Waterworld: The Story Behind One Of The Biggest Hollywood Disasters Of All Time
In the mid-1990s, the face of the Hollywood blockbuster was changing. Such massive hits as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises had established that 80s audiences couldn’t get enough of fantastical action on a giant scale. The decade that followed showed no signs of this changing: as Jurassic Park broke box office records on release in 1993, bigger, it seemed, was always better.
Into this arena stepped Waterworld – a film which, on paper, seemed like it couldn’t lose. It starred arguably the most popular leading man of the time, reunited him with the director of one of his biggest hits and sported a formula that sounded like blockbuster gold (a post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure set in a world that’s been completely flooded).
However, Waterworld ended up one of the most infamously troubled Hollywood movies ever – while the story of its behind the scenes turmoil was even more epic than the movie itself…
1. Kevin Costner rose to superstardom in the 80s
From the mid-80s to the late 90s, Kevin Costner was one of the most recognised and talked-about men in the world. After breaking through with a number of roles in small, little-seen films, the California-born actor gradually worked his way up to major movie star status.
With his easy-going everyman charm and crowd-pleasing good looks, Costner was soon one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. In 1987, his back-to-back hits No Way Out and The Untouchables firmly established him as the hottest leading man around.
2. Costner met Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds in 1985 – when Reynolds gave Costner his first lead role
Back in 1985, Kevin Costner landed his first bona fide leading role in Fandango, a comedy drama about a group of college buddies enjoying a last hurrah on a road trip. Costner’s co-stars in the film include Judd Nelson and Sam Robards.
Unfortunately, Fandango proved to be a flop, but it has since attained a cult following. It also gained historical significance as the first of many collaborations between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, who became friends whilst making the film.
3. Dances with Wolves won Costner Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director
Only five years after Fandango flopped, Kevin Costner was on top of the world with his 1990 directorial debut Dances with Wolves. The epic western, in which Costner also played the lead, became a huge box office smash and won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Whilst shooting Dances with Wolves, Costner had called on his old friend Kevin Reynolds for advice whilst shooting a challenging scene involving buffalo. Reynolds came to the set and wound up directing this sequence himself – although he did not get credit in the final film, nor did Costner remember to thank him in his Oscar acceptance speech.
4. By 1992, Costner was one of the most successful actors ever
Dances with Wolves was just one in a series of massive critical and commercial success stories for Kevin Costner. In the years before, he’d followed 1987’s No Way Out and The Untouchables with 1988’s Bull Durham, 1989’s Field of Dreams and 1990’s Revenge.
After Dances with Wolves came 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and JFK, and 1992’s The Bodyguard. Collectively, this run of films made upwards of $1.7 billion at the worldwide box office: a remarkable run of hits, cementing Costner as one of the most commercially successful leading men of all time.
5. Costner got Reynolds to direct Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – but they butted heads throughout
At Costner’s insistence, Kevin Reynolds was given the director’s chair on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the film proved to be a major blockbuster: earning $390.5 million, it was the second biggest box office hit of 1991 behind Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
However, since Costner and Reynolds’ earlier collaboration, the actor had enjoyed huge success as well as becoming an acclaimed, award-winning director in his own right. Costner starting flexing his Hollywood muscle behind the scenes, trying to pressure Reynolds to make Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves the way he wanted.
- Credit: Morgan Creek
6. Reynolds quit Prince of Thieves during the editing process
Reynolds grew frustrated with Costner’s constant demands, and this built into a major falling out between the two men. During post-production on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Reynolds quit the movie, leaving Costner to oversee the final cut (although Reynolds still has full credit as director).
For a time it seemed that Reynolds and Costner would not work together again. Happily, they managed to patch things up well enough for Costner to serve as producer on Reynolds’ 1994 film Rapa-Nui, although this proved to be a flop.
- Credit: Morgan Creek
7. Waterworld was conceived as a low-budget Mad Max rip-off
In the early 80s, around the time that Costner and Reynolds were first starting to make waves (pun intended) in Hollywood, an aspiring screenwriter and director named Peter Rader was looking to break into the business himself.
Rader met with Brad Krevoy, an associate of legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, who told the newcomer, “Here’s the deal: If you write me a Mad Max rip-off, I will let you direct it.” The post-apocalyptic action-adventure series was hugely popular at the time, and made a superstar of leading man Mel Gibson.
8. Roger Corman’s company rejected the idea – because it would cost at least $5 million
Rader was thrilled by the opportunity, but unwilling to make yet another carbon copy of Mad Max (of which there had been many). To make it a bit more unique, the writer pitched a Mad Max-esque adventure set entirely on the open sea.
Brad Krevoy immediately nixed the idea, on the basis that such a film could not be made for any less than $5 million. Undeterred, Rader decided to write the script anyway, giving it the title Waterworld – and it would wind up costing a great deal more than $5 million before reaching screens.
9. In the original script, the Mariner was named Morgan – and he had a pet horse
There are a number of notable differences between Peter Rader’s first draft of the Waterworld screenplay, and the film that eventually made it to screens. For one, the film’s nameless hero the Mariner originally had a name, Morgan (a name beginning with an M, acknowledging the project’s debt to Mad Max).
