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Part 3: The Tape

Richard: Remember answering machines? Real answering machines? Where you could listen to the beginning of someone’s message and see who it was before picking? Well what happened was, months earlier, Whoopi had called me at home. So I heard “Hey Rich, this is Whoopi” and of course I picked up. And I said something like, “look, we’re getting ready to hire people and all this other stuff, so I want to make sure you’re 100% committed.” She said, “I’m 100% committed, I’m 100% behind this.” And what I later realized was that the answering machine had still been recording, so I had this entire conversation on tape.

Stefano: That was definitely the element that ultimately changed everything. But it was also something that pissed Whoopi offer 100 times more.

Richard: Whoopi’s people claimed that I had recorded this illegally, but the tape expert we hired testified that everything had been done on the up and up. So she hired a tape recording expert, a guy by the name of Anthony Pellicano. He was a private detective and fixer to the stars. So he was their expert witness, we had our expert witness and depositions were taken.

Stefano: This situation with Whoopi was handled horribly, horribly. And I cannot point just to Richard; I think it was a collective fault.

Richard: And so off we got into this lawsuit. It got a lot of attention in the press. This was the beginning of an era where cameras were allowed in the courtroom, so we kept showing up in the news.

Jonathan: You know what, I think that in endeavors like this that to fall in love with only one actor is a fast-track to getting your heart broken. Because you’re suddenly limited by your own desires.

Richard: After some time, the judge gave the impression to Whoopi that there was a really good chance she was going to lose this case and that she ought to settle.

Theodore Rex

On September 9, 1993, they parties agreed to entered mediation, with retired Los Angeles Judge Lester E. Olsen hoping to bring the parties to a settlement. For his efforts, Judge Olsen was later awarded a special production consultant credit on Theodore Rex.

Richard: Whoopi was working on something else at the time, so these mediation sessions would begin around 6 PM every night—at these lawyer’s offices in Century City—and go until 2 or 3 in the morning. This went on for days. Whoopi would be in one room with her attorney and I would be in another room with mine, and then a mediator went back and forth. Finally I said: “We’re not getting anywhere. Let me just sit down with Whoopi; let’s see if the two of us could work this out man to man, man to woman.”

Stefano: I was pretty bearish on the outcome. I had met with Whoopi in New York before discovery had been filed and, even at that point, she said, “I’m not interested in settling any more and we’re going to go through this.” So I had mixed feelings at best.

Richard: She didn’t want to sit down with me, but eventually her lawyers talked her into it. So we met in a room—we each had one attorney there, but they weren’t allowed to speak—and I remember sitting down and she starts out with a bang. She goes, “Just for the record: I hate your guts.”

Jonathan: You learn a lot of things when you make a movie. Any movie. And the number one thing I learned on this one was: you can’t sue your star.

Richard: Then she goes, “Maybe in ten years, you and I can have a cup of coffee and laugh about this. But you’ve made my life a living hell and I hate your fucking guts.”

Stefano: Horribly, horribly.

Richard: And I said: okay, I completely understand that. But I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. And you’re caught between a rock and a hard place. So why don’t we figure something out? Suppose I give you a little more money? She didn’t dismiss the idea and, funny enough, because this mediation had been going on all night we got to a certain hour the Italians were awake so I could call them and get things done.

Stefano: We ended up paying her $7 million to do the film.

Richard: Which means it really cost $8 million when you add in the legal costs. And at this point, it became clear to me that just by suing her—by being the frontman in the news—this was going to hurt my career. And also at this point, the Italians weren’t happy with me because I was the guy who had gotten them into this thing. Plus, you know, Whoopi had banned me from ever showing up on set. And the other thing was, I can’t remember why, I’d lost faith in Jonathan’s ability as a director. Everything was bad. So we decided to go our separate ways, Stefano and I. Everything was bad. It’s long enough now that it doesn’t bother me any more, but every thing was just kind of bad, you know?

Theodore Rex

4: Little Ship, Big Ocean

Stefano: I ran into Whoopi twice during pre-production. One of those times, I was walking out of an office and she was walking in. I said hello but she did not. Instead, she muttered under her breath: motherfucker. And from then on, she referred to me as “motherfucker.” That’s who I was.

