We’ve all had bad days that have pushed us to the edge psychologically at least once in our lives. Thankfully, we don’t all react like Michael Douglas’ character William ‘D-Fens’ Foster does in 1993 thriller Falling Down, which sees a once normal man go on a gun-crazy rampage trying to get home to his family.
Here are 20 things you might not have known about the satirical, hugely controversial thriller.
20. The screenplay was rejected by every major studio in Hollywood
The Falling Down screenplay was written by Ebbe Roe Smith, who has worked more extensively as an actor (his credits include small roles in Fletch Lives and Turner & Hooch; he also has a bit part in Falling Down as the guy on the freeway). On attempting to sell the Falling Down screenplay, Smith was initially turned down by every major studio in Hollywood.
Thankfully, Michael Douglas came across the screenplay and declared it to be one of the best he had ever read. Surprisingly, Ebbe Roe Smith only has one other produced feature-length screenplay to his name: a 1994 update of TV comedy series Car 54, Where Are You?
19. It could have starred Robert De Niro or Robin Williams instead of Douglas
Before Michael Douglas signed on to star as William ‘D-Fens’ Foster, many superstar leading men were considered for the role. These included Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Ed Harris, Michael Keaton, Dustin Hoffman, Alec Baldwin and Jeff Bridges.
Not only that, but a good few famous older stars were considered for the supporting role of Prendergast before Robert Duvall was cast, including Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Sidney Poitier and Gene Hackman.
18. Michael Douglas agreed to a pay cut to ensure the film got made
Michael Douglas was at the height of his fame in the early 90s, after taking the lead in the smash hit Basic Instinct. This success gave the actor a fair amount of power when it came to getting the movies he wanted to make off the ground. Extremely passionate about Falling Down, Douglas wanted to do everything he could to ensure that it got made.
Having such a big name star attached to the project helped the filmmakers obtain a far higher budget than they would have otherwise. On top of which, Douglas also agreed to take a much lower salary than he would have normally, so they could make the most of the $25 million budget.
17. It was filmed in the middle of the Los Angeles riots
As the story of a middle-aged white man who goes on a violent rampage in the city, Falling Down was always bound to be provocative. However, when the film went into production on the streets of Los Angeles, this coincided with a notorious outbreak of real-life violence: the 1992 LA riots.
The riots meant Falling Down’s cast and crew were sometimes forced to stop work suddenly amidst the chaos. As you might expect, there were times when location shoots proved impossible due to the very real danger to cast and crew, so some scenes had to be relocated to the Warner Bros studio lot.
16. The Simpsons based a whole episode on the film
There was no more surefire way of proving you’d made a popular impact in the 90s than being referenced on The Simpsons. Falling Down got this very treatment in a 1997 episode of the long-running animated comedy series. The episode, entitled Homer’s Enemy, features a character named Grimes, who bears a striking resemblance to Michael Douglas’ William ‘D-Fens’ Foster.
Series regular Hank Azaria voiced Grimes, introduced as a new employee of the nuclear power plant who is gradually driven insane by having to work with the inept Homer. Spoiler alert: Grimes is killed off at the end of the episode, which the makers of the show came to regret, realising he’d have been a fun character to revisit later.
15. The ‘Not Economically Viable’ man is dressed identically to D-Fens
One memorable encounter on D-Fens’ long walk home comes when he sees a man who, like himself, has recently been fired from his job. The man in question isn’t taking the news too well, given he’s dancing around outside the bank where he once worked holding aloft a sign that reads ‘Not Economically Viable’ – the three-word explanation given for his dismissal.
Not only can D-Fens directly relate to the stranger’s situation, the two men appear to be mirror opposites of one another – as they are dressed identically, right down to their ties. This character, listed in the credits as Not Economically Viable Man, is played by actor Vondie Curtis-Hall.