Also, as Rader saw the film as being similar to a western set at sea, he added one rather bizarre detail: Morgan kept a pet horse. This idea was ultimately discarded, though, once Rader sold the Waterworld script and a number of other writers got to work on it.
10. Second screenwriter David Twohy made the Mariner a mutant with gills
As well as having a name in Rader’s original Waterworld screenplay, the Mariner was also conceived as a regular human being. It wasn’t until David Twohy was hired to do re-writes that the hero instead became a mutant with gills, allowing him to breathe underwater.
Rader has acknowledged this was a “brilliant addition” to the script, which made the Mariner even more of an outsider among the few humans surviving in the harsh aquatic wastelands of the film’s envisioned future.
11. The film’s representation of climate change is inaccurate – and the writers knew it
Waterworld went into production at a time when ecological awareness was on the rise, and concerns about global warming became a hot topic. This gave Waterworld a special edge, as a warning for where we could be headed if we don’t take better care of the world.
However, the film presents a highly inaccurate representation of what would occur should the polar ice caps melt; while the oceans would rise significantly, they wouldn’t come close to covering the entire surface of Earth. The screenwriters were aware of this, but it was ultimately agreed that a fully flooded world would make for a more dramatic setting.
12. Peter Rader wanted Harrison Ford as the Mariner
Peter Rader has admitted that when he was writing Waterworld, he had one of the biggest leading men of the time in mind for the lead role. However, it wasn’t Kevin Costner the writer was thinking of, but Harrison Ford.
Ford was, after all, one of the biggest stars in the world off the back of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. There’s nothing to indicate that Ford starring in Waterworld was ever a real possibility – but Costner approached producer Chuck Gordon to express interest in the early 90s.
13. Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner didn’t want to make the film together
Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds hadn’t spoken in some time, when by sheer coincidence both men took an interest in making Waterworld. When it became apparent that the film could mark a reunion for the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves team, both of the Kevins were wary.
At first, Reynolds and Costner both turned the film down, fearing that they would once again find themselves at loggerheads. However, after talking it out with the producers and one another, they made their peace, and agreed to make Waterworld as their next picture together.
14. Reynolds and Costner both needed a hit when they began shooting Waterworld
Waterworld is often remembered as the moment when the tides turned (pun intended) on Costner’s career, but in fact the actor’s reputation had already taken a dip before the film made it to screens. Costner’s post-Bodyguard films – 1993’s A Perfect World (pictured below), and 1994’s Wyatt Earp and The War – had all performed below expectations.
Reynolds had fared even worse. His 1994 film Rapa-Nui was a massive bomb, earning barely $305,000 at the box office off the back of a $20 million budget. As such, both men really needed Waterworld to be a hit – and whatever the film was shaping up to be, it definitely looked big.
15. Universal greenlit Waterworld with a $65 million budget – but this would be nowhere near enough
Just as blockbusters were getting increasingly large scale in vision by the 90s, so too were movie budgets reaching previously unprecedented highs. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day cost $94 million; and Cameron’s next, 1994’s True Lies, was an even pricier $100 million.
It was clear from the get-go that Waterworld was going to wind up costing similar money. Reportedly, studio Universal originally gave the film the go-ahead with a price tag of $65 million attached – but once it became clear this wouldn’t be enough, it went up to $100 million before cameras started rolling.
16. Steven Spielberg warned the filmmakers against filming at sea
Before work began on Waterworld, Kevin Reynolds met with legendary director Steven Spielberg for advice. Spielberg had his own experiences of shooting a film in the ocean, with his breakthrough 1975 classic Jaws – and although that film proved a gargantuan hit, it was an extremely difficult shoot.
Reynolds recalls, “I asked Spielberg, ‘Do I want to shoot on the water?’ He said ‘You might. I’ll never do it again.’” However, despite Spielberg’s warnings about the difficulties of shooting in those unpredictable conditions, both Reynolds and Costner were determined to do so for the sake of authenticity.
17. Dennis Hopper’s villain role was turned down by Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman and more
With Costner as the hero, the hunt began for Waterworld’s villain, the Deacon. This role would ultimately be taken by Dennis Hopper, who was enjoying a career resurgence as a blockbuster bad guy at the time in such films as Super Mario Bros and Speed. Hopper was far from the only major Hollywood actor in the frame to play Waterworld’s antagonist, however.
Samuel L. Jackson was first offered the Deacon, but he turned it down in order to make Die Hard with a Vengeance. Gary Oldman, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Laurence Fishburne and Gary Busey are also reported to have been offered the role only to decline.
18. Reynolds wanted Anna Paquin to play Enola
One of the key roles in Waterworld is that of Enola, the young girl with the map to the coveted ‘Dryland.’ For this role, Reynolds and company originally sought one of the most celebrated child actors of the time, Anna Paquin. The 11-year-old’s performance in 1993’s The Piano earned her the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, making her the second-youngest Oscar winner in history.
However, Paquin was not pursuing further film work at the time, so the part of Enola went instead to Tina Majorino. (Many years later, Majorino and Paquin would co-star in TV series True Blood.)
