The Phantom Simon Wincer interview

On February 17, 1936, Lee Falk’s comic strip hero The Phantom was introduced to the world. Over the following years—as the character reached millions of fans through an unparalleled-for-that-era level of worldwide syndication—The Phantom became an international sensation. The comic strip (clearly) excelled in many countries around the world, but perhaps none more so than Australia. So it seems fitting that, six decades later, the man who would finally bring this hero to the big screen would be an Australian himself: Simon Wincer.

To learn about how The Phantom was made, I spoke at length with Simon Wincer. But it took a little while before we even got to talking about the masked crusader. Because, frankly, there was just too much to talk about. Like how Wincer swooped into to replace the original director of Free Willy (and ended up helping to save that film). Or how he helmed an Emmy-dominant, prestige miniseries (years before such things were du jour). We spoke about all those things and much more (like the cinematic value of manure).  Below is a copy of our conversation…

How Did This Get Made

Simon Wincer Interview

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 Phantom edition of the HDTGM podcast here

The Phantom

Synopsis: In 1938, a masked avenger known as “The Phantom” (who has descended from a line of African superheroes), travels to New York City to thwart a dastardly criminal genius from obtaining some magic skulls that will give him the ultimate power.

Tagline: Slam Evil!

Free Willy

Part 1: Whales on Rocket Launchers

Blake J. Harris: Simon, you’ve directed so many interesting projects over the course of your career, it’s almost hard to figure out where we should begin. Except, of course, that the kid in me makes that easy: Free Willy. How did that come about?

Simon Wincer: Interesting story. The script was sent to me by my agent. I read it and told her I loved it. About a month later she rang back and told me they’d decided to go in a different direction. With a younger director who had won Sundance. [thinking] I can’t remember his name, I’m sorry.

Wincer is referring to Robin Armstrong, whose film One Cup of Coffee (later retitled Pastime) was in competition at Sundance in 1991. 

Simon Wincer: Anyway, a few months later I was off in Russia of all places, filming an episode of Young Indiana Jones. While I was in the production office I got this message from my agent asking me to call urgently. She said that a job had come back and she needed an immediate answer. So I got her on the phone and she said, “Warner Bros has fired the director on Free Willy and it’s in pre-production.” I was scheduled to go home from Russia to Australia (so I could catch up with my family) before going to Skywalker, but she said, “Can you come back to Los Angeles and meet me at Warner Bros?”

Blake J. Harris: That’s quite a detour.

Simon Wincer: [laughing] Yes, it was. But that’s what I did. And I’m in a room with these producers, it’s 8 o’clock at night and I’ve just flown in from Moscow. We talked about Free Willy and then they showed me—this is 4 weeks before they were scheduled to start shooting—and they showed me about 12 audition tapes of young boys. Kids auditioning for the lead part and they asked which actor I was drawn to. I said, “Jason James Richter.” They said, “Well, would you cast him?” I said, “Yeah, subject to meeting with him first.” By this point, it was like 10 o’clock at night, so they say okay and have him come into the studio the following morning. Lovely little kid, very bright and all that. We walked around the lot and I just chatted to him. He was so perfect. So I went back and said, “Yes, I’ll cast him.” Then they worked out a deal with my agent and said, “Great, you’ve got four weeks.”

Blake J. Harris: Obviously not a lot of time. How do you even get started?

Simon Wincer: What had happened was the younger director had written the script out of existence. The reason they fired him, he was one of those guys who—everybody liked him—but he couldn’t seem to make up his mind. They called him “Seymour” because he always wanted to see more things.

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Simon Wincer: So I got back with the writers and we sort of managed to, you know, pull the thing into shape. And then I flew down to Mexico where they had this whale in a tank, Keiko, and they were building the set at this theme park (which was closed at the time). Then we flew up to the Pacific Northwest; did a week in scouting, found the major locations and then I had to go home to Australia because I hadn’t seen my kids for a long time. So I took off for about five days, then came back and we cast the rest of the film.

