the lawnmower man

In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus—a scrappy start-up dedicated to resurrecting virtual reality—for $2 billion. Since then, every major player in the tech space (from Google and Microsoft to Sony and Samsung) has begun to prepare for a very virtual future.

With this incredible technology now on its way, I’ve spent the past couple of years working on a new book about the unlikely heroes of this virtual reality revolution. During that time, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with those in the burgeoning VR industry and, at some point, almost inevitably, The Lawnmower Man—the 1992 sci-film film directed by Brett Leonard—eventually comes up.

How Did This Get Made

How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to The Lawnmower Man edition of the HDTGM podcast here

Synopsis: By utilizing the power of virtual reality, an eccentric scientist is able to transform a simple-minded gardener into a savant with telekinetic powers. But, as his intelligence grows, so does his thirst for revenge.

Tagline: God made him simple. Science made him a god.

Some cite the film as an inspiration—an eye-opening experience that led them towards the career they have today—while others merely mention it as a frame of reference. Either way, it’s pretty remarkable that, nearly 25 years later, a film would have that kind of influence. Remarkable…but not all that surprising. Because, as we’ve all come to learn, there are few things more powerful than story. 

This is a conversation about how that story came to be; and how, in shaping that story, director Brett Leonard came to believe that virtual reality is “going to be is the most transformative medium in the history of mankind.”

the lawnmower man

Part 1: This Crazy Thing

Blake J. Harris: Most people know that you made the first mainstream movie about virtual reality. But not everyone realizes that, recently, you started a company to create VR content and, over the past 25 years, much of your career has been focused on the convergence between film and technology. So I was wondering: where did that start? Was it the tech that got you into film? Or did film take you into tech?

Brett Leonard: It definitely started with movies. From the very first moment I saw one, which I think was when I was 2, at the drive-in with my parents.

Blake J. Harris: Very early!

Brett Leonard: Yeah. I was a kid from Toledo, Ohio and my mom was a fan of movies. She was kind of a frustrated actress, because she grew up in Toledo and never really got the chance to do it professionally. And so, from a very young age, she instilled that in me. And I just got a deep love of movies. Like it’s the only thing I ever remember wanting to do as a child. So I left Toledo right after I got out of high school and headed to California to make my way in the movie business.

Blake J. Harris: What did that entail? What was the route you took?

Brett Leonard: Well, I had no money, no connections, no family, so I did it the hard way, I worked my way up. I started working as a grip. And I worked my way from working as a grip to directing by writing screenplays and then doing second unit camera work, second unit direction on low-budget films that would come up to Northern California where I was living in a place called Santa Cruz. And because I was in Santa Cruz I also was very in touch with the digital revolution, because that was sort of right next to Silicon Valley, so I fell in with people like Jobs and Wozniak and a guy named Jaron Lanier who was doing this thing called virtual reality.

Blake J. Harris: What was it about VR in particular of all the technologies that you were seeing that really fascinated you?

Brett Leonard: First of all, you have to understand the entire era. It was 1980, a very exciting era in the computer revolution. And it was all happening right there [laughs] and, by serendipity, people would come and smoke weed too so we all smoked weed together; these people who were all the digitary of the era. I mean, like everybody. All the Pixar guys. Everybody. It was this crazy thing.

Blake J. Harris: That’s awesome.

Brett Leonard: So we started talking about these things back then, at these crazy parties in Santa Cruz. That had all these wild people. You know, “Captain Crunch,” the great hacker, was part of it. And I was this young kid, filmmaker, who had done nothing yet, but was part of that group. I just fell into it and it was fascinating to me because I was always fascinated by science fiction. A bit of a technologist. And I wanted to combine those things in the films that I do vis-à-vis my main influence, which is Stanley Kubrick. I’m definitely a Kubrickian, and his merging of science and veracity. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 7 years old and that’s what really nailed me wanting to make movies. So in a weird way, I believe Kubrick is actually a pre-cursor to VR storytelling.

Blake J. Harris: And how did what you saw—the stuff that Jaron and some others were working on—lead you to making The Lawnmower Man?

