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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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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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