It’s no secret I was Team Hudson Hawk from day one in 1991. Although the film has achieved cult status among its fans today, it was a box office bomb in the summer of 1991. Some say it was ahead of its time, mixing musical numbers and wacky comedy with action. Producer Joel Silver once told me he thought it should have been more like Wayne’s World.
It is true that Hudson Hawk is not the movie Silver set out to produce, nor the one that screenwriter Steven E. de Souza wrote for Bruce Willis, and there is a very distinct reason for that.
Speaking at a 30th anniversary event for The Running Man, de Souza told the story of exactly when Hudson Hawk changed. He was in Italy with Willis and Silver.
“While I’m in the trailer, the phone rings and it’s [then Warner Bros. exec] Mark Canton calling Bruce Willis saying, ‘We just had a test screening of The Bonfire of the Vanities. You tested through the roof. We are recutting the movie to make your part bigger.’” de Souza recalled. “So Bruce gets off and says, ‘That was Mark Canton. They just had a test screening of Bonfire of the Vanities. I tested through the roof. They’re recutting the picture.’”
De Souza mimicked a proud fist pump that any actor might make when they receive good news. But Silver knew the writing was on the wall.
“Joel Silver kicks me and says, ‘Fucking Mark Canton just fucked his movie and ours. Watch what happens this week.’”
Silver’s predictions came true. Willis, who had originated the story of a cat burglar, essentially took over Hudson Hawk, bringing on screenwriter Daniel Waters. De Souza’s draft was more of a straightforward caper.
“Bruce decided the movie should get crazier and crazier and brought in Dan Waters, great guy, to make it crazier and crazier,” de Souza said. “Finally the studio [Columbia/TriStar] called me up and say, ‘You get along with Bruce. We’re sending you, your wife, all expenses paid. We have no money to pay you but we will send you over, rent a villa for you. You’ve got to take the pencil out of Bruce’s hand and put the script back to the one you wrote.’ I go there and Joel Silver immediately says, ‘Bruce hired us. It’s not our job to tell him he can’t make the movie he wants. It’s the studio executive’s and the studio executive is coming over here tomorrow.’”
But the studio exec they sent never had the conversation either. He arrived late one night. The next day was a robbery scene with no dialogue so the exec didn’t broach the subject. The following day, the exec doesn’t visit the set, saying he was on the phone with the studio all day. De Souza pointed out that the time difference between L.A. and Italy makes that impossible.
“This guy finds three days in a row to avoid belling the cat,” de Souza said. “Then it’s the weekend and then the following Monday he says, ‘There’s an emergency. I have to go back.’ So nobody tells Bruce to stop rewriting the movie and also directing the movie. So the movie becomes the movie Bruce wanted to make. The whole thing that they rob according to songs, these are all things that he wanted to do.”
De Souza thinks Hudson Hawk could have sold all its flamboyance if it had taken just one thing seriously.
“Even in a Disney movie, the villain is serious,” de Souza said. “In this movie the villains were stupid and silly. That was a bridge too far in my opinion.”
Hudson Hawk also missed a major opportunity to cast Audrey Hepburn as the villain. In the final film, Sandra Bernhardt and Richard E. Grant play the Mayflowers.
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“The first draft of that movie, the villain was going to be Joss Ackland,” de Souza said. “We wanted to get him. Then [director] Michael Lehmann said, ‘I have a better idea. Let’s get Audrey Hepburn to be a female villain.’ They had a conversation with her. It morphed into where Bruce said, ‘Let’s take the guy from the first [draft] and the girl from the second [draft] and make them a couple.’”