If you grew up in the '80s and '90s and you were a fan of action films, there’s a good chance that you can recite lines of Steven E. de Souza’s dialogue by heart. While Mr. de Souza was immortalized by the work he did on classics like Die Hard, The Running Man, and Commando, he also brought a number of smaller genre projects to the screen. But there are Steven E. de Souza projects you may not be aware of, and franchises he worked on that never got off the ground. Mr. de Souza was kind enough to give us some time to not only touch on some of his biggest hits, but talk about some of his lesser-known sci-fi and superhero projects as well! Read on for info about cult films like The Return of Captain Invincible and Hudson Hawk, and also the real story behind movies that almost got made, like Commando 2, Sgt. Rock, and Flash Gordon!
Den of Geek: Aside from your considerable action movie catalogue, at one point it felt like you were the “go-to guy” for superheroes (even at a time when not that many of them were getting made) and other adaptations. How did that come about?
Steven E. de Souza: When I first came to Hollywood from Philadelphia, where I had been working in local television, I knew that in order to get into motion pictures or television you had to have a spec script. I wrote the two kinds of things that kept me in high school an extra year. I always had either a Robert Heinlein or a Raymond Chandler behind my algebra book, so I wrote a detective piece and I wrote a science fiction piece, two feature-length things.
I met a producer who directed me to an agent, so I got stuff to an agent on like, a Tuesday, and by Thursday there was a package of my scripts at my aunt’s house that I had dropped off at the agent, with a note that said, “Sorry, too busy to read these right now.” I complained to my Aunt who told me, “Y’know, my best friend is (game show mogul) Merv Griffin’s secretary. Maybe they can do something for you there.” I went over to have lunch with her friend and she said, “They don’t really have any writers for the game shows, so I don’t really think I can do anything for you here. But Merv had a lawyer who I heard became an agent, so I should have his phone number around here somewhere.” When I got to this guy's office, he was literally moving into his desk. It was his first day.
He told me, “Listen, I love these scripts. Will you work in television?” And I said, “What do you mean? Of course I would!” And he said “Alright, because some people only want to work in features. I gave your scripts to another client of mine.” And I said, “Oh, that’s great, I could use some more professional advice.” And he said, “No, you don’t understand. My other clients are producers. One guy is on the Six Million Dollar Man and they have a real hard time finding people who can write it, because the people who are good at science fiction are clueless about how you write police procedurals.”
The thing is, these guys would say “he uses his powers to know who the killer is, and then he goes and gets him.” But no, he still has to go get a warrant because the show is more realistic. But then the people who could write police shows couldn’t get their heads around the elements that are more science fiction or fantasy. So they would introduce like, a magic ring or something, or make him fly. They’d say, “But he needs to fly for my episode!” And the producers would be like “No, you can’t just add a power for one episode, because there’s continuity.”
“So,” he told me, “with these two scripts I think you can handle it, because you’re the two halves of the equation since you have a police script and a science fiction script. I took the liberty of giving your scripts to these people, could you go see them tomorrow?” I had this pitch about how having superpowers was a problem. Everybody else would go in and say “Oh, he fights a dinosaur with his bare hands" or something. So I went in and gave all the examples of how these things are a problem. Like, he’s trailing a bad guy, and he gets in an elevator like an innocent person, but he’s so heavy that they realize that something is wrong. Or he’s trying to catch a bad guy at the airport and he sets off the alarms because he’s part metal.
The first thing they had me do was take my science fiction script and turn it into a two-part Six Million Dollar Man script, which was the famous “Death Probe” episode. That was written as a spec script and the Six Million Dollar Man wasn’t the hero. In my script, the Death Probe was vivisecting and Freddy Kruegering everybody, so that wasn’t gonna work on TV. And then it couldn’t be an American space probe, because that would never malfunction, so that had to go out the window and it became a Russian space probe. These are the compromises we make our first two weeks in Hollywood!
