The 1995 science fiction epic Waterworld is considered one of the biggest flops of all time. But the film wasn’t simply a flop, it was a complete disaster. Waterworld behind the scenes stories point to how this would-be blockbuster went straight off the rails. So, what happened with Waterworld? Was the original vision sullied by hired hands? Was the film’s star a straight-up diva? Did the elements themselves try to keep Waterworld from being made? You better believe all of that and more came together to make sure the film was a special kind of awful.
While making Waterworld, Kevin Costner was going through intense personal struggles. He was dealing with a divorce and constantly clashed with the close friend who happened to be the film’s director. Plus, he had to regularly perform life-threatening stunts. It’s an absolute marvel that this movie ended up making it to theaters at all.
Waterworld may not be the first film that comes to mind when you think "adventure on the high seas," but it’s one of the biggest disasters in film history and its story deserves to be told.
In the mid-'80s, aspiring screenwriter Peter Rader wanted to get into Hollywood. So, he did what a lot of people did: he took a meeting with Roger Corman, the king of low budget filmmaking who launched the careers of Dennis Hopper, James Cameron, and Joe Dante. Rader explained what happened next to Starlog:
"I had a meeting with Roger Corman’s company in 1986 that stimulated the idea. I met with Brad Krevoy – who went on to produce Dumb And Dumber – and he offered me money to write and direct a Mad Max rip-off."
Rader wanted to differentiate his idea from the rest of the post-apocalyptic wasteland films cropping up at the time, so he decided to set his film on water. But Corman's company passed on the idea, believing it would cost the hefty fee of $5 million.
According to original screenwriter Paul Rader, he went through six or seven drafts of Waterworld before getting burnt out. Then, the script left his hands and went to David Twohy. The rewrites continued, and at some point the script wound up in the lap of Joss Whedon for an uncredited pass. According to the future brains behind Buffy, by the time he saw the script it was a real mess:
"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."
Even Kevin Costner admits they probably shouldn’t have rushed into production with an unfinished script, as he explained to SF Gate:
"We shouldn't have green-lighted this movie until the script was finished. I do movies that I know are already written well. Except for Waterworld. From a producing standpoint, I tried to manage and control a story that was not there – and kept trying to build a story."
Stars are often known for their egos. So maybe it's not so crazy that Waterworld’s star, Kevin Costner, wanted the special effects team to do a little something about his thinning hair. According to Newsweek, Costner demanded the special effects department add “computer-generated hair” to mask his balding noggin.
Costner vehemently denied this report to CNN in 1995: "I was so surprised that it came from Newsweek. No matter if they cite a source, it's just bullsh*t, and they're bullsh*t for printing it."
According to director Kevin Reynolds, the Waterworld set was already nuts when he arrived in Hawaii to start filming. He attempted to describe the madness to Newsweek for the film’s 20th anniversary:
"The set wasn’t a three-ring circus, it was a 12-ring circus. The scale was enormous. Especially the giant floating set, the atoll. We had hundreds of extras, dozens and dozens of guys on jet skis and helicopters with cameras on them."