19. The Smokers’ ship was based on the Exxon Valdez, a real oil tanker that caused a notorious ecological disaster
Waterworld’s villains the Smokers have as their headquarters a mighty oil tanker named the Exxon Valdez. This was in fact a very real ship, infamous for causing a catastrophic oil spill. Director Kevin Reynolds insisted on including this detail, keen to push an environmentalist angle.
The Exxon Valdez disaster occurred in March 1989, when the tanker struck a reef near Alaska, resulting in 37,000 tonnes of crude oil being spilled into the sea. For many years this was the worst ecological disaster of its kind, until it was overtaken by the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010.
- Credit: RGB Ventures/SuperStock/Alamy
20. Kevin Costner stayed in a $4,500-a-night villa while most of the cast and crew had basic accommodation
Kevin Costner was a producer as well as the leading man of Waterworld, and as he was considered one of the biggest box office draws around at the time he commanded a hefty salary of $13 million. That wasn’t the end of it, as Costner was also reportedly put up in an ocean view villa, at a cost of $4,500 a night, during the Waterworld shoot.
This luxurious accommodation is said to have come with a swimming pool, plus personal staff including a butler and a chef. In the meantime, the bulk of Waterworld’s cast and crew were staying in very basic digs which allegedly didn’t even have air conditioning. Unsurprisingly, this is said to have fuelled resentment of Costner on set.
21. Costner’s marriage was falling apart during the making of the film
Costner’s Hollywood heartthrob status brought with it intensive interest from the tabloid media. This was a particular issue when work began on Waterworld, as the actor’s marriage was in the process of collapsing at that time.
Costner had been married to his college sweetheart Cindy Silva since 1978, but just as cameras started rolling on his latest blockbuster, divorce proceedings were underway. It was widely alleged in the gossip columns that Costner had been having an affair.
- Credit: Bei/Shutterstock
22. Filming started without a finished script
The credits of Waterworld officially list the screenwriters as Peter Rader (who came up with the concept and wrote the original draft) and David Twohy (later the writer-director of Vin Diesel’s Riddick series, and who made significant revisions to Rader’s script).
However, exact figures on the number of writers to have worked on Waterworld are hard to pin down. Rader has stated there were five; some reports have claimed it may be as many as 36. Either way, it is known that the filmmakers didn’t have a full, agreed-on script ready when director Kevin Reynolds first called ‘action.’
23. Costner went behind Reynolds’ back to change the script
Sadly, those old problems between Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds were already resurfacing even before they set foot on set. The two men had somewhat different ideas about the direction Waterworld should take: specifically, Costner wanted more done with his character. To this end, Costner consulted with a number of writers to make further revisions to the script – without talking to Reynolds about it.
The director was of course unhappy when he found out; Costner recalls, “Kevin [Reynolds] said, ‘If you were director, would you let somebody do what you’re doing right now?’ And I said, ‘No, but I wouldn’t be in this position.’”
24. The production base was a Hawaiian harbour whose name translates as ‘warring waters’
Looking for blue seas and clear skies, Waterworld’s production designer Dennis Gassner visited locations in Australia, New Zealand, Malta and the Bahamas, before it was ultimately agreed that Hawaii would be the best place to shoot the film.
As the production’s base of operations, they chose Kawaihae Harbor – apparently not knowing that Kawaihae translates into English as ‘warring waters.’ Weather conditions in this region would prove to be a very significant issue for the cast and crew of Waterworld.
- Credit: Marinas.com
25. Shooting began with a $100 million budget and a 96-day schedule
When production on Waterworld got underway in June 1994, the filmmakers had a budget of $100 million at their disposal: an unusually large sum at the time, though not unprecedented thanks to True Lies (which opened that same summer).
However, from the very beginning it was widely suspected that $100 million would not prove sufficient to get the film made, especially as the initial shooting schedule was 96 days (roughly three and half months, with cast and crew working six-day weeks).
26. Millions of dollars were spent on the sets and vehicles alone
While the principal backdrop of Waterworld was, of course, the Pacific Ocean, the film also required a number of sizeable sets. These included a scale recreation of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, 112 feet in length, which was built at a disused airstrip.
Another key set was the Atoll, where much of the early action takes place. Initially budgeted at $1.5 million, this monster set built from 1,000 tonnes of steel wound up costing the filmmakers $5 million. On top of this, the Mariner’s trimaran boat cost $500,000 – and two of these were made.
27. The budget was stretched when local Kawaihae firms pushed their prices up
The local economy in Kawaihae, Hawaii wasn’t in great shape when Waterworld came to town. As such, local businesses didn’t want to waste any opportunity to cash in on the massive, big-budget Hollywood production.
Location manager Ginger Peterson recalls, “companies knew they were the only games in town and took advantage.” This goes some way to explain why the Atoll’s price tag went up from $1.5 million to $5 million, as local steel suppliers pushed up their costs.
28. Extortionate portable toilet prices led to reports of there being no toilets on set
It wasn’t only the steel suppliers who deliberately overcharged the Waterworld production. So too did the companies charged with providing such basic amenities as portable toilets, which were naturally important as more than 500 people were working on the set.