Jonathan: Stefano and I, we became closer. Because I think that we both just thought: we’ve come this far, let’s see if we can’t make it all the way. When you set out to make a movie, you’re in a little ship in a big ocean and you’re hopefully pulling on the same oars together with the same intent. And each day brings a new trial that you hopefully overcome. The only problem with that is that sometimes you don’t know if you overcame it or not until production is over and it’s four months later.

Stefano: To replace Richard, I brought in Sue Baden-Powell. She was a good line producer, but was affected by the tension on the set.

Jonathan: I had to sort of distance myself from the legal aspects of things. And just say to Whoopi, as well as the rest of the cast and crew: let’s tell a nice, a sweet story. Let’s tell a story of innocence.

Stefano: By the time production began, the dinosaur (instead of being a Ferdinand-the- Bull-type), he was now just an idiot. The story had become very kiddie-like.

Jonathan: Production was a struggle, but one of my favorite parts was how beautiful Walter had made the set.

Walter: The concept I came up with was kind of a cross between a children’s book and science fiction vibe. So we had a really unique look that I was really excited about. In terms of inspiration, there’s a children’s illustrator named Chris Van Allsburg; he did books like Jumanji and The Polar Express. He tended to work in a kind of a pastel look, so I did all of my concept art in oil pastels to capture that soft rounding of pieces. A real textural light and shade. That’s why the painting of the building was purples and blues and yellows. We wanted to saturate color everywhere to dull the sci-fi edge. So the paint work was really essential on the job.

Jonathan: For the budget we were given, we tried to make a little jewel box of a picture.

Walter: Jonathan was great. He was a great conceptual thinker and really had a vision for how to make this film stand out. But the thing that would occasionally become frustrating with Jonathan was that whenever we were halfway through something, he would tend to get a fresh idea and say, “Hey, why don’t we do this instead? Let’s change this and this and this.” And since, you know, it takes weeks or months to design a particular set, I’d have to kind of talk him down.

Stefano: Jonathan’s a great writer, but he’s just not a director. And that was an issue.

Walter: We were under the gun and just didn’t have the time, so I’d wound up saying something like “Of those five things you want—like maybe he’d seen them done in a movie he watched over the weekend—what’s your favorite thing? Pick one thing and maybe there’s enough time to do that.” Otherwise, I really enjoyed working with him. He was a nice guy, and very smart, so you really wanted to accommodate him as much as you could. After all, it was his baby.

Bruce: It was his baby, but that was the thing. He had a lot of passion, but he couldn’t stop worrying about the child. There was tons of second-guessing because he was mother and father.

Jonathan: No parent can admit they have an ugly child, you know what I mean?

Bruce: So I think he was doing his damndest to make this opportunity work but because of that whole legal situation he really didn’t have anyone left that to support him and bounce around ideas. Then you throw in that he had Whoopi Goldberg as God. And he and Whoopi did not work.

Jonathan: I knew Whoopi did not want to be there, but there were times when I thought she bought into what we were doing and others time where she did not.

Bruce: They were just two people who approached creativity differently. Whoopi had a super honest, let’s-communicate attitude whereas Jonathan—and I’m not saying one is better than the other—he likes to ruminate and figure things out on his own. And this dynamic was very clearly not working.

Stefano: They weren’t best buddies at first, but they did at least get along. But I think that as the film progressed, Whoopi sort of made certain demands—certain requests that he disagreed with as a director—and that just added to the tension on set. You know, I wish I could give you more specifics, but I had been banned from the set by Whoopi.

Bruce: What was Whoopi like? Well let me tell you about my first day on set. So I’m there—controlling the dinosaur—and I’m performing the hell out of the eye-blink because the rest of the mechanics are busted. Here I am, on the first day of my first feature film, and nothing’s working and they’re just yelling at me to keep going. So Whoopi looks right at me and she shouts: “IS THIS FUCKING THING GONNA WORK?” She’s staring right at me and I just wither and say “we’re trying.” And she goes: “IT BETTER,” then she storms off the set. So I go back to my little honeywagon. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in one of these things, but it’s just a toilet with a really stinky bed. And I’m in the fetal position, saying to myself: it’s over, my career is over. I’m just gonna go home to wife and have to tell her what happened. “Whoopi yelled at me and I’m never going to work in any town or any planet known to man ever again.”

