• Film

Forgotten Hollywood – The Making of “Waterworld” (1995)

It’s been called ‘Kevin’s Gate’, referring to the disastrous Heaven’s Gate that sank United Artists. It’s also been called ‘Fishtar’ with reference to the famous flop Ishtar. The film is Waterworld, the post-apocalyptic story of melting polar ice caps causing the world to be submerged in water, with a mutant hero complete with gills and fins saving humanity by leading the few human survivors to dry land.

The story begins with a young Harvard graduate pitching a script to Roger Corman’s company which was looking for a knock-off of the hit film Mad Max. But Corman’s company backed off when they found out that Peter Rader’s idea was to base the story on water. According to Rader, in an interview with Starlog magazine, Corman’s producer Brad Krevoy told him, “Are you out of your mind? A movie like that would cost us $5 million to make.”

But Rader decided to write a spec script anyway. It was bought by Universal Pictures by way of Largo Entertainment as a potential blockbuster with marquee names and a huge budget. Waterworld would become a mega-budget film starring Kevin Costner that cost $175 million, the most expensive to date. James Cameron’s Titanic, with its own production problems and cost overruns, was still two years away.


The movie tells the story of the few survivors on a deluged earth sheltering on floating villages called atolls, dreaming of a ‘Dryland’ that they believe still exists. Into their lives comes a mutant drifter called the Mariner (Costner) to sell a jar of dirt, but he is captured and sentenced to death when his gills and webbed feet are discovered. The atoll is attacked by a bunch of pirates called Smokers, led by the crazed Deacon who rides a tanker with a bumper sticker that says ‘nuke the whales’ and believes the captain of the Exxon Valdez, whose hulk he has appropriated for his living quarters, is a hero.


The Deacon is looking for a girl with a map tattooed on her back (Tina Majorino) which he believes will lead them to the Dryland. The girl’s guardian (Jeanne Tripplehorn) saves the Mariner’s life and demands his protection for her and the girl while they search for the Dryland.


Costner brought his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves director Kevin Reynolds onto Waterworld. Universal had wanted Robert Zemeckis or Lawrence Kasdan, but Costner was a huge star and what he said went. He was getting paid $14 million to act and produce. He threatened to walk if Reynolds wasn’t hired.

The initial budget of the film was $100 million with 96 shooting days scheduled. The budget was high because of the complicated sets. A floating atoll was built in Kawaihae Harbor, off the big island of Hawaii. It cost $22 million and weighed more than a thousand tons. Every bit of steel used to build it had to be flown in from the mainland.

Also to be built were a 30-foot trimaran (the Mariner’s sailing vessel – two were built at $500,000 each), a slave colony, and a model of the Exxon Valdez. A hurricane caused the slave colony set to sink a hundred feet into the harbor while it was still being filmed with stuntmen by a second unit. The set had to be pulled out and rebuilt.

Rader wrote seven drafts of the script before he was replaced by David Twohy. Production began without a locked script. Scenes were rewritten on the fly every night, including by Costner.


Several actors like Gary Busey, John Malkovich, Gary Oldman, and Laurence Fishburne were offered the role of the Deacon. Dennis Hopper was finally cast a month after shooting began.

There was one huge problem that could have been avoided if Costner had taken Steven Spielberg’s advice. According to Rader, in an interview with Yahoo! News, Costner asked him if he had any tips for filming on water, since Spielberg had had challenges making Jaws. Rader said, “Spielberg was unequivocal: ‘Do not shoot on water! You’re going to need a couple of shots on water, so use second unit for that. Do all of your coverage in a tank or a stage.’”

Costner didn’t listen to Spielberg. Thomas R. King, writing for the Wall Street Journal in 1995, outlined all the difficulties: “Even relatively simple scenes took longer than expected to film. Mr. Reynolds and his crew were frequently on separate boats filming the action, but waves would pull them apart, making it impossible to be certain that the camera angles were the same on each take. The makeup crew was also on a separate boat and had to be ferried to the floating set after each take. By the time the makeup artists got there, did their job and got out of the way, says a Universal executive, the boats with the cameras often had drifted, or the wind had ruffled Mr. Costner’s hair, and the makeup people had to start all over again.” Also, there were no bathrooms on the set. Actors had to be ferried to a barge nearby by boat to use the facilities.