Because of these troubles, stories got out to the press that there were in fact no toilets provided on the Waterworld set at all, something which the film’s producer Chuck Gordon has emphatically denied.
29. Weather conditions quickly put the production behind schedule
The bulk of Waterworld was shot as far as 40 miles out to sea off the coast of Hawaii. The cast and crew quickly discovered just how arduous working under those conditions could be; indeed, at times they found it was literally impossible to get any work done.
One unnamed crew member later said, “The winds were terrible. Some days we couldn’t shoot at all.” As a result of this, it became apparent early on that the production wouldn’t meet its 96-day schedule – and as the shoot stretched further, the budget inevitably went up.
30. Thefts and on-set accidents put more strain on the budget
Throughout its shoot, the Waterworld production suffered a number of small-scale thefts. Computers were swiped from the offices and sets, along with power generators (vital to the shoot, given how far away from land the crew usually had to shoot).
Numerous minor accidents attached to the production also dipped into the budget, such as the $1,600 required to repair the location manager’s car when it was damaged in high winds. Taken individually, none of these would seem like huge expenses – but these things all add up.
31. Seasickness and injury were commonplace
Another common problem which took its toll on the Waterworld production was the great regularity with which cast and crew members were being injured or falling seasick.
Trips and falls were commonplace, as was nausea (director Kevin Reynolds and actress Tina Majorino are among the many said to have vomited on the set as a result of seasickness). As many as 40 to 50 people were seen by the on-set medics every day during production.
32. Tina Majorino was nicknamed ‘Jellyfish Candy’ because she was stung so many times
Young Enola actress Tina Majorino was one of the Waterworld cast members who most definitely suffered for her art – not least because she had to be rushed back to land from the set on account of jellyfish stings on no less than seven occasions.
Because of Majorino’s apparent irresistibility to the Pacific’s gelatinous population, Kevin Costner wound up dubbing his young co-star ‘Jellyfish Candy,’ an affectionate nickname which seemingly caught on with the Waterworld cast and crew.
33. Kevin Costner did a number of his own big stunts, including the zipline and bungee jump
Kevin Costner had several experienced stunt doubles for some of Waterworld’s more challenging physical feats. However, the actor did perform a number of the most exciting moments in the movie himself.
For one, it really was Costner who performed the moment the Mariner spectacularly escapes via a lengthy zip line high above ground (around 4.04 in the video below). Costner also at the end of that same sequence performed the bungee jump – which we’ll come back to later.
34. Costner was at real risk of death when bound to the mast of the trimaran
One particularly dicey sequence required Costner to be tied to the mast of the Mariner’s trimaran boat, as all the while a helicopter filming the sequence hovered a mere 20 feet overhead. Whilst shooting this scene, a sudden localised storm whipped up.
This meant the actor was momentarily at very real risk of death, facing mortal danger not just from the ocean below, but from the helicopter above, which at so close a range could very easily have been blown off-course and into the mast of the boat.
35. Jeanne Tripplehorn personally chose her body double for the nude scene
In a scene that we probably wouldn’t see in a PG-13 movie today, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Helen is at one point shown naked from behind. Tripplehorn decided against performing this nude scene herself, but was intimately involved in choosing her body double.
In order to select the double who was the best match for herself physically, Tripplehorn arranged to meet three candidates in her trailer. The actress has said that having these three strangers show their naked rear ends to her was such a bizarre experience, it left them all in hysterical laughter.
36. Joss Whedon said working as an on-set script doctor was “seven weeks of hell”
As is surprisingly commonplace on major movies, Waterworld’s cameras were rolling while the script was still in flux. Costner enlisted Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon to do last-minute revisions on set, to the actor-producer’s personal specifications.
Because of Costner’s demanding and micro-managing nature, Whedon would later describe the experience as “seven weeks of hell.” Of course, according to recent reports, Whedon himself would go on to make a lot of other people’s lives miserable on film and TV sets.
- Credit: Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock
37. The Mariner’s drinking water was originally going to be purified by a device containing a kidney-like organ
In what surely ranks among the strangest choices for an introductory shot of the hero in an adventure film, we first meet Kevin Costner’s Mariner as he urinates into a water purification device, then drinks the clear liquid that comes out of the other end.
In screenwriter Peter Rader’s first draft of Waterworld, the Mariner was going to have an organic device that closely resembled a human kidney. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was dismissed as a bit too gross, and so a more mechanical alternative was dreamed up.
38. The original script featured many nods to mythology which were ultimately cut
Original Waterworld screenwriter Peter Rader recognised that, in order for the film to work, it needed a mythic feel. To this end, his original script featured a lot of allusions to Greek mythology – although the bulk of this was lost in the lengthy rewrite process.
The most obvious nod to Ancient Greece in the final film is the name of Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character, Helen – a nod to the legendary Helen of Troy, famously referred to as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’
39. Tina Majorino spent hours in make-up every day getting her tattoo and tan applied
A key plot device in Waterworld is the tattoo on the back on Tina Majorino’s young character Enola: Chinese characters which, if decoded, are alleged to lead the way to Dryland, the last remaining part of the Earth that is not underwater.
