Forrest Gump, and the Big Battles Behind a Monster Hit
Forrest Gump was a huge hit, but it's worth remembering just what a massive, massive gamble it was. Here's just a slice of that story...
Few major Hollywood blockbusters of the 1990s can lay claim to being some kind of cultural phenomenon, but surely Forrest Gump can. Love or loathe the film, its dialogue has slipped into everyday language, it has inspired spin-off restaurant franchise, and it’s one of the top grossing films of the decade. Oh and it won a bunch of Oscars, including a second consecutive Best Actor win for Tom Hanks.
It’s often said though that the most successful films have tumultuous behind the scene stories. I remember when Richard Donner directed Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas in Assassins (based on a heavily butchered script by the pre-Matrix Wachowskis), and it was widely reported that the shoot was a calm and very pleasurable one. That can’t be the only reason that barely anyone remembers the movie that followed, but it didn’t seem to help.
Behind the scenes of Forrest Gump, though, there were no end of battles, and it took leaps of faith from then-Paramount boss Sherry Lansing, director Robert Zemeckis, and leading man Tom Hanks to get the film made in the first place.
It would be fair to say that Hanks and Zemeckis did not always see eye to eye with Lansing. Yet she was the one who championed the project and had the clout to get it greenlit. At the time, she had been heading up Paramount’s movie slate for a short period as the company was being bought by Viacom. Whether or not she kept her job long-term was to be determined by the slate of pictures she chose, rather than those she inherited from the previous regime (1993’s The Firm, for instance, was a monster hit for Paramount, but Lansing couldn’t really take a big slice of the credit for it).
Lansing thus read lots and lots of scripts. And one night, she happened upon Eric Roth’s adaptation of Winston Groom’s 1986 book, Forrest Gump. She described it as “the most beautiful script I’ve ever read.” In those early days, there were fantastical elements to the draft, such as animated characters accompanying Forrest on his travels and a journey into space. But the guts of the film were there, and Lansing wanted it. The challenge was about to begin.
The immediate issue was that Forrest Gump wasn’t a Paramount project. The script and rights were owned by Warner Bros., which had put the brakes on it, fearing it veered too closely to the Oscar-winning Rain Man. That said, Paramount had something Warner Bros. wanted. It had its eye on the screenplay to Executive Decision, a film Warner Bros. would eventually make with Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal in the lead roles. WB agreed to trade projects, topping up the deal with $400,000 that it also paid to Paramount. Lansing had her project, and it came with Tom Hanks ready-attached to it.
read more: The Underrated Movies of 1994
What she didn’t yet have was a director, but she had one in mind. The Addams Family had been a big hit for Paramount in 1991, the studio buying up the film off beleaguered Orion Pictures mid-way through shooting (that whole story can be found here). It was the feature directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, and Lansing sounded him out about directing Gump. He was keen.
The problem, however, was that he was also keen to direct the planned sequel to The Addams Family that would become Addams Family Values. Given the conflicting schedules, and the fact that Paramount needed Addams Family 2, Sonnenfeld had to choose. He stayed with the Addams, ultimately delivering an excellent sequel that stumbled at the box office.
Several directors were subsequently circled, and the next who came close to taking the job was Penny Marshall. At that point she had recently worked with Tom Hanks on A League Of Their Own–arguably the film that moved Hanks away from the primarily comic lead roles he was then known for–and she was interested. Penny Marshall had also earned acclaim for features such as Big and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but she also had a reputation for finding her films in the editing suite rather than organizing them heavily up front. The logistics of Gump didn’t afford that luxury. She ummed and ahhed, and while she was doing so, Robert Zemeckis would find himself on a long flight, reading Eric Roth’s script.
He wanted in.
Zemeckis seemed a perfect fit. He could handle the required technical wizardry, and also deliver a compelling blockbuster motion picture. Zemeckis and Hanks met up in 1993, just as the latter was done with the shoot of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (for which he’d earn his first Academy Award).
The pair hit it off on the spot. So much so that at the end of their meeting, Zemeckis called his agent, and committed to doing the film right there and then. Forrest Gump was finally moving forward. The only slight issue with casting was when Jodie Foster turned down the role of Jenny, but the filmmakers settled on Robin Wright. Dave Chappelle infamously turned down the role of Bubba, believing the film would bomb. He has since admitted his mistake.
