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

steel movie

Part 4: South Central

Mark Irwin: Where we shot Shaq’s lair was on the edge of a, let’s say, a sketchy part of town. A lot of drug dealing going down. So we had Shaq’s character on a motorcycle and then a police helicopter following him and then above that our helicopter basically shooting the police helicopter. So we had 2 helicopters and a motorcycles driving through the neighborhood, not the kind of thing people dealing drugs are interested in hearing. They didn’t know we were shooting a movie.

Venita Ozols-Graham: And suddenly there was this ping-ping-ping.

Mark Irwin: Out of the alley gunfire

Venita Ozols-Graham: We had an electrician up in a commodore and I heard him over the walkie-talkie saying, “Shots fired, shots fired, I’m going dark and coming down.”

Mark Irwin: They’re shooting at our lights that are up on a crane, and then our helicopter. Okay, great. So who do we call? 9-11. Who shows up? Another helicopter. Now there’s three fucking helicopters and a motorcycle and the whole film crew hiding. Everyone’s under this metal thing. Pretty crazy…

Venita Ozols-Graham: A gang member had been killed at the bottom of the hill.

Mark Allan: But other than that, there wasn’t really any problems. We weren’t behind schedule, we weren’t over budget.

Kenny Johnson: In fact, I brought the film under budget.

Irma Hall: It was just a fun film. The main thing that I remember is I had a lot of fun doing it. And it was fun working with Shaquille.

Venita Ozols-Graham: I have an amazing story, actually. It’s not very long. But my five-year old daughter was an extra in the movie. And when she first met Shaq, he was sitting in a director’s chair on a little break. She walked up to him with a little wooden box and inside of it was a stuffed gecko. Just a little thing, like four or five inches long. And she carried it with her wherever she went; she loved this little gecko. So she goes up to Shaq and says hi and he looks down and say, “Hey! Who are you?” And I was just a couple feet away laughing. And she goes, “I’m Brigitte, I’m working on the movie to.” And he goes, “Hi Brigitte, great to meet you. What do you got there in that box?” She says, “My gecko.” Oh, is it a real gecko? She says no, and then she opens it up and hands it to him. So he takes a look at the little gecko and he says, “This is really nice.” Then he says to her, “Would you like a real one?” And then he looks at me—because he knows I’m her mother—to see if it’s okay and I just shrug my shoulders and go sure. And my daughter says, “Oh, YEAH!” She definitely wants a real gecko.

steel movie

Then, without Ozols-Graham realizing, O’Neal told her daughter to come by his trailer during the lunch break later that day. 

Venita Ozols-Graham: So I’m eating with everybody until all of the sudden my daughter yanks my arm. “Mom, mom, come with me,” she whispers, and takes my hand to drag me to Shaquille’s motor home. When we get there, she knocks on the door and the door opens. Shaq smiles and says, “Come on in, Brigitte and Mom.” And so I walk in behind my daughter and it turns out that Shaq has sent someone out to buy this huge terrarium. The whole nine yards; a desert scene with all this lightening and a couple of geckos in there. It was magnificent. I went, “Oh my god! Are you kidding?” And he said, “No, this is for Brigitte. The only thing I insist on is that you name one of them Shaq.” And she said, “You got it; the one with the brown and black tail.” So we took it home and we had Shaq and Ecko the Gecko. I was astonished.

Apparently, for a long time after that, crewmembers would walk around with toy cars and say: Look, Shaq, have you seen my toy Ferrari?

Venita Ozols-Graham: But then the story goes one step further. Bridget was on set the next day and she went up to Shaq and told him that she wanted to give him something. And she hands him the silk gecko, her favorite thing in the world. And I saw it coming and I saw him resisting. He really did not want to take it. And I said, “Shaq, people need to be able to give you to you too.” And he saw how serious my tone was. Because it was something my daughter really wanted to do. She didn’t just want to be a taker and I didn’t want to teach her to be a taker. I wanted to teach her to give too. So Shaq took the little silk gecko in his big hand and looked down at this little blonde girl looking up at him with big blue eyes and he was just really overwhelmed. He said, “Thank you, Bridget. Thank you. I’ll treasure this.” She said, you’re welcome and then skittered off. And it was just this really beautiful, poignant moment that I’ll never forget. Kind of like Frankenstein meets the little girl at the lake moment.

