How the whammo theory failed to save Hudson Hawk

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The production of Hudson Hawk was in trouble pretty quickly – but a formula that had served producer Joel Silver well was hopefully going to come to the rescue.

In spite of the box office success of Die Hard 2: Die Harder, the opening of the 1990s was not a great time for Bruce Willis at the movies. Bonfire Of The Vanities was a high profile failure, and an infamous Hollywood production at that. And he followed that in 1991 with a passion project of his, Hudson Hawk. It was a film that didn’t end well either.

Depending on who you talk to, Hudson Hawk is either a total mess or ambitious and underappreciated. Personally, I tend to lean towards the latter view, although I suspect I’m not in the majority on that one. That said, which studio wouldn’t have wanted to be in the Bruce Willis business at the time the project came to life?

I’ve covered the film’s story before on a podcast episode here, but the guts were this: Willis came up with the story, along with Robert Kraft. They’d come up with a song, fleshed it out into a film, and it remains the sole writing credit of Willis’ career (he’d be credited with story, with Steven E de Souza and Daniel Waters getting screenplay credit).

TriStar, newly under Sony ownership, agreed to stump up for the film, whose budget swelled to $65m by the time the movie was released. And it wasn’t long before it realised it might be in trouble. Production overruns, tales of Willis being, well, a stereotypical movie star, and lashings of negative press were all present and correct. For TriStar, though, the biggest concerns were that some of the rumours of problems to do with the film weren’t rumours at all: there were true.

The studio was in a state of flux. Having taken over both Columbia and TriStar from The Coca-Cola Company at the end of the 80s, Sony then installed Hollywood producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run the studio, much to the surprise of the town. The pair were hardly known for going about things on a tight budget, and a brief era of mega-spending ensued (including $100m spent on renovating the studio lot for a start).

The pair then hired Mike Medavoy – who’d built up a successful run at Orion – to head up the TriStar arm of the business, assuring him of autonomy to do so. That wouldn’t turn out to be the case, but Medavoy wouldn’t immediately know that. In fact, as he moved into his new office, Hudson Hawk was an instant priority. He discussed the film in his memoir, You’re Only As Good As Your Next One, where he confirms that within three weeks of filming beginning, the production was already notably off-schedule.

He’d wanted to back out of the project, but was dissuaded from doing so by Guber, who said it was Medavoy’s decision either way, but reminded him too that the studio by this stage had already spent $12m on it. He felt the movie was “a disaster in the making from my first day at TriStar”, but reluctantly the green light was given.

One figure who would offer some comfort to the studio was producer Joel Silver. He’d delivered the expensive but successful Die Hard 2 the summer before, and his 80s track record of course includes the likes of Predator, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. He was known for being, er, ‘vocal’, but he was also known for big hit movies.

And Joel Silver had a plan.

Mike Medavoy discovered this plan when, three weeks into production, he boarded a plane to Rome where the film was shooting at that time. The immediate problem was that inside those three weeks, the film was already going over budget and schedule. Then Medavoy took a look at some of the footage that had been shot. As he wrote in his book, he was certain that the film was going to be ‘a total ‘clucking’ disaster’ and that ‘there was no way to stop the train wreck’. Instead, he went into damage limitation mode, and held a blunt meeting with Willis and Silver. “Maybe you had a movie in mind”, he told them, “but I gotta tell you, I don’t see it”. Neither ‘seemed to be terribly concerned’ by his words.

For Silver was planning on using a formula that had served him well across his previous productions: he was going to dig out the ‘whammo’ chart. Now this chart wasn’t his invention – in fact, in this interview, he credited an unnamed Egyptian producer for the idea. But the basics of the whammo chart were that your film was going to be okay, as long as you had an action sequence every ten to 12 minutes, to keep the audience awake.

In much the same way that when Richard Curtis writes a big screen comedy he aims to get a big laugh in the first ten minutes to get the audience onside, Silver was relying on Hudson Hawk’s regularly-spaced action sequences to keep people invested.

It’s worth noting too that on his trip to Rome, Medavoy pulled a shitty trick, whispering to director Michael Lehmann – who was making the jump up to big budget productions following his breakthrough with Heathers – that ‘this would be his neck and not [Willis’ and Silver’s] if the film failed’. ‘He didn’t think that was funny’, Medavoy wrote, ‘but what could he have done anyway?’.

Must admit, I asked myself the same question when I read that.

The whammo chart – that had served Silver and his production partner Larry Gordon so well on the likes of Predator and Lethal Weapon – didn’t do the trick this time. In fact, the film found itself savaged by critics, and became the highest profile Hollywood blockbuster underperformer – I’m loathed to use the word flop – of 1991. It’s earned a cult status since, and deservedly so: it’s an off the wall major Hollywood movie, for all its foibles. But for TriStar, the project was something of a disaster. The whammo chart had failed.

One further thing. Silver would suffer fallout from this one, as his run of hits came to an end. He moved from Hudson Hawk to another Bruce Willis project, The Last Boy Scout, which also underperformed, although is regarded as a much better film. Still, the relationship between Willis and Silver soured across the two projects, to the point that when it came time for the third Die Hard film, Silver was paid off not to be involved with it at all. But that’s a story I’ve told in this podcast, here


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