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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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McTiernan is a survivor. The director has been through a lot in the past two decades, from an acrimonious divorce to an ongoing federal case linked to the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping investigation, not to mention the Rollerball remake. So when he describes the final stretch of Last Action Hero as “the worst time I’ve ever had in this business”, you begin to understand the scale of the horror. To begin with, things went smoothly enough. Early on in the shoot, two reporters from Premiere were summoned to the Hyatt Regency Long Beach Hotel, where the La Brea tar pits had been recreated at gargantuan expense, complete with giant model dinosaurs. Arnold Schwarzenegger sat shirtless in front of his trailer, eating swordfish and joking about the ‘edible’ fake tar: “It tastes like mud with fungus in it!” Such was the on-set bonhomie, Premiere were told, that the star had played a prank on McTiernan, hiring a stripper for his birthday.


For O’Brien, who was getting to meet Michael Jackson and have Silly String battles with Arnie, it was non-stop fun. “Every day there was something amazing happening: a car flying over a truck or a huge gunfight,” he recalls. “And we had a big enough budget that if we blew something up and it didn’t look great, we’d do it again!”


Arnold discusses a scene with director John McTiernan (left)


Behind closed doors, however, tempers were fraying. During a set visit, Black and Arnott were told by a studio exec to pop into Schwarzenegger’s trailer. McTiernan saw it happen and later vented on them, furious, convinced they were conspiring behind his back. “I tried to explain,” says Black, “but after that John was just not the same towards us.” Penn was also back on the scene, having been offered a bit part in the film as a police officer. But even this reconciliatory gesture caused more bad blood. “After a couple of weeks, another actor turned to me and said, ‘Zak, I hate to tell you this, but if you look at where the camera is, you’re never in frame. McTiernan has basically blocked you out of the movie.’ You might be able to see my shadow if you look closely. I did laugh about it later, but it was so silly — why didn’t they just tell me to go home?”


The harness was too tight. I couldn’t breathe. I passed out. It was scary.
 - Austin O'Brien
More seriously, the movie itself was in trouble, with McTiernan struggling to find the right tone. “The head of the studio couldn’t decide whether this was an action movie or a kids’ movie,” the director says now. “I was getting pushed in a lot of directions. When I was sent the script, the thing I liked was that it was wildly irreverent. But that was all getting watered down. And we were just trying to get the damn thing finished.” By the final few weeks, he and others were working 18-hour days.


“I do remember that the deeper in we got, John looked more tired, more haggard,” says O’Brien. “He was great with me — when we got something right he’d turn into a little kid and start jumping around — but there was one day when I got a sense of how under the gun he was. We’d built a New York skyline inside the studio and I was hanging from a gargoyle, wearing a harness. It was so tight that I literally couldn’t breathe, but I was too nervous to say anything and I passed out for a few seconds. People were cutting my clothes off and it got kind of scary. But I do remember McTiernan coming up afterwards and saying, ‘In situations like these, I don’t care what’s happening, you tell me and we’ll fix it. Don’t be afraid. You haven’t done anything wrong, but we cannot afford to stop shooting.’”


If the filming schedule had been punishing, fresh hell awaited in the edit suite. A meta action-comedy like Last Action Hero requires precision cutting in order to make the jokes land and the stunts fly. According to McTiernan, he barely had time to unspool the reels. “It was something like three weeks from the end of shooting to when it was in the theatres,” he laments. “Do you know the old joke? The editing department says to Cecil B. DeMille, ‘The editors are dropping like flies.’ And DeMille says, ‘Hire more flies!’ We were living that. There are enormous sequences in the film that are literally how it came out of my camera. We cut the heads and tails off, and that’s the sequence; it wasn’t edited at all.”