After that they assigned me to do a show called Gemini Man, which was an attempt to do a high-tech Invisible Man show. The Gemini Man was a guy who, after being exposed to radiation that rendered him completely invisible was now dying. They managed to stabilize his molecules with this thing that looked like a watch. As long as he had that watch on and it was charged, he would be visible. But if he turned that watch off, he would be invisible and he could die. It was a very complicated thing. The thing is, the same people, the previous year, had done a classic Invisible Man in modern times as a spy. The problem was that every time he took off his rubber Mission Impossible mask and his clothes, he was naked. And they said, “This isn’t working,” so they came up with this idea. I got assigned to that as a story editor, and after eight weeks it was canceled.
I ended up doing all the “bionic shows.” I had done The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and then I was on this werewolf show called Lucan, and then what happened was, I got an opportunity to work on a lawyer show at Universal and that sort of got me out of the ghetto of the 8 o’clock science fiction show, which wasn’t given much respect back then. I didn’t really go back to sci-fi until Knight Rider. After I had finished up Knight Rider, Paramount brought me over from Universal to be a writer/producer and the first thing I did was a few pilots, and they both sold. One was a TV version of Foul Play, which was like a boy/girl detective show that was canceled quickly. The other was The Powers of Matthew Star which was kind of like Smallville before Smallville. Since then I’ve been going back and forth between science fiction/comic book stuff and action/adventure.
Did that TV superhero experience transfer to the movies naturally?
Funny enough, the first screenplay I ever wrote in Hollywood was a cult film called The Return of Captain Invincible, and the producer was Lauren Shuler (who later became Lauren Shuler-Donner, who went on to great success as producer on the X-Men franchise). She was gonna produce it and because she read or saw one of my lawyer shows, which was about real human emotion and drama, but since I had also done shows like Six Million Dollar Man, she decided “You’re the guy to write this.” When it fell behind schedule, they took it and made it like an Australian tax shelter. So the next thing I knew it was an Australian picture, and they added Australian material to kind of explain why he was in Australia.
While we’re on Captain Invincible, was that always intended to be a musical?
No, at the time when I was writing it nobody thought it was gonna be a musical. I think when they made the switch to do it in Australia that’s when the musical idea came in. I think it’s great, though!
Those songs are a riot! I mean, you've got Christopher Lee singing to Alan Arkin...
The songs are the best! They got the guys who did Rocky Horror Picture Show. So Return of Captain Invincible, The Spirit, and Hudson Hawk became my three cult movies and they’re the antidote for people who tell me that I just do cops and robbers. I tell ‘em, “Yeah? Well what about these?”
Captain Invincible came after your work on 48 Hrs., right?
What happened with 48 Hrs. was, I was working on a TV show called The Renegades which was was Patrick Swayze’s first job, and this script was written under a brutal time crunch. The executive producer was Aaron Spelling who had a deal in place with ABC for a couple of pilots a year, and the pilot was written by one of the guys already working for him on something else, and it was rushed, and when the script came in they said “We can’t show this to them.”
They called me up and said “we want you to take a look at this script, and we need you to write a scene involving these characters and we need it by lunchtime.” So I wrote a scene about drug dealing or whatever and brought it over, and they were already casting it. Before anyone had even read the script they had already sent out a casting breakdown, and actors were coming and they couldn’t give them a script until I showed up! They shot it the next day on the lot behind one of the soundstages where there’s a lot of crap and it looks like an alley. They brought that to the network to say “Look, here’s a daily, we started on time! But we need to shut down for a week to improve the script.” They never knew that it was pulled out of our ass.
So now I had to write the script out of order, which I was already used to doing. I never have writer’s block. I may not know how to get from one scene to another right away, but I can still have other scenes written and jump around. Not that I usually write romantic comedies, but I might not be able to show you how the couple first meets, but I could show you their first date or the first time they fucked or whatever. Larry Gordon (executive producer on The Renegades, and later on 48 Hrs. and Die Hard) said, “OK, you can write whatever you want, but some of it has to be in Chinatown.” Because they already had a Chinatown set built based on the old script. So the actors are coming up to me and asking “Why do I hate this guy?” And we’re saying, “uh...you’ll find out before we finish shooting!”
