Somehow my friend and ILM veteran, Tom Smith, located me in Stowe, Vermont. I was coming back from London after the wrap of Willow on which I had performed a number of odd tasks, one of which was to head the “Baby Unit.” We spent a month shooting close-ups of the golden-haired baby, Elora Danan, played by six month old twin sisters, Kate and Ruth Greenfield. The idea was that while one slept the other would be ready for her close up. Unfortunately, they were like two babies with one identity. When one yawned, the other yawned. They slept, woke, cried and spit up in perfect sync.
As a wrap gift, the producer Nigel Wooll sent me home on the Concorde. We left Heathrow at 6:30pm and arrived a half hour earlier, at 6:00, in New York. True time travel, the only kind I believe in. There were eight passengers and eight flight attendants and the flight was so smooth at 59,000 feet you could balance a penny on edge on your tray table. It’s probably the only time I’ll ever see the curvature of the earth with its bright blue corona, fading up into the blackness of space. Pure magic.
So I’m enjoying Leaf Week in Vermont when a telegram from Tom reaches me. “Call me. Emergency.” or some such cryptic message. Turns out that Disney was firing the director off a kid’s picture called The Teenie Weenies and they’re five weeks from starting principal photography. Tom was producing the visual effects and would naturally appreciate a director who’d had some experience in that universe. Tom had a script waiting for me at the United counter at O’Hare in Chicago and he had already scheduled a meeting in seventy-two hours.
I called Tom from a pay phone at O’Hare and explained that I was pretty beat from the Willow shoot and was looking for a few months of down time, but I agreed to read the script and give them my honest assessment. “And bring your reel!” he said. “I don’t have a reel,” I replied. “All I have on tape is my black and white student film.” There was silence on the line for a beat. “Oh. Well, if that’s all you have…”
By the time we reached cruising altitude, I had decided I really didn’t want to go right back to work. I read the script and proceeded to make notes that I was fairly sure would lose me the gig. I cut the number of characters down, changed all the effects sequences, making them bigger and more expensive, and suggested taking out some moments that read like they had to be someone’s favorite.
I met Jeffrey Katzenberg and the creative execs, pitched them my notes, left a VHS of my student film and walked out, already planning a holiday in the tropical sun. I got a call the next day from Katzenberg. “We want you to do the picture.” I stuttered and coughed and said, “You’re hiring me based on my student film?” I asked. “No, we didn’t understand your film,” he explained, “We like your notes.”
The entire film was shot at Churobusco Studios in Mexico City. It was an ordeal like no other before or since but we cling to the pleasant memories so much more easily. Hardships always bring a crew together, and I made some great friends and learned by my own mistakes and those of others. There were days when golden rays of god-light would shine down and make it all worthwhile like the time I walked out of my office at the end of a miserable day and almost ran into Gregory Peck who was looking for his production offices. He asked me if I knew where the OLD GRINGO office was and seemed amused as I just looked at him like I’m thinking, “Where am I? That’s Gregory Peck. What’s he doing at this crappy old office building in Mexico City?”
The city itself has a tired beauty about it. It was once one of the great capital cities of the world and the history is everywhere. I rented a house in the San Angel district and roamed the streets alone at night when I couldn’t sleep. I don’t think I’d want to do that today, not without an armed guard anyway.
I could write a book about making Honey, I Shrunk the Kids but I’ll just say it was wonderful and terrible, beautiful and hideous, joyous and infuriating all at the same time. When I got off the Delta Airlines flight at LAX for my final trip home, I kissed the ground and didn’t get any strange looks from the disembarking Americans.
The editor, Mike Stevenson, and I spent the next few months cutting the film and dropping in visual effects from a variety of VFX houses.
We struggled for months to find a title. The film was called THE TEENIE WEENIES, GROUNDED, THE BIG BACKYARD and a few others that were even worse. Jeffrey Katzenberg called the cutting room one day to say, “I’ve got it!…HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS! Our jaws hit the floor and we said, ”What?!?! You’ve got to be kidding.” I hated the title, but the focus groups loved it, and after a while it began to grow on me. Now, of course, I can’t imagine the film being called anything else. My old pals at ILM, Phil Tippett and Dave Allen, animated some wonderful stop-motion ant and scorpion sequences that still look better to me than most computer-generated animation today.
In previews the film was fairly well-received, but I didn’t think it was necessarily going to get me another directing gig right away. A job offer from ILM came along that sounded like my kind of fun…to direct the 1/5th scale miniature aerial sequences for a picture called Always about guys who fly over forest fires and drop fire retardant. Steven Spielberg wanted the effects done the old fashioned way, with big miniatures, all in-camera, the way the Lydecker brothers had done it starting in the thirties. I took the gig partly because it meant I could fly my ultralight, an American Aircraft Falcon while we were based at an old practice landing strip out in Tracy, California.
Always was probably the most fun I’ve had on a movie set during my career. We burned thousands of Christmas trees, crashed a half-dozen radio controlled A-26 bombers before we decided to hang them from wires and let the afternoon wind do the work of moving the smoke, and I got to fly my plane every day alongside the camera plane, a two-seater Falcon.
I was out in Tracy having the time of my life and Katzenberg was trying to reach me at my home phone in Marin County. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids had opened the same day as BATMAN and had hit some amazing number the opening weekend. I didn’t have a cell phone and the Disney guys didn’t know where I was. It was like that great scene in THE BIG PICTURE when Kevin Bacon goes for a drive in the desert with his girlfriend while every agent and studio head in Hollywood is trying to reach him. Classic.
Anyway, HONEY cost 18 million, eventually made about 136 million domestic and generated two sequels, a series and a ride at Disneyland. It was the first time a debut film crossed the 100 million dollar mark at the box office. Thank you, Tom Smith, for knowing where to find me, in the frosty woods of Vermont.