Blake J. Harris: So you guys shot in Mexico and the Pacific Northwest?

Simon Wincer: Yeah, the first six weeks we shot in Mexico and then we went up to the Pacific Northwest. Nobody paid much attention to it because it was a little, reasonably cheap movie. And Dick Donner [the executive producer] was off finishing Lethal Weapon 4 (I think) at the time.

Blake J. Harris: What was the hardest part of filming the movie?

Simon Wincer: Well, the one thing we knew we needed to deliver was the moment where the whale escapes to freedom and leaps over the seawall. We didn’t know how the hell we were going to do that. And we had meeting after bloody meeting after bloody meeting. Because, you know, CGI in those days was pretty primitive. That was the year of Jurassic Park and the first time people had really seen what the potential could be. Eventually we worked out how we could do the thing. And we were able to, you know, pull that moment off.

Blake J. Harris: So how did you do it? Do you remember?

Simon Wincer: Yeah, well we were up in a little harbor. In a place called Arcadia.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah, yeah, I know Arcadia.

Simon Wincer: At high tide, we basically built a rocket-launcher and we put a full size whale on this rocket launcher (which was sunk into this harbor) and we fired the bloody thing. It went up this track and fired out of the water until it was about 6 feet out of the water and then it came to a stop. And then the shot continued, basically, as CGI. And then we had our full-size animatronic whale, which was just brilliant. A guy called Walter Conte built it. That was on a big crane, so we swung that over the boy’s head and then CGI it as it goes into the water.

Blake J. Harris: Wow.

Simon Wincer: So the combination of that, and then a stunning score by my dearly departed wonderful friend Basil Poledouris. The score was just fantastic…

Blake J. Harris: Did you have a sense that this film was going to be as big of a hit as it turned out to be?

Simon Wincer: Not at first. But after we finished a cut of the film and all the way through my editor, Nick Brown, kept saying, “You’ve got something special here, you know?” The story had so much heart and it was all coming together really well. And little Jason was wonderful. And Michael Madsen. Everything seemed to click. Then we had two previews of the film. The first preview was on a Saturday morning in Woodland Hills, I think it was. The film went through the bloody roof, you know? We were just overwhelmed by the reaction. The score came in at 96, which was one of the highest that Warner ever tested. Well, we had another screening two weeks later and everyone from Warner Bros was at that preview; puffing their chest out and claiming credit for their role in the movie.

Blake J. Harris: [laughing]

Simon Wincer: So the budget for the music went up and we could afford a song from Michael Jackson. It was just unbelievable. And one thing that was great about the film was we changed the way the world thought about whales in captivity and all of that. So it’s just a great family film with a lot of heart and great messages about family. Very proud of that film. And people still talk about it today.

D.A.R.Y.L.

Part 2: When Television Was Young

Blake J. Harris: Had you always known that you wanted to direct films?

Simon Wincer: Initially, I wanted to be a television director. That’s how it started. I visited a TV studio with my Dad. I just literally came along because he had some business there. And they were doing a live show. I saw the lights on in the studio, and the cameras, and this world whiz up before my eyes. And then I got another opportunity to sit up in the control room for a Tonight-like show, which was live every night. And as soon as I saw what the director did, I thought: that’s what I want to do.

Blake J. Harris: Awesome.

Simon Wincer: So I left school and started my career at the ABC, which is kind of like the BBC in England, I suppose. Started in Sydney and kind of worked my way up. And because Television was young, it wasn’t too hard to work my way up fast. Within like two years I was directing tiny live shows and smaller outside broadcasts. Stuff like that. Then the more I became interested in drama, first with television drama, the more I wanted to directed drama films.

Blake J. Harris: What was the hardest part of breaking into television?