As might be expected, having this tattoo applied meant a long time in make-up every day for Majorino, but curiously the actress says “the most intensive part was the body makeup. I don’t tan. I had to stand in my underwear every day and have makeup put on – even on my scalp!”
40. Hurricane weather conditions saw one set sink and others float away
Spending so much time far out at sea meant that the Waterworld production was often victim to circumstances which, in insurance terms, are referred to as ‘acts of God’. One particular issue in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is hurricanes, and these ultimately hit the area where Waterworld was filming.
These treacherous weather conditions caused one expensive set to sink completely, whilst high winds caused others to float away from their original location. Of course, the replacement sets that were required meant the production had to spend even more money, pushing Waterworld even further behind schedule and over-budget.
41. The sinking of one set meant an entire story thread was abandoned
One key Waterworld set that was sunk was a floating slave colony. If you’ve seen the film, you might be thinking you can’t recall any such place appearing in the film, and there’s a reason for that: the filmmakers ultimately chose to omit it completely.
In earlier drafts of the script, the Slavers were a second antagonistic force with whom the Mariner does battle, on top of key villains the Smokers. However, once the set in question was lost, it was decided that the film would get by OK with just the Smokers as bad guys.
42. The film features one of Jack Black’s breakthrough performances
Years before appearing in such blockbusters as the Kung Fu Panda and Jumanji movies, singer, comedian and actor Jack Black got one of his first high profile roles in Waterworld. Black, aged 25 at the time, appears as one of the Smokers, a pilot.
The actor (who really broke big a few years later with High Fidelity and School of Rock) has jokingly remarked that Waterworld is all anyone recognises him for: “I’m still trying to shake it. That’s what it’s going to say on my tombstone: Jack ‘Post-Apocalyptic Seaplane Pilot’ Black.”
43. Dennis Hopper was surprisingly cordial on set
Waterworld’s chief bad guy actor, the late Dennis Hopper, had a larger-than-life reputation. He was also known to not suffer fools gladly (he had, for one, had a notorious meltdown on the set of another troubled 90s movie, Super Mario Bros, over disagreements with the film’s directors).
On Waterworld it was a different story. Despite the well-publicised problems on set, director Kevin Reynolds says that Hopper was “totally pro, even in the adverse circumstances.” Jeanne Tripplehorn recalls the actor being easy-going, and teaching her to play poker in their downtime.
44. Costner’s stunt double at one point got lost at sea jet-skiing between the set and the mainland
One of Kevin Costner’s stunt doubles on Waterworld was Laird Hamilton, a famed big wave surfer. Hamilton was involved in what director Kevin Reynolds said was the “scariest part” of Waterworld’s production – and it wasn’t when cameras were rolling.
Reynolds recalls that Hamilton “had been taking a jet ski across this channel from the Big Island to Maui, where his home was… [but] he hadn’t shown up that morning for work. They called his wife and she said he left for work… we thought he was lost at sea. Toward the end of the day they finally found him floating way out in the channel about to be swept out to sea.”
45. Another of Costner’s stunt doubles almost died shooting a deep sea diving scene
While there were no shortage of mishaps on the Waterworld set, no one came closer to death on the set of Waterworld than another of Costner’s stunt doubles, Norman Howell, who performed some of the film’s shots involving deep-sea diving.
Terrifyingly, Howell suffered a near-fatal embolism whilst shooting an underwater scene, and had to be rushed to hospital. Happily, the stunt performer recovered in a decompression chamber, and within a few days he was back at work.
46. The filmmakers had to beg the studio for more money to create the CGI sea monster
As rewrites continued well into the Waterworld shoot, it wasn’t until they were well underway (and, as mentioned, over-budget and behind schedule) that Costner and Reynolds decided to include a scene featuring a giant sea monster.
As computer-generated imagery was still a fairly new technology, and very expensive to produce, the filmmakers had to plead with studio Universal to put up more money for the scene. Understandably, Universal were reluctant, but ultimately agreed.
47. Costner was rumoured to have demanded CGI to hide his receding hairline
Whilst Waterworld was in production, many reports declared the film to be a grandiose vanity project for Kevin Costner – and it was widely alleged that Costner’s vanity was responsible for an additional expense on the already very costly production.
Rumours claimed that, as the wind-whipped actor’s thinning hairline was regularly exposed throughout the film, he demanded that CGI artists digitally augment his scalp. Costner flat-out denied this at the time, declaring “it’s just bulls***, and [the press] are bulls*** for printing it.”
48. As the shoot dragged on, several key crew members left (or got fired)
The fraught conditions under which Waterworld was made took their toll. Set designer Peter Chesney and special effects liaison Kate Steinberg were both reportedly dismissed from the set in August, more than six weeks into production.
Then in September (around the time the film was originally supposed to wrap), first assistant director Alan Curtiss quit the movie. Reportedly Curtiss had argued from the beginning that the initial 96-day schedule was unrealistic, and was frustrated by the constant setbacks.
49. Two months into the shoot, Waterworld became officially the most expensive movie ever made
Having been initially priced at $65 million, then finally getting the green light at $100 million, Waterworld’s price tag just kept going up as the film kept falling further behind schedule. By August 1994, two months after cameras started rolling, the budget had swelled to $135 million.
