The Oral History of 'Waterworld'

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A scene from the 1995 film "Waterworld." Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett

Twenty years ago, this magazine made a minor bit of cinematic history. Of all the terrible rumors that were floating around the production of Waterworld—and there were many—Newsweek published the one that most offended its star, Kevin Costner. The actor didn’t mind the press dismissing his film as “Fishtar” and “Kevin’s Gate”; or gossip about an on-set fling with a Hawaiian hula dancer that supposedly broke up his marriage; or reports of a dust-up with director Kevin Reynolds; or the whispers of cost overruns that nearly doubled the original (and huge for the time) $100 million budget, making Waterworld the most expensive film to date. No, what ticked off Costner was the idea that he had demanded that the special effects department add “computer-generated hair” to hide his balding pate.

“I was so surprised that it came from Newsweek,” Costner told CNN in 1995. “No matter if they cite a source, it's just bullshit, and they're bullshit for printing it.”

Set in a post-apocalyptic tomorrow where climate change has melted the ice-caps and flooded the planet, Waterworld is a place where freshwater is scarce while saltwater is everywhere. Despite a hot script doctor in Joss Whedon, the movie got lukewarm reviews and a chilly reception at the domestic box office. (In the opening scene, Costner, the film's gilled protagonist, seems to be sending a message to his critics: He pees into a filter, then quaffs the recycled fluid with relish.) Whedon recalls spending “seven weeks of hell” touching up the screenplay in Hawaii. In 2001, he told The Onion's AV Club that he wrote some puns, and “a few scenes that I can't even sit through because they came out so bad.”

As The Guardian recently put it, only an idiot could have expected Waterworld to be a blockbuster. “It was an ecological parable about a messianic mutant fish-man who drinks his own wee and sells dirt for a living, for crying out loud ... At heart, Waterworld was inherently a B-movie, the sort of film people end up watching drunkenly at 3 a.m. Its soundtrack should have been performed on a kazoo and a rubber band stretched over a tissue box, not composed by James Newton Howard.”

While the two hour-and-16 minute epic is widely considered tedious and confusing, the once-notorious Hollywood flop has gained a cult following. In 2009, the same year the two-disc Waterworld Collector's Edition DVD was released, PBS aired a global-warming documentary series called Water World. On the Web, Waterworld’s Reddit page is awash in fan theories . The amusement park ride modeled after the film—Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular—still speeds around turns at Universal Studios in Hollywood, Japan and Singapore. Waterworld video games have been released on PC , GameBoy and Super Nintendo. Just last month, indie developer GumpyFunction created a playable version of the The Simpsons’ fabled Waterworld arcade game (in the toon version, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld costs 40 quarters to play; once you’ve deposited the change, you take one step back and deposit another 40 quarters).

To mark Waterworld’s 20th anniversary, Newsweek caught up with actors Jack Black, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino and director Kevin Reynolds and asked them to revisit the filmmaking experience. (Alas, Costner was “unavailable,” and co-star Dennis Hopper died in 2010). Tripplehorn played Helen, The Hot Chick; Majorino, the Girl with the Dry Land Tattoo (she was nine at the start of filming); Black had a cameo as a sooty seaplane pilot.

WaterworldStars Kevin Costner, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino shown in a scene from "Waterworld." Reuters

On whether people ask them about the film 20 years later:

Kevin Reynolds: No, they don’t. Do they even know what the Exxon Valdez was?

Jean Tripplehorn: My 13-year-old son just asked me to watch it. All of his friends had watched. His generation knows it from the ride at Universal Studios.

Tina Majorino: It’s the film I get recognized the most for!  It's always funny for me now that I’m an adult. People are like, ‘You look exactly the same.’ Especially when I cut my hair short.

Jack Black: We crushed it, bro. I’m still trying to shake it. That’s what it’s going to say on my tombstone: Jack ‘Post-Apocalyptic Seaplane Pilot’ Black.

TinaMajorino Tina Majorino today. J SQUARED Photography

On whether they signed on to the project because of Kevin Costner’s involvement:

Tripplehorn: No.

Majorino: I really liked Kevin Costner. The script was intriguing because of that.

Reynolds: At the time when we came together for Waterworld, Kevin and I were sort of on the outs and this producer brought us back together. Throughout our careers, we both responded to certain pieces of material at the same time ... Costner and I both kind of came at it from separate directions, unbeknownst to each other.

Black: I auditioned like everyone else. I think Kevin saw me in my first movie—Bob Roberts—and wanted to give me a shot.

