How Did This Get Made: Kazaam (An Oral History)

francis capra kazaam

Part 3: All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

Francis Capra: Kazaam came at a really busy time for my mom and I, and for the family. We were at a transitional period. I had just finished production on this TV series called My Guys with Lorraine Bracco and was working with Rob Reiner on a series called Canterbury Tales.

In addition to those television shows, Capra was coming off major roles in A Bronx Tale and Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home. 

Francis Capra: So that brought us to LA and everything seemed to be going great, but at the same time I was running into issues with casting directors, where people were saying that I was “too urban” or that I had a “weird look.” I guess I was going through puberty—I went through some of the worst hairstyles in the world—and we never knew if I was too light, too dark. I think my mom could tell that it was starting to wear down on me mentally. And I maybe was getting a little insecure. Luckily I had the most amazing agent/manager in the world who introduced me to Paul Michael Glaser and I got that appointment for Kazaam and I got a one-on-one meeting with him.

Paul Michael Glaser: I liked Francis, thought he had a really interesting quality about him. And I didn’t want Max to be just like every other kid that you see in pictures. I wanted him to have some attitude.

Francis Capra: Me and Paul, I think we just hit it off. I remember in the room, Paul was really trying to get across to me that this story was about a boy discovering his relationship with his father. And I don’t remember the meeting with enough clarity, but it’s so cool—and also strange—that, looking back as an adult, that was my life. I had a disconnected relationship with my own father and went through a lot of pain and turmoil as an adult and growing up and dealing with that. Being estranged from such an important family member. I don’t remember if Paul and I had talked about that at the time, but maybe he was able to look inside and see that he could pull that stuff out of me. Because I think he absolutely did when we were shooting the film. He totally pulled out so many things from me that I don’t even think I realized that I was feeling about my own father. And we also talked about Shaquille O’Neal. I had no idea who he was. I was the most non-athletic kid in the world; I thought Shaq was a football player at the time.

Despite not knowing Shaq, Glaser knew that this was the kid he wanted. So a meeting was arranged between Capra and O’Neal. 

Francis Capra: Before I met with him, I had established [laughing] that he wasn’t a football player and figured out what sport he played and which team he played for. I think Shaquille he was in LA to shoot a music video. I remember walking into his trailer and, as soon as I saw him, the it felt like the trailer shrunk by like 50%.  He was such a massive figure. I’d never met anybody that big before. But it wasn’t just his size, it was his whole demeanor. He’s larger than life, man. He’s a child in an adult’s body…but it’s a massive adult’s body! It was just such an awesome time hanging with him. We talked about videogames and, specifically, I remember us talking about Mortal Kombat. The clincher of that meeting though was when he turned around and handed me a copy of Shaq-Fu, his videogame for the Sega Genesis. And I remember actually being like wow I want to go home and play this

Paul Michael Glaser: The two of them, they seemed to have a pretty good chemistry. And Shaq was very, you know, he was very good to Francis.

Francis Capra: One of the things we talked about during that initial meeting was his song “Biological Didn’t Bother.” And what I think is so funny is that he had this song about how his biological father didn’t bother, and then he met with me, and my biological father didn’t bother. And then in the story, Max’s father didn’t bother. So it’s like you have this crazy triangle of a father-son redemption story that refused to die. It refused to lay down and just shut the fuck up. In the end, maybe, it turned out to be too much of a recurring thing and maybe suffocated the entire film.

Paul Michael Glaser: Francis had a real good feisty quality about him and I waned to cast him for the part. But nobody [at the studio] agreed with me.

Christian Ford: We were not privy to a lot of the casting decisions and discussions, but I do remember that Paul was having a really hard time with Interscope. And I remember him just being livid some time at some of those things that were happening.

Paul Michael Glaser: I never got to the point where I was an auteur. Which is where I wanted to get to. So I became a talented director for hire, you know? And I had a lot of good experiences. But when you make a film like this, there’s a lot of compromise that goes on.

Compromise and competing visions (sometimes even from Glaser himself) would eventually plague the movie in a variety of ways. But before any of that really took hold, Glaser was able to cast his choice for Max and Francis Capra was hired.   

Francis Capra: As far as what happened next, I think we were just rushing to get everything ready for when Shaq was ready to start shooting.

