(Aladdin + Live Action) x Shaq = How Did This Get Made?
From a distance, it might be easy to conclude that Kazaam must have been written, produced and directed without vision or heart. That is was nothing more than a cash-grab for all of those involved. In reality, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, an overabundance of vision and heart is what doomed Kazaam. But amazingly (as well as strangely and beautifully), that overabundance helped save the soul of a talented director who once upon a time was best known to the world as a no non-sense cop named “Starsky.”
Kazaam Oral History
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 Kazaam edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: After finding a boom box that happens to contain a magic lamp, Max (Francis Capra) awakens a rapping genie named Kazaam (Shaquille O’Neal) who offers to change the young boy’s life by granting three wishes. But what Max seems to want more than anything is a relationship with his estranged father…
Tagline: He’s A Rappin’ Genie With An Attitude… And He’s Ready For Slam-Dunk Fun!
In 1996, famed film critic Gene Siskel named Kazaam as one of his least favorite movies of the year. And although it didn’t crack Roger Ebert’s “Least Favorite” list, Siskel on-screen cohort wasn’t much more enthusiastic. “Kazaam is a textbook example of a filmed deal,” Ebert wrote, “in which adults assemble a package that reflects their own interests and try to sell it to kids.”
From a distance, this is an easy (and perhaps logical) conclusion to draw. That Kazaam must have been a movie written, produced and directed without vision or heart. In reality, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, an overabundance of vision and heart is what doomed Kazaam. But amazingly (as well as strangely and beautifully), that overabundance helped save the soul of a very talented man.
Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…
- Francis Capra Actor (Max)
- Christian Ford Writer
- Hope Hanafin Costume Designer
- Paul Michael Glaser Director/Producer
- Roger Soffer Writer
- Graham Stumpf Production Manager
Francis Capra: I have a lot of tattoos, and I went through this real big chip-on-my-shoulder phase of my life where I tried to act like a real macho guy. So, you know, a lot of times when I’d go out at night there would be guys my age who would stare at me. And I remember one time, this big dude across the room keeps looking at me. Alright, here we go. He’s just staring. I’m thinking it’s because of my tattoos and some of my gang stuff, but then he struts over, comes right up to me and asks, “Hey, were you in the kid in Kazaam?” Aw man, I just turned bright red.
CUT TO: Several years earlier…
Part 1: Necessity
In June of 1975, two months after Starsky & Hutch debuted on television, one of the show’s stars—Paul Michael Glaser—decided to go for a drive. So too, at this time, did a special needs schoolteacher named Elizabeth Meyer. Somewhere along the way—on Santa Monica Boulevard to be precise—the two wound up driving side-by-side.
Strangers, for one final moment, until their glances soon intertwined. After passing smiles back and forth, Glaser motioned for Meyer to pull over and then invited her out for Chinese food. Three months after that fateful meal, they moved in together.
Given the velocity of their romance and the circumstances it would later endure, one can only assume that Glaser felt a strong sense of emotional fulfillment. Creatively, however, the same could not be said.
Paul Michael Glaser: As an actor, the amount of time you spend being creative is minimal. And I felt I had these other abilities—telling a story, composition, you name it—so I told the people doing Starsky & Hutch that I wanted to direct. They weren’t really enthusiastic about it. Nobody supported it, but they went along with it and I learned. I learned by the seat of my pants.
Glaser learned quickly, and while starting to build a career for himself as a director he also started to build a family as well. He married Elizabeth in 1980 and then welcomed two children into the world over the next four years: Ariel (1981) and Jake (1984). And as his family grew, so too did his standing in Hollywood as a director.
Paul Michael Glaser: After I finished Starsky & Hutch, I decided that I wasn’t going to act anymore. I got a movie for television to direct and then Michael Mann—who had been on the writing staff of Starsky & Hutch—he was doing this series called Miami Vice and he asked me if I could direct a couple of episodes. Two episodes led to four episodes and then he asked me if was interested in directing a movie that he was producing in Florida.
The movie was called Band of the Hand, which Glaser directed and was then released by TriStar in 1986. One year later, he received a lot of attention for directing a successful sci-fi film called The Running Man (1987) and then followed this up with a pair of family/comedy hits: The Cutting Edge (1992) and The Air Up there (1994). With this string of successes, Glaser seemed to be on an upward trajectory creatively. But emotionally, one can only imagine, as he was in the midst of a constant battle.
