How Waterworld Became a $175 Million Epic

It was a legendarily expensive action vehicle for Kevin Costner in 1995, but Waterworld originally began life as a subtly different story...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Tales of Waterworld‘s making have long since passed into legend. You’ve probably read about the long and difficult shoot on the open seas around Hawaii, about the soaring costs, the sinking sets and the increasingly fractious relationship between the two Kevins – director Kevin Reynolds and star Kevin Costner. You’ve probably heard about a pre-Buffy Joss Whedon being flown in to revise the script, and how, getting wind of all this, the Hollywood press started calling Waterworld names like “Fishtar and “Kevin’s Gate”.

What’s less commonly discussed is just where Waterworld came from. It’s often reported that the screenplay was written by Peter Rader and later reworked by David Twohy; what’s less widely known is that Waterworld could have wound up as a low-budget, $5 million movie in the Roger Corman mode. We know this thanks to a rare interview with Rader from a ’90s edition of the genre magazine, Starlog.

Back in the mid-80s, Peter Rader was a young graduate who wanted to break into the film industry. According to Rader, it was during a meeting with Roger Corman in 1986 that the seed for Waterworld was first planted.

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“I had a meeting with Roger Corman’s company in 1986 that stimulated the idea,” Rader recalled “I met with Brad Krevoy – who went on to produce Dumb And Dumber – and he offered me money to write and direct a Mad Max rip-off.”

The early-to-mid 80s saw no shortage of Mad Max clones, particularly in the wake of George Miller’s hit sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Suddenly, video shops were full of cheap post-apocalyptic movies where cars crashed and stunt performers clad in tattered clothes fought in deserts, quarries or disused warehouses. The question for Rader was, how could his story stand out in a crowd of similar-looking films with names like 1990: Bronx Warriors, Warriors Of The Apocalypse, or Warlords Of The 21st Century?

His imagination fired, Rader began thinking about the sea. What if, he thought, the post apocalyptic action of George Miller’s hit franchise was transplanted to a future where Earth is submerged under the ocean?

“Hey, Brad,” Rader suggested to the producer; “how about we do the whole movie on water?”

Krevoy’s response was less than favourable.

“Are you out of your mind? A movie like that would cost us $5 million to make!”

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Despite that knock-back, Rader wrote the script anyway – enjoying the process of writing a story unclouded by concerns about budgets or cheap, filmable locations. Broadly, Rader’s screenplay was close to the movie that came out in 1995: the planet’s flooded, and the protagonist is known simply as the Mariner – a loner who travels the oceans and generally avoids the populations of survivors huddled together on makeshift, artificial floating islands.

Tonally, however, Rader’s screenplay had more eccentric and colourful elements than the shooting drafts; the story’s villain, called Deacon in the finished film, was originally called Neptune, and “he had a trident and sat in a clamshell throne.”

“There were all sorts of very odd, funny touches like that,” Rader said. “There were also some very surreal elements. One of the things that made the Mariner [originally called Noah] unique in my script was that he originally had a white horse on his boat, which was a river barge at that point. It was surreal – he wouldn’t show anyone the horse, he would always hide it.” 

By 1988, Rader had directed his first movie: a little-seen horror piece called Grandmother’s House, produced by Greek impresario Nico Mastorakis – the chap who also gave the world such films as Blood Tide and Ninja Academy. Perhaps bolstered by this, Rader dug out his Waterworld script, gave it a bit of a polish, and began to send it out on spec. The screenplay soon landed in the hands of Andy Licht and Jeff Mueller, who by the late 80s had made a name for themselves with the low-budget teen comedy, License To Drive, starring Coreys Haim and Feldman.

“We saw it basically as a spaghetti western on water,” Mueller said of that early draft, which impressed he and Licht enough that they began to figure out a way of making it on a relatively low budget.

“We had mapped out several ways of keeping it under control,” Licht told the LA Times in 1995, before explaining that their plan was to film the movie in a water tank in Malta – the same watery set used for such films as Raise The Titanic and the ill-fated Cutthroat Island. The budget would have been somewhat more generous than the $5 million Brad Krevoy had balked at in 1986: around $30 million, making it roughly in line with a mid-budget thriller of the early 1990s, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break.

