The Troubled Production of DreamWorks’ First Film

DreamWorks launched in a blaze of publicity – but its first film, The Peacemaker, was beset by problems…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Not since United Artists had launched in the 1930s had Hollywood seen anything quite like it. Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg – a trio with a lot of money and a big contacts book between them – came together to launch the first new studio in a generation. It was called DreamWorks SKG, and it was not short on ambition.

Katzenberg would be heading up its animation arm, and soon got to work, with the likes of Antz and The Prince Of Egypt getting things going. But on the live action side, the assumption that Spielberg would exclusively make his films for the studio quickly proved false. Post-the formation of DreamWorks, his first movie as director would instead be The Lost World: Jurassic Park for Universal. Only then would he (quickly) move on to making Amistad and Saving Private Ryan, the three shot all-but-back-to-back, and the latter two released under the DreamWorks banner (Paramount stumping up a good chunk of the funding for Saving Private Ryan in a co-production deal).

It wasn’t just Spielberg with split loyalties, either. Overseeing the live action slate of pictures for the new studio were long-time Spielberg collaborators Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. Parkes, though, had to fulfill his obligations to the original Men In Black film, which itself was having a troubled production ahead of its summer 1997 release. It didn’t help that it was a Sony picture.

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To be clear, here: two of DreamWorks’ key live action creatives spent the first couple of years of the new studio’s life juggling films for other companies.

The problem DreamWorks faced, then, was that it was founded in 1994, and yet by the start of 1996, its slate of live action pictures was still floundering. It didn’t have a single film, outside of its animation division, shooting, and it needed the pipeline to start filling up. Without films in cinemas, it was relying on its creditors, and the collateral its owners brought with it. Given the noise the trio of founders had made when launching DreamWorks, all of Hollywood was watching.

It was against this backdrop that a thriller called The Peacemaker found itself pushed to the front of the queue.

The origin of the film lay with investigative journalist Leslie Cockburn, who sent Parkes a treatment of a story she was penning with her husband for Vanity Fair magazine. Said story told of nuclear arms smuggling in the former Soviet Union, and Parkes was interested in developing this for a feature. Work began.

At this stage, the other live action projects heading towards a greenlight were the aforementioned Amistad, Gore Verbinski’s delightful Mousehunt, and talking parrot flick Paulie. None of them would start shooting until a couple of months into 1997, each facing races to get them edited and distributed in time for a Christmas release (they each made their deadlines).

That meant DreamWorks needed to find the film closest to being ready to shoot, and get that moving. And that was The Peacemaker, which pressed forward even though there were concerns that the screenplay as it stood – penned by Michael Schiffer – needed more time. But time was not a commodity that DreamWorks had in abundance.

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What it did have was George Clooney, and a window of his time. This was, too, George Clooney in his first wave of stardom, riding high off the back of his breakthrough in the TV show ER – a genuine ratings phenomenon – and trying to fit in film roles between his commitments to the series. He was an untried big screen leading man, but one in demand: he was set to make One Fine Day with Michelle Pfeiffer and, of course, Batman & Robin, where he would attempt to take down the entire franchise from inside a suit with rubber nipples.

In the case of The Peacemaker, it was Steven Spielberg who persuaded him to sign up. After receiving a personal note from Spielberg asking him to star in the first project from DreamWorks, Clooney said yes, reportedly without reading the script. He was also said to have framed and hung Spielberg’s request on his wall, so flattered was he to be asked.

Clooney had at the time been circling the long-in-gestation movie of The Green Hornet, but again, the power of Spielberg got him free of that project. Bottom line: he was free to film The Peacemaker, a movie that Spielberg reportedly toyed with directing himself at one stage.

But the director’s chair would also be given to someone riding the wave of ERs success. Mimi Leder, an award-winner for her directorial work on the show, was offered the job, leading to sneers from some in Hollywood that this big new studio had hired a TV actor and a TV director for its first movie. As it happened, In The Line Of Fire’s Wolfgang Petersen had apparently been sounded out too, with the story being that he turned the job down.