In 1985, it was discovered that Elizabeth had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion she had received four years earlier while giving birth to the couple’s first child. Unaware of the virus, it was inadvertently passed along to both Ariel and Jake.
In 1988, at only seven years old, Ariel passed away from complications with AIDS. Hoping to spare Jake from a similar fate, Elizabeth co-founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in 1988 and became a public ambassador in the fight to raise awareness, inspire hope and de-stigmatize the virus. She continued these efforts—soon entering the national spotlight following a now-famous speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention—until she succumbed to the virus in December 1994.
Paul Michael Glaser: Two months after my wife had died, I was going to take my son down to the NBA All-Star game. And friends of ours who worked on Shaquille O’Neal’s management team asked if Jake would be interested in meeting with Shaquille. I said, “Yeah, sure he would.” And then before I got off the phone they said, “By the way, do you know of any good film roles for Shaquille O’Neal for the summer?” I didn’t know of anything, no, but before hanging up the phone I said he ought to play a genie.
The more Glaser thought about it, the more he liked the idea. And perhaps just as importantly, the more he liked the idea of throwing himself into a creative endeavor.
Paul Michael Glaser: I went to, I guess it was Phoenix, for the All-Star game. I met Shaq and Leonard Armato [Shaq’s agent] and that crew. I said I wanted to do a rap musical, because Shaquille thought of himself as a rapper, and I asked when he would have to report to basketball camp. They told me the date, whatever it was, and I knew that I had ten and a half weeks to get a script and a greenlight. In this town, doing something in that amount of time is kind of unheard of. But I did it. Because necessity is the mother of invention.
With necessity driving the project forward, Glaser quickly set it up at a studio.
Paul Michael Glaser: I set it up in about two seconds flat. With Warner Brothers. They were taking the project because they basically didn’t want any competition for the Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny project they were doing. So I got the project and I went to a friend of mine [Robert Cort at Interscope Pictures] who had produced two of the movies I had directed, The Cutting Edge and The Air Up There, and asked him if this was something he and his partners would be interested in. So I got a couple of writers to write the screenplay and they were delightful.
Part 2: Men of Iron
Christian Ford: Did Paul talk to you about the genesis of the story? Where the idea came from and what was going on with him? Okay, so you know all hell had broken loose. And Paul was just sort of off everybody’s radar for quite a while. And during this time, he was practicing meditation with Roger’s friend Penny in trying to regain his equilibrium. And in the course of this, he said that he had this idea about a genie and asked Penny if she knew anyone who could maybe write it. It was that simple (and absurd). There’s no way that job should have come to two people as green as we were.
Roger Soffer: Christian and I had been writing for a few years together by that point. Our partnership, actually, began in a kind of funny way.
Christian Ford: Well that would be by accident.
Roger Soffer: Yeah, what happened was I had gotten a job as the story editor for a commercial company that was looking to move into features. And the first script they put me on, I read it and I said, “Holy shit! This thing is actually good.” Because when you spend a lot of time reading scripts, you learn that, like in Vegas, not everyone is a winner.
The script that earned this response was called Dead Again, by Christian Ford, who Soffer would soon meet at an upcoming story meeting.
Roger Soffer: So we sat in a room together with all the commercial people there. It was a pretty big empty room with chairs. And Christian’s thought was, correct me if I’m wrong: who’s the new idiot?
Christian Ford: Oh, who the fuck is this? I was living a couple hours outside of Los Angeles, so I had the entire drive to get more and more enraged before I even walked in the room.
Roger Soffer: I was so happy to see you!
Christian Ford: And I was just like a total ogre. And pretty soon it turned into this debate between the two of us and we were arguing everything from Hitchcock to Aristotle and anything else we could throw at each other for about a half an hour.
Roger Soffer: And during the escalation…
Christian Ford: The escalation phase…
Roger Soffer: The rest of the room de-escalated because it just got so far beyond the stratosphere or story discussion. In the end, though, it worked out.
Christian Ford: I realized, you know, look: this guy knows what he’s talking about. And then we had a really productive discussion.
Roger Soffer: And I guided a little on the re-write of that script. But only in an editorial capacity. Mostly formatting, that was my main contribution.
Christian Ford: That and cutting out about half the words, which it desperately needed. But we still weren’t partners. We just had this sort of writer-editor relationship and that sort of went on forever because the commercial house never did anything with the script. But what was funny was that one of the people who saw this…
Roger Soffer: He was the ex-head of business affairs for New Line.