48 Hrs. was also gonna have to go at the very last moment, too. The grizzled cop was originally going to be Robert Mitchum, and the crazy, wild cop was going to be young, hot action star...Clint Eastwood. Seven or eight years passed and they tried to put it together with Clint Eastwood and Richard Pryor, with Clint Eastwood now as the older cop, but that never happened. Then they said “we’ll get Eddie Murphy right off of Saturday Night Live.” They gave me the script to read and said “We need to make this funny and we need to punch up the action.” I came back 48 hours (!) later with a bunch of changes about plot points and jokes and stunts and things like that, and I had a meeting with Larry Gordon and Joel Silver and they took me over to Katzenberg and Eisner and they said “We love your ideas, now we want you to meet the director.”
When I met Walter Hill for the first time he seemed really annoyed in the meeting, and I was so naive at that point, that I didn’t realize that he was annoyed that the studio was bringing in someone to rewrite him, since he had already rewritten Roger Spottiswoode’s draft (who had also directed The Renegades). Finally he said, “Tell me something you’ve done that I’ve seen.” And Jeffrey Katzenberg said, “Oh, well Steven is one of our hottest television writers.” And Walter said, “Television? You’re having a fucking television writer rewrite me?” As he got up to leave, Katzenberg said, “Walter, wait...read what this guy does, he’s really talented. I know you want this to be dark and grim, but there’s no reason this can’t be a mix of crime and comedy like, ummmm…” and he pointed at a poster of, of all things, Stir Crazy where Richard Pryor is wearing a chicken suit. He probably could have found a better example.
I always had a lot of good experience in television meeting the actors and getting a feel for their voices. So, when Nick (Nolte) came in, he looked like a younger version of his mugshot from when he got arrested. He said, “Yeah, I’ll get in shape, the studio said they’re gonna get me a trainer and I’m gonna lose this gut.” Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy was so new at this that he showed up in a suit and tie to meet the writer! Clearly, he didn’t realize where in the pecking order the writer is in Hollywood. At the production meeting, they brought up the idea of getting a trainer for Nick, and I said, “No, let’s go with that! Make the guy who’s neat and sharp and charming and presentable the criminal, but the cop is a slob!” So there’s that running gag in the movie where they see these guys with handcuffs and they think Eddie Murphy is the cop. That whole dynamic came out of their natural demeanor.
There’s more! While I was rewriting the script and turning in pages every day, Joel Silver called me and said “I want you to come over to Katzenberg’s office. Don’t tell anyone you’re coming.” I got there, and there were script pages on the table. They said, “These are your pages from the print shop, and here’s last week’s work. Would you look at it?” So after a couple of pages I said, “Wait, something’s wrong...it’s all changed. It’s almost like it’s back the way it was!” They said, “Just like we thought. Alright, from now on, you do not let that messenger come by your office to pick up the pages. You walk the pages right over to Joel.” What Walter was doing was, he was intercepting my pages (remember, this is before email) and figuring that it was his right, as director of the movie, to change things, which is often the case, contractually, but given the studio's reaction, apparently not this time. And his “small changes” were to shred everything that I was doing, and they had hired me to rewrite him. So right now, wherever Walter Hill is, he’s complaining about how I hurt his movie by sabotaging his sabotage of my pages.
It seems you had the last laugh…
It was good for everybody at the end of the day. It must have been good for Walter, because that movie Walter did a couple of years ago, Undefeated, it said on the posters “From the director of 48 Hrs.” so if that’s still going up 30 years later on a movie poster he must be proud of it, finally.
I still get brought on to fix screenplays that I had nothing to do with. When a movie is about to be shot and they hire me to come in and fix the script and punch it up at the last minute. In addition, I’m like a patient resuscitator who they can hire secretly after a movie has had a horrible test to rewrite some scenes and re-cut the movie so they can make it good enough to get to home video. That’s my secret identity.
I have to ask...some of us really love Hudson Hawk. There’s a lot of writers credited on there, was that one of those situations?
No, I actually started that screenplay from scratch. Bruce (Willis) had this story idea about a cat-burglar and at one point he developed a script that was a pretty reality-based, Cold War piece that was completely abandoned. Bruce wanted me to pick up the ball because we had already done the first two Die Hard movies together, and he obviously liked how they turned out. When Hudson Hawk started, (Hudson Hawk director) Michael Lehmann and Bruce wanted to make it crazier. I had already done two drafts and a polish at that point, when I was hired elsewhere and they wanted to make it much crazier, so Dan Waters, who had done Heathers with Michael Lehmann came in for several passes. Then the studio brought me back because they decided that it had gotten too crazy! So they flew me to Italy to sort of “un-crazy” it. Very little progress in un-crazying it was made, but it wasn’t really a gang-bang, it was mostly just me and Dan.