 

On how they got involved with the project:

Tripplehorn: My agent at the time wanted me to go. I didn't know anything about it. I didn’t really know what the production was going to be like. Maybe if I knew I wouldn’t have gone to the meeting.

Majorino: I really love action films and always have, I grew up around a lot of boys.

Black: The script was badass. It was like a wet Road Warrior. And it was shooting in Hawaii!

Reynolds: I was pretty fascinated with the idea of the world covered in water...There’s a moment in the original script that the made me want to do it that the studio took out. Have you seen the extended version? In the extended version, at the end when they finally reach dry land and Jeanne and Tina are watching the Mariner sail off, Tina stumbles and sees a plaque. The plaque says “Here on this spot in 1953 Hillary and Norgay first set foot on the summit of Mount Everest.

07_27_Waterworld_04 Director Kevin Reynolds on the set of "Waterworld." Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett

On the shoot location:

Tripplehorn: I had never been to Hawaii and had no idea when I arrived on the Big Island that there were miles of lava beds. There was no green. Later on, we went to the parts of the Big Island that were just gorgeous. But when we first arrived I was surprised ... The atolls we were shooting on—that big metal floating island—was the largest free standing floating structure in the world.

Majorino: It was so gorgeous! I liked running around on the beach and going surfing with them. I was terrible at it, but they got me real used to being in the ocean. The stunt guys were the best.

Reynolds: The set wasn’t a three-ring circus, it was a 12-ring circus. The scale was enormous. Especially the giant floating set, the atoll. We had hundreds of extras, dozens and dozens of guys on jet skis and helicopters with cameras on them.

 

On how they felt about being in the open ocean:

Tripplehorn: We did a lot of underwater sequences under the atoll. I remember Tina and me were right in the middle of the ocean, right off the trimaran and she was stung by jellyfish ... Later on, if they didn’t get something because the water was murky we ended up shooting in a tank in L.A. But we tried to shoot everything in Hawaii.

Majorino: I was stung seven times, to the point where Kevin Costner was calling me ‘Jellyfish.’ It seemed like anytime we were in the water for extended periods of time I was stung ... It’s scary being in the middle of the ocean as well, because it’s so unpredictable.

Black: I got caught in a riptide when I was a kid. Got pulled out way past the pier, thought I was gonna be pulled out to sea and die. I was paddling as hard as I could, but I couldn't get back to shore. Then I saw the lifeguard dive in and swim towards me. A bunch of people gathered to see the dumb-ass who needed to be rescued. I would’ve preferred death by drowning. Just so you know: swim to the side to escape a rip tide.

 

On the scariest part of the shoot:

Majorino: The scariest part of the shoot for me was filming the part when Kevin jumps out of the hot air balloon to grab me out of the water after I had fallen. I had never had heart palpitations like that in my life. What they did is, they built, like, a scaffolding under the ocean, with a strap to stick my foot through. And I was connected to a line that was connected to Kevin’s stunt double, who was hanging three stories above me from his feet. The stunt coordinator said, “When you feel Norman’s fingertips on your shoulders, take your foot out of that strap, because you’re going to fly up into the air.” They always tried to make it seem fun, but that one was scary.

Reynolds: The scariest part for me was when I was in the production office, waiting to see if the setup is ready. The AD came in and told me one of the stunt guys was missing at sea. I said, “What do you mean? We aren’t even shooting at sea!” We were shooting on the Big Island and this guy was Bill Hamilton—this legendary big wave surfer. He had been taking a jet ski across this channel from the Big Island to Maui, where his home was, and he'd stay for the weekend. He’d get up before dawn on Monday and drive it back 40 miles across the ocean, and he hadn’t shown up that morning for work. They called his wife and she said he left for work. We sent the production helicopter out to try and find him and they couldn’t find him, we thought he was lost at sea. Toward the end of the day they finally found him floating way out in the channel about to be swept out to sea.

Waterworld_set "Waterworld" was the most expensive film ever made when it was released in 1995. Reuters

On the difficulty of filming on water:

Majorino: There were times the weather would knock us out. I remember having to go to higher ground. Tsunamis. We had to stop production.

Reynolds: There was a lot of pressure. Our original schedule was 120 days, and we ended up shooting about 166 days of principle photography, as I recall. And it was all on water. Before we went out to shoot it, I went and talked to Spielberg—he had done Jaws. I asked Spielberg, “Do I want to shoot on the water?” He said “You might. I’ll never do it again.” And I went to talk to the head of the studio, Sid Sheinberg. He said, “You know, you gotta be careful to stay to schedule.” I said, “We’re gonna do what we can, but I talked to Spielberg about Jaws and he said their schedule was 55 days and they shot 155 days.” He said, “I do remember they went 100 percent over budget.” It’s just the nature of the beast. Shooting on water is such a completely different animal, which is why so many filmmakers stay away from it. If it was done today, it wouldn’t even be done on water.