14. Douglas got the idea for his D-Fens haircut from the manager of his local supermarket
With his generic glasses and ultra-square (in all senses) haircut, Michael Douglas was rendered almost unrecognisable as ‘D-Fens.’ Reportedly this look was settled on by Falling Down director Joel Schumacher and hairstylist Lynda Gurasich. Douglas said his main inspiration behind the look was the manager of his local supermarket.
The actor also recalls of the supermarket manager, “He was about 40, had that hair, a white shirt and pencils… I realised I had seen him many, many times and never noticed him… he’s one of these invisible people that we don’t pay much attention to because they’re not interesting to us, and therefore we give them labels like ‘nerd.’”
13. Douglas met director Joel Schumacher when the actor produced Flatliners
Making a movie with Michael Douglas in the lead was a change of pace for director Joel Schumacher, who up to that point had specialised in more youth-oriented movies. The director made his name in the Brat Pack era with St. Elmo’s Fire,The Lost Boys and Flatliners.
It was on Flatliners that Schumacher first worked with Douglas, who did not star but in fact produced the film. The two men became good friends and resolved to work together; later, Falling Down presented the ideal opportunity to do so. They would not collaborate again, and Schumacher sadly passed away in 2020 aged 80.
12. Lois Smith, who plays D-Fens’ mother, previously played Michael Douglas’ secretary
Actress Lois Smith appears in Falling Down as the mother of William ‘D-Fens’ Foster. This was not Smith’s first time starring alongside Michael Douglas, although previously it was in a somewhat different capacity: she had previously played Martha, the secretary of Douglas’ character in 1987’s Fatal Attraction.
In reality, Lois Smith is a little young to be Douglas’ mother, as she is only 14 years his senior. The actress’s impressive CV dates all the way back to the 50s, when she starred alongside James Dean in East of Eden. Now in her 90s, Smith is still acting, her more recent credits including Lady Bird and TV’s Ray Donovan.
11. Michelle Pfeiffer’s sister plays the Whammy Burger cashier
If Whammy Burger cashier Sheila seems vaguely familiar, it may be because she’s the younger sister of a very famous Hollywood actress. Sheila is played by Dedee Pfeiffer, the younger sister of Michelle Pfeiffer.
Six years the junior of her more famous sister, Dedee Pfeiffer’s credits include Into the Night, Vamp, House III: The Horror Show and a recurring part on 90s sitcom Cybill. She has also appeared alongside Michelle in 1991’s Frankie and Johnny and 1996’s Up Close and Personal.
10. The critics were mostly impressed with the film
While Falling Down’s controversy-courting nature was well-noted, the film itself was for the most part well-reviewed (reflected by its 74% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes). Roger Ebert praised the film for evoking the struggles facing “anyone who is told, after many years of hard work, that he is unnecessary and irrelevant.”
Rolling Stone’s review read “There’s no denying the power of the tale or of Douglas’s riveting performance,” which the reviewer felt “neither demonises nor canonises this flawed character.”
9. There was a strange similarity between Falling Down’s opening and the video for R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts
Falling Down first hit screens in February 1993, two months before the music video for the R.E.M. single Everybody Hurts was released. The Everybody Hurts video famously features a freeway at a standstill and shows frustrated drivers leaving their cars – not unlike the opening sequence of Falling Down.
Because of this clear similarity to the widely discussed film, many suspected that R.E.M. were paying homage to Falling Down. However, as the video was shot prior to Falling Down’s release, it would seem this was a total coincidence – although both may have taken inspiration from the same classic film, Federico Fellini’s 8½, which opens much the same way with a traffic jam.
8. An influential screenwriting scholar called the film ‘an anti-Odyssey’
As it centres on a man struggling against various hardships to get home to his wife (Barbara Hershey) and child, Falling Down might invite comparison with The Odyssey. The Ancient Greek epic poem by Homer tells the story of Odysseus on his long and arduous journey home following the Trojan War.
John Truby, a noted teacher of screenwriting, recognised this resonance in Falling Down, which he calls “an anti-Odyssey film,” arguing that Ebbe Roe Smith’s script “turns the myth structure/Odyssey story on its head; the home is a broken one, the man is slightly wacky, and the wife doesn’t want him.”