Paul Michael Glaser: That kind of energy—racing the clock—is imparted to the film. Literally, I believe. A I think that can be a very good thing.

Christian Ford: For us, we were very excited. And there were some surreal moments at the beginning. Because Paul—given his personal situation—we saw him go from sort of dipping his foot back in the water to exploding back to life.

Roger Soffer: Let me paint one picture of that explosion. It was, what would you say Christian, 5:30 AM?

Christian Ford: Yeah, about 5:30, 6:00 AM. But he came to my place first.

Roger Soffer: He did? Oh, okay.

Christian Ford: Yeah so Paul in part of this explosion of re-experiencing life, it’s a Saturday morning and he gets on his bike and he comes racing down the bike path on the beach and comes over to where we live. And I’m awoken at some godawful time in the morning by my wife who says, “So I think Starsky is in the alley shouting your name.” And I hear Paul say, “I know you’re up there, I know you’re up there! But maybe you’re asleep. I’ll go see Roger.”

Roger Soffer: But you’ve got to understand that the reason he’s doing this—and the reason behind a lot of our experiences—is because Paul has one of the biggest hearts in the world.

Christian Ford: Uh-huh. He really does.

Roger Soffer: That’s his reality and it’s beautiful. Unfortunately, we were not strong enough, or not politically strong enough to help the movie become what it could have been. But I’m not sure anyone could have pulled that off. And had we been strong enough and able to creatively pull that off, then we might have fulfilled our agent’s prophecy and been fired.

Christian Ford: Bob Cort [the producer at Interscope], he was an old friend of Paul’s, and I think he basically gave this show to Paul because he felt he needed to. He cared. But at the same time, he was always uneasy about that decision; worried about how this movie would turn out. And because of that he was constantly making decisions and suggestions and pushing things that were—in his mind—going to help the whole thing be better. But clearly were antithetical and disastrous to what Paul wanted to do. So it wasn’t a situation that, I think, was ever going to yield something good. Except by accident.

Roger Soffer: In my opinion, the core idea had huge value. And it had emotional value as well. But in this case, it was inextricably intertwined with Paul’s emotional—and tragic—situation. He had a deep and powerful connection to something he wanted to see on the screen because of the loss he’d experienced and still was experiencing. So you’re going to have situations, like we did, where we’re working in a room with Paul and if we tell him his idea is not best for the story, then he might start crying. Because he can’t take the loss. He just can’t take another loss.

Christian Ford: When we were doing it we quickly moved from the “Wahoo!”—we’re doing it! we’re moving up!—to our role here is to in some way fulfill this part of Paul’s life. To act in some way as supports in his transition from a really dark place back into living.

Roger Soffer: I remember that feeling, I remember it. I mean, there’s the old artist cliché about getting too invested in your own work to really see what’s happening. And that’s true for any movie that gets made; you’re in the forest and you’ve lost the trees. But for Paul, it was a quantum leap beyond that. His emotional investment was about creating a second wish for a boy. Giving a second life to a boy. That’s what this movie was about. If I could only make my life better with this magical genie then everything would be good. Literally the psychic scenario he had to have been living, I would assume, with his own son. So he got caught between the sentimentality—based off his own horrible life experience—and the playful, fun irreverent comedy that it needed to be to have Shaq make it work. And so our nature was to accommodate. And we’re good at accommodating.

Christian Ford: Yeah. So we tried to do that and we tried to get paid.


Part 4: Wishful Thinking

Paul Michael Glaser: It was a time in my life when, what should we say? [chuckles] I wasn’t entirely there, you know? I mean I was getting the job done, doing the best I could. But my son had just lost a mother. I had just lost a wife. And so I was just doing the best I could to stay afloat.

Christian Ford: And even with everything that was going on, I think there’s a chance that it might have possibly all been okay, except the interactions with Interscope were disastrous. We had meeting after meeting after meeting in Bob Cort’s office in Century City. And Paul and Bob, who have known each other for a long time, would just get in these ferocious arguments with each other. I mean, one of the reasons that we didn’t get fired is because we wound up as go-betweens between the studio and Paul. And Bob, who had been in the CIA, was always sort of trying to use us as the lever to move Paul. And we’re just trying to keep our heads down and make sure no really stupid decisions are being made. But, in the end, we didn’t succeed with either I guess.