Black finally patched things up with McTiernan and offered to take a look at the film. But he found it nearly impossible to identify a positive. “It was a mess. There was a movie in there, struggling to emerge, which would have pleased me. But what they’d made was a jarring, random collection of scenes. The casting of the little boy was one of the absolute misfires of Western culture. Also, they rewrote every line of ours, and I don’t like the dialogue they wrote.” Fragments of ideas sit uneasily together on the screen. A fantasy scene where Schwarzenegger’s Slater becomes Hamlet and knocks an enemy out with Yorick’s skull goes all the way back to Penn and Leff. The Mr. Benedict villain, played by Charles Dance with a range of lurid glass eyes, is a Goldman creation. And the scene where the heroic duo have to dispose of the expired, dynamite-stuffed body of a fat gangster called Leo The Fart is the handiwork of Black and Arnott, who borrowed the idea from Richard S. Prather’s murder mystery novel, The Meandering Corpse. “We thought it was a pretty swinging caper, where they gotta go hijack this bodybag. But John didn’t shoot the scenes that explained why the dynamite was there,” Black notes.


At some point, the simple central idea — that Slater abides in a ridiculous, Lethal Weapon-esque world filled with action-movie clichés — had become disastrously fuzzy. For instance, while the police-station sequence has funny gags about angry police chiefs and mismatched partners, it’s cluttered by baffling cameos: a Terminator, Sharon Stone as Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, a cartoon cat called Whiskers and, strangest of all, a group of what appear to be space robots. “There were suddenly all these little in-jokes that worked against the story,” says Penn. “It turned into, ‘Let’s go to a videostore and do a joke about Stallone taking your parts. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a Seagal movie where they go to a videostore.” Chris Moore agrees: “It had shot way off to the left of what was originally intended. If there’d been more time, there’s a chance someone might have stood up and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing with an animated cat?’ Something which, from the outside looking in, looks like a decision of somebody using drugs.”


Charles Dance as the movie's villain, Mr. Benedict.

 
Time was the one thing they didn’t have. After a disastrous test screening, where one audience member commented that the movie “lay there like a big fried egg”, a decision was made to reshoot the ending. Panic set in. But with so much money on the line, Columbia was desperate to maintain a confident face. In fact, it over-compensated, with the most ill-advised publicity blitzkrieg in movie history. Not content with spending a rumoured $750,000 on the trailer, the studio paid a further $500,000 to have the film’s name emblazoned on a NASA rocket, trumpeting that, “It’s the first time in the history of advertising that a space vehicle has been used.” Unfortunately, a glitch meant the launch was delayed until months after the movie’s release. The promo curse continued when a 75-foot balloon of Schwarzenegger holding sticks of dynamite was erected in Times Square. Given the recent truck bombing of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, it wasn’t the most tasteful gesture. The balloon was swiftly and sheepishly deflated.


It all seemed like karmic payback for the incessant braggadocio, with Schwarzenegger declaring at Cannes that, “I’ve turned out another great movie, and the critics have already said it’s a great summer hit,” and PR wizard Sid Ganis promising, “We’re heading for big numbers.” To McTiernan, up to his eyeballs in celluloid, it was just more grief. “I didn’t have time to get intimately involved in all the press disasters, but the advertising campaign was terrible. It did seem that if they hadn’t overhyped the movie, it would have been a lot easier to sell it. Because it’s actually sweet and kind of small in its heart. It isn’t Cleopatra. It’s the anti-Cleopatra. And if they had come on a little more quietly, it probably would have worked out better for them.”


The advertising campaign was terrible. It did seem that if they hadn’t overhyped the movie, it would have been a lot easier to sell it.
 - John McTiernan
The budget was rocketing and time was running out. Yet an even bigger problem loomed. A problem 65 million years in the making. Steven Spielberg’s last film, Hook, had been a rare dud. It might have been this fact, or just good old-fashioned hubris, that led Canton to underestimate the director’s new project, Jurassic Park. When Universal announced that its dinosaurs-on-the-rampage blockbuster would open just a week before Last Action Hero, the Columbia boss refused to push back his own movie, despite the pleas coming from his own camp. “It was insane,” laughs Penn. “I rang him up and said, ‘I want to see Jurassic Park more than Last Action Hero, and Last Action Hero was my idea!’”


