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Plenty of Riptides on 'Waterworld' Set : With key crew people quitting and reported turmoil, logistical and organizational problems, the big-budget film, scheduled for release in summer of '95, could end up costing more than any movie ever made.

September 16, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER and ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two of the entertainment industry's most powerful players, MCA president Sidney Sheinberg and superagent Michael Ovitz, led a high-level contingent to Hawaii last week to inspect personally what is looming as the most costly movie in Hollywood history.

"Waterworld," a futuristic " 'Road Warrior' on the water" adventure picture starring Kevin Costner and slated to be Universal's biggest summer movie of '95, now has a projected budget of around $135 million and is already two weeks behind schedule. The movie--which also stars Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino--is set in a post-apocalyptic future when polar icecaps have melted and the earth is submerged in water. Costner plays the hero, Mariner, a creature with gills and fins who attempts to lead the surviving good humans to freedom.

Directed by Costner's close friend, Kevin Reynolds, and being filmed on an elaborate floating set off the Kona Coast, the production has been beset by turmoil and plagued by logistical and organizational problems, according to interviews with several sources connected to the production. And some key crew members, including the assistant director and special effects designer, have quit.

Sources characterized the shoot as "extremely difficult," "chaotic" and "out of control." One described the production as "a runaway train under water." Another said, "No one is running the show, and the environment is hostile to the detriment of the film."

When delays and cost overruns escalated last week, Sheinberg and Ovitz decided to board the MCA corporate jet, along with MCA motion picture chairman Tom Pollock, Universal president Casey Silver and physical production head Donna Smith and fly to the movie's set on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Sheinberg said that while he was mindful that his presence on a set "can have a chilling effect on people," he came at the personal invitation of Costner and his Universal colleagues. He said it was not unusual for him to visit the sets of the studio's bigger productions, as he did last year with Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List."

The MCA chief was invited to the "Waterworld" set by Costner's agent, Creative Artists Agency head Ovitz, who reportedly urged Sheinberg to make the trip since the executive had had extensive experience with difficult productions, including the 1975 thriller "Jaws."

Ovitz was there apparently to protect the interests of one of his most important clients, as well as to run interference with MCA and the filmmakers, who include producers Charles Gordon and his brother Lawrence Gordon, who is not personally receiving screen credit but is actively involved in the production.

Sheinberg, who for the first time publicly confirmed that "Waterworld" was greenlit at $100 million, told The Times that he was in part prompted to fly to the set because "this is a very big, expensive movie, and I did want to go and see what was going on."

The MCA president said his main purpose in visiting the set "was to be sure everyone was pulling together in the same direction to get the picture made and that delays would be no greater than they had to be . . . it could be the most difficult picture ever made."

After meeting with Costner, Reynolds and the producers, Sheinberg said he was "satisfied" and "very comfortable" with how things were running. "Knock on wood, I'm quite pleased with everything I've seen so far."

Sheinberg admitted that "my biggest fear is that the unforeseen will happen with the weather and the water." But he refuted allegations that "Waterworld" is a production out of control: "It's simply not true--none of it."

Sources working on the movie, however, paint a grim picture.

"Nobody realized the magnitude of the problems with making a movie like this and how the logistics are so impossible," said one source. "It's slow going and setting up the shots (on the water) take forever."

Since the production began June 27, Universal executives have made several trips to the movie's set to try to address mounting problems. Several members of the nearly 500-person crew have either been fired or walked off the picture, including assistant director Alan Curtiss, who reportedly left over creative differences. Curtiss refused to comment, although an experienced Hollywood filmmaker suggested that when a first assistant director "up and quits, that's not a good sign. That means they don't like what they're seeing and have concluded that all of their efforts are for naught."

Sources on the set say most of the problems in delays and cost overruns stem from shooting on water and from the logistical problems of coordinating some 30 boats and a crew that constantly has to be shuttled from the Kawaihae Harbor on the west side of the island to the set a quarter-mile offshore.

"Unlike filming on land, anything you do on water is just more difficult. The wind is constantly changing," one source said. "If you are lining up a shot, things are always moving, they are never going to stay in the same place."

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