Brett Leonard: So Jaron coined the term [“virtual reality”] and I popularized it with my movie. Before The Lawnmower Man, I actually made a film called The Dead Pit, was my first feature film. It was a zombie as many people start with zombie movies. [laughs] God love it, it’s a great genre! And we shot that in an abandoned insane asylum in Northern California. And that got me the attention of the producers who wanted to do The Lawnmower Man.

Blake J. Harris: Which producers? And what was the initial vision, if you recall?

Brett Leonard: So my manager, Steve Freedman, showed The Dead Pit to a producing pair named Bob Pringle and Steve Lane. Bob and Steve saw the film and they were involved with an executive producer named Edward Simons who, with his partner Harvey Goldstein, had the rights to this 7-page short story by Stephen King called “The Lawnmower Man.” It was a 7-page story about a guy telekinetically controlling a lawnmower. So I kind of brought this VR thing because I was hanging out with these people who were doing those kinds of things. I thought: man, this’ll be a great concept for a movie and we can show where the technology is going.

Blake J. Harris: So I’m assuming the original vision, for the film, was pretty similar to what’s described in that 7-page story?

Brett Leonard: Yeah. They had an initial concept that was a kind of local gardener, who was evil, who was using a mulching machine to chop up women and make them into fertilizer. I basically said: ehhhhh, I don’t want to make that movie, but I got this other thing. And they’re like: what the fuck? I mean, literally. Virtual what? So I made a 20-minute educational video about virtual reality video using Sutherland footage and it’s me, like against green screen, talking about virtual reality. Like I’m talking about to kindergarten children—aka producers—and that got them excited.

Blake J. Harris: Did they buy in at that point? Did that have any lingering concerns?

Brett Leonard: Well, they asked me, “how are you gonna do the effects? How are you gonna do that?” I said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got that all figured out.” [laughs] Of course I didn’t. I didn’t have any idea about that at all.

the lawnmower man

Part 2: The Greatest Lie in Hollywood

Blake J. Harris: So how did you deal with the special effects? There’s a lot in the movie and this is the early 90s; computer-generated graphics are not very common.

Brett Leonard: Right. It was at a time when computer graphics effects were not commoditized, there was ILM and nothing else. And we definitely couldn’t afford ILM. Lawnmower Man started out as a very low-budget movie. $2 million, and I pumped it up to $5 million. But that still made it very tough. Luckily we were able to find these two very amazing talented groups: one called Angel Studios and the other was Chaos Images, which became a software company; they then productized the software they used to make The Lawnmower Man. Because of those two companies and the great team we had put together, and everyone thought the film was a $30 million movie.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, I’m surprised myself. I figured the budget was much higher than $5 million.

Brett Leonard: And it made, in all markets, $250 million (that’s including foreign markets, ancillary and everything). This was the number one independent film of 1992. The number one New Line film of that year. People call it a “cult film.” It’s a cult film in its concept, but it was very much a mainstream independent film from a financial standpoint. And that very much launched my career into the next tier in a big way.

Blake J. Harris: What was next for you? Virtuosity?

Brett Leonard: I did one film in between Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity, which is Hideaway with Jeff Goldblum, Christine Lahti, Alicia Silverstone and Jeremy Sisto. It’s one of my littler known films, it’s a supernatural thriller, but I’m very proud of it. And then out of those films, Paramount approached me.

Blake J. Harris: In what capacity?

Brett Leonard: Sherry Lansing and two producers, Gary Lucchesi and Howard Hawks Jr., they asked me to direct Virtuosity, which was in script development form at the time. And then I came on board and was very much a part of developing the script with the studio. [laughs] At one point, this is little known stuff, that I don’t think I’ve talked about much: Michael Douglas was attached to the film.

Blake J. Harris: Really? In the Russell Crowe role?

Brett Leonard: No, no, no. In the Denzel Washington role. He was the first because Sherry had a real relationship with him and I met with him and we got along. He saw my movie and he was a fan. Then he had a knee injury and called me up and said, “Look, I can’t run around. And this is a movie where I gotta run all the whole time; your movie is a big running movie. So I’m gonna go do The American President instead.” And he did. And I’m glad he did, because I love that movie.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah.