That wasn’t a snarky question, by the way. A lot of our staff, we genuinely love that movie!
The biggest problem with Hudson Hawk, and the people who made it even acknowledge it to this day, is that they made the one mistake that even Disney doesn’t do. Disney will have a movie like Aladdin, and it will have all kinds of craziness and silliness and goofiness and talking animals and whatever the fuck you want, but the villain is always dead serious. When you look at a Disney movie, the villain is always played straight. The mistake they made in Hudson Hawk, in pursuit of funny-ha-ha-ha, is that they made all the villains silly, which is the death of any kind of genre piece. It doesn’t work. You can have as much fun as you want, but the villain has got to be a real threat. So if there’s one thing that made Hudson Hawk not work for more people, it’s that.
What’s happening with your Flash Gordon script?
Flash Gordon was being fast-tracked to get made around 1997. It was a Jon Peters and Peter Guber production, but they left Sony in a famous kerfuffle. The studio redeveloped the script so that the aliens invade Earth, and Flash Gordon was a fighter pilot. It became kind of like Independence Day. It’s the complete opposite of what Flash Gordon should be! Later, I heard that Breck Eisner resurrected my script and that it was back on.
But then John Carter came along and now Flash Gordon is probably dead for ten years. Anybody who opens that script will go, “This is just like John Carter!” For better or for worse, there are a lot of similarities between Flash Gordon and John Carter. The problem with John Carter was very simple. Alfred Hitchcock said a long time ago, “You can’t put a flashback inside of a flashback.” It’s like a joke. That’s what they do in Wayne’s World. I don’t know if they actually designed it that way or if the science fiction scene right up in front was a last, desperate move in post production to get the audience some sci-fi up front so they didn't have to wait forty minutes to get to Mars.
In any event, the failings of John Carter were not due to the material or the presentation. It was the chronology of the first forty or so minutes, because when the movie finally caught up to its opening scene — the attack on Deja Thoris’ flagship — a general audience unfamiliar with the book would completely fall out of the movie, as they attempted to process a scene which until now they thought was a flash forward — but was, in fact, yet another flashback, taking place before the first flashback (the reading of the diary) but after the second one (the Western sequence)! Mainstream viewers had to stop in their seats and take out notepads to figure out the timeline — it was like Memento! I don’t know if it was written that way or edited that way, but it’s a shame, because if it wasn’t for that we’d probably be making Flash Gordon right now, and they’d be making John Carter 2.
John Carter isn’t really that bad, but calling it “John Carter” and not “Warlords of Mars” or something…
Well, the reason that happened, sometimes studio executives, they get into kind of like a groupthink, and they decided that a movie they had made two years earlier, Mars Needs Moms, failed because "Mars" was in the title, and that people rejected the movie because of that. Not because they bought a famous children’s book and then they changed the art design. Mars Needs Moms is by Berkeley Breathed, the Bloom County guy, and when they made the movie it didn’t look like the book! That’s insane! It’s a picture book! Can you imagine making a Dr. Seuss movie, and not having it look like a Dr. Seuss book?
It was like how Beverly Hills Cop 3 originally had this thing where he takes his niece to Disneyland and then sees someone get murdered there. Eddie Murphy had done this movie called The Distinguished Gentleman where there was a little girl in the movie. That movie failed, so the word came down about BH3: “lose the niece.” So now things got more convoluted about how he got to Disneyland in the first place. Distinguished Gentleman didn’t fail because it had a cute kid in it, but all anybody sees is some outlier to say “that’s why it went wrong!” We can’t call John Carter “Princess of Mars” because the word “Mars” is box office poison! Mars Attacks failed and Mars Needs Moms failed...no more proof is needed!
You wrote a screenplay for Sgt. Rock that I seem to remember was moving along pretty well back in the ‘80s. Whatever happened to it?