Roger Soffer: What the studio responded to was the notion of Shaq as a genie. That image right there is what made them do it. Shaq was still new at that point. He had a lot of presence. And Interscope was anxious to capitalize on his fame at that point. And you can just sort of imagine, if you take that, kid finds a boombox that has a magic genie and that is Shaq. And then imagine the most straight-ahead mediocre version of that. That’s what the studio was dreaming of. So when developing that idea, you would probably think: okay, what are the funniest and most outrageous, goofy and—this phrase is important—“anything goes” scenarios that I can do with that. And I say “anything goes” because” you’ve got a genie, so you can say, “I wish everyone around me was a rabbit, or a sexy woman, or anything.”

Christian Ford: There was a lot of arguing about the wishes because Roger and I were pushing for wishes that were outlandish. And the wishes we got were just like crappy. And the last wish, of course, is the summation of the whole thing. The second chance wish basically.

Roger Soffer: Which you know you’re going to get to anyway. But I would have designed the story where you don’t just have three wishes. You can play with it. I mean, they did a great job in Aladdin where anything goes. And that makes it fun. But we were not allowed to. We were forbidden from going down that road.

Christian Ford: And I guess at some point there was a day in which we were told by phone that we were fired. And then later that day we get a call from Bob Cort directly telling us that he’s just fired Paul, but he’s re-hiring us. Oh, okay then. And I guess by the next morning, Paul was re-hired and all was forgiven and we never knew what it was all about.

Roger Soffer: But we do know that around this time, the day before or the day of, Paul took me into the bathroom and Starsky-ed me.

Christian Ford: [laughing] Roger got roughed up on the bathroom…but not really roughed up though.

Roger Soffer: [imitating Glaser] “What did you tell him? Why did you say that?”

Christian Ford: That kind of stuff.

Roger Soffer: Because we were caught between all the craziness.

Christian Ford: The train was moving and there was nothing you could do about it.

Roger Soffer: Because of the deal they’d made with Shaq, and because of his schedule with the NBA, this movie was happening. It was happening regardless of the script and regardless of the story and regardless of casting decisions.

Christian Ford: And consequently, of course, that makes the studio panic.

Roger Soffer: And it makes the director panic.

Christian Ford: And it made us panic. You know, I believe they would have probably fired us, but they literally didn’t have time to do the process.

Francis Capra: It was like really, really, rush, rush. And as bad as the movie turned out, I have to say that I had a great time on Kazaam. And Paul was such a wonderful man and was a really great presence in our family. He and his son Jake were a huge part of my childhood. So I had a great time. But one question I have to ask: what the hell was Max Connor wearing in that movie?! That weird cargo vest type of hunter’s vest. Those corduroy khaki pants and that shirt with the weird cosmic design on it.

Hope Hanafin: I remember making the little boy’s t-shirt, coming up with a design that looks like outer space. He was a bit of a loner and he has that wonderful moment with stars on the ceiling so I wanted to give a foreshadowing of that. And the rest of his outfit? He was just sort of an awkward kid on purpose, so his things didn’t necessarily fit together well.

Francis Capra: [laughing]

Hope Hanafin: And I knew that our audience would be young people and I wanted to have an element of education in it. So Kazaam’s first costume is mostly Tuareg influenced, coming from Africa. And the fabric and all the bits that are sewn onto it are all trading objects; things that you could trade historically in Africa for goods. And his jewelry is Tuareg, which is a Northern African tribe. It’s really powerful, nomadic men with an aesthetic. So we had the jewelry made based on that. We had it molded on Shaquille’s scale and also all the rings and the belt buckle and all of that. So it was really fun to go back to North African roots to create his costume instead of just some fantasy thing out of a cartoon. We had a really fun time coming up with all his different incarnations of costumes. And he got more regal as he went on. Beautiful, like, 18th-century clothes; things that were more middle eastern and richer as the story goes on. In color in fabric in the broquets and the trim. And finally for the rap outfit we made that out of the first costume, but we made that out of chainmail which we had made, leathers and things that were also exotic. So he had pretty fantastical things. And I always remember walking behind him onto the set because he’d have to go up this ramp and he would just look huge.  He was a sweetheart to work with, just a doll. He called me Hopey-Hope, that was I guess my rap name.

