now anyone can do that with novelty lenses so it's not as ott as it once seemed. I baulked at the magic ticket but now I get it. What seemed like cliches now come across as sincere nods to 80's cop flicks like 48 hours & the like. It was mabey too close to the 80's for audiences to look back fondly. Films back then were not the big eye candy CGI drivel we are hooked on now, today I think we expect disapointment - we expected more from a blockbuster back then because it relied on story and the story in this seemeMore

Posted by Duane Barry on Thursday January 26, 2012, 03:54

6 Hollywood should be begging John McTiernan to direct one of their...
...crappy Superhero movies. I guarantee it would be one of the best ones. More

Posted by Cameron1975Williams on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 16:28

I liked this movie when I first saw it and still do as do most people I know who have seen it. It's just a fun entertaining turn your brain off film. It's a good laugh at times, people take it too seriously it seems but it's interesting to read this article about the making of it. More

Posted by theeverlasting on Sunday January 22, 2012, 18:55

I remember watching this film when I was about 8 or 9 and loving it but I haven't watched it since, despite seeing basically every Arnie film ever made and shamelessly enjoying them all (including 'Jingle All The Way'. Yes, I know). This article really does give an insight into the background behind it and has made me want to watch the film again - a small consolation to all involved in the movie making process I guess! More

Posted by bollibolshevik on Saturday January 21, 2012, 23:21

9 Don't care...
I freaking love this flick, always have. More

Posted by Zaphod121 on Saturday January 21, 2012, 21:34

10 I may have been about 14 when it came out...
...but I still remember enjoying it *and* I can still recall a tremendous amount of the film. I even bought it (on VHS). I am now tempted to watch it again. Taken at face value, I think it's a pretty good film and - at the risk of being pilloried - better than Jurassic Park! More

Posted by IainPurdie on Saturday January 21, 2012, 13:55

11 This is weird but...
I like this movie O_o More

Posted by ARmy2510 on Friday January 20, 2012, 20:17

12 Re Run
funny arnie kinda got it right with 'true lies'- a mix of his ultra violence/stunts with a more family friendly comedy plot thrown in. More

Posted by spark1 on Friday January 20, 2012, 13:27

13 This article was in the magazine a few months ago..
Read ythis article in the magazine previously but its a great one. More

Posted by Cool Breeze on Friday January 20, 2012, 11:43

14 Great Movie
Once watched 3 times in a row after coming home from a night out with Dr.Zhivago. More

Posted by burtbondy on Thursday January 19, 2012, 15:39

15 Did well in Madagascar
I was in Madagascar in the 90s, and Last Action Hero ran for months at the country's only cinema. It may be because it was the only film they had, mind you. I have no wish to see it now, but I seem to remember kinda liking it. More

Posted by supajem on Thursday January 19, 2012, 12:49

16 brilliant!
excellent article! like everyone here, really enjoyed reading what really happened behind the movie. more please! More

Posted by zack_ryan on Thursday January 19, 2012, 12:18

17 Stalled
it was risk to do a mash up would try and appeal to arnie's family and action movie audience-it doesn't work and you lose both audiences. the problem is the film loses its way in the 3rd act- unfocused and kinda depressing. More

Posted by spark1 on Thursday January 19, 2012, 10:52

Excellent article. I always had the impression that Shane Black was the only screenwriter and it's good to know that the man behind Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wasn't solely responsible for this. I don't remember ever seeing Last Action Hero all the way through but I am curious to watch it now. More

Posted by RobotDevil on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 20:21

19 Last Action Hero
I think their problem started with the naming of the move. "The Last Action Hero" would have sounded so much better. As it is, I've always liked the movie, ever since Empire gave it grief back when it first came out. Great article, more like this please! More

Posted by BatSpider on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 20:03

20 RE:
I watched this with my mum at the cinema on my birthday instead of Jurrasic Park. I enjoyed it at the time and even now I think it's an interesting movie that is still very enjoyable. Oh, and a great article, Empire. More like this and I might even start buying your magazine again. More

Posted by MatthewTPotterDotCom on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 15:51

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