Sgt. Rock was actually greenlit and it was fast-tracked. They had sent people to do a location scout in the former Yugoslavia, John McTiernan was gonna direct it, it was on a schedule, and it had a release date. But what happened was, I had already written two scripts for Arnold: Commando and The Running Man, and we worked well together. We put this movie together and at the very first meeting, he said to Joel Silver (Arnold voice), “I just bought a house in Sun Valley, Idaho and Clint Eastwood is always making his movies there and then he drives home, while I’m schlepping all over the world. So I’d like to make this movie in Sun Valley, and Clint does all his locations right there and uses local talent, and I want that in my contract.”
The writer’s strike had just happened, but luckily I had already done my outline, and for someone like me, who had already worked in television, it was easy to just kind of punt and jump off with an outline. If I say “these ten sets have to be built” they know I’m not gonna change my mind and say, “well, I changed my mind, there is no dentist’s office” or whatever. So they started early preparations so we could hit the ground running when the strike ended. Within two weeks of the strike ending, I had my script.
So now they had people going out to do location scouting and they were casting the movie. Arnold came in to get fitted for his WWII army uniform, and the costume designer said to him, “I can’t wait ‘til we start filming. They say the Adriatic Coast is just like the Mediterranean!” And Arnold said (Arnold voice), “Vat?” And she says, “You know, the Yugoslavian coast, the beaches and resorts are fabulous.” And Arnold, with his pants still pinned up, walked right over to the front office of the studio and said, “I said that I wouldn’t leave the continental US for this project. What’s going on here?” As I understand it, they called Joel Silver, John McTiernan, and some executives over, and, whatever happened in that room, I wasn’t present, but Arnold left the project, and McTiernan left, too. The fact that Arnold didn’t make the movie and didn’t get sued makes me think that somewhere there must have been a binding memo from a lawyer or from within the studio confirming that he was promised a US shoot. So that’s why the movie came to a complete halt.
Was Arnold’s accent going to be an issue?
It was written and tailored exactly for Arnold, and we had it set up so that Sgt. Rock was Austrian and his family had been killed by the Nazis. It’s like, he climbed over the mountains right behind the Von Trapp family. Nobody else could have filled that role the way it was written, so three years later I heard they tried to resurrect it again and it’s had about five or six writers since then. The last thing I heard was that it was going to be in the future, which is really a boneheaded idea in my opinion.
Wasn’t Bruce Willis’ name brought up for Sgt. Rock at one point, as well?
At one point they did say Bruce Willis was going to do it. But actually, the character in the comics is more like Arnold. He doesn’t speak very much. He’s tough, and he’s not a wiseguy, Bruce Willis type character. I mean, you can adapt it and get a different version of Sgt. Rock, but this would have been a perfect role for Arnold. Or Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson could play Sgt. Rock! He’s supposed to be an older guy. The truth is that in WWII in the army, an “older guy” was about 35. But on the screen most actors are gonna be late-20s, early 30s in an action movie, so an “older crusty sergeant” could actually be older. When John Wayne was playing a crusty sergeant, he was already like, 40. I think at a certain point you’re too young to play a role like that. The best person to ever play Sgt. Rock was Lee Marvin in The Big Red One!
Weren’t you gonna do The Phantom at one point?
Yes. 7 or 8 years after The Phantom (with Billy Zane) they wanted to do a reboot, and I went in and pitched a contemporary Phantom that was still very true to the source material. And they told me that it was too retro and they wanted him to have super powers or weapons like Iron Man. Shortly after there was a TV thing on the SyFy channel where he had a special suit or something…
I saw that! Did any of that evolve out of your pitch?
No, it wasn’t out of my script. It was really King Features, who were also involved with the Flash Gordon script, because they owned the underlying material. My script, which I’d say was true to the source, went back to these stories I remembered from when I was a kid, where you’d have these overlaps between the current Phantom and his father. You'd start with his father, and you’d see him getting injured, and then this guy would have to leave school to go and take on the mantle of the Phantom until the father recovered. This was told over the course of a year’s worth of Sunday strips or something, and the father ended up getting killed in the final battle and now the kid is officially the Phantom. I thought that was the best way to do it. But the thing is, sometimes these decisions are made, not based on the material, but based on what else is going on in the world. Just like how Flash Gordon is fucked for another 10 years because of John Carter.
When you did Commando, you worked with Jeph Loeb, who has gone on to quite a career in comics, which is funny, considering how many superhero projects you’ve been involved in on film.