Roger Soffer: The rap lyrics, actually, are one of the things I’m actually proud of (even though it’s not fully in the movie as we wrote it). We wrote these Broadway-like rap lyrics—it was mostly Christian, really—but we wrote incredibly funny, high-speed Broadway-style rap lyrics for Shaq. And they were hilarious. Everything was rhyming in crazy ways and it was so much. But in the recording studio we learned, as did everyone else, that Shaq has a rhythmical range. He cannot go too slow, he cannot go too fast.

Graham Stumpf: As the post-production supervisor on the show, my only experience with Shaq was during ADR. When the actors come back to re-record dialogue that may have had some technical issues, that kind of thing. And my recollection was that he was a pro. Super nice guy too.

Roger Soffer: I think, honestly, Shaq was fine on screen.  But he was fine on screen in a movie that wasn’t quite so serious. He had a great attitude, every day. I remember once my wife, who was pregnant at the time, she visited set and Shaq drew a basketball on her stomach. He’s a very, very nice guy. And he has no star ego about him.

Francis Capra: Shaquille, I just want to tell you, Shaquille was the consummate professional. I’ve seen people in his position—people at the height of their careers in something outside film and when they come to set they order people around and don’t know what they’re doing on set. But Shaquille never pulled that shit, man. The only problem we ever had with Shaquille was that he made us laugh too much.

Paul Michael Glaser: Shaq is a lovely man. He’s a really nice person. He’s always been really nice to me and to Jake and everything. I mean, he’s basically a kid. He’d never been on a film set before. He had, you know, a lot to learn. But he did it. He did it. And he had a natural ability; the camera liked him.

Francis Capra: I hate that because of how the movie turned out Shaquille gets the blame and people say he “can’t act.” I can’t stand that. Because that guy was so friggin awesome man. And not only did he do a great job as an actor, but he was a producer of that film too. I don’t know much about the money, but I know that if anything Shaquille lost more money on that film than he made. At the end of the day, we were so blessed to have him. He’s the most positive aspect of that movie. I hate when people make jokes and clown him about it. I can’t stand it, it really bothers me.

Roger Soffer: I just think the mix of tones that didn’t serve Shaq really, didn’t serve what he could do. And honestly, it didn’t serve the joy that he could bring. Because in the scenes where he is playful with Francis, the movie was fun, the movie is good. And yeah, he could have delivered some heartbreak and separation and whatever we needed, but it can’t have too much of that.

Francis Capra: There was so much of that stuff! The tone of the movie, it just kind of changed as we kept going along. All of the sudden, out of nowhere, we turned left-field and we started telling this really dark story. And it went all the way from like an after school special starring Shaquille O’Neal to this gritty story where my father is a drug dealer and my mom is a promiscuous alcoholic. And then you’ve got me—playing the most emotional kid in the world—who’s pretty much being told to break down and cry in every scene. What the hell is going on? And then it hit me in the face. This was Paul. Paul was going through something really, really painful. And in the end, I hope, I helped him get that out. I hope I helped him channel that as a director. If I was able to do that, in whatever small way, then that really warms my heart and brings a smile to my face.

When filming of Kazaam concluded in late September 1995, the following blurb appeared in Variety: 

“The final day of lensing on “Kazaam” was an emotional one, reports producer Scott Kroopf. First, Paul Michael Glaser, who directed (and produced), told the cast and crew of his feelings returning to work, and thanked them for the understanding and cooperation they all gave him. Secondly, young (12) Francis Capra was teary departing the movie and the close association (everyone had) with Shaq on the movie. After the basketball season, O’Neal is skedded to reteam with Kroopf on “Shaq Fu,” the movie… “

kazaam shaq

Part 5: The Cohesion of Things

Christian Ford: Kazaam was, for us, it was a whirlwind. And then suddenly it was over. And it was very interesting because I think the big thing that it did for us—besides being this thing that we then had to explain away when we went into meetings—was that it really sort of blooded us, if you will. It made us see how the process typically worked and the problems with it and how it was designed to not necessarily produce good work.