 

On how they dealt with the extended shoot schedule:

Majorino: Originally we were only supposed to be there for four months, but it became an ongoing joke every time another month was added to the schedule. The saying was, “It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

Tripplehorn: I just remember sitting next to Dennis Hopper at one point, and I was complaining that we had been there for three months and it was the longest I had ever been on a shoot. And Dennis looked at me said, “Oh no. You want this movie to go on for as long as possible.” Of course, we were there for another three months.

 

On their best Hopper stories:

Majorino: I’ll always remember the times in makeup, when he was telling me about Apocalypse Now!, and not knowing what he was talking about. I was 9 and couldn’t understand.

Reynolds: He came on the set with the rep of a wild man, but I found him to be totally pro. Even in the adverse circumstances.

Tripplehorn: Every Monday night we would play poker. Dennis Hopper taught me how to play. It was Dennis and the producers and Charles Gordon and Lawrence Gordon. Sometimes Kevin, but not a lot.

07_27_Waterworld_03 Dennis Hopper, right, as the Deacon in a scene from "Waterworld." Universal Pictures/Everett

On their funniest on-set memory:

Reynolds: Every day was quite an event.

Majorino: We had a Halloween party, and the wardrobe department knew I loved Halloween. They made me a prisoner outfit as a joke because we were all “prisoners of Waterworld.” Specifically the “prisoners” joke applied to me—I was there for “cover shoot” days. I had a lot of shots inside. It rains a lot in Hawaii, and [production] had to cover for missed outdoor shots by letting them shoot my shots inside instead. I couldn’t ever go home to L.A. during production. Everyone else could go home, but I couldn’t.

 

On their costumes:

Tripplehorn: I didn’t want to see any of the costumes again after wrap. I had to be laced into them with full-body makeup. One outfit, I wore for six months.

Majorino: The makeup department put the tattoo on me everyday. It took about a half-hour just to get the main form of it on my back. But the most intensive part was the body makeup. I don’t tan. I had to stand in my underwear every day and have makeup put on—even on my scalp!

 

On whether they think Waterworld could be made today:

Tripplehorn: It really was the last of its kind, in terms of scale and production.

Majorino: You could never make that film today!

Reynolds: Pretty much everything you saw in the movie was staged and shot on camera. Today, much more of it would be on green-screen and CGI.

 

On what they thought when they first saw the film:

Black: Nailed it.

Tripplehorn: When I first saw the film, I was proud. It was like watching the greatest home movie ever.

Majorino: I was overwhelmed.

Reynolds: It’s not any better or any worse than most of the films of that genre out there.

 

On the reviews:

Tripplehorn: I don’t read reviews, but I know it was under fire. It was unfairly judged at the time. We had so much of this advance publicity. They had it out for us.

Black: Never read them.

Majorino: I knew about them. We laughed, but I noticed it made everyone in charge nervous. For lack of a better term, people were trying to sink our movie before it even was finished.

Reynolds: The press wanted it to bomb. The head of Universal, Bill Washington, thought the bad publicity cost us at least $50 mill in the box office ... The reviews were painful. People didn’t like it. I remember publicists saying that people walked out of a press screening. And then one guy said, “Well, it didn’t suck.” That was the attitude—people walked out expecting to be disappointed and weren’t.

 

On the film’s environmental message:

Majorino: We went through a lot of changes in story, but when I read the original script, I understood the concept. Climate change and the polar ice caps melting wasn’t a topic of conversation at that time. I don’t think that when you look at it now that awareness was there.

Tripplehorn: The environmental slant was one of the appealing aspects of the script for me. It was plausible—not too science fiction, not too futuristic.

Reynolds: I’m a big believer in climate change and that’s one of the elements that I wanted introduced in the story ... When we made the picture, the Exxon Valdez had ruptured about six years before, so it was still kind of in people’s minds. It was one of the most egregious accidents that humans had perpetrated on a pristine environment at the time.

 

On the movie’s overarching allegory:

Reynolds: I dreamed up that the Smokers’ base was the hulk of the Exxon Valdez, that infamous tanker. We tried to slip all kinds of things into that were sort of climate change allegories for what we felt like was going on in the world.

Black: It haunts me ... I think we better get busy building the Death Star!