Conspiracy Theory

Part 5: Action Figures and Conspiracy Theories

On August 9, 1997—a week before Steel was released—Warner Brothers held a premiere for the film at Mann’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. 

Venita Ozols-Graham: The theater was packed. It was standing room only. Shaquille came, I brought my kids. And my kids were in the movie. It was a big deal opening.

Kenny Johnson: The movie tested great at 60 preview screenings. Warners was sure it would be a hit and it was very exciting to see Hollywood Boulevard closed off and packed with enthusiastic fans for our premiere. But our premiere was on the same weekend that Warners was opening another movie called Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson and Juliet Roberts when they were at the peak of their career highs. They were the hottest two stars in Hollywood and so Warner Brothers opened this movie called Conspiracy Theory and it didn’t open well. And I thought: oh my god. They’ve got Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts…and I’ve got a basketball player? They think my movie’s gonna open?

Venita Ozols-Graham: And they put zero advertising into it. It was astonishing

Kenny Johnson: The weekend that Steel came out, I went to several theaters in my area and you could fire a cannon off and not hit anybody. There was nobody there. It was exactly what I had worried about from the beginning. And the week after that happened, the entire marketing department at Warner Brothers was fired.

Leonard Armato: We were a little disappointed with the way that Steel was handled. Didn’t have the budget it needed, didn’t have the marketing it needed, didn’t have the resources it needed.

Venita Ozols-Graham: In theory, if they had marketed it correctly—to kids, to pre-teens—I think it would have been a hit. But not only was it not marketed correctly, it wasn’t marketed at all.

Mark Irwin: I don’t know. It’s funny, though, when you see something cut together and say: oh my god, this is so corny. But when you’re shooting all the pieces for that over a couple of weeks, you don’t get that sense. Of the aroma of corn coming out of the woodwork. [laughing] If you look closely at my IMBD list of shame there are a few contenders like Blonde Ambition, Freddy Got Fingered and Extreme Justice but I love them all like the bastard stepchildren that they are. But I had a fun time working on Steel and everyone did their best.

Mark Allan: If the people are nice and the crew is nice then I don’t think you really worry about it [the quality of a movie].

Leonard Armato: But, you know, it was somewhat of a frustrating experience. And at that point in time a lot of people were criticizing Shaq because he hadn’t won a championship yet. They were saying he was doing too many things, not focused on basketball. So I think there was still discussion about him doing more films, but when he came to Los Angeles, it was really important to him to win the championship. So I think he decide dot take a little break and then he did get in there and win three in a row so that was pretty good.

Kenny Johnson: I was happy with how it came out, considering the limitations. I’ve always tried to make a dime look like a dollar, hoping that the next time they give me a quarter. But usually they say: you did so well with a dime, what can you do with a nickel?

Venita Ozols-Graham: Like I said, Kenny is a special person. I remember going into his office a couple months after he hired me on Alien Nation and it was getting to a point where he was going to notice that I was pregnant. So I went into his office and told him. And what Kenny said was really wonderful. He said, “Had you told me, I would have hired you anyway.” I said I know that now, but I didn’t know that then. Honest to god, the only director I’d ever work for again as a 1st AD is Kenny Johnson.

Kenny Johnson: Well, the payoff is that about two months after the film came out I had lunch with Billy Gerber [who had since been fired by Warner Brothers]. “Billy,” I said, “Explain to my why you wouldn’t give me a star to have a chance of opening the picture.” And he said, “Well, you know, up until the week before we were really having second thoughts about the prospect. We heard your concerns and were thinking that maybe we ought to pull Shaq out of it and put in Wesley Snipes. Or somebody like that, somebody pretty formidable.” Yes, of course. That would have been great. Why did you not do that? “Well,” Billy said, “I’ll tell you. The marketing department at Warners came to us and said they thought they could sell more toys with Shaq than we could with Wesley.”


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