Segments of the press delighted in seeing Waterworld struggle in this manner, and came to derisively refer to the film as ‘Fishtar’ (a play on 1987’s expensive mega-flop Ishtar) and ‘Kevin’s Gate’ (in reference to the similarly troubled 1980 film Heaven’s Gate).
50. Kevin Costner sacrificed part of his pay deal to keep the film going
The Waterworld team soon found themselves under pressure from executives at studio Universal to minimise costs going forward, by cutting some of the more expensive scenes they had planned. However, Kevin Costner refused to do so.
So great was Costner’s determination to finish the movie the way he and Reynolds intended, the actor-producer agreed to give up the 15% cut of the film’s gross profits which he had been granted as part of his contract. There have also been reports that Costner wound up putting in millions of dollars of his own money to film certain scenes.
51. Because of the bad press, Costner banned people from reading tabloid newspapers and magazines on the set
Long before even a single frame of Waterworld had been shown to the public, the film was figuratively drowning in bad press. Much of this was aimed squarely at Costner, exacerbated by rumours about his upcoming divorce and alleged affair. When the actor-producer saw cast and crew reading newspapers and magazines containing such reports, he banned these publications from the set.
Costner is reported to have walked away in silence when his co-star Dennis Hopper tried to show him such an article, remarking, “I don’t ask for a lot on the set. Be quiet, don’t read my tabloid headlines to me.”
52. Costner and Reynolds bonded over the actor’s divorce
Reports say that, for the most part, Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds were merely civil with one another throughout the troubled Waterworld shoot. However, the pair’s friendship was briefly rekindled, as Reynolds was compassionate over Costner’s divorce woes. Having been once divorced himself, Reynolds could relate.
The director recalls, “I sympathised with him… I knew he was going through a very hard time in his life. He didn’t miss any days because of it. I just think it played heavily on his mind.” Reynolds has also suggested that Costner’s dark state of mind informed his humourless portrayal of the Mariner.
53. Costner was on set almost every day of the lengthy shoot
Costner had indeed not missed any days on Waterworld. The actor-producer’s heavily hands-on approach may have promoted tension on the already troubled set, but he certainly couldn’t be accused of failing to take up the slack where work was concerned.
Costner says he was on set for 157 days, working six-day weeks at a time. Principal photography on Waterworld wound up lasting 165 days, so he barely got a break – and his job was far from over when the cameras stopped rolling.
54. Tina Majorino dressed up as a prisoner for the cast and crew Halloween party
Waterworld was supposed to have been filmed in its entirety by October 1994. As it was, the shoot dragged on with no end in sight, leaving those on set feeling, allegedly, a bit like prisoners. With this in mind, Enola actor Tina Majorino dressed up as a convict for the cast and crew Halloween party.
Majorino recalls, “Originally we were only supposed to be there for four months, but it became an ongoing joke every time another month was added to the schedule. The saying was, ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.'”
55. The production moved to Los Angeles to finish shooting
With the summertime officially over and the bulk of the scenes that necessitated shooting on the sea in the can, the Waterworld production finally closed up shop in Hawaii and relocated to Los Angeles to finish off photography.
Much of this was done on sound stages against blue screens. A water tank was used for some scenes in Huntington Beach, whilst the scale model of the Smokers’ oil tanker HQ the Exxon Valdez was placed in a field in the City of Commerce region.
56. A teaser trailer was rushed out over Christmas 1994 to play before Street Fighter: The Movie
The Waterworld team knew that the press was against them, but it was still hoped that they could get the wider audience excited about the movie. In the interests of this, studio Universal ordered a teaser trailer be put together to play in theatres in December 1994.
Actor James Earl Jones was hired to narrate the trailer, which premiered before screenings of what was expected to be the biggest hit of the holidays, Street Fighter: The Movie. The video game adaptation was indeed a reasonable commercial success, although not unlike Waterworld it had its share of trouble behind the scenes.
57. Costner shot his climactic bungee jump in an LA parking lot
Photography finally wrapped on Waterworld in February 1995, as Costner shot his climactic bungee jump from the hot air balloon. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the actor didn’t actually leap from a balloon, but from a platform in a studio location in front of a giant bluescreen.
This last shot was filmed in an LA parking lot for convenience, and what we see in the film was the only take. Costner later told Entertainment Weekly, “I hurt my back really bad doing the shot. [Reynolds] wanted another take. I just kind of shook my head and said, ‘I can’t.’”
58. Tension between Reynolds and Costner resurfaced in the editing suite
It’s easy to assume that, once the movie has been shot, the hard part is over for filmmakers. However, it’s in the editing process that the film really takes form – and it was here that the relationship between Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds started becoming a problem once again.
Costner, as ever, had very strong opinions on what the film should be, and – much as he had during the editing of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – he pressured Reynolds to cut the film accordingly. History was repeating itself, and both men were reaching the end of their tether with Waterworld.
59. Reynolds quit during editing, letting Costner take charge
Exhausted with Costner’s meddling, director Kevin Reynolds quit Waterworld during the editing process, finally allowing the actor to take full control – which was exactly what happened during the editing of their earlier collaboration Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
This time, however, it looked like both the professional and personal relationships of the two Kevins was done for good. Reynolds told Entertainment Weekly, “In the future, Costner should only appear in pictures he directs himself. That way he can always be working with his favourite actor and his favourite director.”