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Licht and Mueller wound up joining forces with producer Larry Gordon, who’d recently formed his own production company, Largo Entertainment – a firm that had recently enjoyed success with such films as Field Of Dreams, starring one Kevin Costner. At Largo, Waterworlds original director was Nils Gaup, a little-known Norwegian director who’d made the action-adventure, Pathfinder. That film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1988, and Waterworld, with its gritty high-seas action, must’ve seemed like a logical first step for Gaup into the realm of American filmmaking.

Waterworld was moving forward at Largo, but all the same, the problem of keeping the costs down persisted; at one point, Licht and Mueller suggested that the story’s grand finale, which took place aboard a super tanker, ought to be cut out. 

“The super-tanker in the movie was always the great set piece of the film,” Rader said. “The final battle is over this gigantic super-tanker, and the super-tanker was in all of the drafts, and it was the culmination of everything.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t money that killed this earlier incarnation of Waterworld – but rather the keen interest of some much bigger Hollywood fish. Kevin Costner, Kevin Reynolds  and Universal Studios began circling Waterworld sometime in 1992, and according to the LA Times, Licht and Mueller were “not so politely asked to leave the picture.”

“We got a call from one executive who said that if we did not play along with CAA and Universal,” Licht said, “neither company would ever do business with us again. After a brief legal tussle, Licht and Mueller managed to retain an “executive producer” credit on the finished movie – but in any tangible sense, their involvement was at an end.

Likewise Peter Rader, who was replaced by David Twohy at around the same period in 92.

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“At that point, I had done six or seven drafts, and they decided they wanted to bring in a new voice, because I was so burnt out on the whole thing. I as bummed out and disappointed, but that’s just the nature of the beast.” 

With that new voice came a subtle shift in tone. The white horse hidden from view on the Mariner’s barge? Gone, as was the barge, in fact – replaced by a faster and more agile trimaran. Neptune, with his trident and clamshell throne? Replaced by a less eccentric villain, who would soon be played by Dennis Hopper. Another element that was dropped in the Twohy drafts: birds.

“Also, birds were in very high demand, because they could detect something big nearby, possibly land. We kept those elements in until the Kevins got involved. When they got involved with the production, they decided it would be too much of a headache to have all those animals around. They took out all of those lighter elements.”

So it was that Waterworld rumbled on towards the film’s start of production in June 1994, by which point the budget had already ballooned to $65 million, with a reported $14 million spent on Costner’s salary. All the while, the script kept being rewritten, both in the run-up to the shoot and during its filming on location in Hawaii. By this point, Joss Whedon had come aboard to give the film an uncredited polish.

Waterworld was a good idea, and the script was the classic, ‘They have a good idea, then they write a generic script and don’t really care about the idea,'” Whedon told the AV Club years later. “When I was brought in, there was no water in the last 40 pages of the script. It all took place on land, or on a ship, or whatever. I’m like, ‘Isn’t the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?’ And no one was listening.” 

It’s at this point the Waterworld story lands back in familiar territory: the fraught production, the fall-out between Costner and Reynolds, and the wild cost overruns, which saw the budget rise again to a final sum of about $175m.

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“I was there for seven weeks,” Whedon said of the production, gloomily, “and I accomplished nothing.”

The press became grimly fascinated by the stories floating out of the shoot, and there was the widespread assumption – perhaps even a perverse hope – that Waterworld would become a critical and financial disaster. In the end, the film was neither; Waterworld may have been expensive, but it offered genuine widescreen spectacle. The film was hardly a smash hit, but it wasn’t a failure, either; by the time video sales and other streams were factored in, Waterworld more than made its money back.

These days, Waterworld is frequently lumped in with all those films that wound up costing their studios a fortune: Cleopatra, Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate. But behind all that, there’s another, equally interesting story: how a script with modest origins, written by a screenwriter who at the time was little known in Hollywood, eventually became one of the most talked-about films of the 1990s.   

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