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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

Just to echo the previous comments - fantastic article! Strangely makes me want to hunt down a copy.... More articles like this please - I'm sure there are plenty of nightmare development stories out there! More

Posted by evild edd on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 15:45

22 great insight
i always enjoyed that movie , i thought it was always meant as tongue in cheek and it achieved that , not arnies greatest but not his worst by a long shot . More

Posted by keanhoopy on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 15:18

There should be a regular article in Empire on big Hollywood flops like this. It's fascinating stuff and just highlights all the money and monstrous egos that create a plane crash movie like this one. More please. More

Posted by BenTramer on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 15:18

24 Great article
Great article, fascinating to read. I've always loved this film as a bit of fun and a clear tongue-in-cheek parody on the big arnie/sly blockbuster action films. That, and the soundtrack is quality! More

Posted by richallin on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 15:11

25 Good read...good film...
Maybe its nostalgia speaking, but I actually liked this film!! More

Posted by StonedJohn on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 14:38

Agreed. Really interesting stuff. Remember reading a similar article about Alien3; love hearing the behind the scenes stuff from these 'troubled' productions. More

Posted by ShaunOsborne on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 13:43

27 Good Read...
An excellent article and a really interesting read, more please! :-) More

Posted by warren7355 on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 13:29

28 Great read!
Thanks Empire, I should be working, dammit! More

Posted by loafroaster on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 13:23

29 Wow
What a brilliant article, I was hooked throughout. I read another similar one empire did about the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, not as good as this one but still entertaining More

Posted by Spacecowboy on Wednesday January 18, 2012, 12:15

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