A Very Silicon Valley Moment Inspired Brett Leonard's Lawnmower Man

Brett Leonard's 1992 film "The Lawnmower Man" shares its title with a 1975 Stephen King short story, but the film and the source material couldn't be more different. 

In King's original story, a man hires an unusual-looking gardener to mow his lawn, only to find out that the gardener's lawncare process involves stripping naked and eating grass clippings. Before the end of the tale, the gardener reveals himself to be a satyr who works for the god Pan and murders the protagonist. 

Leonard's film, meanwhile, is about a kind, simple-minded handyman named Jobe (Jeff Fahey). Jobe is beloved by the denizens of his small town but is grievously abused by his caretaker, the local priest. Just outside of town is an experimental, computer-based mind laboratory that has been using a combination of drugs and virtual reality equipment to transform chimpanzees into cybernetically enhanced soldiers. When a chimp experiment goes awry, one scientist named Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) recruits Jobe into his experiments. The enhancement goes a little too well, and Jobe not only becomes more intelligent than any human being, but also develops VR-based mental powers. The film climaxes with a then-advanced computer-animated sequence inside a mainframe, with Jobe and Dr. Angelo facing off before Jobe can spread his consciousness into the ether and take over the world.

The film was such a departure from the short story that Stephen King successfully sued to have his name removed from the credits. Only the title remains.

Many appreciated the movie more than King, and in March of 2022 to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary, Leonard talked with Inverse about "The Lawnmower Man" and the very, very nerdy event that inspired its making.

We are VR

While Stephen King's name was certainly a draw for audiences, the real selling point of "The Lawnmower Man" was its use of then-cutting-edge virtual reality technology. In the film, VR was depicted as a tight-fitting helmet that covered one's eyes and ears, and a headset mic so that one could speak. The user then put on a special sensory suit that allowed them to feel various bodily sensations and then strapped themselves into a gyroscope that could rotate them 360 degrees in three dimensions. According to the movie, this was an intense enough experience to alter one's brain chemistry, and at least one person goes insane after using it.

Dr. Angelo and Jobe strap themselves into side-by-side VR hookups, and the former "throws" raw information into Jobe's brain, which he soaks up like "a clean hungry sponge." The experiment gives Jobe psychokinetic powers, but it's not until Dr. Angelo's shady, military bosses change the drugs that everything goes south and Jobe treks out into the world with domination and murder on his mind. 

Leonard, as a director, has always worked ably with high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art visual effects. He directed the animated "Kiss that Frog" music video for Peter Gabriel as well as Billy Idol's "Shock to the System," so it's not surprising to learn that he once attended a tech conference in Santa Cruz called Cyberthon. It was at Cyberthon that Leonard first tried on a VR helmet. It was also at Cyberthon that the central idea for "The Lawnmower Man" was born.


Cyberthon is a 24-hour-long marathon of tech demonstrations held annually in Silicon Valley. From descriptions, it sounds like a trade show in fast-forward, with hundreds of inventors only given an allotted time to compete for visitors' — and, I assume, investors' — attention. Leonard, interested in technology as it pertained to film, attended back in 1989. Here's his recollection of the experience: 

"Santa Cruz had a lot of people running around it, like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and a guy named Jaron Lanier, who had actually coined the term virtual reality. He introduced me to the technology very early, at this thing called the Cyberthon event: everyone stays up for 24 hours and checks out all the new technology. The idea came to me when I actually put on a headset that Jaron Lanier put on my head, which I believe was in '89. I just instantly said, 'Oh my God, I wanna make a movie about this.'"

Three years later, "The Lawnmower Man" was actual reality. VR continued to be a buzzword for several years, with movies like "Disclosure" and Leonard's own "Virtuosity" making their way to the big screen. Television shows like "V.R.5," "V.R. Troopers," and "Harsh Realm" also began to air. Later, the VR trend officially mutated into something new with the 1999 releases of "The Matrix" and "eXistenZ." Actual VR tech was never treated terribly seriously (look up Nintendo's Virtual Boy sometime), however, and it still has trouble gaining credibility now (look up the Metaverse sometime).

Leonard's "The Lawnmower Man" wasn't a hit despite the topical subject matter, but it has gained something of a cult following. In addition to "Virtuosity," Leonard made several successful 3-D IMAX films, as well as the early Marvel effort, "Man-Thing," in 2005.