Walter: What was Whoopi like? Boy, I was hoping you weren’t going to ask me that. I’d rather not give you any specifics, but let’s just say that, to this day, if I see her on TV or something I have to change the channel immediately.

Bruce: But it turns out that once we got things going and Whoopi realized where she was, she kind of took me under her wing. She noticed I was in this little crappy trailer— playing the lead alongside her in the movie—and she said “let me get you a real trailer.” So she got me a trailer and we started talking and we became great friends. She was amazing to my family and my son throughout all of Theodore Rex.

Walter: The biggest challenge with Theodore Rex was factoring in the scale of the dinosaurs in this world. For example, here’s a classic issue that came up a lot: Whoopi is a normal human height [she’s 5’5”], but our dinosaur was something like ten feet tall. And he had this tail that was about five feet long. So when I’d start to lay out the plan for a set, I’d always have to factor in this tail-radius of 5 feet so that he could turn around. If you didn’t have that space, then he’d be knocking down a table every time he turned around. And there were little things too that you couldn’t forget about; like if the dinosaur was going to sit down, you had to design a chair with a hole in the back so that the tail could go through.

Jonathan: This was before CGI, so we were at the mercy of many things.

Walter: The other major challenge was the city was supposed to be a grid—a yellow grid—so whenever we were on location I’d have to map out where exactly our characters were supposed to be on the grid and color it accordingly. So the paintwork that went on had to be done on a realistic scale. Today you could probably do most of this in color correction. But back then, for example, when the script called for an 80-foot tall purple building with some remnants of the yellow grid, we literally had to paint an 80-foot tall building purple and yellow. It was pretty cool, actually.

Stefano: It was very colorful and very cartoonish and, yes, it looked nice. But, again, this brought about a question of tone.

Bruce: I was less concerned with tone than actually getting the animatronics to work. When I first arrived on set, the controls weren’t working.

Stefano: Something that got overlooked, because the film took so many years to put together, was how much the technology had changed during that time. When we started, the show Dinosaurs was a big hit. And then you had the Muppets too, and whatnot. And so the people we hired to construct the suits and machines and mechanical things, they were top-notch…for 1989. Fast forward to 1994, when CGI started evolving very quickly, and we were out of the game. In fact, I remember going to Cannes and seeing the premiere for a movie called Dragonheart, which used CGI. And I remember sitting there in the audience and saying to myself: we’re fucked.

Bruce: And to make matters worse, the whole first month was spent filming at night. And LA had been hit by this unbelievable cold snap—I swear, it was like 20 or 30 degrees every night. And there was so much fog that we sometimes had to wait around for hours. We were freezing our butts off. That’s just not the way to start any production. Freezing. Shivering. Chattering. Whoopi looked fantastic though. She was in the best shape of her life. She was wearing this tight black stuff and she was sexy, man. She was absolutely just glowing. And also pissed, of course.

Jonathan: You gotta live and you gotta learn as you go.

Bruce: I don’t know what happened with Jonathan, but he was so insecure that he kept re-writing the script as we went along. So he would think up lines and then I’d run up to the actors and give them the latest material. I remember one time, Armin [Mueller-Stahl], who played the villain, he replied, “Hey Bruce, how about we try the lines as they were written for once? Please.” Because the changes, they kept coming and coming. Jonathan was in way over his head, and he was trying his best to tread upwards. And Jonathan did his best, God Bless him. But he was just overmatched. He was overmatched by people who weren’t going to put up with the nonsense of someone who didn’t know what they wanted. That’s the killer.

Stefano: Jonathan always had confidence, but then whenever he’d be confronted, he would retreat a little bit. Especially in front of Whoopi. You could just sense that his “bigger than life” personality wasn’t there on set.

Bruce: Oh, we just had so many crazy things happen, you know? Like there were some rival puppet builders who came in to take pictures of what we were using, and then they got caught doing a little bit of espionage. It was the craziest process. The stupidest, nonsensical stuff. And we just shot and shot and shot this thing. And it was never over…

Until it finally was. Production finally wrapped and although things had not quite gone accordingly to plan, New Line Pictures had already agreed to distribute the film. Perhaps, miraculously, viewers would find the charm in this movie? Maybe the final product would be greater than the sum of all these strange parts? It would now be up to theatergoers to decide except until it wasn’t.

Continue Reading Theodore Rex (An Oral History) >>

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