Simon Wincer: Well…it wasn’t that hard. I mean, it was just growing so fast. It was the early days of Australian TV and I had a good education. I was pretty bright and prepared to work very hard. Double shifts and do all that stuff and I guess people pick up on that. After I spent about 5 years at the ABC, I wanted to direct drama. They said, “You must learn the theatre, dear boy!” So I actually started working part-time in the theater at night time, and then I loved it so much—I was learning so much—that I worked full-time in the theater for quite a few years. As a second rate actor and stage manager and all that. And that led me eventually to England, working in the West End. Eventually, I thought it was time for me to go back to television and I got a job with a production company over there. Because of my experience, I was made what they called a stage manager; which was basically an assistant director. And the first director I was assigned to was this very young and very, very talented production designer. And his name was Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott

Blake J. Harris: Ridley Scott? That’s great!

Simon Wincer: He had just come out of the design department. This was long before his commercial career, of course. And at that time, London was the center of the world. It was the place to be. After three years of working there, I came back to Australia and started working as an assistant director then later as a director on a whole lot of cop shows in Australia. And it sort of really grew from there. Doing these TV dramas and stuff. Loving the whole process. And I always loved films, you know? Always been a fan of movies. But TV was a good way of learning one’s craft; because you don’t have the time or the money or the budget. It was a fantastic experience, just doing week in and week out of television drama.

Blake J. Harris: As you were learning your craft, just as a creative voice, what were some of the biggest influences? What would you say really informed your style?

Lawrence of Arabia

Simon Wincer: The biggest influence, certainty, was Lawrence of Arabia. I just remember seeing that movie and it blew me away. Talk about craft. David Lean, he’s just so economical in how he chooses to show a moment or with a transition. Stuff like that. I was just blown away. Not only its epic nature, but wonderful content. Everything about it. That’s one thing that steered me along towards making the kinds of things I love to make.

Blake J. Harris: You’re back in Australia now. Did you ever live in Los Angeles?

Simon Wincer: Yeah, I lived there for 12 years. As a matter of fact, I’m married to an American art director. But we moved back to Australia back in 2007/2008. I had a couple of projects here. We lived in Santa Monica for quite a few years. I think I started making movies in America in 1984. I first commuted then bought a place there. And I’m back here now.

Blake J. Harris: I believe the first film you shot in America was D.A.R.Y.L. How did that opportunity come about?

Simon Wincer: I’d directed a movie called Phar Lap, an Australian film, and before that I’d done another film—I was the executive producer on—called The Man from Snowy River, which 20th Century Fox released. So suddenly I had American agents chasing me. And D.A.R.Y.L. came about through my first agent, a wonderful lady called Jane Sindell, and she was at ICM. I flew to New York and I started pre-production in October 1984, I think it was. I loved doing that movie because I had two sons exactly the same as the two leads in that film. And my two boys were a lot more athletic than the two boys in the film so they did a lot of doubling; swimming in the lake and riding bikes. It was a sweet little film. And got to work with some lovely people, including Marvin Hamlisch, who is no longer with us. He did the score and he was just great.

Blake J. Harris: I didn’t realize he’d worked on the film.

Simon Wincer: He was wonderful. I remember, during post-production he would call. And my daughter, she would say, “Daddy! It’s that rude man on the phone again.” Because Marvin was so full on, you know? He heard this comment and he laughed. He said, “I’m not really that bad, am I?”

Blake J. Harris: What was next? Did you want to keep working in Australia? More Hollywood? Did you have a particular preference?

Simon Wincer: I had a young family and I was keen to stay in Australia. But straight after D.A.R.Y.L. I was offered a television thing. A little TV movie for Disney. At the time when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had gone to Disney and taken the whole place over. They were involved with every aspect of the movie. And what they’d hired me to do was something called The Girl who Spelled Freedom. It was a movie reinvigorating the Wonderful World of Disney, which used to be on Sunday nights, you know? So that followed D.A.R.Y.L. and then I did a TV thing for CBS called The Last Frontier, which was half-shot in Australia and half-shot in America. It starred Linda Evans, Jason Robar and Jack Thompson. Very successful for CBS. Then I made my film here, The Light Horseman and so it goes on.

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