Christian Ford: That’s right. He made the mistake of thinking that Roger and I were a writing team and he offered us a job. And we were desperately broke so we said sure.
Roger Soffer: We might not have been equally desperate (because I was employed by commercial house), so you might have been more desperate than I was.
Christian Ford: [laughing] Maybe…
Roger Soffer: But no, no, that’s not true because I spend way more than you do on God Knows What.
Christian Ford: [laughing more] So yeah, there was no way that we were going to say no. So he had us adapt a 150 year old book, which we did.
Roger Soffer: That first script that we were hired to write together was called Men of Iron. It’s a story of a boy who becomes a knight at a time when knighthood is waning; so knighthood had lost it’s function, but retained its form. And this was a story about a boy who’d lost his father and believed in that original vision of knighthood. He finds a one-eyed, bitter and half-blind great knight to train him and the story goes on from there.
Christian Ford: I think we felt pretty good about it by the end, but we were both exhausted and I don’t think either of us was rushing to have a second act to our career as a team. But that script went out and it got us a lot of attention from agents and it got us a lot of meetings at studios and we looked at each other and said, “Well, there seems to be something going on here, so maybe we should try to figure out how to make this work.”
Roger Soffer: That got us, as you said Christian, an agent and tons of studio meetings. And it also got us our first job, on what would have been the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie.
Ford and Soffer were hired to write what was tentatively called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation (slated to be the 4th movie in the Turtles franchise). The premise of this movie was that, as a result of the mutagen in their bodies, Splinter and the Turtles would be undergoing a secondary mutation. New powers associated with that transformation were the major hook to this film, as well as the addition of a fifth turtle called Kirby (named after comic book legend Jack Kirby).
Roger Soffer: We wrote a script, but nothing happened to it. In part because that was kind of the beginning of the end for the partnership between the creators of the Turtles [Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird]. They were about as different from each other as any two humans could be.
Christian Ford: Even more than me and Roger!
Roger Soffer: I just remember Kevin Eastman sitting in a writing office, drawing things that you wouldn’t necessarily show your wife. Over and over.
Christian Ford: Oh, I’d forgotten about that! And he was dating one of the actresses from the movie and she kept calling for him, you remember that?
Roger Soffer: Right, while he was engaged to someone else.
Christian Ford: “Is Kevin there?” And we were like: uhhhhhhhhh.
Roger Soffer: Anyway, after that, our next job was Kazaam.
Christian Ford: So our dear agent, Rima Greer, who was the agent we got back then and who still is. She’s always been like The Oracle and would frequently tell us things that we didn’t want to hear. Like when we got this job, she said, “it would be pretty amazing if the studio allows you guys to get hired.” But Paul convinced them, and I guess some of our writing helped with that. And then they hire us, and she says, “That’s amazing, that’s incredible, this looks like a movie that’ll actually get made. It’s astonishing how fast you guys are moving here, but you guys need to know that you will get fired off this project.”
Roger Soffer: That’s what normally happened to people in our position is what she was trying to say.
Christian Ford: But of course you think that you’ll be the exception. That happens to other people, but it’ll work out for us.
Roger Soffer: And it basically did work out for us. But you know what didn’t work out for us?
Christian Ford: That we would up as the writers of Kazaam?
Roger Soffer: Right! That’s what I was going to say! One of the things that many writers learn—either quickly, before they start, or over a long, longer period—is that the primary job of a screenwriter in Hollywood is to satisfy other people’s desires. And that is not the audience. The writer’s connection to the audience is held at bay by a variety of intermediaries who have their own desires. It doesn’t matter what you think—that’s not your job—the job of the writer is to come up with the best possible version of the story with the circumstances they are provided. The minute you go down that road, you’re divorced from what your instinct as an artist tells you would be good. That’s gone. You’re no longer operating under that framework. You’re now operating under the framework of being given a chicken, chocolate sauce and marshmallows and they say: Cook me something good. Okay…and that’s why the food that gets served is often not palatable. Because the ingredients that you were given don’t necessarily go together, but it’s your job to cook up the best dish you can. And that’s what happened ultimately in Kazaam.
But before that would happen—or not happen—Kazaam was missing one key ingredient: a child actor to play Shaq’s co-star Max, which was not an easy part to cast.