“Sheer stupidity” is how McTiernan describes the decision. “I saw Jurassic Park that summer: it’s a fabulous movie. But the studio tried to set us against each other, which was an idiotic thing to do. Because we weren’t the greatest action movie of all time. We were never supposed to be.” The rivalry became the season’s big story. Time ran a piece with the headline “The Dinosaur And The Dog”; some papers even reported on the contrast between Jurassic Park’s toys, which were selling like they were going extinct, and Last Action Hero’s, which were sticking to shelves, perhaps due to Schwarzenegger’s insistence that his action figure not be armed.


When Jurassic Park opened to a phenomenal $47 million — “Lizards eat Arnie’s lunch!” yelled Variety — the already gloomy Columbia lot became, in the words of one employee, “like the Nixon White House in the last days of Watergate”. And when Last Action Hero’s premiere rolled around, it was a predictably dispiriting affair. Like Jurassic Park’s John Hammond, Columbia spared no expense, spending a fortune on recreating Hamlet’s Elsinore Castle and dangling a Leo The Fart mannequin from a crane, but it was noticeably sparse on guest stars, despite each arrival being heralded over loudspeaker.


At the lavish afterparty, an elephant lumbered about the room (metaphorically, although you wouldn’t have been surprised to see a real one there). “Everyone ate the food and drank the drink and nobody said anything to each other about what they’d sat through,” says Black. “It was like, ‘Don’t talk about the movie, but these are some really good fucking canapés.’” Meanwhile, Penn sat miserably in the corner, at the event that once promised to be the high-point of his career. “It was not a pleasant experience. People kept saying, ‘Did you do all those fart jokes?’ ‘No, no, that wasn’t me.’ ‘Why did you have a kid thrown off a roof in the opening sequence? It made my kid cry.’ ‘I didn’t write that!’”


In the end, the film made $15.3 million during its opening weekend and $137 million worldwide, higher than the tally of that other ’90s misfire, Hudson Hawk, but still a huge disappointment. For Schwarzenegger, it was painful proof of his vincibility — though he’d temporarily bounce back with the business-as-usual True Lies, his action-muscleman heyday was over. “To be rejected so soundly — it sort of broke his heart,” says McTiernan. The director himself went into a deep funk, suffering from a uniquely Hollywood strain of PTSD. “That was a crazy time and you get to take a bite at the world as you find it. I’m happy I made it, but we pushed ourselves too far.” At least his friendships survived the experience — just. “After the movie came out, Arnold, John and I went for a beer,” remembers Black. “John couldn’t get his head around why it had gone so badly, because he knew there were troubles with the film but he was still proud of it. But by the end of the conversation we were getting really excited about the concept of the new Die Hard he was going to do. It was good to see him smile again.”

Nearly two decades on, emotions have cooled. Even Penn and Black, who recently crossed paths at the Captain America premiere, no longer want to kill each other in inventive ways. And despite all its flaws, Last Action Hero looks less like a disaster and more like an interesting, very expensive oddity. At least, unlike Hollywood’s current torrent of colourless sequels and mindless rehashes, it has ambition to burn. It blazed the trail for more successful genre parodies, like Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz and Black’s own Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And Moore even harbours an ambition to one day remake it: “I’m sure you’ll put that in your article, I’ll get fucked out of it and some Sony producer will be shooting it next week.” All involved agree that the movie marked the end of an era of rampant Tinseltown excess. “In a way, it was the last of the smug big movies,” says Black. “Maybe Michael Bay’s are still this way, but there’s a smugness to Last Action Hero — a celebration of spending money in itself.”


Moore goes further. “It was a historical moment, where so many people saw this craziness unfold that it created an embarrassment and a ripple effect in the business. Somebody needed to step in and say, ‘Look, we’ve got some of the most talented people on Earth and a shit-load of resources — what is the actual movie we’re making?’ Instead, everybody avoided the hard conversations, so the movie attacked and ate itself. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale.”

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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

4
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

5 A MASSIVE CLUSTERFUCK OF MISFORTUNE [But Better Then You Think]
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

7
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

8
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

18
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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