King wrote further, “The problems helped boost filming time of one particularly tricky 10-minute scene to a full month – longer than it takes to shoot some entire movies. The sequence, in which 50 villains on jet skis attack and destroy the atoll that is home to Mr. Costner and his followers, began filming in the middle of last August, and didn’t end until mid-September.”


The exhausted crew had to deal with helicopter stunts and pyrotechnics. Accidents were frequent. Reynolds and several cast and crew got seasick, stuntmen were stung by jellyfish, and there were tsunami warnings that shut down production for hours. Costner nearly lost his life when, to do a helicopter shot, he was strapped to the trimaran’s mast during a storm. Costner’s stunt double had to be helicoptered to a hospital because of an embolism suffered during a deep sea dive.

Costner was also in the middle of divorce proceedings with his wife, Cindy.

Crew members were fired, including set designer Peter Chesney, effects manager Kate Steinberg, and first assistant director Alan Curtiss (who tried to convince the producers that 96 shooting days weren’t enough – they ended up shooting 166 days).

The executives of the company were so worried that MCA president Sidney Sheinberg, MCA motion picture chairman Tom Pollock, Universal president Casey Silver, and physical production head Donna Smith, along with Costner’s powerful agent Mike Ovitz, all got on the corporate jet to visit the set in order to determine what was really going on, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A little background about the studio. In 1990, Matsushita Electric Industrial Company bought MCA, owner of Universal Studios, for $6.6 billion. Soon after, Sheinberg and MCA chairman Lew Wasserman got into a dispute with Matsushita for more financial freedom at the time Waterworld was shooting. Waterworld’s production problems couldn’t have come at a worse time for the studio. Spielberg, who had made Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park for Universal, had left to form Dreamworks. Universal’s latest film, Junior, was a flop.

The executives put their game face on and insisted Waterworld would be a success, crossing their fingers for potential sequels and theme park rides. “In retrospect, life would be a lot easier and, at a human level, a lot of people would sleep a lot better if they didn’t have ‘Waterworld’ to worry about,” Sheinberg told King. Feeling “quite optimistic,” he added: “Whether we will make money or lose money, I don’t know. But I don’t think we’re sitting on a disaster.”

After the executives’ visit, scenes and stunts were eliminated to save money, including one which had the Deacon landing a plane on the Exxon Valdez, which is where the Mariner was to bring the survivors. Production moved to a water tank in Los Angeles. Costner agreed to forfeit his percentage of gross profits till the film recouped its costs.

Screenwriter Joss Whedon was hired toward the end of production for more rewrites. He described it as “seven weeks of hell.” He told avclub.com in 2001, “I refer to myself as the world’s highest-paid stenographer … Waterworld was a good idea, and the script was the classic, ‘They have a good idea, then they write a generic script and don’t really care about the idea.’ When I was brought in, there was no water in the last 40 pages of the script. It all took place on land, or on a ship, or whatever. I’m like, ‘Isn’t the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?’ And no one was listening. I was there basically taking notes from Costner, who was very nice, fine to work with, but he was not a writer. And he had written a bunch of stuff that they wouldn’t let their staff touch. So I was supposed to be there for a week, and I was there for seven weeks, and I accomplished nothing. I wrote a few puns, and a few scenes that I can’t even sit through because they came out so bad.”

Costner and Reynolds clashed repeatedly. Reynolds deferred to Costner during production, putting up with all his demands for rewrites and reshoots. When he produced his first 2-hour 40-minute cut, Costner didn’t like the wall-to-wall action and balked at Reynolds’ suggested reshoots as the summer release date was looming. Reynolds, on the other hand, thought Costner’s concern was just about his own character. Then, Costner took over in the editing room. Reynolds quit. “In the future, Costner should only appear in pictures he directs himself,” Reynolds is quoted as saying in Entertainment Weekly. “That way he can always be working with his favorite actor and his favorite director.”

When the film was released, it was actually No. 1 for two weeks. It grossed $88 million domestically and $176 million internationally. Because of the high production cost, it took years for Universal to recoup its losses through ancillary rights such as home video, TV rights, and video games. It has a 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which sums up the critics’ consensus: “Though it suffered from toxic buzz at the time of its release, Waterworld is ultimately an ambitious misfire: an extravagant sci-fi flick with some decent moments and a lot of silly ones.”

Waterworld got an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Universal’s theme parks in Hollywood, Beijing, Singapore, and Osaka still feature Waterworld shows.