- Credit: Mary Evans/Roland Grant/Everett
60. Costner rejected the original musical score for being ‘too ethnic’
Director Kevin Reynolds wasn’t the only person who Kevin Costner clashed with in production on Waterworld; he also butted heads with the film’s original composer, Mark Isham. Costner rejected the musical demos that Isham had created for the movie’s score as “too ethnic and bleak.”
To this end, Isham was dismissed from the film, and composer James Newton Howard was brought onto the project instead. In line with Costner’s wishes, Howard gave Waterworld a more uptempo, swashbuckling adventure score.
61. In the deleted original ending, the Mariner left Dryland to look for other mutants
As Costner oversaw revisions to the initial 160-minute cut assembled by Reynolds, much of the material left on the cutting room floor alluded to a broader Waterworld mythos – in particular, the existence of other gilled mutants like the Mariner.
In Reynolds’ preferred original ending, after the survivors find the lost Dryland, the Mariner says he must return to the water in search of other mutants like him. The theatrically released cut of the film left this out.
62. Dryland is meant to be the top of Mount Everest
Another detail which Reynolds later said he was sad to see cut from the film was the actual location of Waterworld. The Chinese characters of Enola’s tattoo are in fact co-ordinates that mark out the highest point on Earth’s surface: Mount Everest.
Originally, the Dryland sequence saw the survivors pass a plaque that confirmed that the land they were walking on is in fact Everest. This was also omitted from Waterworld’s theatrically released version.
63. The film’s first test screening went badly
Waterworld was first shown to a paying audience in an unfinished form as a test screening in Sacramento, California. As is the norm for test screenings, the audience did not know in advance what film they were going to see – only that it was “a new action movie with a major Hollywood star.”
Once the audience were finally told they were being shown Waterworld, one attendee shouted, “I want my money back! I knew it would be this f***ing movie!” Clearly the negative press the film had received had done little to whet the appetite of some cinema goers.
64. New footage of the ocean was being shot mere weeks before the film opened
As test screenings continued, Costner and company continued to re-edit Waterworld to get it into multiplex-friendly shape, even as the clock ticked towards its release date of July 28th, 1995.
As late as the last week of June 1995, second unit crews had been sent back out to the Pacific near California’s Catalina Island, to get more usable footage of the ocean.
65. The film wound up costing $175-180 million
Once all was said and done, Waterworld wound up costing studio Universal somewhere between $175 – $180 million. At the time, this was far and away the most money that had ever been spent on a single film (although, adjusted for inflation, 1963’s Cleopatra cost more – around $200 million).
This record would be beaten only two years later by the $200 million spent on Titanic – although that film’s $1.85 billion box office takings made it a significantly better investment than Waterworld would turn out to be. Today, $200 million blockbusters aren’t that uncommon, and the record for most expensive film ever is held by 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which cost $379 million to make.
66. Waterworld technically wasn’t the biggest Hollywood disaster of 1995
Waterworld is notorious as one of the biggest Hollywood misfires of the 90s, but in truth it was by no means the biggest critical and commercial catastrophe of 1995. Indeed, that year saw the release of a number of similarly troubled movies, including Congo, Judge Dredd and, perhaps most notoriously, Showgirls.
However, by far the greatest money-losing film of 1995 was another blockbuster with an oceanic bent: pirate movie Cutthroat Island. Savaged by critics, the Geena Davis vehicle cost $98 million to make but took only $10 million at the box office, sinking studio Carolco in the process.
67. The critics were a lot kinder than expected
Considering how much negative publicity Waterworld had attracted during its troubled production, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the critics would have their knives out once they finally saw the film. However, to the surprise of many, the reviews were for the most part fairly positive.
Costner reflects, “The press wanted it to bomb… [but] I remember publicists saying that people walked out of a press screening. And then one guy said, ‘Well, it didn’t suck.’ That was the attitude -people walked out expecting to be disappointed and weren’t.”
68. The film still flopped on release in the US
Prior to Waterworld’s release, reports remarked that the film stood a chance of being deemed a commercial success so long as it was able to do real blockbuster business by breaking the $100 million mark on its home soil in the US.
Alas, this was not to be. While Waterworld did go straight to the top of the box office charts on its opening weekend, by the end of its theatrical run the film had made only $88 million domestically, rendering it a confirmed flop.
69. Kevin Costner’s leading man days were soon over
After the poor performance of Costner’s last few films, and the whirlwind of bad press surrounding him over Waterworld, it wasn’t long before his days as a major Hollywood star were history. His next film, 1996 golf drama Tin Cup, did only modest business.
However, the last nail was truly hammered into Costner’s career by 1997’s The Postman, his second film as director. An expensive box office disaster met with venomous reviews, the film left the actor and filmmaker a laughing stock, and any credibility he had in Hollywood was quickly washed away.
70. Kevin Reynolds never directed another blockbuster
Waterworld also spelled the end of Kevin Reynolds’ career as a major blockbuster director. Reynolds’ next movie was 1997’s One Eight Seven, a considerably smaller-scale thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson; this too proved a flop.