Brett Leonard: And then Sherry turned to me and said, “Go get me Denzel.” [laughs] And I literally had to hypnotize Denzel to get him in this movie. I met him on the set of Crimson Tide, he was shooting at the time with Tony Scott. We’re there on this slanted bridge and I’m describing virtual reality. And no one knew what the fuck this thing was at that time, right? He’s like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I think my son would love it. So let me think about this.” And because of his son wanting him to do science fiction, and being into these kind of concepts, he said yes. That was a big moment. He had not done any science fiction at that time. He hadn’t done anything like that. And it was rare for an actor like him to do that because there was a different audience for science fiction. There’s a prejudice and stigma to doing those types of films. But Denzel didn’t care and he’s just an amazing actor; it was an absolute honor to work with him. And then when it came time to find the villain, I had this one wild meeting with Robert Downey Jr. He was not in the best shape at that time.

Blake J. Harris: Ha, sure.

Brett Leonard: It was prior to his Tony Stark days. But I loved him. He’s amazing. But it was just too wild, too wild [laughs].

Blake J. Harris: So how’d you end up with RC?

Brett Leonard: My manager Steve Freedman and I had found this tape of this movie called Romper Stomper, which was a New Zealand independent movie that very few people saw here in the states. And it was Russell Crowe playing the character of Hando, this white supremacist gang leader. And this guy is heinous. I mean, he rapes his girlfriend, assaults Vietnamese immigrants…but you love him. Who the fuck is this guy? And I wanted a villain who was so charismatic you couldn’t help but fall in love with him. And here was this guy that was evil as hell. So I went to Deborah Aquila, who was the head of casting for Paramount at the time. One of the top casting directors in the business for many, many years and she agreed with me that he was amazing. So we went to Sherry together and we got them to let us do a screen test (which I had to pay for).

Blake J. Harris: Speaking of which, did you have to pay for that 20-minute Lawnmower Man “educational” film?

Brett Leonard: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Blake J. Harris: Good for you.

Brett Leonard: You need to do whatever it takes to make your case. Anyway, so we had the screen test. I flew Russell over on my own dime. We had the screen test and Denzel was very impressed as well. Denzel approved him and so did Sherry and I got Russell Crowe to play the villain.

Blake J. Harris: That launched a pretty good career for Mr. Crowe…

Brett Leonard: Yeah, well, there’s this famous marketing meeting where we screened the film. The screening went very well, but the head of marketing stood up and said, “Well, great, we’ve got a fucking Russell Crowe film.” Because he was an unknown. They didn’t know how to market it because he was so strong in the movie.

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Brett Leonard: You know, he was an equal presence with Denzel…

Blake J. Harris: Since these two movies were, really, the first time that many of us were hearing about and seeing the potential of virtual reality, how conscious were you about the type of message you wanted to send for this technology? Was that something you thought about a lot, or was it more just about telling a compelling story?

Brett Leonard: You know, I thought at the time that true virtual reality—as it said at the beginning of The Lawnmower Man—would arrive at the turn of the millennium. Well it did come after the turn of the millennium, but quite a few years after. 10-15 years later than what I originally thought. But to answer your question about the technology: it was a contradiction for me. I was incredibly excited and stimulated by the discovering virtual reality and the potential of it. And simultaneously realized holy shit: this is going to be very powerful! And could be the ultimate Orwellian nightmare. So the stakes are high with something like this.

Blake J. Harris: Right.

Brett Leonard: With cinema, one of the great lies dating back to its origin was “It’s just entertainment! It doesn’t make any impact” Like the great Samuel Goldwyn said, “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.”

Blake J. Harris: Ha.

Brett Leonard: So there’s a great lie here in Hollywood that cinema—what we do—it “doesn’t count.” It is important. It affects global culture. It creates global culture. My life has been completely affected by cinema. It’s an important medium and so is VR to a much greater degree. It literally changes our minds. And that’s something that’s both exhilarating, from the standpoint of “how can we evolve ourselves” and terrifying. Just like most of trans humanism is exhilarating and terrifying. So as a storyteller, it’s rich fodder for exploring those themes. So I was very cognizant of those themes. And my partner, Gimel Everett, who was my partner in life at the time, and also my screenwriting partner, we were very much focused on that. And Gimel was a very spiritual person. And really taught me a lot about that. So she was my guide in really bringing me to see the greater sort of spiritual implications of this medium.

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