Leder herself was aware of the criticism of her appointment, and was surprised to be chosen. Notwithstanding her decade-long list of television credits, she too expected DreamWorks to plump for an established movie director. But it was the Spielberg touch again. He personally asked Leder to take on the job, and when she queried him saying she didn’t direct action, he was said to have replied “yes you do. You direct it every day on television”.

As Leder would go on to say: “Now who could resist that?”

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But it wasn’t a dream shoot for a first movie. The Russian setting for part of the movie meant that the production would primarily set up in Slovakia (saving the film a few bucks by doing so). Filming began in May 1996, with Nicole Kidman – fresh off filming Portrait Of A Lady with Jane Campion – co-starring with Clooney. And after a month in New York, it was soon off to eastern Europe.

The problems were piling up. For one, the script was still in flux. Parkes, ostensibly the head of the live action studio, was actually tackling the rewrites himself, faxing them to Slovakia from his base in Los Angeles. George Clooney was not believed to be impressed. Even when a working script was in place, Leder lamented that “there wasn’t much there,” although she reserved praise for her lead stars, for making the most of it.

Leder’s proverbial baptism of fire, however, wasn’t helped by the fact that George Clooney needed to film his scenes first, in order to get back to ER duties on time. This meant that on her first picture, Leder had to shoot the action-packed ending first, at a stage when the actors were still working out just where to pitch their performances.

In Bratislava, meanwhile, one of the earliest scenes Leder had to get through was a logistically-complex action sequence on location, with pyrotechnics, cars and blue screen work.

Just to add a bit of boss level difficulty, many of the crew helping her realize the sequence didn’t speak English. As Clooney noted around the time, “if we could have had everyone speaking the same language, that would have been a miracle. I would have learned Slovakian if we could all have spoken it.”

Help ultimately arrived in the form of producer Mark Johnson and screenwriter John Lee Hancock. They apparently would sit with Mimi Leder, George Clooney, and Nicole Kidman to thrash out ideas for improving the script. Hancock would then be tasked with writing up the new work. There were still hoops to jump through, as new scenes would have to be faxed to Los Angeles – working on a different time zone – and be approved before they could be shot. What came back from L.A. wasn’t necessarily what was sent. All the while, filming had to keep going, as the clock kept ticking. There were even several days between shooting footage and being able to see it: the negatives had to be sent to a processing lab in Munich.

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Eventually, Leder got her film in the can, and sped through editing it together as deadline loomed. DreamWorks had its movie, and it was time to show it to the world.

But even unveiling it to the world didn’t go to plan. The day after its New York first screening, The Peacemaker finally premiered in Los Angeles at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on September 23rd, 1997.

Trouble hit. Those looking for signs that fate may be working against the movie didn’t have to look far, as Steven Spielberg was involved in a car accident on the way to the launch, and thus had to miss the screening. Given that he was the star attraction for DreamWorks at the time, it put something of a dampener on what was supposed to be a huge event for the new studio.

All concerned though had quickly moved on, with Leder stepping up to another DreamWorks project, the far more successful Deep Impact. That, too, was a tight turnaround too, arriving just over seven months after The Peacemaker premiered, in May 1998. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan would follow two months later, and DreamWorks’ impressive live action run was finally underway.

20 years on, The Peacemaker is an all-but-forgotten thriller, one that still bares the scars of its script troubles. Reviews were middling, although the solid enough $110 million of takings at the global box office bought DreamWorks time. But its place in history is more to do with the company that produced it, then the final negative. A good job: the film was all but forgotten for other reasons in months.

One or two quotes have been taken from Nicole LaPorte’s book, The Men Who Would Be King. Given how contested her account of the early days of DreamWorks has been, I’ve used direct quotes only.

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