I actually only ever met him at the premiere! He had written a script with Matthew Weisman. They had just done Teen Wolf. Barry Diller had just been hired as the head of 20th Century Fox and it was literally the first week that he was there, he called up Larry Gordon and said, “I met this Schwarzenegger at a party and he’s really funny and charming, and he’s a really interesting guy. I think that in the right role, he could be something besides a caveman or a robot,” because at that point all Arnold had done was Conan and The Terminator. So he said “if you can make a movie for Arnold Schwarzenegger right away for 10 million dollars, I’ll greenlight it and I need it for the fall.” This was at the very beginning of the year.
So they pulled six or seven scripts from development hell that could possibly work for Arnold. They gave ‘em to everyone to read and the one that got the most attention was what eventually became Commando. At the time, though, it was much more of an ordinary guy and not the superhuman that the character kind of became. He was supposed to have a wife and kid who were kidnapped, but at the time, they weren’t sure that Arnold was quite up to pulling off the romantic scenes with the wife before she gets kidnapped, so they ditched the wife. Also, the kidnapping didn’t take place until after an hour into the movie.
The other issue the script had was that once he had to go on the offensive against these bad guys, he was doing everything that Reese did in The Terminator. He was improvising weapons at the supermarket and I thought, “Why doesn’t he just go to a gun store?” It’s one thing when it’s Kyle Reese, who gets dumped here naked from the future who has to pull things out of his ass and improvise, but this guy wouldn’t have to. So for this and a lot of reasons we knew we couldn’t show it to Arnold. It was more of a spy story. It was a totally different thing.
I had to go over to Fox and tell them how we could change it, and they basically said, “Alright, we’re gonna go see Arnold right now.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, I haven’t even thought this through!” And they told me, “Just improvise, you do it all the time in television!” So we went over to Arnold’s office, and I somehow told him the story of the revised script that hasn’t been written yet. The thing was, they wanted this movie out in October, and we knew there was a writer’s guild strike coming in like six weeks, so we had to really book.
They brought in a receptionist so we could send out a memo right away, like what you would do when you’re working on a TV schedule. I basically dictated, “The opening of the movie is that there’s three strange murders…and it’s gotta have stunts, explosions, gunshots, whatever. That's 5-6 script pages, right there. Next we see Arnold in his house out in the boonies and we have a cute montage with the daughter and whatever else, and then they come and warn him.” I basically just walked them through the whole movie. The finished memo estimated a 105 page script, which was therefore on budget, so Larry said, “Alright, distribute those pages, build those sets. We’re gonna go right to script, and de Souza, we’ll see you in a month!” When the four-page memo was typed, my spitballing predicted the total as $9.8 million, and I think it ended up being about $10.6, which isn’t bad.
Can you talk about how Commando 2 evolved into Die Hard?
None of that is true! That’s all bullshit! Die Hard is based on a novel called Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe, and it’s the sequel to a previous novel called The Detective which was made into a movie with Frank Sinatra. In that movie you can see he’s divorced from his wife and they’re trying to get back together...which is all very John McClane and Holly. The studio had bought the rights to the novel when they made the Sinatra movie in the late '60s, and they also bought the right of first refusal to any sequel.
The thing is, how this story got set that Die Hard was gonna be Commando 2, I just don’t know where the rumor came from. It was never going to be anything else. There was a sequel to Commando that I had worked on and Frank Darabont made some changes to, and in that script at the end, Arnold had to break into a building where the bad guys had holed up with his daughter (this was supposed to be about two years later), and Rae Dawn Chong.
I had written it so that when the media got wind of everything that Arnold had done in the first movie, he went on to become a security specialist who had been hired to make this building secure. Then he had to break into the building that he had designed. I think somehow the idea that he was a guy trying to break into a building got confused with the guy trapped in a building, but it’s exactly the opposite. If Commando 2 resembled anything, it was the one that just came out with Sly and Arnold, Escape Plan where you have to break out of a place you designed. Let’s put that rumor to bed right now, as there was no connection between those movies!
Whose idea was it to set Die Hard at Christmas? It's becoming this thing now where movie theaters in New York City show it at midnight around Christmas and everything...