Later, Reynolds revisited Robin Hood-esque territory with two historical adventure films: 2002’s The Count of Monte Cristo (pictured below) and 2006’s Tristan & Isolde. He has directed only one more theatrical film since, the 2016 biblical drama Risen.
71. Waterworld eventually made a profit internationally
Based on its domestic performance, Waterworld could be written off as a commercial failure. However, the film did fare a bit better with international audiences: globally, its box office takings finally came out at $264.2 million.
In order to be considered profitable, a Hollywood movie generally needs to make back double its budget at the box office; and as Waterworld cost around $180 million, it still failed to do this. However, the film’s popularity on home video and television meant that, years later, it did eventually turn a profit.
72. It was an Oscar nominee
It’s hard to believe now that Waterworld crashed and burned barely five years after Costner’s Oscar-laden smash hit Dances with Wolves. Unsurprisingly, the widely derided film did not garner a great deal of attention come awards season – but it did still manage one Oscar nomination.
Waterworld’s sound engineers Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker and Keith A. Wester were nominated in the Best Sound category at the 68th annual Academy Awards in early 1996. However, they lost out on the Oscar to the sound team of Apollo 13.
73. The film was nominated for four Golden Raspberry Awards, but the only ‘winner’ was Dennis Hopper
Less surprisingly, Waterworld was nominated for a number of statues at the 1996 Golden Raspberry Awards. The notorious anti-Oscars listed the film in four categories: Worst Picture, Worst Director (for both Reynolds and Costner), Worst Actor for Costner and Worst Supporting Actor for Dennis Hopper.
Only Dennis Hopper wound up ‘winning’ the Razzie that night. Pauly Shore beat Costner to Worst Actor for Jury Duty; meanwhile, Paul Verhoeven was named Worst Director for Showgirls, which was also named Worst Picture.
74. There was a whole lot of tie-in Waterworld merchandise
As with any major movie it’s hoped will be a blockbuster, Waterworld had no shortage of tie-in merchandise. There was an official novelisation written by Max Allan Collins (later the author of Road to Perdition), which included a lot of the mythos and backstory that was cut from the theatrical release.
There was also a Waterworld video game, released to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, Virtual Boy and PC. Not unlike the film, the game was not well received, and planned releases on the Atari Jaguar, Sega Genesis and Sega Saturn were ultimately scrapped.
75. There was a comic book series which Costner refused permission to use his likeness
Early hints that Waterworld had indeed found a fan base emerged in 1997, when the now-defunct Acclaim Comics released Waterworld: Children of Leviathan, a sequel story told over four issues.
The limited series was written and illustrated by Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski and Kevin Kobasic. It again centres on the Mariner, but the character had to be given a new look as Kevin Costner would not give permission for his likeness to be used.
76. The film inspired a Universal Studios attraction which is still running 25 years later
Not long after the film opened, the Universal Studios resort in California premiered Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular, a live-action stunt show set in the world of the movie. This proved to be a hit with audiences, even if the movie hadn’t been.
Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular would go on to be performed at Universal’s other resorts in Singapore and Osaka, Japan, and it has continued to be performed throughout the 25 years since.
77. Three different cuts of the movie are available
As the cult status of Waterworld has grown, so too has fan interest in the footage that was left out of the theatrical release. A 2019 Blu-ray release from label Arrow Video sports two alternate versions of the movie.
Firstly, there is the original theatrical cut; next, there is the fan edit dubbed ‘the Ulysses cut,’ which adds additional unseen footage including previously censored moments. There also exists a US TV version, which re-inserts 40 minutes of cut footage, but also censors violence and language.
78. Costner and Reynolds finally patched things up on TV mini-series Hatfields & McCoys
By 2012, the blockbuster days of both Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds were ancient history. Happily, the two men were able to put their past problems behind them and work together once more on TV mini-series Hatfields & McCoys.
The fact-based drama, co-starring the late Bill Paxton, was produced for the History Channel. The six-hour series was met with largely positive reviews, and Costner’s performance won him a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild award.
79. TV network SyFy plans to remake the film
In 2012, news broke that a Waterworld remake was in the pipeline. SyFy, the TV network famed for (or perhaps ‘infamous’ for is more apt) its lo-fi creature features such as the Sharknado series, declared their intent to break into theatrically released features, starting with a new take on Costner’s 1995 aquatic adventure.
Over time, the rumour mill saw this change from a fully-fledged Waterworld remake to a TV mini-series. However, this never seemed to get beyond the rumour stage, and almost a decade later no such project has emerged.
80. Costner now says he’s proud of the film
More than a quarter-century later, with the tabloid feeding frenzy of the time a distant memory, it’s easier to look on Waterworld as an enjoyable film in its own right. Happily, Kevin Costner expresses pride in the film today, despite the role it played in his professional downfall.
Costner said in 2015, “I know that people might think of Waterworld as a low point for me. It wasn’t. It could have had a better, more obvious outcome. The thing I know is that I never had to stand taller for a movie when most were going the other way. The movie with all its imperfections was a joy for me… a joy to look back upon and to have participated in.”