With everything in place, Zemeckis assembled his cast and crew in South Carolina in the summer of 1993. It was full steam ahead.
Until Paramount got a closer look at the budget.
read more: Robert Zemeckis and the Split Filmmaking of Castaway
The movie had been pegged at $40 million, but before a frame of footage had been shot, it was clear that was heavily on the conservative side. A more intensive breakdown of the schedule, and the costs, reckoned Paramount needed to find at least another $10 million with a further increase necessary too when effects house ILM delivered their final bill. Lansing, in the infancy of her Paramount studio headship, had a big gamble ahead of her. This may all sound like a modest budget now, but in the mid-1990s, and for a drama, it was a huge deal.
Just weeks before filming began, Lansing called Zemeckis’ agent, and asked him to relay to his client that $10 million needed to come off the budget. “We were 48 hours from turning on the camera,” he said (although more reports suggest a few weeks), “and we got these calls saying, ‘Figure out a way to slash $5 million or $10 million out of the budget or we’re shutting the show down.’” Zemeckis was not a happy man, reportedly believing that it was a regular tactic to have a project gets its claws into a filmmaker and then try and cut the costs, gambling they’d stick with it.
Zemeckis agreed to stay with Forrest Gump, but bruises had been inflicted. With the production start date now said to be just under a week away, the assorted agents and representatives finally brokered a deal. Hanks and Zemeckis would each take a 50 percent cut in their salary, saving $8 million, in exchange for a bigger share of the profits and a promise that money would be refunded if the film made it to profit. In return, Lansing agreed to an increase in Paramount’s investment of $5 million rather than $10 million. The film finally could press ahead.
It proved a complicated shoot, lasting four months that had to weave in sophisticated, unnoticed effects shots. “We had to work at a breakneck pace,” Hanks would recall, albeit noting that the shoot itself was “always a blast.” The film eventually shot across 11 states in the U.S. and 150 sets.
read more: Tom Hanks’ Film Debut was a Drama About Dungeons and Dragons
There was still time for another budget battle though, and this one centred on Forrest’s marathon run across America. Zemeckis and Hanks realized that there was no money in the budget to shoot those moments, and the two thus came together to resolve the problem. They decided to treat those sequences as an indie movie, working in conjunction with producer Steve Starkey. Thus Hanks and Zemeckis would disappear at weekends with the bare minimum of crew and shoot the running moments before heading back to the main shoot in time for Monday morning. Hanks and Zemeckis split the bill for those scenes between themselves, although they still found themselves a few hundred thousand dollars short when it came to end of Forrest’s run in Monument Valley. A further argument between studio and filmmakers ensued with Paramount ultimately stumping up the extra funds in exchange for Zemeckis and Hanks putting up and paying for a completion bond to protect against overruns.
Both sides ended production with their fair share of wounds, and few would argue that getting Forrest Gump to the screen was an easy process. Zemeckis would be buried in post-production work, not least to get the implicit effects in place. There was just a six month gap between the end of production and the film’s premiere.
The movie eventually opened on July 4, 1994 in the U.S., just under a year after filming had started. It was an instant hit, giving Lansing the added confidence she needed at Paramount and earning both Zemeckis and Hanks Oscars, with a Best Picture gong also coming the film’s way. In all, the film has to date grossed $677.9 million at cinemas worldwide off a final budget said to be around the $55 million mark.
There was one further financial skirmish. While Hanks and Zemeckis each earned around $40 million by having deals that entitled them to a cut of the film’s gross receipts, the book’s author, Winston Groom, also had a cut of the backend. The problem? His contract entitled him to three percent of the film’s net profits. But Paramount argued back in 1995 that the film had lost money, was $62 million in debt, and that it owed Groom nothing.
This particular matter was swiftly resolved, given how the wheels were seemingly greased by the studio inking a seven figure deal with Groom for the rights to his sequel book, Gump & Co. Said sequel was never filmed.
We suspect that Forrest Gump may now have finally turned a profit.
You can read more about the story, incidentally, in the excellent book, Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker. It’s available now.