Roger Soffer: I would say that blooding, that arrow, took about 15 years to clear the body.

Paul Michael Glaser: Do I have a favorite part of Kazaam? You know, I like the premise of the story a lot. I like the premise that a genie has granted so many wishes to mankind that he’s lost his faith and his heart. But in the end, he finds his power—or magic, if you will—when he finds his heart. And the boy does too. I think that’s a real good metaphor for our world.

Roger Soffer: The force of positive will that Paul had to not just sit there and wallow but actually stand up and create? It’s astonishing in retrospect.

Christian Ford: I remember Paul saying, “All I’m trying to do is be present in the moment. And not be trapped in the memories or the What Ifs.” And it’s funny, sort of, because that’s of course an actor’s primary skill. To be totally present and open to whatever is happening in a scene at that moment. That was the skill he was drawing on to, you know, not fall apart while this was happening. This was a creative baby. He was making a living thing in response to this terrible loss.

Francis Capra: There were some signs during production that maybe this thing was kind of spinning out of control. Towards the end, it did feel a little bit like Paul was losing control of the cohesion of things.

Christian Ford: There was a day they were shooting in downtown LA and they called us. “We need a new Act 3.” Huh? What? “I said we need a new Act 3.” “But aren’t you shooting Act 3 right now?” And they said yes. I said, “So you need it now, then?”

Francis Capra: So you had situations like that, and all kinds of issues with the tone, and what we ended up with was this sin upon mankind of modern filmmaking. But I promise you though, regardless of the way I make jokes and I talk about it and whatever, I will always look back on Kazaam as one of the greatest times of my life. And I can tell you right now, you don’t know how many people come up to me and say that movie was like a great part of their childhood and they loved it.

Roger Soffer: Occasionally, I’ll meet a person who will literally tell me that Kazaam is their favorite movie. And I stare at them like an anthropologist and try to figure out where exactly this person came from.

Francis Capra: I sometimes think about Kazaam’s legacy. And I’ll wonder: are we ever going to get to the point where people will look at the movie and say it’s so bad that it’s good? But I feel like we’ll never get to that point because it’s not that Kazaam was “so bad that it was good,” it’s more like it was so bad that it was strange.”

Paul Michael Glaser: I think we ran into a problem with this film that had just come out called Cool Runnings. It kind of lived in the same world, you know? So Kazaam didn’t do great. But it didn’t do awful. I don’t know ultimately how it did at the end of the day. It might have made some money.

Christian Ford: Strangely, the song “We Genie” is a hit in Brazil for some reason…

Hope Hanafin: I’ve done now 54 movies and I’ve kind of given up trying to predict how people are going to respond to the film when it comes out. Kazaam, I think, may have been the start. You just can’t tell. Or I prefer not to. Because if you think it’s going to be bad, it might be harder to keep working on something. But I can tell you this: I loved working with Paul Michael Glaser. He has a vision and he is visual. He encourages you to be better. You give him an idea and he goes with it and can often improve on it and make it larger. He’s not afraid. His humanity kind of rules the day. He’s kind and funny and warm. He’s the kind of guy who can eloquently recite poetry. And I’m really sorry he’s not directing more, I really enjoyed my time working with him.

Roger Soffer: Once when I was going to do a poetry reading, at some point in between then and now, I said to Paul, “I’m nervous. I don’t really know how to do this.” I’m not an actor and I had to go up and perform. He said, “You only need to do one thing.” And this really does sum up Paul. He said, “Just speak from your heart.” That was his whole advice and it’s his life, I think.

Francis Capra: I’m grateful to have worked with Paul. I mean, it’s hard for me to even put into words how much that experience meant to me. Being around Paul and Shaq and also Bob Engelman, who was a producer on the film. In fact, that’s actually how I got my next project after Kazaam. Bob’s production company was going to be make this film called A Simple Wish. I heard the names Martin Short and Kathleen Turner and I was like: oh my god, I want to do it! But of course it had to be a movie about a fairy godmother who was played by Martin Short. So it probably wasn’t the best follow-up to a movie about a rapping genie with Shaquille O’Neal. And that, my friend, is how you kill a fucking career right there.

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