Yes, I’m aware it’s become that kind of thing. There’s also a party every Christmas in the Die Hard building in Century City. It was in the original book, though.
Funny enough, the first movie my kids ever saw in the theaters was Die Hard. I used to bring home the “airline versions” of the movies with no cursing. The first time I took them to see that, the moment where Bruce looks through the door and sees all those heavily armed guys coming in, and he’s barefoot and runs up the stairs, and my son, who I was trying to protect from these R-Rated movies grabs my arm and says, “Dad! The hero’s chickenshit!” I said, “Where did you learn that word? It wasn’t from my movies, because you haven’t seen the ones with bad words!”
Which brings up the Judge Dredd rating controversy...
Judge Dredd was actually supposed to be a PG-13 movie. The production company at the time, Cynergy, they were having some financial troubles, so they didn't have any UK executives on location in England. And in their absence, the director (Danny Cannon), wanting to make it true to the comic book, was making everything more and more and more violent. So when the movie was delivered to be cut, it was rated X. It was rated X four times!
They say you can’t appeal after four. Four is all you get. Somehow, the producer, Ed Pressman managed to get it one more time to get it rated R. Which actually wasn’t a victory, because this was supposed to be PG-13. They had made a deal with Burger King, I think, and a toy company and you can’t advertise toys for an R-Rated movie, and no hamburger place wants toys for an R-Rated movie. So the hamburger people and the toy people turned around and sued Disney, the distributor!
Well, Disney then said, we’ll take this out of the director’s hide, because he signed a piece of paper saying he would deliver a PG-13. But Cynergy, who was releasing it THROUGH Disney, at that point had never done anything BUT an R-Rated movie. Nobody in the entire company had ever had the experience of putting that piece of paper in front of a director...so they had to pay him. They couldn’t withhold his salary for violating a legal promise they never asked him to make.
So at the eleventh hour, in a total state of panic, they decided that the advertising campaign should be cartoon panels. Keep in mind that this movie was about five frames away from being an x-rated movie. Their ad campaign was now comic panels of Stallone with word balloons. It’s complete cognitive dissonance!
Now, I’m innocent in this. I wrote a PG-13 script! Obviously, I knew how to do it! I did 8 o'clock network TV shows, for god's sake! In the script I wrote that the villain, Armand Assante says “Pull his arms and legs off, save his head for last, I want to hear him scream.” I wrote in the script that all you would see are the shadows and hear screams. What the director did, without any supervision since nobody from the studio was there, he had his prop people build an audio animatronic puppet, lifelike in every detail, with breakable limbs, and he actually shot the robot ripping the guy’s arms and legs off while the guy is screaming!
At the time, I lived around the corner from the studio, and they called me up when they got the dailies. It was the scene where they whack a newspaper reporter and his wife. In the script, I said it would look like your grandparent’s house, but decorated with stuff from now, since the movie is in the future. You were supposed to just see through the curtains a flash of the machine gun and screaming, and maybe one bullet hits the window. That’s what I wrote. When they showed me the scene in the dailies, this old couple dies like Bonnie and Clyde. Blown to bits in slow motion. I said, “Oh my God, this movie is supposed to be PG-13!” And they said, “No, it’s fine! the director knows all the ratings angles. Run it again!” And I’m like, “No! Once was enough! What did I miss?” He said, “They’re dry squibs! That’s PG-13! You don’t get an R-rating unless there’s blood.” I said, "There's no such rule! Who the fuck told you that?”
When they put the movie together, there were no alternative takes. The only thing they could do with that scene was to take away the slow-motion and kill them faster, and cut the time of the violence down a little. The payoff is that a few years later, Stephen J. Cannell pitched me to be the writer on his Greatest American Hero movie at Disney. When I pitched at the meeting, everything went great. After I left, Stephen called me up, and he said, “I don’t understand. It was all going great, but the minute you left they said: there’s no way that sonuvabitch is ever gonna write a movie at Disney. He fucked us so bad, we were sued by Burger King and the toy company for Judge Dredd. He wrote an x-rated movie for this studio!" I was persona non grata at Disney because of Judge Dredd!
Thanks, Mr. de Souza!
We’ll have more with Steven de Souza in the next few days, talking about The Spirit TV movie and the Spirit TV show that almost happened!