7. Michael Douglas considers it his greatest ever performance
Michael Douglas has revealed that he considers Falling Down to be his favourite performance out of all the movies he has been in. While it didn’t earn the same awards season kudos he’d got from 1987’s Wall Street (which won him the Best Actor Oscar), Douglas got great reviews for Falling Down.
The actor also notes that in the years since, Falling Down has been “constantly brought up as (a film of his) that people genuinely like.” Michael’s father Kirk Douglas agreed; the elder Douglas was quoted as saying that “he played it brilliantly. I think it is his best piece of work to date.”
6. It includes a number of references to the song London Bridge is Falling Down
The title Falling Down is suggestive of the personal downfall of the protagonist, and the film hints further at this in a surprising way. There are a number of occasions in the film in which we hear the song London Bridge is Falling Down, from which the title may be derived.
We hear Robert Duvall’s Prendergast singing the song on the phone with his wife, and it’s also used during the end credits. Prendergast also mentions plans to retire to Lake Havasu City, Arizona – which is home to the old London Bridge, transported there in 1971. Further to this, when Prendergast is presented with a cake on his retirement, a bridge is iced onto the cake.
5. The film was banned in South Korea
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its provocative nature, Falling Down left the film censors very uneasy. Falling Down was banned in South Korea, not just for its vigilante violence, but for how Korean people are represented in the film. In the US, Michael Douglas was called in to discuss the film with angered representatives of the Korean American Coalition and Korean Grocers Association.
Douglas recalls, “I tried to explain that there’s a reason why the writer took the scene (in the Korean store) and made it what it is.” Director Joel Schumacher also met with Korean protesters, to explain that – although Falling Down came out after the LA riots, in which several Koreans were killed – the film was not inspired by those real-life events.
4. Unemployed defence workers were also angered by the film
Falling Down was also met with words of protest from former employees of the defence industry. Director Joel Schumacher recalls, “(unemployed) defence workers picketed the film… they feared that people would see the film and think that all defence workers were crazy, and so no one would hire them.”
The director argues, “people with abhorrent behaviour appear in films from all walks of life. People did not stop committing adultery after Fatal Attraction. People did not stop taking cabs after Taxi Driver.” Still, Schumacher had no objection to these protesters: “I empathise with them. I’ve been unemployed many times in my life.”
3. The film’s LA geography is a mess
Viewers who are familiar with the layout of Los Angeles were quick to point out issues with the film’s geography. D-Fens is supposedly walking from Venice to Lincoln Heights – a walk of about 15 miles, which could feasibly be covered in the length of time it’s shown to take in the movie.
However, along the way D-Fens walks into Beverly Hills, which is not en route and would add about 10 miles to his journey. Confronted with these geographical inconsistencies, director Joel Schumacher flatly retorted, “Falling Down is not a documentary!”
2. One website listed it among their most hated 90s films
Falling Down plays a tricky balancing act between being a conventionally entertaining thriller, whilst delving into very real and difficult social issues. Some critics at the time felt it failed in this, and in more recent years some re-appraisals of the film have been even harsher.
In 2012, influential film website The A.V. Club listed Falling Down among their most hated movies of the 90s, blasted it as “a ham-handed, wrong-headed, self-congratulatory attempt to encapsulate its era’s spirit.” It is argued that the film presents “violence as the comedic payoff,” resulting in something “tone-deaf” and “self-pitying.”
1. It was homaged in the Foo Fighters music video Walk
While the similarity between Falling Down and R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts video may have been coincidental, a later rock act paid very deliberate homage to Falling Down. Walk, the 2011 single by Foo Fighters, boasts a video that directly recreates the 1993 film.
Frontman Dave Grohl takes the place of Michael Douglas, abandoning his car, heading out on foot, and getting in violent altercations along the way. It’s an affectionate tribute to Falling Down which plays out in a far gentler, more comedic fashion than the film itself.